On my way back from Taiwan – while the flight attendant on the plane was saying something about “we won’t be landing at the time displayed due to technical difficulties…” – I was thinking about how nice it was going to be when I got home. I kept thinking that all I wanted was food from home, and to see people I recognized. Then it kind of overwhelmed me that I was thinking about Korea. I was going home. I was going to Korea.
Ever since that little moment I shared with the personal TV in the seat in front of me on the plane, I have been reevaluating life here in Korea. What does it mean to live somewhere versus just visit that place. When does the transition occur? Is it after the two and half months I’ve been here or is it after eight months or do I have to live here for more than two years before I am a true Seoulite?
Personally, I think it has to do with frame of mind. How do I perceive myself in this place? Am I a visitor or a contributor to society in more ways than economically (as so many tourists are)? I work, I teach, I am in the public’s view. But I take pictures and go out to eat just like a tourist, and frankly don’t look Korean. Where, dear reader, where is the line?
I hate to make a clear distinction or division in my time here so far, but I’d like to say that before my trip to Taiwan, I felt like a visitor. I felt like someone who was trying to see anything and everything. Every corner I turned was a new corner. Every picture I took was a new picture, a new memory to take home and look at later to say “wow, I was there.” Every time I ate was “I don’t care what I eat because I don’t know this food and it will be deliciously adventurous so please pass the hot sauce.”
Now, I feel like I am moving more and more towards living here. I feel more comfortable with the foods, the places, the people, and the language (thank god for that…).
That is not to say I’ve fallen into the daily grind of “go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and have nothing to say.” I have done everything but fall into a routine. Really I’ve just switched my frame of mind. I don’t rush (for the most part), I enjoy.
More than my quotidian life, this little switch has affected my cooking the most. I have become more adventurous and comfortable – simultaneously – with my dishes. New spices, experimenting more with soy sauce, trying to make curries, eating seaweed as a snack – sure why not. I’m here, right? Let’s go for it.
One of my new go-to recipes involves a flash fry, some branded tofu, soy sauce and endless amounts of garlic. If you noticed, I’ve never been a fan of avoiding foods just because they make your breath smell bad. Bring on the onions! Bring on the garlic! Bring on the fish!
After a day of walking through a market set up in front of city hall, I decided that I’d rather not spend that whopping four dollars for lunch, and would rather cook. In my fridge sat the dregs of the block of tofu, a zucchini on its way out, two lonely mushrooms, and about four cloves of garlic just calling my name. Flash forward four hours, in my third period class – “Teacher, you smell like my mom cooking.” Great.
Back to the food. On autopilot, I threw oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and onions into a pan and set it to medium-high heat. I say autopilot, because if I don’t catch myself cooking, I will always start a meal like that. Cutting the zucchini and mushrooms furiously so I can get it into the pan before the garlic starts to burn, I look up and see that bottle of soy sauce sitting, unopened. Today was the day I was going to play into my stereotype of Asian food, and rock with the soy.
So a few short minutes after the zucchini, garlic, salt, pepper, onions, and tofu were sizzling loudly in the pan over medium-high heat, I cranked the heat way up to the highest it goes. I was playing that dangerous game of “how long can I sear these before they burn,” adding a little water ever-so-often to make sure I didn’t set off the fire alarm.
When the pan was nice and scalding hot, and the window wide open (screen and all) I splashed in soy sauce and watched it come to a boil, and coat the outside of everything in the pan with a nice sweet-salty glaze. At this point, the stove was off and the pan was out the window so the smoke didn’t fill my entire apartment, and my mouth was watering.
The dish turned out perfectly. A flash-pan-seared tofu glazed with super-reduced soy sauce, zucchini, tender mushrooms, caramelized onions, and enough garlic to keep your heart healthy until the age of 94.
Oh, and I have been a bad grandson. I didn’t give a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my grandmother who lives in Virginia. So, Happy Birthday, Grandmommy.