Springtime Wanderlust: Flowertown, Korea

If you were to ask somebody about places to go in Korea, they would probably bring up the sprawling, concrete metropolises of Seoul or Busan. If they were better versed in geography and the happenings of the country, they might talk about some provincial capitals like Jeonju – the birthplace of bibimbap – or Pyeong Chang, the location of the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. Very few would bring up the tiny yet breathtaking county of Gurye (구례), nor especially the quaint farming town of Sandongmyeon (산동면) located there.

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It’s no wonder Sandongmyeon is so overlooked. A tiny blip on the map – not even marked on some – it’s nearly a two hour drive from the nearest large city, Gwangju, and thus neatly hidden from the prodding eyes of most non-native tourists. It’s nestled in the rolling, bucolic mountains of Korea’s Jeollanam Province, in the southeastern part of the country. Sandongmyeon borders the vast Jirisan National Park — the oldest and one of the largest parks in South Korea — which means its landscape is both boldly wild and beautiful.

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Gurye is striking enough to be designated as a special tourist location by the government – the only one in the province!

During the springtime, Gurye is checkered with a multitude of flowering honey yellow Sansuyu trees, which give name to Sandongmyeon’s most famous tourist location: Sansuyu Village. The blossoms aren’t that notable by themselves: they’re tiny, smaller than a fingernail. It’s the sheer numbers that make this location so stunning. The entire valley the town is nested in is blanketed with thousands of trees. The deep yellows blurring together combined with the yet winter-bare trees create an autumnal feel when viewed from afar, only to be shattered upon closer inspection of the miniscule blossoms.

The Sansuyu flowers are so celebrated in Sandongmyeon  that they are honored with their own festival each spring (typically in late March, at the cusp of spring), and commemorated with a large sculpture perched on a hill on the outskirts of this charming provincial town. During the fall, the tree gives way to small red fruits (which immortalized on the streetlamps).

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The Sansuyu flower sculpture

Although the Sansuyu tree is hailed as the zenith of springtime in Sandongmyeon, they aren’t responsible for all of Gurye County’s pastoral allure. Cherry blossoms, magnolias, and roses are also dispersed through the city, starting their bloom in late March. These ephemeral flowers don’t last very long, so make sure to check the cherry blossom forecast for a peak experience.

If you ever find yourself in Korea in the springtime, do yourself a favor, pack a picnic, and leave the city behind to visit this scenic country town.

If you have more than a day to spare, there are plenty of things to do in Gurye besides ogle all of the pretty flora. As mentioned earlier, the county was designated as a special tourist zone by the government. There are temples, plenty of great hiking, and some natural hot springs definitely worth checking out.


 

Sandongmyeon is located a convenient twenty minute drive from the town I’ve called home for the past two years – Namwon (which is worth a visit in its own right.) However, for those of you not fortunate to live as close as I do, click here for information about how to arrive at Gurye.

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5 Ways Solo Travel is Easier for Women Than Men

There has been an enormous influx of solo female travel bloggers during the past few years.

You can find them peppered across the web easily. A quick Google search of “female travel blog” will conjure up a plethora of lists of top bloggers to follow, travel tips, and packing advice all aimed at women. However, most of these sites ignore the fact that quite frankly, women have it a lot easier trekking the world alone than men in several aspects.

To be clear, women do almost inarguable undergo more risk than men when traveling alone. We have to worry about our drinks at the bar and walking alone at night and if our clothes are ‘right’ for whatever place we’re in. (Though, to be completely frank, most of us worry about this at home too.) Additionally, there are a lot of places where it remains very, very tough to have been born without a Y chromosome, and thus peril is higher while freedoms are lower for even those of us just visiting.

I myself am a solo female traveler (most of the time) and have had the idea that women have it easier than men in a lot of ways reinforced several times throughout my journeys.

To do my best to convince you, here’s a list of reasons why us girls have it easier than the lads.

1. People will help you out more.

There’s something to be said for the old damsel in distress trope – people still believe it, and help women out a lot more than they help men. From getting directions from locals to random, chivalry-is-not-dead men who insist carrying bags up and down stairs, ladies definitely have an advantage here.

The men I’ve met and seen who are also traveling alone almost never get helped out, unless they very explicitly and politely ask for it. The stereotype of self-sufficient men who need nobody’s help makes it much harder for them to get it when needed.

2. You’re more likely to get accepted on sites such as CouchSurfing

CouchSurfing and other similar sites set visitors up with a host to whatever place they’re visiting. The host then allows the aforementioned guest to crash on their couch (or whatever) for free. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is much easier for a woman to send out a request and get accepted than it is for a man (And, vice-versa, it’s easier for women to host.)

Even though (nearly) everyone I’ve met off of CouchSurfing has been a fantastic, interesting individual, regardless of gender, I tend to scout out my fellow women as hosts first. Almost every other solo female traveler I’ve met does the same. There are too many whispered horror stories about what happened to girls traveling alone who made the wrong choice floating around, and staying with a woman just plain feels safer to most of us. Which leads me to my next point:

3. Women look out for other women

For all of the mean-girl stereotypes surrounding women, female travelers are actually the greatest for looking out for each other. For the large part, we know we run a higher risk traveling, especially when alone.

One night while staying in a hostel on a solo trip, I had to make a run to the ATM. I asked the woman working at the counter where I could find one nearby. She started to give me directions, then told me she was worried about me walking alone at night. She called over a guy who worked at the hostel and made him walk me to the bank, even though it was only a couple of blocks away.

I’ve had countless instances like this. I’ve had girls in bars warn me away from particular men, women coming up to me if I look uncomfortable talking to someone to make sure I’m okay, old ladies making sure I’m safe.  And I do the same for other women. We keep each other. We know it’s a dangerous world out there for us females, and damn it, we have each others’ backs.

It doesn’t seem to me that men have this same, unspoken support system, but then again, it’s perhaps because their risk runs much less than ours.

4. There are special women-only perks

We all know some “women perks “from back home (Ladies Night, anybody?), which do little to alleviate from the misogynistic bullshit such as the tampon tax, but we take it where we can get it.

Travel is similar – we take what we can get.

All over the world, there are hostels with women-only dorm rooms which do not offer male-only rooms. (I have yet to see the inverse). In places like Japan and Malaysia, there are special women-only carriages on trains. Here in Korea – and scattered throughout Asia – there are women-only parking spaces located closer to doors and exits.

Of course, the measures listed above were implemented not out of ‘perks’ but rather to keep women safe from crime and harassment. However, during travel these options don’t always exist for men, leaving them more vulnerable to crimes targeting tourists – which are all too common in areas like crowded subway cars.

5. It’s easier to meet people

I can easily approach people when I travel alone, and part of this is definitely due to my gender. I’m neither threatening, nor do I seem to be hitting on people, nor am I seen as a dreaded “creeper.” Instead, I get to simply be a woman alone.

I was sitting at an outdoor breakfast cafe once in Georgetown, Malaysia when I noticed a girl about my age waiting for a table. Like me, she was alone, so I waved her over. We learned that the two of us had similar plans for our days, so we spent the day together sharing both Ubers and experiences.

I’ve done this plenty of times – met other travelers and spent wonderful occasions with them. Many of the other female travelers I’ve talked to have had similar experiences – we meet people easily and then part ways.


 

What are some of your travel experiences? Do you think that your gender has shaped these experiences at all? How fortunate do you feel to be a whatever gender you are while traveling? Share in the comments!

 

 

A (Partial) Guide to Korean Side Dishes

If you were to go to a Korean restaurant, you would immediately notice the several small dishes of food – mostly vegetables – set on your table.

These are banchan (반찬) – side dishes – and they are truly the hero we need. What makes them even better (besides the fact that they are both delicious and healthy, for the most part) is that you can ask for free refills. Much like soda in the United States, your waitress might even refill your banchan before you even finish it all.

Be still, my chubby heart.

Presented here is a guide of a few of my personal favorite banchan. It is in no way a complete encyclopedia to the myriad of Korean side dishes that bring light to this dark, cruel world, but it is a noble start.


Kimchi (김치)

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Easily the most famous banchan is kimchi.

Kimchi, for those of you who don’t know, is vegetables, usually fermented but sometimes served fresh, seasoned with ingredients including but in no way limited to, red pepper, scallion, daikon, and fish sauce. The most common kimchi (such as the one pictured above) is made with Napa cabbage, though many other varieties exist, such as radish, scallion, and even cucumber (if you’re lucky!).

Even though it will make your entire fridge reek if sealed improperly, kimchi is eaten at nearly every Korean meal all year around.

 

Gagi Namul (가지나물)

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Gagi namul is a gorgeous side dish for any table, both for the eyes and the palate.  Deeply-colored purple eggplants are steamed and torn into bite-sized chunks. The one pictured above is topped with a salty, umami soybean-based sauce and loaded with nutty sesame seeds.

I’d date it.

Kkwarigochu Myulchi Bokkeum (꽈리고추 멸치 볶음)

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Kkwarigochu Myulchi Bokkeum is mild shisito peppers stir-fried with fresh garlic slices and dried, salty, lightly killed anchovies. Dressed in a lightly sweet-and-salty sauce, this dish is absolutely bursting with flavor. Some people even eat it as a snack, though you might not want to kiss them afterwards.

Jangjorim (장조림)

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The banchan in the pretty dish above is jangjorim: soy braised beef with quail eggs. Before moving to Korea, I would have never thought to pair pulled beef with eggs, but it is a magical marriage of two equally tasty partners. If you like protein and/or delicious, salty food, this is the banchan for you.

Shigumchi Namul (시금치 나물)

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Shigumchi namul is blanched spinach with garlic, sesame oil, and a bit of soy sauce. The texture is two-fold: the leaves wilt down quickly, rendering them soft, but the cooking process is quick enough that the stems normally retain a bit of crunch. Sometimes (such as in the example pictured above) carrots are added for both their extra crunch and sweet flavor.

Eomuk Bokkum (어묵 볶음)

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In the above picture are something little known to the Western palate: eomuk. This is the hot dog of the fish world. It’s made from mysterious parts, all ground up and smushed back together in a process that I choose not to question too heavily.

What I know is that eomuk bokkuum, stir-fried fish cakes, are delicious. They taste like MSG and sodium, which are both scrumptious even if doctors and television adverts warn against them. The one above is coated in a chili sauce for a bit of heat.

Kong Ja Bahn (콩자반)

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Kong ja bahn is built of the humble black bean, slightly dehydrated so it’s both slightly tough and chewy, coated with a sweet dressing of sugar and soy. Its saccharine flavor creates a nice break from all of the salty, spicier neighbors on a Korean table.

Beosot Bokkeum (버섯 볶음)

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If you haven’t caught on by now, “bokkum” means “stir-fried” in Korean, and that’s exactly how these mushrooms are prepared. They’re cooked up in sesame oil, salted, and often served with pretty orange carrots for both the perfect texture, flavor, and visual combination.

Kim (김)

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Kim is beauty in its simplicity.

All it is is dried sheets of salty, paper-thin seaweed, perfect for wrapping lovingly around your rice. Some restaurants even bring you a dish of soy sauce to dip your mini Korean burrito in, for extra salt and umami flavor.

Sometimes, it’s nice to get back to the basics.


There are scores of different banchan  to be found that I’ve not talked about here. I strongly encourage you to shut down whatever device you are viewing this blog on and high-tail it to the nearest Korean eatery, and discover some of these delightful dishes for yourself.

Good Eats in Kuala Lumpur: A 24 Hour Guide

Kuala Lumpur is a foodie’s paradise.

Much like the average Taco Bell, restaurants in Malaysia tend to be very cheap, be open very late, and a select few can even be found adjacent to a 7-Eleven. However, unlike the Taco Bell, there is little to no regret nor shame to be had afterwards, and these venues are normally visited whilst completely sober.

In contrast to the more monochromatic Asian cities that I’m used to, such as Seoul, where a single culture and thus a single food dominates, there are many different kinds of food to be found in Kuala Lumpur. As mentioned in my previous post, the city is comprised primarily of three different peoples: Chinese, Indian, and the native Malay. This happy trio of distinctly different cuisines – along with a wealth of hybrid or ‘third party’ cuisines – can be found everywhere in this sizzling city. From the plastic, mismatched chairs of outdoor eateries to restaurants set with white linen tables and silverware actually worth slipping into your purse, Kuala Lumpar has a wealth of choices for all of your eating needs.

Much like at my diabetic granny’s house, there are four main meals in Malaysia: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. Fortunately, I had a Malaysian friend of mine, Pei, to show me the ropes. For those you sans a Malaysian, I present this brief guide to help you plan your waist-expanding foodie tour.

Breakfast:

Start your day off basic at a kopitiam, or coffee shop. There are plenty of open-air ones to choose from, offering all sorts of delicious delicacies. I went to Win Heng Seng  (永兴城茶餐室), which offers a variety of tasty, cheap eats for both breakfast and lunch crowds.

Pei told me she prefers to start the day off on a sweet note, so we got tiny, creamy egg tarts in a crust that was both flaky and salty, just like your unmarried aunt.

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After we had whetted our appetites, it was time to get down to real business.

Pei ordered kopi-o: strong, black Malaysian coffee with lots of sugar that don’t need no man. A popular pairing with coffee throughout Malaysia (and southeast Asia in general) is toast with kaya, (pictured top left) a curd made with coconut milk, eggs, and sugar. To accompany this were flaky, sweet-and-savory meat pies called siew pao (pictured on plate), filled with what I am assured was pork even though I have seen Sweeny Todd twice now and like to think I know better.

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Just in case this wasn’t a carby enough start to the day, Pei ordered pyramid-shaped mounds of glutinous brown rice, wrapped lovingly as an only child in flat, green leaves –  ba zhang (pictured top right). Small pieces of salted egg yolk and meat could be found distributed throughout the dumpling, which is, honestly, a solid way to improve most foods.

 

Lunch:

If you’re not too full from breakfast (or if you’re not a quitter), head over to Old China Cafe on Petaling Street for lunch two hours after you finish your breakfast. This is long enough that you’ve had time to digest some, but short enough that the stomach hasn’t shrunk too much yet.

Fun fact: The saloon style doors are typical of traditional Chinese architecture. And there I was, thinking that they were designed by cowboys for facilitating grand entrances.

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Here, you can sample plenty of Chinese food (with a bit of Malaysian flair) that doesn’t come from a cardboard box.

The interior of the restaurant is definitely a throwback to older times. The chairs and wall paneling are both a dark, chocolate colored wood. Aged photographs and traditional calligraphy crowd the walls with no particular order. The overall effect is somewhere between an antique store and the beginning of a scary movie, though both have the same moral – don’t touch anything.

However, the food managed to distract from these dark thoughts

Traditional Chinese dining is what we call “family style” in the West. (Or, individual serving size. I’m not here to judge.) Several different courses are ordered and shared between the persons at your table, although each individual might receive their own rice. Pei – culturally Chinese herself – picked out a variety of dishes for us to sample.

Hot plate tofu with carrots, peas, and corn in a gelatinous sauce (bottom right) and sweet-and-sour chicken with pineapple, onion, and cucumber (top left) will start you off well. Pei opted for plain white rice for herself, while I ordered a blue-toned coconut rice, because not nearly enough foods in this world are blue.

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If you need more vegetables in your life or your bowels, consider ordering the spicy, stir-fried kangkong belacan, a vegetable vaguely resembling stalky spinach in both flavor and visuals with sweet purple onions and red chili peppers hot enough to take you on the other side.

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If none of these lighter dishes suit your fancy, there are plenty of pork or beef options to choose from, and even some options without vegetables. Though, if you eat the chilis, I would recommend something green to help you along.

 

Dinner:

A trip to Kuala Lumpur couldn’t be complete without the famous nasi lemak – different individual ingredients assembled aesthetically  around a fragrant coconut rice. It’s perfect not only for eating, but hovering over awkwardly with a camera for an Instagram-worthy shot while you get low-key judged by surrounding tables.

Five of the six ingredients seen on my plate were elements of the traditional style of nasi lemak: boiled egg; spicy, dark-red sambal sauce; salty, crunchy dried anchovies; roasted peanuts; and fresh green cucumber slices that you can save and use for facials later on. I opted for a piece of curried chicken for a more substantial meal. (As, y’know, I hadn’t eaten enough earlier.)

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Supper:

Supper is a beautiful time to reflect on what you have yet to eat that day, and remedy it immediately. I found myself surprisingly low on my fish intake, so I headed to an outdoor food market, deep off the beaten tourist track where few willingly choose to roam at night, with another college friend of mine, Jane, who lost both parents outside an opera years ago and now spends her days hanging around caves.

We finished our day feasting on cuttlefish cooked with more kangkung, topped with fresh lime juice, minced peanuts, and a sweet-ish brown sauce. Behind Jane’s rants about justice, I could hear the sizzle of things being cooked over open fires, the call of orders to chefs, the scratching of plates across counters that means another order is ready for a hungry patron.

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And I felt perfectly at home.

 

 

Of course, Kuala Lumpur has a myriad of other delicacies to offer its hungry visitors. This is only a short review of possibly samplings to be had in this illustrious city.

And unlike the Taco Bell, you can’t go too wrong.

Eat well, my friends.

Kuala Lumpur: An Introduction

The hot, nearly equatorial sun radiates down perpetually on the occupants of Kuala Lumpur, who are cooled by bursts of icy air conditioning as they walk briskly down the wide streets. Women in low-cut tank tops and daisy dukes scurry past women wearing niquabs, who text busily on their phones. Hawkers cry out to the people passing their food stalls in English – Cantonese – Malay in a single breath. A gilded mosque sits across from an Indian temple, adjacent to a church, while the native jungle fights in vain to take back the soaring skyscrapers. Faces of every color can be seen in this mad crush, from the pale businesswoman who clacks away importantly at her computer, to the coffee-skinned man who owns the restaurant she is working at.

Three main cultures are at odds here: Chinese, Indian, and the native Malays. These groups give Kuala Lumpur its vibrancy, its chaos that somehow comes together into a single, cohesive city that charms its occupants and visitors alike.

Naturally, the food helps. Dishes from the aforementioned groups can be found everywhere from fine-dining restaurants to hawker stands, and the native Malaysians can be seen eating at all hours of the day. Four distinct meals exist here: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and an extra, fourth, late night meal simply called “supper.” Eateries open to the elements are popular in this year-round tropical paradise, and sharing tables with strangers in a crowded restaurant is all too common.

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Breakfast on the street: strong, sweet coffee with a flaky pastry filled with savory pork and salted egg yolk.

 

Kuala Lumpur is a vibrant city whose mayhem makes sense, where opposites come together in harmony and people of all cultures work together to fuel their city. There’s no shortage of things to do, from luxury shopping to visiting any one of the temples or mosques the city has to offer. The people are welcoming to visitors, though they seem to know that it would take years for a foreigner to truly delve into the inner workings of their complex culture.

While walking with a Malaysian friend of mine through Central Market, and I stopped to look at a pair of minuscule shoes, mouth agape. I asked if they were for bound feet. She confirmed, and told me her own great-grandmother’s feet had been bound in her native China. But, she added, they began to grow again once she came to Malaysia.

 

Leather Bag Making in Seoul

One bitterly cold mid-January afternoon, my friend Kimmy and I decided to head over to Sinsa-dong, an artsy, hipsterish sub-district of Gangnam, to try our hands at making our own, personalized leather bags.

The shop we chose was called Classico, run by a Mr. Dong Hyeon Kim.  In addition to letting patrons make (or rather, assist in making) their own bags, they also take custom orders and make some items to sell in department stores.

The interior of the shop smelled strongly of pungent leather glue. The walls were a no-nonsense, bare cement that offered a sharp contrast against the brightly colored paints, tools, and materials found within.

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The first step in the process of making our bags was deciding on a design. The shop offered several different varieties, ranging from tiny folding wallets to purses you could carry a small mammal in. We both chose a simple, fold-over clutch, just large enough to fit our phones and wallets in for a night out on the town.

The second step was picking out a leather we liked. There were dozens of different varieties and textures to choose from. I went for a smooth, buttery black and Kimmy chose a textured purple.

We sketched out the rough shapes of our bags on paper with the help of a ruler and Kimmy’s engineering degree, then cut the design from the leather with what looked like a good knife for stabbing a guy. The same was done for the creamy, off-white leather used for the inside lining of our bags. A lot of cutting, gluing, and even some minimal stitching was done during this stage to help smooth out the edges of our bags-to-be.

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After much weeping and gnashing of teeth, largely over frustrations due to me smearing glue in places I shouldn’t, Mr. Kim gave us the choice to stamp our bags with our names. Unfortunately, we both misunderstood exactly how he would put the names on our bags, and spent twenty minutes or so trying to create personalized signatures. I wanted “가을” — the Korean translation of my name — to be printed on my bag in an artsy, stylized font. We soon found out that only Latin letters were offered.

A very shiny machine did the job of stamping our bag-shaped pieces of leather with our names in a rather pragmatic font.

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Once our bags could remind of us of our own names, we chose zippers out of a big plastic bag Mr. Kim had stashed away in one of his many cupboards.  Kimmy went for silver, to go with her purple leather, and I picked out a polished gold. The aforementioned zippers – along with small golden hoops which would serve as bases for the chains our bags would hang on – were first glued, then sewn to the bags.

Our projects had stopped resembling cow skins and started to look like real, grown-up lady bags. We roughly glued the inside lining of our bags to their outside shells. All that remained was to sew the entire thing together. The bag was turned inside-out prior to sewing so all the stitching would be hidden inside.

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Essentially, all that was left to do after the sewing was to turn the bag right-side out and attach our chains.

In total, the experience took about five hours or so. While smiling with dead eyes, Mr. Kim told us that it normally only takes about three hours. I expect time was added on for my glue inexpertise and the fact that Kimmy had to translate most of the technical instructions into English for me.

The entire cost of the experience was 140,000₩, or about $120 USD. Given the quality of the leather, the craftsmanship of the bag, and the fact that we took five hours’ of some poor man’s time, I would definitely say it was worth it.

 

You can find Classico at on the second floor at 525-16, Sinsa, Gangnam, Seoul (Korean address:  강남구 신사동 525-16 201호). Their phone number is 02-540-2316 (possibly Korean only, but you can try your luck. Mr. Kim studied leatherwork in Florence, so I’m betting his English is actually pretty proficient.)

EDIT: The Classico website linked above is down for the moment.

 

Expat, Not Refugee

I moved to Korea from the United States two years ago. I stumbled off the plane, bleary-eyed after a sixteen-hour long flight from Atlanta, with $800 to my name and two suitcases worth of things I deemed necessary to start a new life – some clothes, favored photos, a phrasebook I’d picked up for cheap off the bottom shelf of a popular bookstore. The phrasebook was something that I had to work up to slowly– I didn’t even know the alphabet.

After two years of living here, the Korean I speak is still broken, at best. I struggle to find words – simple nouns and verbs are clumsily strung together, along with the sweeping gestures and facial expressions I have come to rely on as a more reliable form of communication.

Nobody has ever told me to speak Korean. Nobody has mocked my endeavor to twist my tongue, my thoughts into a strange, alien shape that I did not grow up with, that I never had thought I would ever have reason to use.

Instead, they clap when I understand. They cluck their tongues and shake their heads, proud of my feeble attempts, and tell me that Korean is a very difficult language.

I was at a friend’s house this weekend, and her mother was searching for the English word for goguma. “Sweet potato,” I said, a little surprised at myself. I had eaten many sweet potatoes in Korea. They’re easy to find on the street, served roasted and piping hot in paper bags to hungry customers.

My friend’s mother turned at me. “You are a genius!” she said in English, smiling brightly at me.

I smiled back weakly at her, mutely disagreeing and feeling slightly embarrassed. I’m not a genius, I’m privileged.

My skin is a pale, nearly translucent white peppered with freckles that goes well with my strawberry blonde hair. I have a pointy nose and blue eyes with double eyelids. In essence, I am a quintessential Caucasian, impossible to mistake for anything else. In my small city of approximately 85,000, I am one of around a dozen other white people. Less than one percent.

Here, in Korea, I are not a refugee.  None of my few white (or otherwise non-Korean) friends are refugees, either. We are expats. None of us came here by force or circumstance, but by choice. We are here for jobs, or adventure, or to simply pay off our student loans. We can return to our homes if needed. We have stable incomes and apartments and plenty of food. What’s more is the extent to which we are welcomed here.

Last night, three girlfriends of mine — also expats — and I went out to dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near to my apartment. It’s the kind of place I’ve walked by a thousand times but have only stopped in maybe twice. The only thing marking it as a restaurant is a menu printed on the window — in fact, the rest of the building is a house.

I slid open the glass door and took off my shoes so I could walk over to my table.

Conversation in the restaurant skidded to a halt as all eyes swiveled towards my friends and myself. I made eye contact with a few of the patrons — all older folks — and took my seat on the floor next to a wall. I’ve gotten used to a lot of attention here. When you such a racial minority as I am, it’s nearly impossible to not garner attention.

I ordered kimchi jjegae, a spicy stew to warm us up from the freezing January winds that blow down through the Korean peninsula from Siberia. Conversation in the restaurant picked back up, and I assumed we were left to eat in peace.

Next to our table was a Korean man who looked a few years short of retirement. His hair was gray and becoming patchy with age, and he had lost the slenderness of youth. His eyes, however, looked lively  and he leaned into our table.

“Russia?” He asked in gruff, but friendly voice.

“No,” I said in Korean. I gestured to the girl sitting next to me. “She and I are from the United States.” I pointed at a friend across the table. “She’s from Canada. And that woman is from South Africa.”

The old Korean man — who later asked us to call him haraboji, or ‘‘grandfather,’’ was visibly excited to see such diversity in his restaurant. He whipped out his phone and made a call. I heard the word waygook. Foreigner.

A woman came and sat across the table from the old man, and they were soon joined by the woman who had taken our order. The three of them were friends,  all around the same age. They had abundant questions for us — did we like the food? Was it too spicy? Why were we here? Where did we live? Were we married? Were we all friends? — that we employed our best broken Korean to answer. They were pleased with the amount we understood, when we did our best to make ourselves understood.

A bottle of sweet Korean plum wine was brought out, and generous glasses were poured for us. We drank as politely as we knew how and thanked them. They called us beautiful in return.

Their hospitality, coupled with their curiosity, was greater than our thanks.

More questions. More wine. We shared our lives with each other over our meals with what little communication we had available to us. One of the women went into the house portion of the restaurant and brought us rice cakes. Then apples. Then crunchy, nutty burnt rice. We accepted everything they gave us — it’s rude not to — and even had food to take home the next morning. “Breakfast apple!” I said in Korean, entirely unsure as to how to format “I will eat this apple for breakfast tomorrow morning” into a complete sentence.

After a long while, once the restaurant had closed and all other patrons had left, we stood up to leave. Our new friends stood up with us.

“If you see us, come by and bow and say hello,” they said, smiling. We paid. It was cheap; we hadn’t been charged for anything except the soup we ordered.

Then, the old waitress pulled me gently into her arms. Her skin was papery smooth against mine as she hugged me goodbye.

The two women hugged all of us in turn, and our new grandfather smiled and waved, pinned in behind the table on the floor. I bowed deeply, a sweeping angle from my hips, and thanked them profusely.

I left the restaurant, my mind a storm of swirled feelings.

Very easily, I could have been born non-white, or into a Christian household. I could have been born into a war or famine ravaged place. I could have been devastatingly poor, or with debilitating medical problems, or any of the other myriad of factors that would mean I am less blessed than I am now.

Sometimes, I see these people on the news. Their paper facts are similar to mine: they too have left their homes in search of something else, but that is where the parallel ends.

I could be trying to enter the United States instead of having left it behind. My language levels could be shunned, or mocked, instead of celebrated. I could be berated for my physical appearance, scorned for the religion that I received almost as a birthright. I could be unwelcomed at restaurants, be told to go home, live in fear.

Instead, I am poured a drink and told to visit often.

I only wish it were the same for others.

Sausage Party

I recently took a trip to Germany, the land of sausage, beer, and, subsequently, fairy tales. It is the first item on the list that truly has my heart, especially the dried variety the French call saucisson sec that is made to last for many months, yet still delightfully retains its meaty, slightly fatty flavor much better than anything that has been kept in the basement that long, and with less complaining.

Thus, upon my return to my current home in the Eastern hemisphere I dumped everything in my suitcase out – clothes, shoes, Fabergé eggs – in order to make room for this delightful treat. I was determined to pack as much meat candy as I possibly could cram into my suitcase and illegally smuggle in my carry on through customs.

My mother seemed concerned as I tossed my grandmother’s diamond bracelet she received at her wedding from a now-dead grandfather over my shoulder into the rubbish pile. She pursed her lips.

“Autumn,” she said gently, as though talking to a nervous stallion, yet unbroken by man, “don’t they have sausage in Korea?”

My eyes glazed over as thickly and surely as though they had been pushed under the Krispy Kreme doughnut machine as my mind hurled into a violent, triggering flashback that no mortal should be made to suffer.

 

I have been living in Korea for over a year now and have still not grown used to their sausage — and nor will I.

There are two options to be found here: soondae, which consists mainly of blood-soaked glass noodles with meat and spices in an intestinal casing (which, to be fair, is delicious in its own right, despite its inability to fill my sausage needs), or else the pale, flaccid monstrosity which can be best described as flavored sausage snack.

The flavored sausage snack (FSS for short, from now on) is roughly the same color as the underside of my arm: a sickly pale, yellow that comes from being away from good Lord’s light for too long. It is the bastard child of fish and cheese that nobody asked for, yet, much as a maggot seeks the innards of a corpse, came to be nestled close to the hearts of the Korean people.

A so-called friend gave me my first FSS, as I finished class one day. She was munching happily on what I assumed was a slightly expired string cheese. Having recently graduated college, my immune system was up and ready to take on whatever stupid thing I decided to consume next.

I took a tentative bite. The texture was strange, but not entirely unpleasant — it was a bit like a cheap cheese parents would feed to an offspring they didn’t like much. The taste was a bit stranger – vaguely fishy, but the texture feeling so violently incorrect for cheese that it was difficult to process.

“What is this?” I asked, a sense of dread beginning to tingle at the base of my spine.

“Sausage, silly!” she chirped happily, taking another bite of her own. I resisted the urge to smack it out of her hand. Oh god, it has cancer in it, I found myself desperately thinking as I the rubbery fishy cheesy sausage product disappeared behind her yet youthful lips.

Fortunately, she did not die. Unfortunately, she also has yet to begin to display the fantastic X-Men powers I was sure would develop from such an encounter.

Unless, of course, they did.

Back in the ‘90s, Korea was still receiving Peace Corps aid. They were a poor country, with no real natural resources. Why have they been so successful?  Does it have to do with the consumption of this mysterious sausage snack? I’m not willing to test it out.

The Glory of the Walmart

When living abroad, one starts to celebrate the simple, mundane things of life back home.

It begins with the little things. You revert to an infancy of knowing how to adult, and must therefore re-learn how to do all of the things your parents assured you at age six were perfectly legal and that you should not call CPS for: how to do laundry without flooding the room and the apartment below you; how to mail a letter in under two hours without having anyone call the cops; how to receive important-looking mail with lots of numbers on it and wondering is this a bill, how do I pay it, and if I don’t figure any of that out how long until they shut off my power and fetch the pitchforks?

Before moving abroad, those things were simple to me, if only because I understood the instructions, written in glorious, glorious English. Now, every time I go to pay my bills, I could be signing away my vital organs every time and would be none the wiser until I woke up in an ice tub with a message written in lipstick across the mirror.

If you were to talk to most expats like myself, though, it’s not things like knowing how internet banking works that they miss the most. Instead, for virtually every long-term expat it boils down to the food, and thus, what is available that appeases their native cultural palette. It was only after nearly a year of living abroad the second time that I began to fantasize about the many virtues of the common Walmart.

Walmart is not often spoken highly of by people whose parents are not also first cousins. These blue-and-gray cement structures, decorated by an enslaved smiley face whose all-seeing eye reigns over the American populace, dot the landscape of my native soil as surely and proudly as helicopter parents at a PTA meeting. They offer everything from forty-six varieties of scented candles (now available in scents such as “Divorce Papers” and “Laundered Sweater”), one hundred and fourteen different DVDs – all of them featuring that majestic pinnacle of American comedy,  Adam Sandler  – in the five dollar bargain bin, and, my favorite, at least five different kinds of hard cheese.

Cheese is really hard to come by where I live. Last Thursday, while weeping gently, I shelled out nearly eight dollars for a small tub of sub-par ricotta. There is no chevre, no gruyere, no muenster, no block of aged parmesan to be found. Instead, there exist only those green plastic shake containers that one needs an ice pick for when all of the cheese suddenly decides to clump together into a massive, lumpy stone.

At “the Walmart” as people in my native South like to bandy about, there are other fantastic items such nineteen kinds of microwavable pork rinds, thirty-six different varieties of instant macaroni and cheese, all promising to look like cartoon characters but end up looking more like nuclear fallout characters (especially with the unnatural orange glow), two thousand and sixteen kinds of frozen dinners that have the charming ability to be burnt on the outside and frozen in the middle, forty-nine kinds of congealed canned soup, and approximately four different fresh vegetables.

It is, in summary, the pinnacle of the average American diet.

I know, upon returning home, that I am likely to try to venture to Walmart, see one kid on a leash being dragged around by an obese woman on her mobility scooter buying nine bottles of soda, and turn my Achilles’ heel to get my ‘Murica fix somewhere that doesn’t have a website dedicated to the questionable wardrobe choices of their patronage. But until then, it remains in my mind as the quintessential eighth wonder of the world.