One Fish, Two Fish, Dr. Seuss Would Love Thish

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Sometimes it takes a trip to a fish market for you to realize, Toto, we’re not even remotely in the States anymore. Such was the case on Saturday when, after spending the morning at work, I received a Facebook message from Rob asking if I wanted to go out exploring. Despite the fact that I was already back in bed, despite the bags under my eyes, despite the precious nap I planned to enjoy… Of course I said Hell to the yes! Where are we going?

To the largest fish market in Seoul, he replied in text.

Curiosity piqued, clothes back on, Cool! I’ll meet you at the corner in ten minutes. It’s gorgeous outside! I’m glad I won’t feel guilty about this wasted day tomorrow, and I’m craving a chance to use my camera.

Don’t wear flip flops, he cautions. Lydia found that out the hard way. 

P1060966.1We meet on the corner as planned and head to the subway station. I’m starting to get the hang of this, I think as we head through the turnstiles and both naturally turn the same direction at the bottom of the stairs. (Often I’m stuck staring at my phone every time I’m faced with two options. Tell me, oh SmartDevice, which direction do I want to go? What should I do with my life? What shoes should I wear today? I’m glad Siri isn’t available (i4) or this could get out of control. Has anyone made a crystal ball app?) To my frustration, once we’re on the car I’m lost again, having to check every other stop to make sure we haven’t missed our transfer. Good thing Rob knows where we are going.

Ready for a small world moment? Last June, Laura’s British friend Ayesha came to visit us in Seattle. They taught together in Seoul the year before, and at the end of her contract Ayesha decided to do an American tour. Over the weekend we took the BOLT bus down to Portland and then drove to eastern Oregon for the annual Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally. Laura’s father, Eric Folkestad, is the main organizer for the rally every year, and it was the perfect ‘American!’ event to show our visitor. The weekend in Baker City was so much fun—beer and bikes and country music—and of course after about ten hours in the car together plus a weekend of hanging out with bikers, Ayesha (fondly referred to as A-Bomb) and I became friends. Ok, small world moment. Not only does Ayesha now teach at the same school as me in Seoul (no prior planning), but our co-teacher and friend Rob is from Baker City, OR. He knows all the restaurants and bars we went to, and tells us stories about the town when it’s not filled with an influx of biker dudes. He has also lived in Portland for a few years, and it’s nice to have someone from your same part of the world to share region-specific jokes with.

em at noryanjin

Rob and I take the subway over the Han, the big river that runs through the heart of Seoul. It’s wonderful to come up from the depths and be traveling above ground. I can even see out the window over the head of the Korean girl in front of me. It is a beautiful day. Cold and crisp; the sun reflecting off buildings tricks your mind into thinking it might be warm. We get off at our stop, climb the stairs to the walking bridge, and stare over the tracks at the city. We’re still a bit away, but you can tell that thousands of pounds of fish are nearby. Not in a nose-scrunching way, more like your brain is telling you the sea is nearby even though it’s not in sight.

Across the walking bridge, we start the descent into the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. After a flight of wide steps we come out on the second floor balcony. At eye level with ceiling lights and beams, the expanse of the place takes a moment to sink in. Literally as far as the eye can see are stalls, each similar to the last, vendors hawking the day’s catch to hundreds of passerby. I’m glad of the way we came in; with an initial bird’s eye view I am able to take in the scene, assess the dimensions of the place. It’s the kind of market you want to at least see on a map before you dive in head first. I collect my bearings, sling my camera around my neck, and we’re off! P1060969.1

At the main floor I immediately regret my choice of shoes. I had opted for some tennies over my hiking boots, letting my newfound sense of Korean fashion dictate my wardrobe. Mi-stake. Too late I feel the damp and roll up the hem of my jeans, fish juice from the ground having already seeped in. I suck it up (the feeling, not the fish juice), just tell myself I’ll wash my clothes as soon as I get home and on the subway just blame the smell on the old guy next to me. Thank you Merrell for making machine-washable shoes!

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My camera is out and it’s all I can do to not just live behind the lens. The colors, the smell, the sounds of a thousand voices buying and selling fish, the textures of dozens of species of sea life all scream to be recorded. For the first time in Korea I play the unabashed tourist. I can’t help it. This place is amazing! Rob informs me that Anthony Bourdain came here in his South Korea episode, and I see why. While potentially overwhelming, it is a foodie’s paradise. I make Rob stop at the stall selling tuna, literally grabbing the back of his shirt to halt him before he loses me in the crowd. I’ve never seen anything like this, except in my dreams. Old woman vendor, cross-sections of tuna the size of your torso, women yelling to have their order taken, piles of tuna steaks being trimmed to order and size. I gluttonously picture myself sinking my face into a mound of tuna sashimi. It kind of reminds me of the last scene in Scarface when he just lowers his face to the white mountain. That’s what I want. But with tuna. Unfortunately, I still have a few days until my first payday, so no tuna-coke dreams will be fulfilled today. That’s okay, though. I add it to my list

Once through the first line of stalls, we come out into the open at the entrance to a produce market. Looking for a bit of a break, we wander out into the sun. Rob mentions there is a strange alleyway market off to the left, and he stays in the open to smoke while I descend into what looks like a hobo tunnel market. Don’t take pictures, he warns me. A man chased us down last time.

P1070010.1The dark shapes crouched along the tunnel wall are indeed people, and in fact mostly old women. You see many elderly women running the small food stalls here, both in markets and in street food carts. In a society where the elderly are cared for by the young, if you don’t have offspring you simply continue to work, or if your family struggles to make ends meet, there really is no such thing as retirement. The women crouch along the wall, covered in hats and blankets, scrubbing vegetables or shucking beans into plastic pots. Their knuckles are swollen with rheumatoid arthritis, but their movements have the surety that comes from a lifetime of perfecting a skill. In awe, I walk among them and try not to stare. When I do gather the courage to ask for a picture, the woman frowns and shakes her head. For some reason, I feel a sense of superstition in her answer, although I can’t quite explain it. Less curt than wary.

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I was filled with an immediate sense of respect… for her, for her way of life, for her beliefs. While incredibly different from me, our shared humanity was tangible in a brief interaction. And I suppose we are both doing what we need to in order to survive.

She may have denied a photo, but her pickles didn’t.

 

 

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Kimchi jjigae!

528695_796113909505_2009643140_nIf I’ve learned anything in my brief time in Seoul, it is that if you open yourself to the world, the world will do the same. What a whirlwind of experience, all condensed into a few short weeks. Moving into a new apartment, New Year’s eve and day, my first experience making home-cooked Korean food and a jimjilbang… the ‘Wow Moments’ just keep coming and each one is unique. I feel myself adapt to a new life, a new city, a starkly different culture.

New Year’s weekend rolled around and it was finally time to move into my school-appointed apartment. At last! Tim had been a wonderful host, but living out of two suitcases got old really fast. What should have been a smooth transition quickly proved to be a huge mess, in more ways than one.  My contract replaces that of RJ Teacher (everyone is a teacher here, even the accountant and the janitor), meaning that I take over his classes and his apartment. Basically, I come and he goes. Well, he went alright… without leaving me any information on his classes, and (dun dun duuun) without a key to the apartment. Jump to: Me standing on the landing with all my things and no way to get in. I’ll spare you the details of that day, except to say that it just kept getting worse and worse. When I finally did open the door a few hours later, it was to a scene out of a horror movie. RJ had basically just packed the things he wanted and left everything else. Cigarette butts, spilled cat food, dark dried stains on the floor, piles of stained bedding… despite the custom of not wearing shoes indoors I ended up throwing out the first two pairs of socks I wore inside.

Luckily this was on the Saturday of a four day New Year’s weekend. Translate: plenty of time to get on my knees and start scrubbing, but what a way to spend a holiday! With a faucet-like head cold to top it off, the whole scene was a nightmare.

 

Around five in the evening of my second day of cleaning I hear a knock on my door. I lay the scrub brush on the floor of the bathroom, hastily wipe my nose on the nearest piece of tissue and try to pull the dish gloves off my hands enough to be able to open the front door. My neighbor and co-teacher Jennifer is there, eyes straining past me into the apartment, searching for confirmation of the rumor that RJ had left the place a mess. Her eyebrows go high and stay there when she sees me; I must look pretty insane after two days of intense cleaning, nose-running and general fuming.

Jen had heard that I was interested in learning Korean cooking, and is here to invite me to another co-teacher’s house to make kimchi jjigae. My savior! A break is exactly what I need, not to mention some spicy Korean soup to clear my sinuses. I literally can not get out the door fast enough to meet John Stephen and Jen at the market for supplies.

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Now when I say market, I mean the grocery store in the subway station. I know. Apparently there are many other markets and grocery stores in Seoul, but I have yet to go to them as this one is the most convenient. It’s your basic small grocery store, stocking everything from cleaning supplies to snacks, to a small selection of alcohol and some meat and very expensive produce. That is definitely one thing to note: produce is the most expensive food group here by far. And the selection is slim to none, mostly onions and sweet potatoes, with some imported tomatoes and peppers. Lettuce is nearly impossible to find, and ridiculously expensive when you do. So much for salad.

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When they don’t have exactly what we want, John Stephen suggests we go to the outdoor market for the bulk items, like kimchi. We step out of the subway station, go down a main street I pass every day on my way to school, and turn right into a narrow alleyway. Suddenly we are in a different world, surrounded by late-night shoppers, stalls of salt fish, buckets full of grains, garlic, ginger, chilies, literal wooden tree stumps used as chopping blocks covered in fish scales with a cleaver slammed into the center like something out of a morbid still-life painting. Everything from the last two days of depressive scrubbing evaporates instantly. THIS is the foodie Korea I want to see! The stalls are so close together, their awnings nearly touching overhead, and each has thick sheets of plastic hung over the entrances with an overlap for a door to keep in the heat. I’m not sure if Jen and John Stephen are entertained or thrown off by my enthusiasm, maybe just surprised. The smell of ground ginger is in the bitterly cold air and I am in culinary heaven.

The old lady that John has bought kimchi from before has already closed her stall, so we go in search of another vendor. I find a man with two tables covered in kimchi of various kinds: cabbage, green onion, radish, cucumber, grass… you name it. I don’t see the kind we are looking for, however, so I ask him as politely as I can, bowing, “Kimchi jjigae kimchi, juseo?”

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He nods, and reaches under one of the tables to pull up an enormous bucket. Motioning to me with his hands to ask how much I want, he winds the opening of a clear plastic bag around a wire loop, slips kimchi in through the opening, and pulls it back off, tying it with a clean swish. Simple. Effective. Korean. He holds up four fingers, I hand him 4,000 won (about $4), he hands me a football-sized bag of kimchi, and the deal is done.

Back at John Stephen’s apartment, we slip off our snowy shoes at the door and Jen and I sit on the floor as John starts to prepare the meal. I’m taking copious notes on my iPhone until I realize that kimchi jjigae is really incredibly easy. If you like kimchi and can find a decent variety, you should definitely make this. It is spicy (depending on your kimchi) and tasty and filling. Oh, and CHEAP.

 

 

What you’ll need:

A good chunk of cabbage kimchi (standard kimchi)IMG_3717

Some pork cut into 1 in. cubes

Firm tofu

Pork or beef bouillon or seasoning

Water

That’s it.

First, sauté the pork in a deep pan until mostly cooked. Don’t get it too brown or overcooked or it will be tough. Add your kimchi, mix, and cook until everything  is heated through. Fill the pan with water so that the kimchi is pretty much covered, add a small amount of bouillon/ seasoning, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir well, then cube your tofu and layer on top. Cover again and simmer for another five minutes. Kimchi jjigae!

As the kimchi is really the main ingredient, I’d only recommend making this in the States if you can find some good kimchi at a local Asian market. If you do stumble on some, make this immediately. In a Korean restaurant it is served in a hotpot, literally boiling like lava and much too hot to eat at first. Torture… the smell is so appetizing that I always burn my tongue anyway. It is also always served with rice, which is delicious to mix in to soak up the broth. Also recommended: Soju. Kimchi, soju, rice. TIK.

This is Korea.

The Great Korean Adventure Begins

And so… Here I am. The Mayans may not have predicted the end of the world, but they certainly had an idea when my world would take a drastic turn.

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IMG_3673It’s Saturday, around 1pm Seoul time (you are all just finishing dinner, I expect) and I’m sitting in a cafe a few blocks from the apartment I’m crashing in. Americano in hand, I’m almost enjoying the Christmas music blaring on the stereo. A few songs in, you can tell the Korean cover of ‘White Christmas’ from the others and it is rather endearing with its ‘May arr your Christmas be white.’ Ill take little bits of home where I can get them. Next up: Korean techno Christmas song. My favorites are the ones with an English chorus and a Korean-rap verse.

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The apartment where I’m staying belongs to Tim Teacher, one of my fellow English teachers from Canada. The place is kind of what you’d expect from a 25-year-old male recent college graduate: dirty, clothes everywhere, a few necessary dishes getting cycled through the dish rack, nothing in the fridge save some eggs I definitely won’t touch and an entire condiment shelf packed FULL of Korean Taco Bell hot sauce. Homey. To tell you the truth, I’m super grossed out, and the thought of having a place of my own in about a week feels like the best prize someone could give me for completing a week of training.
There are some perks of the place though, namely the heating. It comes through the floor, I’m assuming distributed by heated water in pipes. It’s awesome. It keeps the room warm and when you step out of bed it radiates up through the soles of your feet. Ok yeah, that’s really the only perk I can think of.
YBM Sungbuk ECC (my school) is pretty amazing. The children already know so much, and they are only six! In Korea you count your age from when you are born, so when you turn one in America you are two in Korea. The age system makes a lot of sense, and explains why the kids here are so advanced. I certainly couldn’t read another language, much less do addition and subtraction, when I was in kindergarten! It almost makes me feel better when they count on their fingers.

Fish, anyone?
Fish, anyone?
The classes themselves are small, usually under ten kids to a class. We have a set curriculum to get through but if we finish early we play games like hangman or quackdiddilyoso or Simon Says or Freeze Dance. The ‘kindies’ are so adorable. One girl came up to me and just put her cheek on my arm and didn’t move. I think she was trying to be a kitten. Another boy tried to tickle me under the arms and I had to ask him to stop a few times before giving him a stern look… Which totally worked. Guess I can be scary when I want to be! Ill have to remember that. They are all very interested in my tattoos (I actually put a cardigan on after the first class), and are a little surprised at how big I am. The door in the bathroom is covered in ‘being slim’ propaganda (well, I think it’s propaganda): posters about ‘you are what you eat’ and why ‘slim is healthy’. It made me immediately feel bad for the one girl at the school who is bigger than the others… And for myself,  if you must know. I am definitely the tallest of the female teachers, and all the male teachers have quite slim, Emo body-types. As we were walking back to class, one little boy said, “Teacher, you are heavy,” and I just smiled and said, “It’s because I’m so tall!”  He seemed to accept that after a minute of mulling it over, although I think he was trying to get a rise out of me. Ahh children, you don’t know but you will teach me so much about myself.
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Can you find the heron? 
***
Ayesha meets me at the coffee shop after we message back and forth on Facebook. She has spent the morning at an international fair at school, and is tired and a little grumpy having had to work on a Saturday. We head off to Daiso (the dollar store that has EVERYTHING) to pick up some things she needs, and walk the couple blocks to where her apartment is. I have been so looking forward to seeing what my apartment will look like, and apparently I will be in a different building that is much nicer. That’s always good, although her apartment is nice enough, and definitely big enough for one person to live comfortably.

 

Let me tell you something about Korean apartments. The bathrooms generally don’t have showers. Well, not the shower you would think of, rather a hand-held nozzle on one wall and a drain in the middle of the floor. You basically stand in the middle of the room and get water on everything, including the toilet, washing machine and sink. In the states this might feel luxurious, but here it is taking a little getting used to. Bathroom Slippers, plastic slip ons that you can wear after everything is wet, are necessary for survival and will be my first Daiso purchase.
Everything is new, and strange, and exciting, and overwhelming, and wonderful. Minor moments of panic are pushed aside by the amazing feeling of walking down the street of a completely strange city and realizing that this is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I really do thrive in moments of change, and this… this takes the cake.
Notes on Korea:
1. If you don’t jaywalk, you won’t get anywhere.
2. Octopus is more likely to be roadkill than squirrels. (Probably off the back of a truck, but still. I’ve seen three with tire marks today. Took me while to figure out what it was.)
3. Convenience store gimbap (rice rolls) are perfectly acceptable. The orange triangle ones are quite good. And cheap.
4. Coffee is big here, and refills are available. My americano this morning cost 2,500 won, and my refill was 1,000. Not too bad, since in the states I could spend upwards of $5 on coffee a day. To save money, I bought some instant coffee today. It tastes like… instant coffee.
5. Men on the street are polite, the old women are the ones you have to look out for. Shameless. They look you up and down and sometimes shake their heads. I always wonder what they’re thinking.
6. Everyone wears dark colors. I feel super flashy in my magenta down jacket. Not like I wouldn’t stand out anyway.
7. Faux fur vests are super in. So are super baggy sweaters. Hopefully a baggy sweater on a Korean will be a decent-fitting sweater on me.
8. There is no flouride here, in the toothpaste or in the water. All the kids have silver molar teeth. Their baby teeth have cavities!! They also brush their teeth after every meal. Someone please send me some American toothpaste.
9. Korean BBQ is amazing. You can sit for hours, eat slowly, drink slowly (or not), and come out smelling like a campfire. They have bottles of Febreeze by the door in case that smell is not your thing. I think it’s homey. There are worse things to smell like than smokey delicious meat. (ha)
10. I have never seen anyone carry this much stuff on the back of a motorcycle. It basically becomes the size of a small car, and you can barely see the person driving. INSANE. I will not be jaywalking near anyone driving a giant moving pile of garbage bags.
Until next time, love from across the pond.
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Southbound

And the path starts… now. Closed my front door this morning, locked it, slipped the house keys into the mailbox for the landlord and set off towards the street. Right. Left. Right. Left… right.

I’ve moved many times in my nine years in Seattle. Moved from apartment to house, to California and back, lived with friends and by myself, but always with a tangible plan spread out before me. This move feels more like… that moment when you go to dive, arms spread wide in the air before forming an arrow that will lead you decisively into the water. That moment when your toes aren’t quite on land but haven’t fully committed to the air. That moment when your eyes want to instinctively close but you keep them open anyway to see what’s ahead of you. Leaping into the unknown. Eyes wide. Body tense. Wind in your hair. Lungs at capacity.

Being on the road feels good. Natural. Travelling with my dad is something so familiar to me; we have used roadtrips and car time—‘Wanders’—as our time since I can remember. “Where should we go, Wup?” he’d ask. “North or South?” Today we go south. In a month, I’ll travel further west on a plane than I’ve ever been. (Although really, when you’re going that far, east and west kind of lose their meaning.)

I’m going west, to the East.

It has been nine years since I moved to Seattle. Nearly a third of my life has been spent exploring the Pacific Northwest, a region I knew little about and have grown to love immensely. “You’re going to Seattle for College? It rains a lot there, doesn’t it?” Yes, yes it does. Salmon. Cedars. Native Americans. Punk rock. Grunge. And then you live here, and there’s just this certain something about it—like you are an integral part of this beautiful, tiny corner of the world full of cyclists and foodies and craftsmen and the most delicious fucking beer you’ve ever had. Surrounded by people who enjoy good things and take the time to do them right. We would. It’s raining outside.

Leaving seems… well, beyond the sheer feeling of adventure, it feels like crawling out of a warm blanket and into the cold, crisp, potentially brutal air of possibility. Seattle will always be a home for me, but I do believe there are others to be found out there. Korea may or may not be one, but I have no doubt it will be a lover of mine for a while. Seattle, you’ve done me well. Within you I’ve gained lifelong friends, loving family, and a sense of self. I have no doubt or regrets about you. And perhaps that is why I can leave you knowing that the part of my heart I leave behind will always be kept safe. Don’t change too much while I’m gone (and for goodness sake, stop building condos).

Farewell, my Northwest home.

I, Freedom(the camper), Yonder(the truck), my dad, and a U-Haul containing my material life head South. So does the rain.

Travel and a sense of Self

Last night I flew from Seattle to Oakland, CA where I am spending a couple of weeks with family. After devoting myself almost exclusively over the past month to getting this website up and running, the change in scenery was a shock to my system.

I love to travel. I could wax poetic about scenery and freedom and seeing new things but what I really get out of traveling is a true, simplistic sense of self. When I’m traveling I’m not surrounded by the daily reminders of routine and responsibilities, nor by acquaintances, nor my apartment full of ‘stuff’ that has come to represent the physical proof of my existence. When I travel those things break away and I am left with just me. Sometimes that’s a scary realization: I am who I am independently of my external surroundings.

So this morning when I woke up I had one of those “where am I” experiences. Since I moved to Seattle from the Bay Area both of my parents have moved a few times, so when I come to visit the feeling of ‘home’ centers around people, not places. Lying there on the hide-a-bed in my dad’s home recording studio, it really hit me that when I travel I break myself down and find the essence of ME.

Last April I was lucky enough to travel to Italy for two weeks where I spent my first few days wandering Roma solo (sola). Before leaving Seattle, I comically spent three weeks cramming on Italian language CD’s yet made the (somewhat irrational) decision to just immerse myself as much as possible once there, sans map. I landed at Fiumicino airport with directions to the hotel I had booked for one night and not much else. Over the next few days I just walked. I had been to Rome once before in 2003 so I had an idea of the places I wanted to revisit and things (mostly art) I had missed the first time around but was determined to avoid ‘a plan’ as much as possible.

After two days of aching feet, a full belly, two memory cards full of pictures and a new-found appreciation for the Italian way of life (and homemade pasta), I noticed that the anxiety I sometimes experience before throwing myself into a new situation had never even come up. I reflected on this over many cappuccini. Like I did this morning, I came to the realization that traveling by myself in a new environment had stripped me down into my component parts and what was left was a true sense of self. Once this idea had sunk in, it was like a fire had been lit inside me. With everything else stripped clear, I felt shiny and literally able to accomplish anything I set my mind to. I was also so far removed from my usual surroundings and acquaintances that all ties felt severed and I was free to just EXPERIENCE without external influence.

In those two weeks I just ABSORBED. Having a true sense of self in an unfamiliar place was like a license to try everything on for size to see how it fit. I very much admire people who are present enough to experience this daily. Apparently I need to get out of dodge before the realization hits.

Have you experienced this before?