On Sundays, my neighborhood acquires a carnival-like atmosphere, as people from all over Seoul flock to these streets in search of discount designer clothing and cheap knock-offs. My only day off has become a glorious ritual of reading in the coffeeshop, writing postcards, sampling the extraordinary street food, exploring another corner of my neighborhood, snapping photos and shopping for household wares.
On alternate Sundays, I am a tourist. 100% and without apology. I meet friends on the other side of this enormous city to share meals and beers and laughs and ex-pat commiserating while we take in the sights and sounds of this amazing, fascinating place. On Sundays, I say this a lot: “Holy shit, I live in ASIA!” On Sundays, I laugh. A lot. On Sundays, I feel unequivocally present, absolutely free and magically alive. On Sundays, I see that I am truly blessed.
Earrings from Janelle
I learned to develop photographs at age 9 but did not learn to blow-dry my hair until I was 30. I am not, never have been and, with a good deal of certainty, never will be on the cutting edge of fashion. Worn out jeans, thin t-shirts, fraying khakis and Danskos are this girl’s best friend. I wear out everything I own, down to holes and seams coming undone. This is one part New England frugality, one part loving something to death and two parts laziness. With age, I have come to accept my lack of interest in clothes, shoes, purses, jewelry, etc. But it still leaves me in a constant battle of under vs. overdressed, stylish vs. comfortable, and never having appropriate footwear. Hiking boots do not go with party dresses.
Janelle likes to think of me as her project, and this I willingly accept. We used to give meaningful presents like books of poetry and handmade photo albums. Now we give fashion. This year for Christmas she gave me these earrings, which I never wore because they did not go with any of my fleece pullovers or giant wool sweaters or unbrushed hair. Everytime I saw her for the entire month of January she said, “You know what would go great with that shirt? The earrings I gave you.” Yet, still I never wore them.
But these earrings have found a new place in my heart in Korea. As I fight to keep up with the crazily fashion conscious Korean women, I wear these earrings with everything, all the time, nearly every day. And I will wear them well, down to thin and frayed, until I wear them out.
I know what I will miss when I go home.
Koreans have brought delivery to a new level of modern convenience. You can have pretty much anything delivered to your door. At no additional charge. Food, dry cleaning, soju. Of course you have to be able to speak Korean, and I can’t do that. But I rely on the kindness of neighbors to do the ordering for me. The food delivery is really the thing that astounds me. Everything comes on the back of a motorbike, in a steel container or plastic basket like this. Your entire meal, complete with sturdy plastic dishware and real silver, arrives steaming hot in this basket. And when you’re finished, you stack your dirty dishes up, cover them with the handy newspaper and stick the basket outside your door. Later, they return and retrieve the dishes.
This delivered meal cost $5. Delivered. At no additional charge.
Thank you. Thank you, Korea.
I am so glad you were invented. Thank you even more for streaming audio. It’s awesome.
Yours forever and ever,
I have never even been to Seattle, but its NPR-affiliate KEXP is by far my favorite radio station. I first began listening when I was living in Austin and our friend Luke, who was living in Seattle at the time, performed live on the air to promote his first record. When his set was finished, I kept listening and haven’t really stopped since.
KEXP is almost singularly responsible for me discovering at least half of my current collection of favorites. I would sit at my desk for hours editing photos and laying out wedding invitations, all the while compiling lists of new music to love, new records I needed to go find at Waterloo, new bands I needed to go see when they came to town. I still stumble on those lists when I am cleaning, stumbling across more than a few before I left for Korea. Now settled into Seoul, KEXP is again my best friend, helping to shield me from the considerable dearth of good music and keeping my finger firmly on the pulse of awesomeness.
Simplify Simplify Simplify
There is great freedom in simplicity and there is even greater freedom in downsizing one’s life to the contents of two suitcases and one studio apartment. It strips a girl of her unquenchable thirst to nest, her voracious appetite for “projects” and the ever-growing laundry list of “things to do”.
Life feels lighter and my brain feels clearer. There is more room for the important stuff.
I have a great propensity for burning my tongue. These are the afflictions of my life: paper cuts that destroy my day, a tiny zit that feels like Everest has sprouted from my face and a forever burnt tongue that ruins every subsequent meal.
My lack of interest in a burnt tongue usually keeps me from choosing soup. I also like to use my inscisors and soup rarely gives one that opportunity. Living in Korea is changing all that thanks to Ddukbaegi Bulgogi. Best known as “Korean Barbeque”, bulgogi is thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, pear purée, sesame oil and garlic. The soup version is a delicious bone broth full of mushrooms, carrots, green onions, cellophane noodles and bulgogi served with rice that you spoon into the broth to eat. It is, in a word, exquisite.
I am falling in love with soup all over again like a giddy schoolgirl. I totally have a crush on it.
When you are living alone in a strange land, it is important to be adopted. My friend Heidi said it best when she advised me, “One good neighborhood shopkeeper is worth their weight in gold, especially if she takes you under her wing.” The shopkeepers in my neighborhood are worth their weight in gold, platinum, diamonds, rubies and sapphires.
I have two shops equidistant from my apartment and my visits are always greeted with smiles, robust “anyong hasaeyo!” and enthusiastic attempts to practice their English. They have showed me where to get sundubu (tofu stew) close by, ordered food delivery for me and always give me discounts or present me with gifts. When I come in, they call upstairs and I am suddenly inundated with various members of the family, mostly the children who want to say, “Hello, how are you? My name is Jae Sung”. Tonight they said that when they met me they were very happy, and that a year is too short. They want me to stay forever and ever.
And who says I’m not Korean?
Reading for Pleasure
One of my resolutions this year was to spend more time with my face in a book. Less time jacking around on the internet and certainly less time involved in the life of Meredith Grey. I am proud to say that this is one resolution that has stuck like cooked spaghetti to the ceiling.
I remember once upon a time when entire afternoons were spent with Owen Meaney, my feet digging in the sand at Good Harbor, praying that he would just come back. I spent whole weekends sailing on that tiny boat with Pi and that tiger, evenings curled up along The River Why, weeks deep inside the loveliest of bones and New York City afternoons transported to India with The God of Small Things. The last few years I have worked too much and been too lazy too much and have had trouble getting through one page without falling asleep.
It is a certain kind of rebirth to shut down the chatter in my brain and dive into another world. I am currently reading Joan Didion’s exquisite memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, about the sudden death of her husband, writer John Dunne. It is raw and it is frank; more than once I have been reduced to tears in the middle of my busy coffeeshop. Each morning I hop out of bed and nearly run to Tom n Tom’s so I can get down to business with this heartbreakingly beautiful book.
So what are you reading? Tell me, tell me!
Lotte Ice Cream Cones
I realize this is just a Drumstick in Korean clothes. This is nothing special, really. Nothing I can’t get at any 7-Eleven back home.
But the thing is, I never eat Drumsticks at home. There is something to the tiny rituals you collect when you are on your own, far from what’s familiar. When I was living in Los Angeles, I subsisted on homemade quesadillas, not because I was broke but because, like a pregnant woman, I wanted only that. Every day. And to this day, I have never had a quesadilla that tasted anything like those. Those quesadillas were rich with the flavor of my daily walks to the bookstore, my well-worn journal, the sand between my toes on Santa Monica beach, beers at O’Brien’s and writing my very first song.
The ice cream in these cones is less than average. The chocolate chunks are “chocolate-like”. Like I said, nothing special. But Drumsticks don’t come in Green Tea or Hazelnut. And I am quite certain that when I return to what is normal, to what is familiar, I will never find a Drumstick that will ever taste like tiny Korean streets, the air filled with lilacs and cherry blossoms, struggling daily with a language barrier and my tiny Seoul apartment.
I have been mildly obsessed with the iconic cherry blossom since I was very young but have never seen them in the flesh. Without realizing it, I have collected cherry blossom art, photography and certainly stationery for years and years. This year I have not only seen them, but have been lucky to watch them transform to blossom from their tiny buds throughout every day on my walk to work.
A few weeks ago, at the peak of the season, my friend Grace took me to Seokchong Lake in Seoul where I promptly went apeshit. It was dusk and our faces were glowing from the light reflecting off the blossoms, just like snow. We walked around the lake path, soft string quartets playing from the loudspeakers, and I could hardly contain myself. It was at once joy and near tears to finally see this, like the first time I saw desert & red rocks and tears streamed down my face all the way from West Texas into New Mexico.
Holy shit, I am in Asia.