After fourteen years living in South Korea, it's finally time for me to say goodbye. When you move to a different country, it's harder than you think to anticipate all of the little things you're going to miss from back home. I don't think I've ever thought about an artichoke until I saw a jar of artichoke hearts in Costco. I knew then that I would be eating the shit out of some artichokes when I got home.
But I owe my host country a farewell blog post, and this is as good an idea for one as I can think of. It's by no means a comprehensive list, because we're moving tomorrow, and things are a little hectic right now. In no particular order...
Korean food has been gaining international attention and popularity in recent years. There is a wider variety of food here than most people realize, which my friend, Joe McPherson blogs bout on his website. (While I'm plugging him, I should mention that he's opening an Alabama-style pulled-pork BBQ pub. Good luck, Joe!)
But this entry isn't about me plugging Joe or pulling his pork. It isn't even about the wide variety of Korean food available here. There are a few dishes I'll miss in particular, and they all involve meat, whether it's beef, pork, or chicken, served raw and grilled at the table.
It's more than a means to fill your belly with meat. It's a social experience for you and those you share a table with.
And yeah, I'll miss kimchi as well. Before moving to Korea, I've always seen cabbage as boiled mushy horribleness that I'm supposed to eat on New Year's Day. But it doesn't have to be. It can be tangy and spicy and crunchy and wonderful if given a chance.
And while I hear more and more people who've never been to Korea say that they enjoy kimchi, I say you can't know its true awesomeness potential until you throw some of that shit on the grill and let it fry in the melting pork fat.
I won't miss:
Koreans are a proud people, and they like to sing their country's praises. Perhaps the most curious, yet ubiquitous, praise they like to sing is that Korea has four distinct seasons.
I guess if you're the sort of person who gets excited about seasonal change, Korea will not let you down. But I'm a summer person. Autumn can be pretty, and spring carries with it the promise of summer on the way, but winter can eat a dick as far as I'm concerned.
I hate being cold. I hate all the hassle of putting on and taking off layers of clothes. I hate having to wear socks. I want to wear as little clothing as the law and my own insecurities allow all year round.
We're moving to Gulf Coast Mississippi, where the three inferior seasons are typically wrapped up in a few weeks' time.
Given the minimal amount of research I did before coming to Korea, all I really knew about the place was that they ate dogs and made terrible porn. I'd never been outside of the United States before, and had no idea what to expect from this strange new land. But I was ready for adventure. I was ready to have my mind blown by the unfamiliarity of it all.
Upon arriving, the drive from the airport to Uijeongbu, the city where I spent my first two years here, was underwhelming. The highways looked just like American highways, right down to the same shade of green on the signs.
I don't know what kind of mind-blowing differences I was expecting in road signs, but it was kind of a long drive, and that's all I had to look at.
I spent a lot more of my early time here amazed at how familiar things were than how bizarre and unusual they were. But every culture has its eccentricities, and over time, I came to be charmed by some of Korea's. This could be an entire blog post on its own, but as it isn't, I'm going to limit myself to three examples.
1. Toilet paper as a housewarming gift.
If someone you know moves to a new apartment, it's the custom to give them a massive package of toilet paper rolls.
A cubic meter of ass wipe isn't just a common housewarming gift. It's THE gift to give. You can bring a wine rack or a fancy cutting board if you want, and it will be warmly received, but you might feel uncomfortable being the only one not satisfying the insatiable demands of your friend's bunghole.
2. Spam is sold in fancy gift boxes.
Spam, that canned meat that's more punchline than foodstuff, is not only widely consumed by Koreans, it's proudly done so. Koreans love Spam more than the vikings in that Monty Python sketch. On Korea's two biggest holidays, Chuseok and the Lunar New Year, supermarket shelves will be filled with gift boxes of a food that you might be embarrassed to have people see in your shopping cart.
3. If you're opening a new business...
I opened a small, ill-fated English-teaching school a few years back, and my Korean family celebrated our Grand Opening as you might expect. We ate. We drank. We bowed before a severed pig's head and stuffed money into every orifice in its lifeless, decaying face.
Our offerings were apparently deemed insufficient, as my little business venture flopped. But it was worth it just to be made aware that this is something that people actually do.
I won't miss:
Every culture has their own unique customs and traditions for one of humanity's most sacred and joyous of institutions. Korea is no exception. A traditional Korean wedding is a strange and beautiful experience to behold.
So what's the problem?
Almost nobody here has a traditional Korean wedding. The overwhelming majority of couples (my wife and I included) opt for the "wedding hall" ceremony.
I don't have any hard facts to back me up, but I'm convinced this trend started when the evil Minister of Weddings clubbed a Korean tourist over the head after he walked out of some Hollywood movie featuring a wedding.
It almost qualifies as parody. All of your friends and family crowd into a room of a building specifically designed to crap out factory weddings. The groom is in a tuxedo, the bride in a white dress. Words are spoken, yadda yadda yadda. And then they roll out a multi-tiered plastic cake. The top tier is an actual cake... with fucking candles in it. (I'm not making this up.)
Depending on the place, there may be fog or bubble machines involved, or even young women dressed like Renaissance-era European soldiers holding swords for the newlywed couple to exit under, after the bride throws her bouquet of fake flowers to a predetermined friend or relative. Seriously, she's standing apart from the rest of the single ladies present, and the bride just tosses it directly to her.
Then all of the guests hurry downstairs to the cafeteria, where they enjoy a buffet of lackluster food and room-temperature booze while the bride and groom change into traditional Korean clothing for their wedding photos, so they can forever treasure their fake memories.
This isn't to say that I plan to quit drinking upon my move to the US. Quite the contrary, I expect future episodes of Authors & Dragons will be positively affected by me being in the same evening time zone as the rest of the group (except for Steve, who will continue to be properly shitfaced at 1AM in the UK).
But there are some things I like about drinking in Korea specifically. Here are a few...
1. If you need to get shitfaced as cheaply as possible, Korea's got you covered.
“Here’s to a night of bad decisions.”
Are you a degenerate on a budget? Have I got the drink for you! Korea's booze of choice, soju, is dirt cheap. Memories of your poor life choices can be temporarily suppressed while you make brand new ones, just for a couple of bucks.
But soju isn't just a drink. It's cheap and powerful enough to be used as a cleaner. I've honestly witnessed a restaurant employee screw a spray-bottle attachment onto a bottle of soju and clean extra-greasy tabletops with it.
2. Pitcher bottles.
While I appreciate saving a buck as much as anyone, being a husband and father have made me start appreciating less tangible things, like knowing what my name is and where my pants are. So I generally stick to beer these days.
Many people I've met over the years turn their nose up at Korean beer, but I find it gets the job done just fine for me, and have even developed a preference for OB as my poison of choice.
I won't have any trouble switching over to whatever brand of beer is on sale at Walmart, but I will miss these big plastic bottles. I don't know why. They're cheaper per volume, which is nice, but it also allows me to maintain the illusion of self-control, being able to drink as much or as little as I want to without committing to another full can or serving-sized glass bottle.
3. Drinking outside isn't just for hobos.
Who doesn't like to sit outside of a 7-11 and enjoy a cold beer on a hot summer day? Here in Korea, that's not only legal, it's encouraged. The convenience stores here have tables and chairs set up outside so that they double as lesser bars.
They stock both beer and soju. So pull up a plastic chair, crack open a can, and try to avoid openly weeping. Who knows? You might even make a friend.
4. None for the road.
Korea is a small country with a shitload of people. Consequently, most of those people live in high-rise apartment buildings. This is one of our reasons for wanting to move. We want a backyard for our kids to play in. We don't want them to have to mind their every step, lest the crazy lady downstairs come knocking on our door because of all the "noise" they're making. And these apartments aren't cheap. For the same price as a single unit, I could buy a house in Mississippi to live in, plus two or three rental houses.
And it would be nice to be able to look out my window and maybe see a hummingbird feeding in my garden, or a couple of squirrels scurrying up the trunk of a tree, or really anything at all but this...
But this human beehive lifestyle is not without its benefits, especially for someone who likes to drink.
If you live outside of a major city in the United States, and you want to go to a bar, you're probably limited to three shitty options.
1. Call a taxi, which might cost more than you spend on booze.
2. Assign a designated driver, if you can find someone who doesn't want to drink, but does want to watch you and your other friends gradually turn into obnoxious assholes.
3. Drive drunk.
But here in Korea, with everything and everyone piled on top of each other, you're never more than a five-minute walk from a place to drink. (And if you choose to go farther, taxis are way cheaper.)
And thus concludes the final C&C blog post coming to you from Korea. See you on the other side.