Leaving work today, it was an art night. I could feel it. Even during my stay in California art had failed to surface as an outlet, and I could feel the lack of creativity in my life suddenly reach an immediate and painful boiling point.
Tight budget, and tonight it’s going towards art supplies. Some nights I feed my belly, tonight I feed my peace of mind. It’s a fair trade, and a healthy one in the long run. I headed to Alpha, the art store around the corner from my house. Thinking it was just full of the usual nauseatingly cute Korean stationery that is everywhere, I stumbled in a few days ago and was surprised to find a fairly decent collection of art materials, supplies, handmade paper and, of course, cuteness. The back half of the store is basically Emmy paradise. I got lost in the shelves the first time I was there and had to literally make myself stop and walk out the door. Dangerous. But at least I know where to go if I want to do a project.
Giving myself the 8,000 won I would have spent on food today was a great exercise in self control, but it stretched. Origami paper, a length of ribbon, some craft wire, two big pieces of handmade printed paper and a calligraphy pen accompanied me out of the shop. Score.
At home, determined to not spoil my creative evening by just eating ramen, I cooked up a sweet potato and scarfed some white rice mixed with cheap packaged curry powder. Sort of a fried rice stir-fry, and it did the trick. A few moments to eat and practice Hangeul (the Korean alphabet). To work! To work!
Although completely incorrect, I’ve been playing with Hangeul initials drawings. Mine, ESH, for example, looks remarkably like a winking face. I love it. Thanks calligraphy pen and my mediocre knowledge of Korean! I can’t wait to explore this further. Too bad it is grammatically incorrect for most combinations. Still looks pretty cool.
All I knew I wanted to do with the art paper was decorate my walls; they are painfully bare. Luckily, I brought along some watercolor pencils and a watercolor pen. We’ll see what the painting turns into over the next few days.
In all, dinner rations well spent. It’s a whole different kind of satisfaction.
If 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.
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.
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?”
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)
Some pork cut into 1 in. cubes
Pork or beef bouillon or seasoning
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.
I often find myself riding a sine curve through life. How to explain…
Consider the x-axis (horizontal) as time stretching into infinity and the y-axis (not shown here, vertical) as a measure of positive or negative (successful or unsuccessful) creativity. As time progresses, I am swept through periods of creative success and failure, always hovering around the median line of equilibrium.
As an artist, my creativity follows this sine curve. I will go for a week without rest to complete a project, all the while starting new works and recording inspirations constantly. At the height of the curve my creativity is insatiable, almost to the point of detriment to actual progress. I am overwhelmed by ideas! The world around me teems with inspiration and while ideas flow freely, it is next to impossible to stop and focus on just one.
Conversely, when my sine curve dips below equilibrium, I can be thrown into bouts of boredom, restlessness, insatiability, frustration and severe lack of motivation. It is during these periods, despite the multiple projects sitting half-completed on my desk, that I find myself watching whole seasons of Arrested Development. I recognize what is happening, yet to pull myself out of my dip of boredom and lack of inspiration is beyond my ability.
Soon, however, the motivation comes back. I finish the season of Arrested Development, and instead of starting season 2, I think of alternate plot endings and start writing them down. The duvet cover on my bed that I’ve grown so familiar with (after a whole season of tv) seems too simple and I find myself sketching designs to alter it. I go through my bookshelf and select a book I’ve yet to read. And I read it. Gradually, aided by the time axis, I pull myself back above equilibrium.
Yet equilibrium is where I am most definitively productive. Right between creative ineptitude and over-stimulation, I find I am able to think most critically while maintaining the stamina and interest to complete more difficult projects.
And thus, my creative cycle played out yet again, my inspiration and abilities continue to grow and expand. Recognizing the cycle has helped me to both overcome and accept it: If I recognize that I am in a state of boredom and am feeling uninspired, simply acknowledging my place on the curve helps put things into perspective. No, I haven’t lost my passion for art, I’m just at the bottom of the curve. Likewise, I have learned that in a time of intensive creativity I must write everything down. Notebooks overflow, and when I find myself looking up from the bottom of the curve again I have projects to assign myself to get the ball rolling.