Music is a great healer. When I am stressed, it calms me. When I am weak, it strengthens me. When I am depressed, it lifts me. Sadly, for the past two weeks, it has been away from me. Recognizing the emotional dearth that I was experiencing being away from my guitar, I resolved to find one. Browsing Craigslist, I found a seller on the other side of the city. Impulsively, I arranged a meeting for this evening. The journey would take me over an hour, but it was worth it for my mental and emotional health to have an instrument with me while here in Korea.
After a grueling day at rugby practice (more on that later), I cleaned up, jammed down some food, and rucked off for my journey. The walk to the subway station is only about a mile, but I was in for the longhaul once I got there. Tales of Tyrian Lannister and his gluttony in Pentos kept me occupied for the hour-long ride. When I emerged from the subway station on the other side, I immediately noticed that this was not the tiny outlying suburb that I had expected. Rows of towering office buildings lined the main thoroughfare, and I quickly found that there was a booming shopping district right around the corner. Outdoor malls and rows of restaurants cut between the giant glass blocks.
I only had about thirty minutes of wandering before I had to return to the station to meet the seller. His name was Dan, and he was also an English teacher from the U.S. He had moved out to Ilsan to start teaching at a public school. He came to Korea on a contract with a private school, but they struggled with some embezzlement issues, and he left before the end of his contract. Despite the struggles with his employment, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his time out here. I asked for his recommendation on finding a good meal, and he pointed me in an educated direction.
I wandered off toward what Dan had termed “meat street” for its preponderance of Korean barbecue restaurants. I’m not sure I found exactly what he described, but on a side street around the corner from a bustling shopping area, something special caught me eye. The storefront was glass floor to ceiling, and the lighting was invitingly warm. There were only two other tables occupied in the 10-table cafe, but the English description of “grilled fish specialty” made me keen. I was not disappointed.
After finding a table and getting settled with my backpack and guitar as my tablemates, the waitress brought over a pot of tea while figuring out if I spoke any Korean. The blank stare on my face told her that language was going to be a problem, but she knew exactly what to do. She grabbed her phone, and pulled up a Google image search and a translator app. The menu, as I later realized, only had five items; the names of which hung on the wall in the form of engraved wooden blocks. She searched images to show me what their dishes looked like and translated the main words so I knew the name of the fish I was ordering. I repeated one of the words she said that I thought I could remember and pronounce best, and she seemed to understand. I believe what I ordered was mackerel, but I don’t remember the word now. She soon brought out a smattering of small dishes, a small bowl of spicy soup, and a grilled mackerel with just about all the meat that fish had to offer.
I made quick work of the soup (as you’ve probably noticed), and it gave me the first challenge to my resilience with the spicy Korean food. Oddly enough, the wasabi (green smear in the small bowl) was actually more sweet than spicy. It was also delicious, though, and I ended up eating most of it straight. The top left dish, I believe, was a kind of whipped egg. That’s what it tasted like, but it was far lighter and fluffier than any egg dish I have had. The fish was superb. It was a bit fishy, but the chef prepared it just right. The skin was crisp, but not to crunchy. The meat flaked easily, but it was not too dry. The seasoning was light, but it was just enough to keep me digging for more. The meal took some time. After finishing two of the small dishes and the soup, the waitress brought me more, and picking apart the fish challenged my chopstick skills. When I finished, I was satisfied without feeling overfed. That is something I have found common in the Korean fare. It tends to be light yet nourishing. This is one part of living here that I know I will continue to enjoy.
When I got up to pay and leave, I was actually a bit sad that I could not tip this kind woman. She was very attentive and very kind despite my complete lack of inability to communicate in her language. All said, the meal cost me 7,000 won (a little less than $7). I politely said thank you and goodbye (this time in Korean), and set off for home.
After another hour on the train, I have arrived back in my overstuffed apartment. I am now the last one up, as the five others have commenced their rest for the last long day of training that is to come. Monday morning, we will all say our goodbyes and pack our bags for our more permanent homes. I have been assigned to a school near Konkuk University, not far from where I am now. Others are going to the far side of the city, and some are headed to distant parts of the country. I say distant, but they’ll be about as distant as Pueblo is from Fort Collins. There is a different concept of geographic distance in a country the size of Kentucky.
I will try to keep up my writings, but I know that the next couple weeks will be very busy. On Monday, I will get all the details of my work. There is a good chance that I will be teaching classes from 6:00am through the morning as well as afternoon and evening classes stretching to 10:00pm. I am going to try to keep my commitment to the Seoul Survivors Rugby Football Club, and I will try to stay connected socially. However, I believe the greatest demand on my time will be the urge to do something useful in the classroom. Although I am speaking from a perspective of inexperience, I believe that the curriculum I will be teaching falls short of the potential of the students. We have some of the brightest minds in the world over here, and the material I have seen seems to be below them. I have only the faintest idea of how to make the classroom challenging and productive, but that will be my constant challenge over the next year. Discovering the best way to do it, I believe, will be the hardest part of the next few months.