Can you tell what these dishes are? I am not totally sure myself! Many Korean dishes are low-fat and they eat a lot of vegetables too. I found it hard not having potatoes and Canadian bread. In the grocery stores, potatoes were expensive and their bread was heavy and yellowish-orange. I figured they put eggs in their bread since it was like that. It was not enjoyable bread to eat. If I bought a sandwich at the convenience store that said ‘peanut butter’, when I went to eat it later it was a thin, light peanut butter-flavored cream that was in between the strange yellow bread slices. When I thought I bought a strawberry ice cream once, it was red bean flavour instead. Red bean is a common old-fashioned dessert in Korea. Often if you bought a cake or bun of any kind it would have a sweet red bean filling. I didn’t like it a whole lot then but would love to have it now. However, at the time I was so disappointed that my ice cream wasn’t strawberry that day. I remember feeling such culture shock, especially over the food. Good thing I could eat rice and kimchi.
Kimchi is at every meal in a little dish. Everyone’s kimchi is a tiny bit different and probably each batch is a little different. It is fermented, spicy cabbage, radish, squash, cucumber or other vegetable. Here in Atlantic Canada we call the main cabbage they make most kimchi out of ‘chinese lettuce’. Traditionally they left it to sit in big clay pots for a few weeks or stuck it in these pots in the ground to ferment at a specific temperature like around zero degrees Celsius. Sang Hyun told me years after my time in Korea, that he buys a trailer-load of Korean cabbage like what would be on a transport-truck every year to have enough for the amount of kimchi his family needs for a year. He has to store it and probably have it made too. It is such a huge business over there it is unimaginable to me. Presently in 2019, 50 million Koreans over there eat kimchi 3 times a day….. My mother told me once that the Italian-Canadians here in my small city went to the train station once a year to buy special Italian grapes that we don’t have for sale here. The grapes are/were in the train cars on the tracks at the station. The way Sang Hyun described it told me it was a similar endeavor for the Korean people, where the whole Korean neighborhood arranges their kimchi-cabbage buying at the same time with trailer-loads of the produce needed by everyone.
Early in the morning in the kitchen in the basement I would eat a lovely, interesting, healthy bowl of soup made by the agumma, and when I got to the bottom of the bowl I would see that there had been many little tiny dried whole fish in what I had just eaten! A Canadian breakfast does not involve fish or even soup for that matter. I’d almost give my eye tooth for her cooking now though. The agumma served some unique vegetarian dishes I never knew would have existed. She had cut up garlic stems fried in a delicious oil. Oh those were so good and likely healthy. We can’t buy the stems here in New Brunswick, Canada. In the basement, when I sat and ate at one of the long dining tables, I was told to say, “Mashi-seyo…!” and it means “It’s delicious!!!” Once when I first got there I was given a bowl of cold cucumber soup that is delicious as well. They eat this type of soup, or cold noodle dishes, to help them cope with the heat of summer. If I try to make these kinds of dishes myself they are never the same as what I had over there.
The chocolate bars were made in Australia or Malaysia or over in that area. I remember I could get ones from Effem Foods, like Mars, Snickers and M&Ms. They were less sweet than chocolate bars sold in Canada. I noticed that. And I thought it was because everything was not about eating junk and unhealthy treats in Korea. When I lived there, a lot of them would buy a dried squid to munch on instead of a bag of chips. The dried whole squids, which were everywhere, were tougher than leather. I never could chew them, try as I might. And there were no potato chips anyway, just rice crisps. It was so different being in the snack isle and seeing it was mostly shrimp flavoured rice crisps in large bags for sale.
There was a McDonald’s about a 10 minute walk away from my building. They sold a Korean food menu with Korean-style burgers called bulgogi burgers so some Koreans would get one of those instead (KFC did this also, as well as other western chains). The bulgogi burgers were just a hamburger with sweet Korean soya-sauce based sauce on them. I was so thrilled when I went to McDonalds to have familiar food. I found the big macs were a little bigger than what I get in my city in Canada. Maybe even though it’s a world-over franchise and all items are supposed to be the same everywhere, the CEO’s of McDonald’s thought they’d better not skimp on the sizes of their food items in countries that don’t even want big macs and french fries. I went with Sang Hyun once and he could hardly eat the french fries. He said he couldn’t believe how fast I could eat my french fries. “You eat the potato very fast….!!!…”
Once I walked past what was supposed to be a pizza on display in the window of a restaurant in Karak-dong and it was ketchup and corn on the ‘pizza’. When I got a ‘sandwich’ in Kimpo Airport, it was ketchup and peas. I ate it anyway. They never did have much dairy to eat in their past, and you could see it wasn’t considered a main food group then. Good thing I never liked milk much. And they didn’t refrigerate eggs! We are trained to put eggs in the fridge, but it’s not necessary. I would notice eggs outside of a fridge everywhere. Sometimes they gave me quails’ eggs to eat. They tasted like chickens’ eggs but the shells were smaller and heavily spotted. I had never eaten tofu before I got there, but it was commonly eaten in Korea. At that time they didn’t eat any cheese, and one man told me he was in the US at a fancy buffet, and took a whole bunch of tofu cut into cubes to eat, and when he tried one of them, they were really cubes of cheese and he couldn’t eat them!
I did love their food but I didn’t like their favourite thing. It was really special for them to have cut-up squares of real seaweed in soup. This was so coveted that kids had it for their birthday lunches. I didn’t like it because it was slimy to me. I don’t like eating seaweed much in any form, even though sometimes I don’t mind dried ‘kim’ on the outside of rolls of kimbap. They acted like this seaweed soup was the most wonderful thing to ever eat. And pregnant women were supposed to eat a lot of it because of the high nutrient value of it. I was so relieved at the time I was not a pregnant Korean woman.
Eating there was never boring. It is strange to be eating and try to ask ‘What is this?’ and not have a concrete answer most of the time.
The reason the pork barbecue that you cook yourself in a pan built into the table is called ‘sam’, and pronounced ‘sum’, is because that cut of pork has three layers. ‘Sam’ means ‘three’. ‘Three-layer pork’. A number of businessmen brought me to have Sumgyobsal, or three-layer pork. It was wonderful and so different. And they never let me pay. After you cooked the pork at your table, you would take a perilla lettuce leaf (similar to romaine lettuce) and wrap your piece of pork in it. You put a piece of garlic and a few other vegetables like mushroom and onion with it, and a special spicy sauce and put it in your mouth. You have kimchi on the side and a bottle of beer with many ‘sam’. And over there it was all done the old way, where people sat on the floor to cook and eat. I was certainly not accustomed to getting on the floor to eat or getting up from the floor after I ate. Everyone said it was too expensive to get beef, so they recommended pork instead. Back then, a person would pay $15 for their ‘sam’.
I hadn’t been there very long when my boss told me he was going to take me to a new class. Oh my goodness, it was a true honour to experience what was going on. I went with the owner of my institute, Mr. Kim, whom all the teachers hated with a venom, in his van outside of Seoul to the south. We went to a fancy, grand building that looked like a huge library that was sitting on manicured grounds set back from the road. It was the Sejong Institute. We had to talk to a nice man who was in charge who reminded me of David Suzuki. I was going to be the new English teacher for a group of government ministers who were on sabbatical! It was such a huge deal. The other teachers were very envious. I went there once or twice a week on the bus and the bus wasn’t crowded. It was a more rural or underdevelopped area and very lovely with the mountains everywhere around me. There weren’t any apartment buidings in that area. I knew I was heading towards Seongnam. When I got off the bus, there was a long wall to walk along, and a guard at the gate. I would smile and wave at the guard and walk past groomed grounds with trees, fields and shrubs to the library-like building. I’m trying to remember if I was allowed to wear my sneakers in there and I can’t remember.
The men were friendly and curious. They told me one day at first about how if a Korean man had a daughter, he had to pay for her wedding and buy the new couple a new house/apartment to live in. I said I paid for my wedding and it was only $1000 because I had a small wedding at Justice of the Peace. And I said it wasn’t customary for the parents to buy a couple’s whole house. They were not impressed that they had to do this there. One of them in particular was in the process of doing that at that time, they said. He said he had to spend perhaps $150 000 for a wedding and a ‘house’ back then. They were very good at explaining this type of thing and what great classes they were. I would draw a not-so-perfect map of Canada on the chalkboard and explain about where I lived in Canada and about windchills, for example, which they did not have. They were very interested in moose. They couldn’t imagine such an animal. One time after class I went into a big lounge with the ministers where they could all sit in a sunroom looking out at the grounds. Some of them were playing Korean checkers. The game was called “Go”. I could never have seen such a game being played in my small city in Canada, where there were only 2 Koreans – one was a physician and one ran a TaeKwonDo school. It seems to me that to play ‘go’, two men would sit opposite eachother at a big white square-shaped table and move many black and white round, smooth stones around the board. They took it very seriously. I felt so fortunate to have such experiences and see these things.
I couldn’t believe I was walking to such a place to help teach those men English when I was on those perfectly groomed grounds, walking alone up to the Institute. One day I was trying to watch a chickadee in one of the Asian pine trees and I had stopped to see it, and a guard came and thought something was wrong. I kept saying the word meaning ‘bird’ and he was wanting to understand for a few minutes and couldn’t. When he realised I was looking at a bird, he was disgusted and went away shaking his head. I still remember it’s “sae” for bird.
At this place and in some other grass fields around, older women were working in them, and it looked like they were weeding the fields. Maybe some older women I saw like that were picking special plants to take home though, and not picking weeds to get rid of? In the subways and on the streets, a lot of older women were cleaning the floors and steps and sidewalks meticulously. I saw this a lot and I wondered if they had to do this for a little government money.
One of the ministers, Mr. Wu, had me over to his “house” in Tangsan in western Seoul for supper one time. His wife must have cooked all week! She had likely never had a ‘foreigner’ in her house before. He had asked me beforehand if I wanted anything specific. I asked for mashed potatoes. I remember telling him how I missed cooked potatoes. When I was sitting there with them, the wife said she had whipped the potatoes for a long time and she had put ‘corn’ butter in them! So they were very rich and special. I had just wanted a boiled potato with a little margarine, but that wasn’t possible, it seemed. There was enough food on the table for an army – bowls and bowls full of nice dishes and everything was absolutely beautiful.. If only she knew I would have simply loved a decent sandwich. She shouldn’t have gone to all that bother. So many Korean people were very good to me while I was there. I always tell Koreans now when I meet them how much I love the HanGuk saram (Korean people). It’s because of people and places like the Sejong Institute and Mr. Wu that I am always so thrilled to meet a new Korean person and I always want to help them or give them something, to give something back in some way.
The Sejong class ended after only about 6 weeks and on the last day they presented me with a Korean jewellery box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. I didn’t want a gift and felt I didn’t deserve one. I’m appreciative of everything I did with the ministers, though, and I always felt that I hadn’t done anything to help them with their English.
There was a terrible problem brewing in Korea before I got there. And it got worse and worse. It was the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. The Crisis had a profound effect on me. To be in a strange land alone and have the stock market crash right after you arrive is pretty unsettling. I had never ever paid attention to World Affairs or Stock Markets and had never studied economics. But soon after I arrived their currency, the Won, lost most of it’s value very quickly. The teachers were all affected because we needed to eventually take our money back home and in this crisis our money, when exchanged into the currency of our native countries, lost more than half of its value. The people there were affected because all the companies over there were losing a lot. A lot of companies, the people and the government were panicking. Every day we all checked the newspapers to learn how much more trouble the won was in. It would say one US dollar was trading at 1600 won on the worst day and at 1300 won or 1200 won afterward. It was better if the number was below 900 won. It was supposed to be at 500 to 700 won. Everywhere I went from October onward, there were banners on the street about it. There would be Korean writing and the letters IMF were always on the banners too. It’s because the International Monetary Fund gave the country a large bailout to help them. This was a huge thing for all of them. Their pride was at stake and they all stuck together and paid those millions back to the IMF soon after. I couldn’t believe it when I read back in Canada they had paid the money back. The currency for exchange purposes never did get back to what it had been when it was good, even today. Before 1997, you could get a lot more for your money when you changed your funds. It was okay if you were IN Korea, but if you left the country it was bad.
The reason I say the crisis had a big effect on me is because it’s very stressful to think your money is lost just by bringing it out of the country you’re in. I could not save any money. I went home with a few hundred dollars instead of thousands. I still look at exchange rates and I especially check rates for Asian countries to see if there are any problems. They have said, and they did announce at the time, that corruption of higher-ups in certain Asian companies, especially Korean ones, led to the Financial Crisis.
The IMF fiasco made it a bad time to be an English teacher there. Many companies were cancelling their English classes for their employees all to save money. Many bosses like mine were withholding our pay. I heard some awful stories about people like me waiting a few months to be paid, and they were still waiting when I left, and I shuddered about it. My boss, Mr. Kim, was acting funny about it too. I didn’t hate him the way the others did. He was really hard to relate to but he liked me, thank God. He was not at all like the Korean people I met there. Someone had urged me to buy him a box of loose Korean tea when I got my first pay because it’s customary to give gifts to someone like that(after all, he was my ‘sponsor’ there) when you meet them. I did give him a special box of Korean tea. It was $15 back then in 1997. He seemed pleased, at least. Before I left early in February of 1998, and broke my contract by leaving, he had paid me while the others were still waiting for their monthly pay. As it was, my pay was one week late and we were all stressed out holding our breath waiting. Other people we knew there, like I said, were not as lucky as us. That’s the main reason I left. I felt it was getting bad and the Crisis was in full swing.
It was never windy or stormy while I was there. From September 1st, 1997 to February 14th, 1998 was when I lived in Seoul. There was rain just a few times, and I know I had bought a huge, high-quality umbrella, but hardly remember using it. The sky was always so blue and there were hardly any clouds ever. When it snowed in December and January, it was always that it snowed in the night, and you’d wake up to a lovely blanket of snow on everything. They only got an inch of snow at a time! So they think snow is romantic and nice.
The cold was damp and there was no heat where I stayed. My boss had given me an old electric heater to have beside me while I slept. It had 2 metal bars that were supposed to heat up and glow orange to heat you up. Only one of my metal bars worked. And the windows had gaps where there was open air. I did get used to that cold and thank goodness my body was made for cold climates. Temperatures by the third week of January were the coldest, with a high of minus eleven degrees Celcius on a few days.
Their heat, if it was in place, was too hot for me. In their apartments they had the floor heated up and I think it was from gas coming into their places, like natural gas lines. Their stoves were all gas-operated. We don’t do it that way in my area of Canada. Stoves are electric stoves in my city. Once I got on a bus and just about died putting up with the billowing heat coming from the floor.
Once I had to travel to a far-away location and it was the second day in a row that there was the one-inch snowfall in the night. The whole city was practically at a standstill. My bus was very very late. I waited and waited. While I waited, I saw a few cars go by slowly with snow-chains on their tires. I had heard of doing that but had never seen it. They certainly had no winter tires or snowplows. A Korean man in my building had exclaimed earlier that morning, “…Ohhh…We’re getting a lot of snow this year!!!…”. They could never imagine my hometown with well over 200 centimeters of snow in a year!
The student called Anthony I talked about previously brought me places and he was always interesting and kind. One day after the snow had come, he drove me west of Karak-dong to a small mountain. We hiked up the mountain trail and came upon a small, beautiful temple in a clearing. Everything was breathtaking. I peeked in a small shed-like building that had candles lit and buddha statues in it and took a picture. It was the only picture I took of the inside of a temple building in all my time in Korea. There were always people praying and practicing their religion at the temples I visited and I did not want to offend them. On the way down the trail I was watching a big, black squirrel with tufted ears in the trees. Anthony couldn’t believe anyone would be interested in an “ugly” Korean squirrel, ha ha!
Near the mountain, while on the road in places, there were tunnels through some hills for cars to travel through. I had never even seen one of those tunnels before. Everything was interesting. Their building materials were not even the same as ours in Canada. There wasn’t any ‘gyprock’ for walls. It was some other material, similar to what is in a trailer or mini-home in Canada. There was a lot of granite making up buildings. Back then, a Korean businessman told me, if they wanted wood for a structure or furniture, it had to be ordered from a country that was far away, like Malaysia or an island far away in Asia in the south.
I mentioned their ‘houses’. I put house in quotations because they mostly all lived in apartment complexes. They had to buy the apartment and not rent it, like you can buy a condominium. It was their place to live and bring up their children once the parents had bought the apartment for the newly married couple. We do not do this in Canada because we have lots of room and space. We take this for granted.
Anthony told me later that the mountain was called GuRyeongSan and I thought, well, so what? He told me it means ‘Nine Dragon Mountain’. I thought that was such a nice name.
The soup looks really delicious!
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Yes, it’s such a different taste. It must be so good for you with the soybean paste and vegetables. They did such a wonderful job mak8ng it. I’ve tried and can’t make it like they do over there!
I left during the financial crisis so I remember it very well. classes were cancelled and I decided it was finally time to go home and make new plans.
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I love the pic of you and Robert in the wedding attaire. Keep up the amazing work I’m enjoying reading every chapter 😊
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