The idea of eating spicy briny kimchi, pickled mushrooms, nets of cold wet yellow sprouts, damp spinach, sticky white rice, hot sauce, pickled kimchi radishes, still-boiling still-bubbling blood-red kimchi stew, cold cooked onions and potato slices, either mixed up or spread about on little plastic saucers, complete with steel shot glasses for the water you have to gulp down to make up for all the salt, probably does not sound too appealing to the Western breakfast palate, used as it is to sweet grains slushed about in milk, with muffins and fruit and endless rivers of coffee pouring, roaring down whirlpool-like gullets, along with gallons of orange juice and absolutely whatever else you can get your meathooks on.
But then yesterday, after months of muesli mixed with bananas and coffee, I was ready to take the plunge. The realization was gastrointestinal more than intellectual.
Actually it had always been horrifying to me to think that Korean breakfast was more or less the same as Korean lunch and dinner. I would often ask my young students what they had for breakfast, and they would often tell me that they hadn’t eaten anything at all, or that they had drained a bowl of kimchi soup mixed with rice. A few stragglers would report on successful conquests of cereal, and for this I would cheer them on, breakfast imperialist that I am—I’ve been eating cereal since I could eat solid food, and some of my earliest memories involve making enormous bowls of cereal for myself before spilling the clattering contents all over the floor. Various visiting relatives would tell me that they could trace my path through the house by following the Hansel-And-Gretel trail of syrup-soaked cheerios I’d left in my wake. But for these little Koreans there would be no such pleasure. Just kimchi soup and rice. Tortillas and beans, señor.
My wife, A., has drawn the opposite conclusion. Because she is a Korean who has had to spend most of her life hauling herself out of bed very early in the morning for endless shifts of work or school, she is also not really a breakfast person; the Western breakfast is predicated on the hour or two in the morning Westerners sometimes have to just hang around and eat—Koreans never seem to possess this luxury, sleep being more important than food. But because she’s lived with me for a year A. has adopted the breakfast of my father: banana with coffee, declaring on several occasions that it is one of the more brilliant things she’s ever discovered. But yesterday she’d had enough. “Boonshik,” she said, around eleven. “It’s like cheap college food.”
At once a platter of pickled mushrooms rose into my stomach’s imagination, even though I had just eaten breakfast an hour before.
After a walk down a tar alley past mountains of garbage and cigarettes, which A. photographed because she herself is becoming less Korean while I myself am becoming less American—typically my impression was that foreigners hate the decorative garbage here while Koreans think it’s not so bad—and after I told her that if she didn’t like Korea she could leave—we came to a little cement-and-linoleum hole in the wall, with two friendly flowersuit-clad ajummas baring curry-toothed grins at us as we walked in, flipping skillets of vegetables over bonfires that were leaping up out of a pair of old black ovens. We ordered. A. and I talked. We decided to read a Korean newspaper; even though I still need her help it’s still not nearly as impossibly difficult as it was six months ago to work through a few sentences; an hour’s intensive labor has been reduced to fifteen pleasant minutes of learning about the hard iron door and the drawn curtains that separate Kim Jong Nam from all the reporters swarming after him in Macao.
Even though I do not speak any language fluently enough to read without assistance, it is still definitely very different to catch a few lines of Homer in Greek, or Ovid in Latin, or Borges in Spanish, or ancient Chinese poets thrown at me in a conversation I remember from my first language student, who told me about waking up one winter morning to find the trees outside his window bursting with white cherry blossoms in the form of blankets of sudden quiet snow. He told me it happened thousands of years ago, and modern Chinese people don’t need translators to help them see it.
(if anyone knows this poem, please let me know, because I haven’t actually read it and I would really like to)
Homer is a minstrel strumming a lyre, Ovid has a very jaunty seventeenth-century sort of jumping rhyme scheme (which he uses, repeatedly, to describe rape, murder, bestiality), gold takes on a far more nostalgic gleam when it becomes oro—to me, anyway—and Kim Jong Nam’s door is really fucking black and really fucking hard. No one’s getting through that thing if he doesn’t want them to. That’s what I gain from reading Korean with a Korean’s assistance.
Some acquaintances walked in, their staring child with them. Bows. Hellos. How ya doin’. I saw your picture! Then the eight dollar platter of food arrives—everything I described in the first paragraph, and more. We attack. Eating Korean food requires strategic thinking because there is so much to choose from; it’s as if you took everything out of your fridge and all your cabinets, sliced it up, cooked it or pickled it, and then threw it down on the table in front of you.
We eat, talk, order more. The ajummas yell at us to make do with what we have, babbling about wasting food and money. But they are all smiles as we walk out—assuaging our stomachs for at least two or three more hours.