Freezing and hungry as I made my way back to the train station last night, the smell of kimchi jjiggae stopped me in my tracks and lured me into a little station eatery for some hot, comforting goodness.
I am comfortable here now. I can hop on and off the subway in various cities with no need to pause and check the map to figure out which transfer to make. I can buy my tickets or withdraw cash at machines without needing an English option. And perhaps most importantly, I can walk confidently into a Korean diner with no foreigners in sight, sit down, scan the menu for what I want, order, locate the chopsticks and spoons, know that the water is self-service and that the tumblers are in a little sterilizing cupboard thingy somewhere, and eat alone without worrying about what to do or how my chopsticks skills are being judged. It has been well over a year since a waitress felt the need to rush over to me with a fork.
The scowling ajumma (for they are always scowling… I believe I’d feel a little cheated if one smiled at the customers) brought me my stew and rice, and I inhaled deeply as I became momentarily enveloped in a cloud of kimchi-scented steam from the bubbling, boiling jjiggae in the familiar black earthenware bowl. I put in my earphones and let an episode of Frasier entertain me as I ate.
When I was almost finished, I felt a tap on my arm and looked up to see a woman in her forties mouthing ‘excuse me’. I pulled out my earphones and swallowed my mouthful of soup, looking inquiringly at her.
“Excuse me,” she said earnestly, “do you like Korean food?”
I looked briefly at my table, the side dishes of kimchi, pickled radish cubes, and squid all now empty, the bowl of jjiggae almost finished, the last square of tofu poised in my chopsticks. “Ew, dear lord, no!” I almost replied. Seriously, it was right there on the tip of my tongue. “I would not touch Korean food, how could you suggest such a preposterous and disgusting thing?”
“Yes,” I replied with a sweet smile. “I love Korean food.”
She giggled behind her hand, going “ohhhhh… wowwww!”, and then bowed respectfully to me before saying “thank you, goodnight!” and leaving.
I still think these moments are ridiculous and incomprehensible. I find the attention bemusing. But in a strange, inexplicable way, they have become part of my familiar, ‘normal’ daily life in Korea, and I know that when I leave I will look back on them with a fond shake of the head and a laugh rather than with irritation or annoyance.
I worry sometimes about getting stuck in Korea, never moving on. But however comfortable I’ve become, I will never ‘belong’ here… and these little moments remind me of that in the nicest possible way.
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