Saturday, March 17, 2007

Of Saturday, Shopping, and Supper

Today was a satisfying Saturday, a balance of busy business and peaceful recreation, just as a weekend should have.

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Katherine wakes me at seven, which is an excellent time to wake if one has been an early-to-bedder; it is light outside and one feels rested, but not so late that the morning feels wasted should one have things to do. She is snuggly - a nice change from her independent stand-offishness of late - and full of enthusiasm for the day ahead. Her eyes sparkling, she plants many energetic kisses on me with her soft moist mouth and demands tribute in tickles.

"You're not going to daycare today, darling," I murmur to her as she settles down enough to listen, "today is Saturday and you can spend all day with Mama and Daddy. And we're invited to supper with Auntie Mir..." At which she regains enough energy to bounce up and announce that she wants her breakfast.

We duly break our fast together before waking Bryan up, have our various showers, get dressed, and are ready to walk out the door at quarter to nine, into a cool and cloudless spring morning. As always, Katherine's patient trek all the way down the hill to Myongji Ip-gu (the main gates, about a fifteen-minute hike for her little legs) is rewarded with a mini chocolate milk from the Family Mart there. The lady behind the counter knows us all by now and is delighted when Katherine goes confidently over to the dairy case, selects her ‘choco uyu’, and brings it up to the counter with her ‘obegwon’ coin (about fifty cents) in hand.

Our bus driver, on the other hand, doesn’t even glance at us when we board our randomly-selected 5000 bus at the stop just outside Myongji Ip-gu. It is traditional that the many busses which use MJU’s huge parking lots as a end-of-line rest area and turn-around point don’t charge students for a lift into town (usually just to the Bus Terminal which is about five minutes away by wheel), and we instructors have been graciously included in this tradition. However, this ‘kisanim’ (‘honourable driver’) , despite his age-crinkled brow, seems unfamiliar with the exemption, tapping the fare box with peremptory meaning and grimly-compressed mouth. Then again, as he had been tossing back a packet of Korean medicinal granules – a foul-tasting brownish concoction usually prescribed for any common grippe, ague, or headache - just seconds before we boarded, the brow-crinkling and mouth-compression may have had strictly physical significance…

He lets us, and the other three passengers, all students, off ungraciously just before the terminal, at the main junction in town. I have in mind a number of acquisitions, and I suggest a plan of action for the morning which Bryan accepts nonchalantly. Our first stop is the new Paris Baguette (a bakery chain which makes, among other things, loaves of some of the more passable bread in the country – made with wheat flour and unadulterated with the sweetish corn flavour that many other Korean breads possess, a flavour that only intensifies with toasting, alas!) at the east end of town.

We pass a pet store, some of its stock on display out on the sidewalk, and Katherine is enchanted when the rabbits sniff hopefully at her knuckles through the bars of their cage. She prefers the bright sparkle of the fish, though, having fallen in love with the children’s story “A Fish Out of Water” and been promised an ‘Oscar’ goldfish of her very own at some later date. She looks up at me impishly and paraphrases: “I’ll on’y feed him a liddle. So much an’ no more!” I grin back, in shared recognition; what a treat it is to have already, with my three-year old daughter, that mutual pleasure of a familiar book!

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At the bakery we buy them out of our preferred bread, and head back towards the centre of town, wary as always of the various pedestrian hazards. There are various stumps of concrete serving as parking bollards, rough ends of wires, spikes of rebar, belaying cables, oddly-spaced poles, head-high awnings. There are puddles of invariably orangish-red vomit (stained with the all-purpose ‘gochujang’, red pepper paste/sauce) from over-indulgence in the hofs and bars and norae-bangs (singing rooms or karaoke bars) the night before. Vendors’ displays crowd the space in front of their stores. Piles of cardboard, neatly flattened and tied, sit beside the bagged trash of those same stores. Sullen small trucks, reckless motor scooters, jaunty Kias and Hyundais, bullying buses, all surge along feet away from the edge of the sidewalk. Then there is the condition of the sidewalk itself – usually a blend of erratically buckled interlocking brick and odd strata of concrete, poured by municipality, store owner, street maintenance and helpful pothole vigilante alike without reference to code or zoning. We proceed in our usual fashion: Bryan saunters along watching traffic with one eye and Katherine with the other, Kath alternately lags to investigate something of interest or darts to catch up with the preferred-parent-of-the-minute (Bryan), while I hover like an anxious cat at her shoulder, one paw extended lest she suddenly dart into one of the many hazards aforementioned.

Such strolling, along with a bit of eye-shopping - as Koreans call browsing - combined with the discovery of a new large video rental place where we’re able to set up an account, takes us happily to an early lunch at the single representative of evil Western fast-food in town – McDonalds. Well, authentic evil Western fast-food, that is. There are an unfortunate number of ‘burger stalls’ and Lotterias selling horrible patties (which, I might add, would be lucky to contain anything as healthy as dog food, let alone dog, despite the frequent assertions by disgusted foreigners to the contrary…) and equally horrible fries composed of sweet potato, chipped parsnip, or other less identifiable tubers.

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If I may digress for a moment, this type of ‘cuisine’ is known as “Fusion”, a word which upon encountering anywhere in this country one would be well-advised to avoid diligently. Korean food, love or hate gochujang, is delicious, balanced, and healthy, while Western food, say what you may about the ever-increasing serving sizes (and ignoring the many passing fads such as carb-counting) has the vast culinary traditions of both North America and Europe behind much of it to produce such amazing genres as Italian pasta, French desserts, Southern comfort food, Danish smorgasbord, and so on.

However, as with many cultural fusions, the mixture of the two produces an unfortunate intensification of the worst, not the best, qualities of both. For example: “Donkass”, which is as vulgar-tasting as it sounds, is a pressed-pork piece (I cannot in all conscience describe it more fairly) covered with a thick coating of dried breadcrumbs and deepfried, then served with a sauce composed mainly of third-grade ketchup and hardened sugar. ‘Salad’ at such places is usually finely-chopped green cabbage with shards of purple cabbage, some mugwort or other medicinal herb, stirred through with a dollop of no-name mayonnaise imitation, while their idea of sausage cannot be adequately envisioned in a family-friendly blog …

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That aside, we enjoy our fat-laden treat of hamburger and fries, while Katherine makes tentative friends at the miniature ‘Play Place’ beside us, and wash it down with (so far) guiltless water. The young mother three tables down, whose little girl has been casting wistful glances at the tube slide, sends down a yoghurt drink (which thankfully Katherine has learned to appreciate) with admiring glances at our daughter’s eyelashes. A group of middleschool girls, in maroon unifrocks, delays our exit with similar flattery, practicing their limited English between giggles. If only our college-level students were so uninhibited with the few words and phrases they know, how much actual communication could they not achieve, Bryan and I wonder to each other as we hurry towards the taxi stand.

The early promise of a beautiful day has turned threatening; grayish-blue clouds glower in the west, and above us a high overcast hides the sun. We can afford to smirk, though, for we have gotten a taxi and are hieing our way to the local bastion of culture and readily-available comestibles – E-Mart!

Two large floors of shopping (one groceries, one household goods) plus two floors of parking above that – seems an odd system, but it’s quite workable, connected with two sets of escalators. The first set is outside the cash registers (so one can enter on any floor and depart again with the single item one has needed) while the second is internal (so that one can shop moving freely between floors, and exit once to pay for everything all together). There are lockers large and small for outside packages and bags, nice big grocery carts (and even a few ‘car-style’ carts to entertain toddlers), a packing area well-provided with boxes, twine, and yellow ‘E-Mart’ blazoned tape, a little seating area, a small food court, and even a tiny pet section. Mind you, it doesn’t have a photography studio, a music store, and a short-term daycare like the E-Mart in Suwon, but one can’t demand everything of such a small town as Yongin!

At the end of almost every aisle stands a uniformed clerk with his or her samples of goods, and one could skip lunch and merely browse the offered samples (as Katherine proceeds to do, having left most of her hamburger untouched.) She tries bites of ‘pulgogi’ barbequed beef and bacon, cereal and ‘mandu’ dumplings, cream-filled bread and soy milk. We love the variety of products on the shelves, and do a quick grocery run, but we have a couple of items specifically in mind, and we find them successfully.

Katherine is now the proud owner of a nice set of sneakers which fit her far better than the little slip-ons she must wear at daycare – a necessity given all the walking we have to do together. And we have a fold-up stroller, which will make life easier for everyone (see reason above), especially at five in the afternoon coming home from daycare with a tired child up a steep hill.

Outside E-mart, with a giant bag of bread, two hefty bags of groceries, some bottled water, a packaged stroller, and Katherine, we wait in vain for a passing taxi. The road is busy, and one does not usually have to spend more than five minutes before one rushes by, but this afternoon we wait for ten with no luck. Finally one pulls up but as we are second in line, we are still waiting. As I sit down again with Katherine on my lap, a glistening silver truck pulls up to the stand, the smoked windows roll down, and two familiar faces look out – Chang-so and her mother!

The owner of the Honeybee restaurant (at Myongji Ip-gu, where we often eat), whom we call affectionately “Halmoni” (Grandmother) is driving her brand-new purchase, and her daughter and granddaughter (Chang-so, Katherine’s daycare buddy) are in the front seat with her. “Where are you going?” they ask, and when we gesture up the hill towards Myongji, in the opposite direction from their truck’s nose, they cheerfully wave us into the backseat. Groceries, stroller, water and all, we pile in and Halmoni does an insouciant U-turn in the face of oncoming traffic.

The truck’s back seats still have plastic over them, the arm rests slick with protective tape, the scent of ‘new car’ spicy in our tired noses. All too quickly we are up the hill, pulling into the Faculty Guesthouse’s little parking lot, unloading our booty, effusing our thanks. Halmoni and her family wave our gratitude away cheerfully, Katherine and Chung-so exchange kisses, and we part with smiles.

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I put Katherine down for a nap while I unpack and put things away. Bry must head down to the office so he can use the computer and printer there: yesterday he bumped into an old friend of ours, an erst-while MJU chaplain and current pastor in Suwon, and was invited not only to come to church tomorrow in Suwon, but to preach! So, at Pastor Im’s insistence, we shall be sitting through a Korean church service (though the sermon will at least be half in English. The pastor will translate Bryan’s fifteen-minute message line by line into Hangeul for the benefit of his flock…) rather than with our old acquaintances in Seoul Union Church with whom we were joyfully reunited last Sunday. Ah well, it’s never boring around here!

The peace and quiet lasts till about four, long enough for me to devour a few more of Mir’s books – she has a fairly extensive English library which she’s been lending me a bag at a time – and then do a bit of unstressed tidying up. It is actually a lot easier to keep a small place picked up, IF you do it as you go along and have everyone’s cooperation. I’ve been a bit of a tyrant about it in these first few weeks, but I do want to establish good habits right off the bat: so – Bry hangs his own coat up, Kath picks up her animals when she’s moving to another activity, and so on. I have managed to scavenge an armchair (that’s a story in its own right) AND a discarded but intact-as-to-its-upholstery ottoman, and have made a couple of bright collages for the walls, so the place is looking better every day.

Kath gets to watch her DVD from the rental place (102 Dalmations) on Mama’s new computer after she wakes up, Bry returns safely with message to hand, and we go on up to Mir’s apartment more than ready for food!

And such food it is: she has prepared a lavish Korea feast which must have cost her dear in both time and won, from the opening traditional seaweed and miso soup to the finishing ‘Bae’ pearapple and non-traditional cheesecake. Katherine shows off her chopstick skills with her new ‘children’s chopsticks’, an adorable contraption which looks like a drawing compass with pads, loops, and knobs on, and actually eats bits of the marvelous meal.

Besides the soup and dessert, there are marinated black beans, scallion pancakes, dried seaweed sheets, fresh hot and sticky rice, shredded salt-n-sugar ‘kim’, carrot and celery sticks, barbecued ribs! perilla leaves, gochujang, soy sauce… and even a costly imported Miller Genuine Draft for Bryan (because Korean men like beer with their meal, and Mir is nothing if not perceptive). It is completely delectable, and she encourages us to take seconds and thirds (though since everything is on the table at the same time, the Western idea of a course does not truly apply and one merely keeps eating and refilling the plate until satiated) before putting out the cheesecake and bae slices.

I heartily wish I were not so groggy from an interrupted night, early morning, long day walking, and somnolence-inducing vast meal; I must beg off almost immediately after we finish, and since that is also just past eight in the evening that is also Katherine’s bedtime. She needs it, as she’s gone from lovably cuddling on her favorite ‘Imo’s’ (auntie’s) lap to playing ‘seafood’ (opening her mouth to display chewed but unswallowed morsels, alas!) She is rendered respectable and says her farewells affectionately and audibly before we stumble down the stairs with her and put her down on her quilts with goodnight smooches.

Well, from kisses to kisses: it hasn’t been that bad a day, has it? In fact, the best adjective I could choose to sum up this Saturday would have to be…. “satisfying”. So on that, eminently satisfying note, – to bed!

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1 Comments:

Blogger Liese said...

Heya!

Sounds like you had a wonderful day! We too have completed our Saturday now--not nearly as busy a one, for which we are grateful, after a hectic week. We just went to the Toronto Zoo, after a long
and restful sleep-in this morning.

Mom mentioned something about Katherine's being standoffish to you. Don't feel too bad; this is totally normal and each and everyone of mine, excepting only Nicholas to date,(usually around the age of 2-4 years)has gone through this phase. My older two went so far as to refuse to call me Mommy, relegating me to the position of second Daddy (Yes, they called me that!) My beloved daughter has stated that she "just loves Daddy!" Mind you, this is usually only when I have just reprimanded her for some misbehaviour, but STILL...

As usual, your talent for description...defies description. :) Even though it's been nine years since we visited you there, I vividly remembered the streets and smells of Seoul. BTW, do you know about those Dibbler-esque "meat" patties of Lotteria from personal experience? Or a friend who actually survived one? Just curious.

An amusing story--as we were driving in the car today, Thomas said that we had "an ice rink in our backyard". Since we are trying to curb the tendency to hyperbole, I said gently that it wasn't a rink, just an ice puddle. Daniel interrupted excitedly, "Yes, 'cause if it were a rink it would have..." He paused, struggling for the word, then, triumphantly, "A zombie!"

Realizing he meant "zamboni", Mike and I were hard put to it not to shriek with helpless laughter.

Well, it's late here too now, and I have a baby to nurse and put to bed, so I will talk to you later.

Love,


Liese and Co.

March 17, 2007 at 7:04 PM  

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