Korea Part I: Going Home

My brother and I stepped off the plane onto Korean soil on a chilly October evening. Cloud, wind and rain greeted our first return in twenty-three years. Anticipation grew as we fled the gloomy scene of Seoul for Grandma’s, with the sleepy moon shining through the haze.

My family left Yesan, Korea, my birthplace and place of childhood memories, for the States when I was the green age of seven. I used to watch my brother play marbles in the dirt alleyway after we would commence our weekly religious obligations at church. I frequented the corner convenience store for sweet snacks with a pocket of jingling change. In the summer, my parents would take us to the mountains along with our family friends. In the winter, we snagged hot roasted sweet potatoes, grilled file fish jerky and roasted chestnuts from the street vendors. Once in a while our mom would let us eat a hamburger for dinner. We were required to consume it outside though as the cabbage and dressing would ceremoniously fall out of the buns as we happily ate our Western meal wrapped in paper.

We lived right next door to our grandparents. Their backyard was home to a gazebo where I would sit in the summer and play badook on Grandfather’s board. It was home to rows of clay pots holding kimchi, soy sauce, and fermented soybean paste. The soy sauce was made for generations by mixing a bit of the old with the new, passing down a bit of family history in each jar. Meju, fermenting mounds of soybeans, hung in the outdoor kitchen stinking up the space.

I helped Grandma make mandoo (stuffed dumplings) while she rolled out homemade dough on the roller. One year, when the ladies of the family gathered to make a big batch of kimchi, I sat my toosh right on top of a cactus trying to get in the middle of the action. Grandma picked out the thorns with a tweezer as hot tears rolled down my face, blurring my wee world.

Now, Grandma… she’s an old-school master cook. She became a wife at the young of nineteen in an arranged marriage and learned quickly to manage household affairs and the affairs of the kitchen. She lived in an era where everything was made from scratch and she excelled at it, in flavor, technique and presentation. Sadly, due to her age she has not been cooking as much these days. I feel as though I missed out on an important opportunity, even a generational obligation, to learn her kitchen wisdom garnered over many decades.

Grandma was overjoyed to see my brother and me. She could barely recognize us. While we had gotten older and larger, she had shrunk to about third of her size. We hadn’t seen her since over ten years ago when she came to visit us in the States. After my Grandpa had passed years ago, she left her home and house of almost six decades, faced with the difficulty of being the sole caretaker of the house. My brother and I were both sad about the house, now only existent in distant memory. What memories we could have relived stepping into that house again.

Our first meal in Korea was a feast for my eyes and always ecstatic appetite. Kalbi tang (short rib soup), bulgogi (sauteed beef with soy marinade), japchae (glass noodle with vegetables), miyuk twighim (fried crispy seaweed) and duduk (bellflower root) covered the span of the low wooden table set up in the living room. I had to stretch out my legs once in a while as they were falling asleep. That wasn’t going to stop me from feasting though.

Every morning I could hear Grandma scurrying about at dawn. To my delight, a fresh batch of soup awaited us at every breakfast with warm rice and a few equally delicious side dishes. Even thinking about that now, a sense of comfort and warmth comes over me. There’s nothing like it, especially on a cold, winter day.

One morning we were presented with a bowl of steamed egg studded with flower cut carrots, gingko nuts, sliced peppers and zucchini batons. Another morning, jogi, a small, salted fish with plump meat. We were so spoiled. I’m so happy we got to spend time with Grandma, finally, after all these years, and grateful for family love.

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