Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Travelogue #38: Mad American Cows (And Why I Miss Cookie Cake)

<---Travelogue #37: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 2
--->Travelogue #39: Live from World Cup Stadium: Korea v. Jordan!

"I hate America," spat Percy, a baseball-capped teenager sitting in the middle row of my TOEFL class. Sixteen Korean students packed the room, along with one American teacher - me. We were talking about the fear of mad cow disease amid the recent announcement of imports of U.S. beef to South Korea, and though it was the last period of the night and I was counting down the minutes, Percy's outburst stirred my attention.

What was I supposed to say?

I opted not to address the America-hate, but rather the whole mad cow thing. Koreans, specifically younger ones, are spreading waves of disinformation about "killer" American cows, exacerbating a small-scale concern into a candlelight-vigil frenzy.

"Guys, stop worrying about it," I said, "I ate American meat all the time and I'm not dead."

Percy shook his head no, and so did the other students. Even as I pointed out how scientists rejected their alarmism, they didn't buy it. To them I was hopelessly biased source. We were on opposite sides of the aisle, and there would be no conversions. They were the students, I was the teacher; they were the Koreans, and I was the American. The look on their faces was a simple but impenetrable one: it said you wouldn't understand.

A supervisor entered the room to pass out administrative schedules, and the students jabbered to him in Korean, mingling laughter with their words. The supervisor turned to face me and so did the students.

I had no idea what they were saying, and that's one of the reasons why I'm feeling a little bit homesick.

A co-worker of mine once told me that homesickness hits you at the three-month mark in your stay in Korea: the novelty fades, the routine sets, and you start to miss your family or Chili's Chicken Crispers in an uncomfortable way. I've been here for seven months, and aside from a short spell in the end of December, I've embraced Korea as one of my homes, if not my home-home. But lately, I've been feeling symptoms of the H-sickness. At a Vietnamese pho restaurant, I spooned and chopsticked my way into a bowl of pho, only to see the waiter lay a fork in front of me,a big slap in the face to my chopsticks know-how. Of course the man was just trying to be helpful, but I took it as an insult and a reminder: you're not from here, and we know it.

Additionally, there's my tennis partners, a battalion of sassy middle-aged ajumas who serve-and-volley with an ease that makes me envious. In December, I wrote with wide-eyed, unironic glee of our early weeks on the court: "A grunt after a bad shot means the same thing whether you're a thirtysomething woman from Bundang, Korea or a twentysomething man from Omaha, Nebraska...We weren't quite singing "we are the world," but we were bonding over rackets and balls. " Since then, those sentiments have lost a bit of their luster; with more sets of tennis, I feel no closer to these women. It's not like I need to be their best buddies, but I still wish I wouldn't feel so resoundingly like a foreigner, particularly when I arrive late and am forced to wait in the clubhouse, listening to banter I don't understand and nibbling on snacks I don't always like.

Don't get me wrong. I will never sniff at the hospitality of the tennis ladies (one of them gave me a racket, just because.) But I'm hesitant to return, even if it is with just the intention to smack a few balls around.

I am a foreigner. That's not news, but re-examining the word renews its bite. Foreigner. Its definition is not just of a person in a non-native land, but of, "an outsider; someone who is excluded from or is not a member of a group." This exclusion is not purposeful but it is inevitable, for once in a while you'll find hurtles you think you hopped but haven't: a fork in a pho restaurant or a mad cow in a TOEFL class.

And so, I find myself a little bit homesick. I repeat the "little bit," because I don't want to slip into hyperbole. I do like it here. I like it a lot. I've revealed that much on this blog many times. But hey, I miss my sister and the way she laughs so hard at a fart joke she cries. And even though my parents just visited, I still miss how my dad eats barrels of pumpkin seeds with a crumpled fort of newspapers at his feet and the noise of The O'Reilly Factor in his ears. I miss spending lazy afternoons with my mom watching lazy movies on cable that are perfect for 3-5pm on a rainy day. I miss chips and salsa and southwestern eggrolls at Chili's with my high school friends. I miss the Kroger chocolate chip cookie cake with the red-white-and-blue frosting that you can lick off your fingers.

Did I mention that I miss Chili's?

Finally, I miss our beautifully mad American cows.

Happy Memorial Day.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Travelogue #37: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 2

<---Travelogue #36: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 1
--->Travelogue #38: Mad American Cows (And Why I Miss Cookie Cake)

y dad wants a draft beer and he wants it now, but our young waiter looks confused and mildly spooked by the request.

My parents and I are sitting on the patio of Chic Ami, a cafe in Jeongja, on an impeccably sunshiny Sunday in May. In America, it's Mother's Day; in Korea, Parents' Day was two days ago. I'm splitting the difference by treating my visiting folks to a swanky Italian lunch. Their eleven-day Korean adventure is coming to a close - so far, we've enjoyed the art galleries and souvenir stands (more classy than cheesy) of Insa-dong, as well as its street food. My father savored the sweetness of hotteok, a syrup-filled pancake that he called "heaven and paradise at the same time."

We then idled away several days on Jeju Island, warming our backs against the black stones of the Jungmun Beach coastline while being studied afar by Asian vacationers who saw us as nutbars in bathing suits.

They wore long sleeves and jackets, and some of them hid from the sunlight entirely. We were far from the land of bikini Britneys, and as a result, often found the big beach to ourselves.

If my parents and I would co-opt the "Whatever happens in Las Vegas, stays in Vegas!" slogan for our time on Jungmun, then our wild-and-crazy reading of back issues of Esquire and Oprah Book Club novels would never leave the island!

Back on the mainland, my parents and I wandered through the busy crock pot of commerce that is Itaewon, awed by the sudden noise of English,

the Myrtle Beach boardwalk-like t-shirt shops,

and the constant hey-buddy come-on's from oily Korean men for "Tailored suit? Very cheap!" This was a whole new Korea, one where my mom could meet two Russian women outside a five-story indoor market and where it's not uncommon to see a black teenager hanging out in front of a McDonalds across from an older Korean gentleman.

Now we're here and my dad still wants that draft beer. "Not bottle," he explains, miming the pouring of an invisible liquid from one hand into another. Our waiter pauses, lips twisted, as if he didn't do his math homework but thinks that he can do his multiplication tables anyway. I pull out my cell phone and click on my trusty English-Korean dictionary. I will be the intermediary. "Sun-hwah," I say, flashing the Korean word for "draft" to the waiter. His face spells "huh". I opt to go the opposite direction. "Byung," I say, pointing to the word for "bottle". "No 'byung." With some extra hand gestures, I think we succeed in conveying what my father wants; that is, until I double-check my dictionary and find that I used the Korean word not for draft beer, but for military draft. As for the word I used for bottle? I said baby bottle.

In conclusion, it looks like I told our waiter something to the tune of, "We'd like one military draft, but don't bring us a baby bottle!"

If only I had a dime for every time I said that in my lifetime, I'd be a very rich man.

My dad enjoys his bottle regardless, and we slurp up our Korean Italian food and thank our helpful waiter.

Next stop: Olympic Park, the way Korea introduced itself to the world for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games. It's an enormous expanse dwarfing Atlanta's Centennial Park, with acres and acres of greenery, yellow flowers, walking paths, and the proud flags of every country you can think of.

And kids. Kids, kids, kids! My dad greets a couple tykes in the following video, but what do I do? I go ahead and spoil the sweet encounter with a Chris Hansen joke.

The night (and their trip, for that matter) closes with my favorite meal, dakgalbi. I waited for months to introduce my parents to the definitive orange-hued spicy goodness of this feast, and the main event does not disappoint: though my father calls it "different," my mom gamely relishes the exotic flavors. The owner of the restaurant/my buddy Mr. Park tells my folks that "Alex is good, very good." He rewards us with an extra serving, a five dollar discount, and a free Coke. My mother can see why I like this place: not only for the deliciousness, but for the downright coziness.
It's as if we're in Mr. Park's home, and as long we bring our empty stomachs, we'll always be welcome.

And that's that. My parents have an early Monday flight, so we have our good-byes on Sunday night. There are a few tears between us but not too many. I'll miss my mom and dad, of course, but I like to say I carry their love like a tortoise shell on my back. It's with me, even when they aren't.

Here's to baby bottles and military drafts.
<---Travelogue #36: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 1
--->Travelogue #38: Mad American Cows (And Why I Miss Cookie Cake)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Travelogue #36: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 1

<---San Nakji @ Garak Market © MikeyMogo
--->Travelogue #37: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 2

Note: This article was featured in an abbreviated form in the June 2008 issue of The East (UK).

At the International Arrivals Gate in Incheon Airport, a little Korean boy with little legs races towards his slightly bigger sister and pulls her into a God-I-missed-you hug. I feel a clenched tear in my eye, an unexpected flick of visceral emotion. I don't get like this usually, but tonight is different, for in mere minutes, my parents will walk through that gate and I will see their faces for the first time in half a year. Not on a webcam, but in person. Here. Here. In Korea! Here!

You can say that I'm excited.

The kicker: I figured I'd be working when their flight arrived, so I gave them directions to their hotel and told them to hail a taxi. However, two of my co-workers assumed my shifts to give me just enough time to take the long bus to the airport. So here I wait for my mom and dad, waiting for the conclusion of an odyssey that took them from Memphis to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Seoul. I can imagine my father in his baseball cap, red-faced, soaked in sweat and lack of sleep, hungry and hoping to make it through the hour and a half trek to Bundang, aka my neck of the woods. I can picture my mom, exhausted in her own right but staying positive, assured, steady in the face of impending jet lag. She's coming to see her "baby," and though the law calls me a man, I will never correct her.

I can't wait to surprise them. Should I hide behind a column and pop out with a gotcha! Or shall I play it more subtly, sneaking up and muttering accented Korean under my breath? (My favorite phrase is "ege-mwuh-ey-oh", which means "What is this?" I love uttering this question in a tone of complete disbelief. Ege-mwu-eh-oh! )

The glass doors swish open and shut, and through them, past the baggage carousels, I spot a flash of my mom and my dad, looking dazed, like they might accidentally flash their passports to the man who cleans the bathrooms. I hop in place with no abandon, the same way I did when I got a Triple Arcade for my tenth birthday. My parents are coming! My parents are coming!

And here they are, strutting with purpose towards the exits. My mom catches sight of me across her right shoulder and pretends to faint or maybe she's not pretending? Either way, she collects herself with a we're-here! smile and my dad and I share a bear hug that lasts a long, long time. This hug is not for the wimpy. It's got baritone and it's got bass. It's strong. This is a hug.

Welcome to Korea, dad.

My mom and I share our own embrace, and through light wisps of tears she tells me she joked about me meeting them in the airport, and now that joke is a reality.

"Your dad hasn't been more exhausted in his whole life," my mom explains as we join a taxi driver down an elevator. Or so the man tells us he's a taxi driver, and that the buses don't run late at night, and that he's our best hope for getting to Bundang. He talks with deadpan certainty, and since I'm so wrapped up in the fact that my mom and and dad are actually here, I don't fully recognize how weird it us that we're in an empty parking garage and that the "cab" is an unmarked black car. And then it hits me: this suspicious man wants to kidnap my parents and I and sell us to a Romanian prostitution ring. Okay, maybe not that, but something is amiss. "How much?" I ask him. "$120, flat rate."

I shake my head and say thank you but no thank you, that we'll find another way home. "That's the best deal you're going to get," he tells me, but I shrug it off and my mom and dad follow me to the service desk, where we learn that the buses are running after all. I should sock that driver in the face, but instead I buy my parents bus tickets and we climb into the back. "Thanks, Alex," my mom says. Meanwhile, my dad, usually the unquestioned leader of our family when it comes to trips, the man with the plans, directions, documents, and extra batteries, can only fight his eyelids from flapping shut. My mom is more alert: "is this real, is that you?" she asks me. To me it doesn't feel that surreal, for is this really all that different from my parents visiting me at Emory?

As these pictures show, the answer is a resounding yes, it is very different. The night after their arrival, I try to introduce my parents to samgyeopsal (porkbelly meat, seared on a skillet) but their stomachs are not into it. So I order my father galbitang and my mother kimchi chigae. Galbitang is an intense beef stew with bones and stuffed thick macaroni-like noodles (called "dak), while kimchi chigae is kimchi-seasoned soup that, according to my mom, is "spicy! Aw! Spicy! Ahhh!"

The meal is a real-deal Korean experience, complete with my dad using his chopsticks in stabbing motions and my mom ready for more water, please. The wide-eyed I-guess-I'll-try-this atmosphere of the lunch reminds me of my own first days in the land of the morning calm. Six months ago. Jesus.

I didn't know anything then, and now I ...well, I don't know everything, though leading my parents around the city gives me a crisp confidence, an authority that maybe I wear a bit too much on my sleeve. I'm telling taxis where to go, and while my dad slow-motion scrambles through his wallet for won, I'm already paying the fare. I'm paying for lunches and buses and subway trains. This is the first time in my life I'm in charge of my parents, and though rewarding, it also feels plain strange.

Is this what it means to be an adult? Has my independence become official?

Not quite.

Have you ever seen Extreme Home Makeover? I've only seen clips of it, but I know enough to know its premise: let's take over a house and make it look good. That's exactly what my mom does with my apartment. I tell her, meekly, that my apartment is fine, that I don't need a change and that I am worried with what she'll come up with it.

I'm a dope.

Within hours my mom rearranges my furniture and suddenly, out of nowhere, space appears! I have space to walk in my studio apartment! It feels more like home than it ever has before, all thanks to the mama I've been leading around Seoul.

Meanwhile, my parents make first-impression observations of the Korean people and culture: the people are so kind, they agree, but why are they so scared of the sun? What's the deal with the UFO-sized visors and breathing masks the middle-aged women (ajumas) wear? Sure, nobody likes yellow dust, but some of these ladies look prepared for nuclear apocalypse on a 65-degree May afternoon. Speaking of warm days, how about the fact that more than half of the population is wearing thick jackets and black sweatpants even when the temperatures climb? And then there's this: couples who wear the same clothes.

At one point I tell my dad, "We ain't in Kansas anymore, Toto." When I remind him for the sixth time that he needs to remove his shoes before entering apartments in Korea, he tells me, "This taking off shoes is driving me crazy!"

Welcome to Korea indeed.

<---San Nakji @ Garak Market © MikeyMogo
--->Travelogue #37: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 2


Sunday, May 4, 2008

San Nakji @ Garak Market © MikeyMogo

<---Travelogue #35: The Usual Suspect at Dos Tacos in Gangnam
--->Travelogue #36: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 1

In the words of Mike Roe, "Our 1st san nakji adventure (live octopus), accompanied by Andrew & Eun Young. It was Andrew's birthday celebration - he graciously introduced us to this delicacy, then treated us all. You sir, are a gentleman."

<---Travelogue #35: The Usual Suspect at Dos Tacos in Gangnam
--->Travelogue #36: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 1

Related post:
Travelogue #32: It's ALIVE and I'm eating it!?

Mike's other YouTube videos:

Coming next week:
Travelogue #36: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad!