Korea changes you

Yesterday I was really frustrated, due to not having anything to do for many hours and not having a working computer, so instead of staying at school for dinner I opted to be a spend-thrift and leave on-time for a change and treat myself to a dinner out at my favorite restaurant here.

cheong guk jang

On the menu now is cheong guk jang 청국장.  I’m not sure what the difference is between that and duenjang chiggae, but it was awesome.  I think it has more whole beans in it, so I’m wondering if it’s made directly from the meju.  Note to myself to compare recipes on-line…

I keep wanting to buy these at the market, but wouldn't know what to do with it once I got it home

The restaurant owner even made sure to ask me if I was sure I wanted it, as foreigners can’t handle the smell.  I wrote about the experience at my school earlier, where the smell of duenjang chiggae enough to feed 300 students, nearly blew my head off, smelling what I imagine the giant of Jack in the Beanstalk’s toe jam would be like…Then, the second time I had it was at the tofu restaurant near me, (which, btw, has a resident hen that roosts IN the restaurant, behind the air conditioner) and it wasn’t so bad.

bi ji chiggae

The bean soup they serve is called bi ji chiggae (비지치깨) and it’s a pureed bean, ground pork, green onion and red pepper soup that’s pretty yummy.  (AND waaay too salty)  But this time:  (with the cheong guk jang) this time it was heaven.  Heaven in a bowl.  Comfort food like no other.  And the thing I love about this particular restaurant/chef, is her food is rarely over-salted and is always complex and rich in flavors but not rich in fat and less salty.  I imagine she makes or buys local meju (those bricks of pressed soybeans tied up and left hanging to dry, which ultimately end up as the basis for the fermented beans).  So I guess the question is, is the preparation of the beans in this dish that much better, or have my tastes just changed?

I saw on t.v. recently that duenjang (the fermented bean paste) from the country, properly aged, has over 100 beneficial bacteria in it, whereas the paste you buy at the store may only have a little over 20.  This particular spotlight showed a woman from Chuncheon playing cello to her field of clay pots – ha – to encourage a harmonious sauce, but I suspect it’s more just a peaceful thing to do after a hard day’s work, surrounded by all those pots slowly digesting and fermenting in the sun.

Anyway, this particular form of fermented beans  is to die for.  Just the perfect amount of tofu, pepper slices, mushrooms, zuchini, and ground pork.  I embrace it – and nothing like a hot bowl of that on a brisk autumn day.  In addition, one of the banchan was an amazing dessert.  It was some kind of pod, split open, paper thin, battered and fried with the lightest batter imaginable, and crusted with salty/sweet crystals.  Just melted in your mouth…

The next thing that’s changed is, even though I don’t do it well because I don’t have the kind of money to go throw around on clothing, is that I really appreciate layers now.  Scarves, undershirts, t-shirts, shrugs, sweaters, etc.  Koreans are geniuses at layering and mixing patterns and color.  Except for those overly demure boleros I absolutely love the multiple layers of Korean fashions, from diaphanous in the summer to the fiercely stylish extreme profiles of harsh winter woolens.

And, though I have snubbed my nose at being anything but sloppy and comfortable here (just to be rebellious and hold onto something Western, I think) I’m now totally convinced heels can actually have more place in my life than I’ve let them before.  Not that I want to look like a street walker like a few of the girls do in their fetish shoes and micro-mini skirts do here, but it’s certainly true that these balloon-legged cargo pants I’m wearing look really different with converse vs. some heels.  These days, though, Koreans are getting almost as sloppy looking as Americans…

Korea also teaches you to recognize when you are an ass.   And it also teaches you to recognize when others are asses.  Like that one adoptee who insisted to me that his Korean mother he’d been reunited with was purposefully sending him a message of extortion by wearing a t-shirt every day for a week that said, “what have you done for me lately?”  I tried to explain that she probably wore it as a means to reach out to him via his language and the t-shirt was the only thing with English that she had, but he would have nothing to do with that possibility:  he was convinced that she knew what it meant and that it was a not-so-subtle hint to take on his filial role and provide for her.  She’s an old ajumma for God’s sake! This is the same adoptee who proudly proclaimed he never judged anyone, but was constantly judging me.  Irritating even months later, because I haven’t been on the receiving end of a double standard in a long, long time. This meat-eating person didn’t want to eat pork, and I jokingly said, “good luck in Korea!” and he went on to berate me for being ridiculous.  But I don’t know how many times I’ve ordered something with no mention of meat as an ingredient and found pork of some variety floating in it:  kim chi chiggae, sundubu chiggae, dubu kim chi, the cheung guk jang, the list goes on and on.  Pork is the slider, pork is the magic flavorful ingredient, the think that says so what – you can’t afford beef, but at least you can afford protein.  Pork and it’s fat comforts Koreans.  The hint of it in everything adds richness to their meals/lives.  But okay, smarty-pants, my years here have amounted to nothing but ridiculous notions about getting surprise ingredients in your food.  Not that anyone wants to trick you, but if you say you don’t eat pork they still might get flustered because there’s an English speaker saying something unintelligible while making demands, so better to just give him the dish and hope for the best. He better learn Korean really well really fast, is all I can say. Or be rich and only eat beef.

I’ve had moments like that when I was equally an ass, like when I was 19 and in Guam and was convinced the locals switched to their local language when they wanted to talk about you, totally discounting that maybe it’s nice not to speak in a second language when you’re with a compatriot…but I’m not 19 anymore….But it’s just all out there on the surface when you hang out with adoptees, that and all their drama and anger, tears and self medication and hysterical embrace of each other, those beer drenched “I luve u, man!” things that are just embarrassing after the hangover has gone, and the anti-white comments from people who a few months earlier were as white as anybody inside. It’s just painful to deal with:  it’s a wonder Koreans put up with any of us at all, and I’m often amazed when I meet adoptees who’ve returned multiple times or even live here who are still assholes. But fortunately I also meet adoptees who leave wiser and more centered, and then I don’t feel so bad about being an adoptee, though I do recognize that those who come here have a whole lot of issues they didn’t bring upon themselves to sort out. It’s just a shame some make a career out of it.  In many ways, this isn’t really community, but it’s a cop-out.  So is a lot of the activism.  Keep busy and avoid your real problems.  Have another shot of soju.  Nope.  Won’t miss any of that at all…

But lately I’ve been feeling really a part of the virtual Korean Adoptee Community – and it seems like a nice enough community with some real dialogue transpiring.  I also think there’s really something to be said for those who stick it out and battle their small battles where they live.  It’s easy to run away.  I know.  Maybe it’s just the KAD community IN Korea that annoys me.

So I’m excited about the future.  I keep watching CSI Miami Las Vegas and Pawn Stars to get glimpses of the environment in Vegas.  I’m also a little wistful about leaving Korea.  And I actually love the brisk weather right now. And I love the little vendors that pop up at weird places, selling things out of their trucks. And it’s roasted sweet potato time. To put in your pocket, warm you up, and give you some sweet-tasting energy. It seems things are just starting to gel for me.  I’ve made a couple contacts with Koreans recently that would have further improved my perspective on this place, and I’m also in a space where I could focus more on integrating better, as well as help out with adoptee rights in a manner I could have been  proud of instead of what I have done, which I have some regrets over.  But that’s an alternate future that I won’t be pursuing, so I won’t dwell on it.


Here’s a portrait of Momo which graces my desk, made as an example when I taught the kids how to use papier mache at summer camp.

And here’s the poorly executed hanji lamp I made the day my computer was taken away and I had zero classes due to it being National Sports Day. Thank God the incredibly refined electronics teacher gave me a leftover kit, or I would have died of boredom, sitting there all by myself all day.

…and here she is in the laundry basket – she doesn’t like anything to be in its place, so I’m starting to get used to living in a disaster area! She’s such a weird cat, unlike any I’ve ever had. She actually gets mad when I clean her cat-box. It’s like, “HEY! I worked hard to cover up those presents, damnit!”

Actually, she’s been pretty sweet lately. She gives me baths and is always wherever I am. Granted, it’s not where I want her or doing what I wish she would do, but she definitely has a whole lotta love to give. She practically knocks me over when I get home, crying and purring.

In a few days she goes to get fixed, and I’m feeling some guilt over it. I read a treatise by a veterinarian who is against fixing indoor pet cats because according to him it’s a trade-off health-wise, and it just seems unnecessary in our case. But I also know I want to get her a companion, and when we pick out her new best buddy, I have to make sure she doesn’t come home from a day’s play date knocked up…she may have already had her first heat, but I’m not quite sure. I’m dreading not feeding her the day of the operation and then coming home only to take her to the evil man who pokes her…and then leave her overnight. She may never forgive me!


School has been really annoying lately. It’s taken two weeks to get my computer fixed, and it’s really hard to make the national curriculum interesting without multi-media aids. Then to top that off, one class in particular stopped bringing their books, goof off, don’t listen, and basically treat me like a perpetual substitute teacher to mock, piss off, and ridicule. All while the passive co-teacher just sits back and let’s them control the class. So yeah, I blew a gasket. Then I told them to write, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” 300 times or get a zero on their final exam. Of course, it’s all pointless since the Korean English teachers won’t allow me to give any student a failing grade. These kids are so coddled, it’s so not funny. Of course it’s only half their fault, since the precedent was set by the passive co-teacher, and she’s not going to help me out because then there would be conflict for her. Never mind that the kids don’t learn half what they could because they hijack half the class time. Worst teacher ever. Oh wait, I forgot about old Mr. Lee at Baekyoung. But at least he had the excuse of not knowing English himself…

Today I went into class ready to collect the punishment, and the entire room smelled of shit. One of them stepped in it and as a joke spread it all around the back of the room. sigh. So I switched gears and did a fun project in the English zone. Which was exciting foΩ r them to go to, so it prompted yet another attempted behavioral free-for-all hijacking from them. I remind them of the punishment and give them one more session to complete it. Then they try to appeal to the Korean teacher saying it’s not fair. One of the students says, “I don’t care.” and I threaten to take him to the principal to call his mom. (As if that’s really going to happen) And he laughs and says I’d have to talk to his halmoni and mocks me. And the Korean teacher just translates what I’m saying while laughing too. I almost told them I was leaving right that second and almost walked out.
Most of the kids are nice enough, and it’s only the one teacher’s students who are jerks…The previous teacher refused to teach in her class for months…

Actually last week I DID walk out, paced around the teacher’s office and discussed the crappy Korean non-existent system of discipline with the head of my desk group. She said, “We are all angry too! Every day we are angry!” There are no enforced consequences for actions here. And the thing that gets me is Koreans will blame the student’s attitudes on western influences. Anyway, she gave me a cup of green tea, which I took my sweet time drinking, and then I went back and gave them the writing assignment.

Gah! Two more months of this. I still have to tell the school I’m leaving. But I still haven’t signed my Vegas contract. So I’m hesitant to do so before then, though I’m 99% confident it’s still coming to pass. Yeah, even if I’d stay in Korea, it would be time for a new job.


I think strip-mall Vegas NOT-America’s-most-livable-city is going to seem so so great once I get there! I mean, I looked up on Yelp and there are ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANTS, Greek restaurants, Tapas, and things I can relate to like truckers, bikers and people who hate Karaoke and love Elvis (I must not really be Korean) and diners with biscuits and gravy and…And even the crappy apartments are twice as big as the shoebox I live in here. I can get a two bedroom apartment for a song and get a playmate for Momo and have a studio/office to work in again.  And MUSIC! I’m going to investigate all the music I’ve missed the past few years, and also pursue all the Soul and old-skool R&B funk that I never have. And my bandoneon will be finished being repaired and I can attempt to pick that up again! And, oh I can go on and on. I’m really getting excited about it!

12 thoughts on “Korea changes you

  1. Vegas seems like such a noisy place to be returning to the US to. Definitely won’t be boring. And I don’t mean audible noise.

    That food sounds incredible. I will try to find that here in the Korean neighborhood near where I work.

  2. I hope you can find it – it’s so stinky a lot of places wouldn’t want to serve it.

    Las Vegas – was quite a popular topic when I was in Architecture school. We were in the backlash against the Post Modernist era, and ripping Venturi’s book, “Learning from Las Vegas” was sport at the time, though I’ve never read it.

    I’m a big fan of Americana, even if I’m not a big fan of small minds, so I think going to the SouthWest will be a really interesting experience, as it’s one part of the states I’ve never been to.

    The autumn leaves are flying everywhere here. Yellow ginkos, flame-colored maple, and other unknown leaves. Must remember to grab some on the way home so I can press them in a book. I think lack of vegetation is going to be the hardest part. I prefer to be near water, but being surrounded by trees is almost required for life…

  3. When I was about 21, I transitioned from the forests of the East coast to the open skies of Colorado. It was difficult for me, but I learned to love it.

    I was just back on the East coast for ten days and seeing the leaves change and the trees everywhere was a pleasure I had forgotten. I stood near the maple trees we planted in our back yard when I came home to California and the long views here.

    I hope that you keep writing as you transition to Las Vegas or wherever you go. It would be awesome to read your thoughts.

  4. if we have a chance, we should go to jeolla province some time. lots of good, pungent food to eat. :)

  5. Hey – next Friday, wanna find Tattoo Korea and get a quote for my neck? I’m sure there’s maekju in the vicinity…

  6. The difference between cheong guk jang and dueng jang is how they are fermented. cheong guk jang is fermented a lot quicker and dueng jang takes a lot longer. cheong guk jang is very much like the japanese natto but is eaten as soup or stew. because they are fermented and like most fermented food, the smell is pungent but they are very very healthy for you. our ancestors learned a long time ago the benefit of fermented food. for me, there is no food quite like dueng jan chigae. the taste has a special place for most koreans. and i must say, you have changed as well from a prior post. congrats.

  7. I’m wondering if there’s a way to ferment without salt, or if it will spoil if there’s less salt?

    I once spoke with a man from the shipyard who had a badge number below 100…I wondered how he could possible be that old, and he told me he had lied about his age when he began working there. Anyway, this man’s family were real, authentic home-steaders – the end of the breed that had come out to the Pacific Northwest. I asked about the food and he bemoaned how it was always too salty, too smokey, or too fatty. Because that’s what it took to preserve food without electricity.

    btw, has anyone done or attempted to do an ethnographic mapping of Korean food influences? I’m wondering which dishes are borrowed from Mongolia or China. One of my favorite dishes here is mapa dubu, which is really ma po tofu, which is Chinese.
    mapa dubu

    By the way, that photo comes from a site called “Repatriate Me” which is by a Canadian returning home after 15 years in Korea.

  8. Nonhyeon station, LINE 7 in Jamwon Dong!!! (never been) How could it get any better?

    Exit #5, 200 yards, just past Papa John’s pizza, pink building, second floor.

    Oh! and the Kordu guy has agreed to work on a tattoo for me! I think I’ll put it across my back, around the collarbone area.

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