Recently I had an amazing meal and I can say with certainty I will never have it again.Let me explain. I took a bus into Seoul intending to have Turkish food (hey, you can only eat one kind of food so long without a break!) but I could not find the restaurant. Instead I passed Cunga Conga Fresh African Café and could not resist. African food in the center of Seoul? The menu was entirely in Korean, except for “Creamed Corn Tortilla”. It didn’t sound African, but it was not Korean either, so I ordered it.
I was served a plate of salad - thinly sliced cabbage, covered with an American overlay of iceberg lettuce, one cherry tomato and a slice of cucumber with French dressing. On a separate plate were slices of pickled cucumber and pickled radish - very Korean. My main meal was four creamed corn tortillas, a mound of bright red East African beef and berebere sauce, a small scoop of rice with peas and carrots, a little pile of jalapeno peppers, a little pile of corn, and a collection of spicy baby shrimp. Lettuce and sliced tomato were served on the side.
As I said I’ll never see anything like it again and every piece of it was tasty. But all food here has been extremely good. Korea itself is global in a way I cannot yet explain clearly, yet it also has deeply rooted food traditions.
In general there are three kinds of food here: Korean, American, and other (usually Japanese). This was reflected in my students’ answers to my question, “What is your favorite food?” Top three answers: pizza, sushi and Korean food. Increasingly they might add coffee and donuts.
Typical Korean meals always include rice, soup, kimchee (pickled cabbage in any of 100 forms), and 3-4 other dishes. At a “traditional” Korean restaurant (where people go for special occasions like welcoming the new American professor), one is served 4-5 dishes to start and then dishes are brought until the table is completely full. If you finish one, it is removed and another takes its place. Dishes might include grilled mackerel (whole with bones - really difficult when you are newly armed with metal chopsticks), 3-4 kinds of kimchee, 2 kinds of baked tofu, sesame oil on seaweed, Korean style pancake, 2 or 3 kinds of chicken and rice soup, sliced pork which is eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with soybean sauce, pickled radishes, tiny green leaves with tiny garlic cloves, hot red peppers in sauce - the list goes on and on.
I quickly learned to pace myself, try everything, and then eat seconds of whatever tasted best (except the mackerel - I now avoid all foods with little fish bones until I am in the privacy of my own apartment and can pick out the bones with my fingers). None of the foods are particularly hot to my tastebuds but other people tell me some of the food is fiery. I can believe it given all the hot peppers I’ve seen drying this month (see photo).
Yet there is great variety. I have discovered a “traditional Korean porridge restaurant” that I like very much. In one variety of “juk” (porridge) rice is pulverized, creamed and mixed with winter squash for a sweet, smooth dish. In another the rice is cooked in chicken broth until it has the texture of grits. Then it is combined with a ginseng root, a jujube fruit, and a half dozen chopped green things (see photo - the things on the side are bossum [boiled meat], daikon radish, a spicy eggplant dish, and kimchee). At another Korean restaurant, our table had a charcoal grill in the center where we grilled bits of duck and then ate them in lettuce leaves with 3 or 4 different sauces and vegetables. We pulled aluminum-foil wrapped sweet potatoes out of the coals as our second course.
I have not yet tried the pizza so I cannot vouch for its authenticity, but I have had great sushi at two different places. Whelk, mollusk, sea urchin and abalone are not on my usual sushi menu, but they were good, if a bit chewy. For dessert I’ve learned to love these delectable “rice cakes,” (ddoek) filled with or rolled in fruits and nuts. They are soft, chewy, a bit sticky, but not overly sweet - really addictive (see photo).
As long as I can eat well, life is good. I don’t always know what I’m eating, but I just see that as part of the adventure. I’ll try to include more food photos another time, but I am rather conspicuous as it is, so taking public photos of what I’m eating is tough! However, a friend has volunteered to give me Korean cooking lessons soon, so I’ll be sure to ask for a close up picture of Beth and the bulgogi (marinated BBQ beef). Mashikke tuseyo!
September 12, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
I think anyone who travels to a foreign country at some point asks the question, “Why am I here?” Perhaps they do not ask it in week two of a 40 week stay, but after 5 straight days of rain and three days of trying to arrange an internet connection with minimal Korean, I am asking.
The easy answer is that I have always wanted to live in another country, experience another culture, and the Fulbright program gave me that chance, complete with safety net. The Fulbright Program was established after World War II to promote international peace and understanding through academic exchanges and I am proud to continue that tradition in my small way. Rather than being a tourist, I get to be a productive member of South Korean society, supported by the U.S. State Department, the Korean American Educational Commission, and Pyeongtaek University.
My official duties are remarkably light. I teach one course this semester - Race and Gender in American Society - and I am currently setting up two study groups where students can meet with me once a week, talk about America and practice their English. Students are hungry for chances to speak English with a native speaker (though less hungry to ruin their GPA by actually taking my class!).
What I’m finding, however, is that my unofficial duty is to talk with people - to be a civilian American in South Korea. To listen when a faculty member takes the risk of speaking English to a stranger and tell them honestly that I understood every word. To share that Americans are even more afraid than Koreans to speak a foreign language with native speakers. To explain what Americans mean by “Asian” to people who have been controlled and invaded by China and Japan and thus do not see themselves as inherently similar to either.
Personally, my job is to experience - to simply experience. That is hard for a type A personality, always focused on the outcome, the product, the result. So I went to Seoul last weekend because I wanted to “check off” some of the places on my list of things to see - Namsangol’s Choson dynasty houses, Myeong-dong Catholic Cathedral, and Doksugun, one of 5 Royal palaces in the city. I walked a city of 9 million people (and far too many cars!) and gawked. Four lane highways packed with cars, twisting alleys full of shops, and everywhere, people breaking into English to help me find my way.
Other than a family from India and a couple from Germany, I was the only non-Asian I saw all day. Thousands of school children in identical uniforms, dozens of older men and women out walking in the rain, a few young couples (probably tourists from other Asian nations), but no single caucasian women. People stared openly until I greeted them with Annyeong Haseyo (hello) and then they broke into smiles and bowed. School children, male and female, giggled and practiced their English: “American?” “photo please!” “Good morning - how are you doing?”.
I realized that at least for some people that day I _was_ the experience. Even as I played tourist, my willingness to be stared at, to stop and speak English, to try speaking Korean - all mattered in a way I had never expected. I was told often before I left the United States ” to simply be open to the experience. It is not what you accomplish there, it is who you are that matters.” So I am being me. For the moment, that is why I am here.
September 5, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
You have all been very kind reading through my word-laden posts. Here is a post that is almost all pictures. I can now call this “my University” since I received my formal temporary appointment from the President yesterday (and I could read my name in hangul on the certificate!). I hope the pictures convey how beautiful it is here.
This is the main administrative building. My office is on the fourth floor.
This is my office, complete with desk, table for six, chairs, a bookcase, computer, two large windows, and air conditioning. Faculty here buy their own printers - I’m still working on that one.
This is the view from my office. This is the central square. The building across the way has many uses, but I use the cafeteria. To the right is the library.
Here are two views of the humanities and social sciences building, where the American Studies (Miguk Hak) Department is located, along with my classroom. I love these trees.
This is my classroom, complete with computer and LCD projector. The computer interface is completely in hangul, but microsoft office is so standardized, I navigate completely by habit, rather than language.
Here are two views of Pierson Hall, the oldest building on campus. The building was originally built in Seoul in 1915 when the University was first founded. At that time it was the tallest building in Seoul. It was moved, brick by brick, to this campus.
I’ll post more pictures of campus another time, but that should give you a sense of the place.
September 4, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
I read a poem recently which began,
“When everything is hieroglyphic,
the back of a cereal box,
the long advertisement on the side of a blue bus,
and even the road sign with the red arrow pointing to something I cannot read,….” (Carmen Acevedo, “The American in October,” The Korea Fulbright Review, Summer 2006, p. 59).
This is how I feel. Hangul, the Korean alphabet developed in the 1500s, is still mostly Greek to me. Last week I spent an hour translating the buttons on the washing machine. (Those of you who know me well will recognize I did this after I turned it on to see what would happen.)
At the supermarket, I buy food using Holmesian deduction and the occasional words in English. One box of “plum tea” turned out to contain long green packets of white powder. Ground, sweetened, instant tea maybe? I’m getting that one translated before I try any!
The eye is assaulted in Korea by signage. Every possible urban space has a sign. Think working class liquor store in the United States and then plaster a few more signs for the right effect.
And the worst of it? I cannot read them. I am surrounded by an entire country trying to draw me in, inform me, tempt me, enlighten me and I am like a solid, unyielding wall. Slowly, slowly I begin to recognize patterns, like a child first understanding that c and a and t form that warm, fuzzy, purring thing that sleeps on their bed.
My business cards have my name in hangul. It is only slowly looking familiar. Most of your computers probably won’t read the next line, but here is Beth Salerno in hangul: 베스살레르노
I do not want to be an ugly American so I try to use my pitiful Korean at the supermarket and in restaurants. Usually I get a barrage of Korean in return and since I only understand a word or two, I have to fall back on pantomime. It is very isolating - how does one shop or go out to eat when you cannot read, speak, or understand? So each night I try to learn a few more words and constructions and I try to psyche myself up to take risks. Mostly I smile and nod, silently, as I walk through a linguistically incomprehensible world, excited when I see or hear something I know. It isn’t so bad though - it forces you to pay attention to what is happening, rather than what you are hearing or reading. Maybe that is the gift of being “other” for a while.
Add comment August 29, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
A Weekend of Shopping
All of us have been there before. You move to a new apartment and suddenly you need a bunch of things. So this weekend I spent most of my days shopping in a foreign world.First there was the bus. A colleague had driven me along the bus route and explained the process, so catching the bus was no problem. For a dollar I rode the entire 45 minute distance from one end of the line to the other. Kids as young as eight rode the bus alone (probably headed home from Saturday classes). I soon gave up watching out the front window since the bus cleared parked and passing cards with millimeters to spare. Ppalli ppalli - quick, quick - is the watchword in Korea.
My first stop was Songtang. This is a shopping district by Osan Air Force Base. They cater to American service personnel, and this Saturday it was hard to hear Korean spoken on the very busy streets. The shops were tucked into every possible building, so you stepped up or down or through archways to get in. Stores sold what you would expect - cigarettes, alcohol, military uniforms, souvenirs - and what you might not - puppies and “fiancé finery”. I bought a used cell phone (my very first!) and some calling cards. Now I just need to find a smart 10 year old to program the phone since it came without directions - and will only talk to me in Korean. [Sorry not to have pictures from here - it takes most of my focus to simply get from point A to B at the moment.]
My last stop was E-mart. Imagine a Walmart supercenter - two huge floors including a full supermarket, appliance section, and food court. The store was absolutely packed. The Korean tendency to leave the barest minimum of space between people in a crowd meant one could not be distracted by the amazing sights for an instant without crashing.
However I was most amazed by the shopping carts. In Korea, all shopping cart wheels go in the same direction - even moving sideways with perfect smoothness. I could even take the cart on the “escalator” up to the second floor. Think of the moving walkways in airports and then angle it upward. The cart wheels are magnetized so the cart held perfectly steady despite heading uphill.
I now have a fan (thank goodness - the weather is still in the 90s with 80% humidity). And I have a sense of accomplishment, having managed two major shopping trips without international incident. Now I can face the next task on the list - my first class meets on Wednesday.
2 comments August 27, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
Apartment living in Pyeongtaek
It is my second morning in Pyeongtaek. As I did yesterday, I am sitting on my “porch”, a small room divided from the bedroom by sliding glass doors and from the outside by glass, screens, and a barred railing. The view out the window is a microcosm of Korea. To my far right are the tall buildings of the university and downtown Pyeongtaek. Closer to the right are neatly divided fields of rice and an irrigation canal spanned by a small white bridge (see photo).
Each morning one or two men in Wellingtons and overalls have come and picked something from the truck garden bordering the rice fields, but from seven stories up I cannot tell what they are harvesting.
Straight ahead of me is a Presbyterian Church. At night the three crosses on top glow with bright red neon, a common sight across Korea. It is too hazy today for a picture, but far behind the church are two small mountains which I think mark the border of the province.
At the far left is an apartment building exactly like mine. There are 21 stories in each building and there are 15 or 20 of the buildings in this complex. In the courtyards are arbor-covered picnic tables and playgrounds, little nooks of green that turn cramped quarters into friendly spaces.
There are 45 million people in South Korea, which is the size of the state of Indiana. That so many rice fields, truck farms and pear orchards continue to exist speaks both to how recently Korea has urbanized and how little physical space each person needs to live. My apartment is spacious by traditional Korean standards.
Three feet inside the front door there is a step which symbolizes the entry to the house. Everyone takes off their shoes before climbing this step (I of course completely forgot when I got here - I was carrying luggage - and I was politely reminded). From there one can turn left into a little “front room” which at the moment is mostly empty except for the microwave, toaster oven and rice cooker (I think the first two were provided specifically for the American).
If one heads straight from the door you walk through the galley kitchen. It includes a double sink, three burner stove and refrigerator, and plenty of storage space. A small alcove has a table and two chairs (again I think provided specifically for the American).
At this point you can turn left into a tiny divided room. The front half has a washing machine. Sliding frosted glass doors allow entry to the bathroom.
A brief explanation of the bathroom is necessary since it helps explain a great deal about Korea. Look at the pictures.
You will notice that the medicine cabinet has a glass front - there seem to be few secrets in a Korean bathroom. The sink is only about 5 inches above my knee, a reminder that until very recently average Koreans were far shorter than Americans. Note that the electrical outlet and toilet paper holder are covered.
When you combine these odd facts with the frosted doors and the thus far complete lack of mention of a shower, you will have the dawning awareness I did my first evening here - the bathroom IS the shower. There is a drain in the floor and a nozzle with cord on the wall and one learns VERY QUICKLY not to leave anything on the bathroom counter that cannot get wet.
Straight through from the kitchen is the bedroom, the largest room in the house. In a typical Korean home the beds would be rolled up every morning and the room used as workroom, playroom, and living room. In my case there are two western style beds and a low table.
The far bedroom “wall” is glass and leads to the porch, which contains two fascinating features. First a spigot and sprayer which I at first thought was the shower, but the large bank of windows suggested not. It turns out to be a version of the American utility sink, used for cleaning plants, kim chee pots, muddy shoes. The water simply swirls across the tiled floor and down the drain! Near the ceiling is a fascinating contraption which turns out to be the clothes drying rack. It can be lowered for use and raised up out of the way. The doors in the photo can be used to shut the bedroom off from the kitchen but I have not chosen to install them.
The apartment came furnished with sheets, pots, plates and bowls, Korean metal chopstick and spoon sets, and (for the American) two forks. There are no towels however so I am off today with dictionary in hand to see what I can manage. So far it is amazing what one can do with a little polite Korean, a little mangled English and a whole lot of pantomime and good will. The adventure continues….
2 comments August 22, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
It is 3:30 Tuesday morning in the center of Seoul, but my body thinks it is time to be up. In New Hampshire it is 4:30 pm (correction: 2:30 pm - Korea is 13 hours ahead) and many of you are thinking about what is for dinner, while I am wondering whether I’m having kimchee and rice for breakfast! Someday I may get there, but right now a blueberry muffin, a glass of milk and some yogurt sound awfully good.
It was a long trip “yesterday” which actually began at 3 am Sunday when I got up. My travel schedule included a 4 am trip to Manchester airport (I didn’t even know they opened that early!); 6:10 flight to JFK airport in New York (people are remarkably friendly when they share a 6 am flight); 6 hour layover in JFK (what an amazingly HUGE airport); and a 14 1/2 hour flight from JFK to Incheon International Airport outside Seoul.
I can highly recommend Korea Air to anyone who wishes to travel to Asia. When I recently traveled to Hawaii on an American low cost airline, pillows, blankets, headsets, meals and even snacks had to be paid for a la carte. On Korea Air I had a blanket, pillow, headset, access to 37 movies, 100 music channels, televisions shows, news, games and other options in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese - all on demand with my own personal screen. On what other flight could I watch a traditional Korean melodrama and Casablanca back to back? Not to mention being fed about every three hours with food that was actually worth eating and for those who wished, regular infusions of white or red wine.
I am currently housed in the Fulbright Building. The Korean American Educational Commission is the only bi-national Fulbright Commission to own its own building. I expect tomorrow to be busy as I meet the staff and fill out paperwork (with a highly likely middday nap!). By late afternoon, I and my four suitcases (how do you pack a year of your life into 137 pounds?!) will be on the train to Pyeongtaek, my final destination.
With luck once I am settled in I will post some pictures of the area and apartment. Today I just wanted to reassure all friends and family that I have arrived and the adventure continues.
Add comment August 20, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
Introduction: Information for the Curious
Hwanyŏng (welcome!) to my South Korean Fulbright blog. I have not left yet, but I wanted to test out the site by posting an opening message.
My departure date is August 19th, 2007. I am already both excited and homesick. I have spent much of the summer saying goodbye to people, learning basic Korean culture and language, and packing up my belongings. Kamsa hamnida (thank you) to everyone who has been supportive of this year-long adventure. Your encouragement has made it both easier and harder to leave.
Many of you have asked about where I will be teaching in Korea. I will be at Pyeongtaek University, which was founded in 1912 as a Protestant missionary school. It reinvented itself in the 1990s as a national Korean university and its main focus is the creation of global citizens. It has one of only seven American studies programs in the country, which combines the teaching of English with American history, culture and politics (like a French or Spanish major in the United States). All the American Studies Faculty speak English and my courses will be in English. My fall class is Race and Gender in American Society.
The English language website at Pyeongtaek is a little short on basic details like how many students attend. This has made it tough for me to get a sense of the place. However you can get a sense of the history and vision of the school at www.ptu.ac.kr/english/main1/main4.asp They clearly value international perspectives.
For those of you with high speed connections, check out the interactive campus map at the above address. You can click on any building on campus and get a 360 degree view of the campus from that spot. You can also tour the inside of some buildings. I do not yet know which building I will be in, but the International Center and the Humanities and Social Sciences Building are my best guesses.
The city of Pyeongtaek is smaller than I had been led to believe – about 400,000 people. 10,000 of those residents are foreigners (probably due to the presence of a major shipping port, a large American military base, and the University). Pyeongtaek is on the western coast of Korea, about an hour south of Seoul. It is part of a large, flat plain in one of the main agricultural sectors of South Korea. I am told that my University apartment building overlooks extensive rice paddies.
For those who want to know more about the city, please click this link to Pyeongtaek city’s English language website: www.pyeongtaek.go.kr/pub/eng/index.jsp . The “City Guide” section is the most helpful. You can check out the museums, botanic garden, food traditions, and cultural resources. I am sure you will hear more about most of these in future blog posts - especially the food. It may help to know that Korea has cataloged all of their cultural resources, ranging from historic sites (tangible) to pottery glazing techniques and types of dance (intangible). The resources in the Pyeongtaek area are listed under the “cultural resources” section.
I hope to be posting new web log entries once a week once I arrive in South Korea. You are welcome to check back any time and all the entries will be here. If you would like to receive new postings by e-mail, this web log program has a handy “sign up” feature. In the right sidebar of this blog page under the subscriptions section, there is a sign-up box. Simply enter your e-mail address. You can unsubscribe at any time.
Thanks for reading, and I will post next when I arrive in Pyeongtaek!
Add comment July 29, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
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