Bibimbap became one of my favorite go to dishes in South Korea. I’m bummed that I can’t find my pictures from when I was living there, BUT I’m so fortunate to have amazing Korean food at my fingertips in ATX. Like THIS bowl of deliciousness right here. I had a night out at Korea House with some of my favorite boss ladies last week and it was soooo good. The hot stone bowl created a crispy, crunchy layer of rice that perfectly rounded out its runny egg yolk perfection. I couldn’t get it in my belly fast enough!
I made my way through the baggage claim of an airport that I couldn’t actually pronounce the name of, looking for the recruiter that was supposed to meet me. She’d told me that her English name was Honey, and soon enough I spotted a super smiley woman waving and excitedly beckoning me over. She took my hands in hers, and squeezing them tightly, welcomed me to Korea. I immediately liked her. Her friendly energy helped put my nerves at ease, and I was more than happy to let her lead me out of the airport and into a taxi.
As we were driving, I stared out at the smoggy skyline and wondered how long it would be before I could eat and sleep. Honey was describing the school where I’d be teaching, and she was very curious about Texas. I think I might have been a bit of a disappointment though, when she discovered I didn’t live up to any of the typical Texas stereotypes. Nope, didn’t grow up on a ranch. Nope, didn’t know how to ride a horse. And nope, didn’t own a pair of cowboy boots. She said “oh” very slowly, and I racked my brain for anything I could offer to prove I’m a true Texan, but after nearly 30 hours of travel my bandwidth for small talk was rapidly diminishing. Honey took care of that though, shocking the jet lag right out of me with some declarative questions about my weight. What?!!
I tried to hide my surprise, but I doubt I did a very good job, because she quickly clarified that she was genuinely impressed that as an American and a Texan I was not in her estimation “overweight.” It was my first – definitely not my last-experience with someone openly assessing my body in the same way you might observe a friend’s new haircut. I was pretty taken aback and sort of nervously laughed as I tried to digest my new friend Honey’s evaluation of my body, stated without a trace of ill intent.
I think it’s an unfortunate and frustrating aspect of most women’s lives that our bodies are treated as separate entities from our intellect and emotions, like our bodies are vacant properties that others collectively own the right to comment on, critique, or question. That of course is a separate tangent for another time, so for now I’ll just say that even though I was caught off guard and irritated, I figured out that Honey was not trying to insult or compliment me. She was simply stating her observation, as if she was commenting on the weather. Thankfully her phone rang, and that ended the awkward silence that was slowly taking over our taxi.
After a short conversation and hanging up, Honey said something to the driver and pointed up ahead. Nodding, he pulled over on the side of the highway. Honey looked at me with a huge smile and told me it was time for us to get out. As the driver unloaded my bags on the shoulder next to a makeshift construction barrier, I grew concerned. I kept looking around, trying to see if this was somehow where the school or my apartment was, but there was nothing. No urban buildings, just the rural stretch of highway on which I was now standing next to my suitcases. Honey paid the driver and stood next to me, smiling and waving as he drove away.
I began to consider that this was quite possibly how my life was going to end. It seemed that my kidnapping and/or murder was imminent. I sized Honey up. Was her happy demeanor more diabolical than kind? Had I totally misread her? Could I outrun her? But where would I run to? Perhaps sensing my distress, she pat my arm and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. “We wait now,” she said brightly, “Winnie is coming.”
Sure enough, about five minutes later, Winnie pulled up in a little Hyundai, jumped out and introduced herself. She was Honey’s colleague, there to take us the rest of the way to my new home in Eonyang. I was so relieved I hugged her, which I think caught her off guard, because she burst out laughing and covered her mouth with both hands. When she had recovered, the three of us did our best to stuff my bags into her car and we piled in around them. They explained that Eonyang was a suburb on the outskirts of Ulsan and that it wouldn’t take us that much longer to get there.
The “suburb” where I was going to be teaching and living actually turned out to be a small village nestled in a valley between mountains. It was beautiful and lush, but without many conveniences. It was so small, I could actually walk without much effort wherever I needed to go, and the school that I taught at was less than half a mile down the road from my apartment, which was adorable. It was a studio with a decent kitchenette and tons of natural light. Besides the wall of windows, my favorite feature was the heated floors. I learned to love turning on the heat so I could lie flat on the floor like it was a full body heating pad. I miss those floors, especially after an intense gym class. Foam rolling is not nearly as fun or relaxing.
Honey and Winnie showed me where the Hagwon, or private “cram” school was that I’d be teaching at and told me I’d report there on Monday. They left me with a used blue and silver Samsung flip phone and said they’d call to check in with me on Sunday. Once they left, it dawned on me how very alone I was in my new little home. Without Honey and Winnie’s bubbly and friendly chatter, I feared the next two days were going to be dauntingly quiet and claustrophobic.
Not wanting to feel like I was hiding in my apartment, I decided I could kill some time by finding food. Plus eating always makes everything better, so I ventured out and found a small grocery store about a block away. I roamed the 3 or 4 aisles, searching for anything that looked familiar. There were whole squid slowly squirming between their foam tray and shrink wrap packaging, which I stared at for a good while. Eventually I found dry spaghetti, olive oil, and pine nuts. I figured I could make a basic pasta. I also found huge bunches of bananas, from which I broke off a chunk of five. I have a very weird relationship with bananas. I don’t like their texture or the way they smell, but my body craves them. I think my blood sugar feels more stable when I eat one, so I eat at least one a day. Finding them in that little store made my heart happy.
The cashier kept her eyes on me as she scanned my items, and two older gentlemen near her stopped their conversation and stared as well. I smiled and nodded in what I hoped was a confident and friendly manner, but my heart was pounding and I was starting to have hot flashes. That’s when the very fierce, no nonsense, cashier shook her head and clucked at me, moving my bananas off to the side. At that point I really needed to eat a banana away from all foreign stimulation. And sleep. I needed to sleep in a bed.
I reached for them, but she stopped me. “Aniyo!” she scolded me, crossing her arms in an X in front of her body. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I felt like I was in trouble. The men were chuckling, and the cashier was not amused. I was determined though, so I found my way back to the produce, broke off an even smaller bunch, and made my way back to the checkout. “Aniyo!” she cried, taking the bananas from me and slapping my hand. Twice. All I could do was laugh in astonishment that I was being slapped because of bananas by a very mafiaesque boss lady grandma. I was embarrassed but committed, so we just stared at each other. I pointed to the bananas and made a prayer sign with my hands. Then she mimed that I couldn’t break the bunches of bananas apart. Yep, I was the most incompetent grocery shopper in Korea. I obviously “saved face” by buying the entire bunch of 15-20 bananas, where I then returned to my apartment to eat them, the men’s laughter following me on my way.