We are in Korea! This piece comes from my notebook. While drafting, I used present and past tense. I decided to keep all the first week experiences in present tense because that’s what being in a new place feels like. And because I like to play with form, I structured the piece in short paragraphs, again to echo the content. During revision, I read closely to check the order of images and ideas. During a later revision I might think how to braid the images better. Right now the paragraphs are like single snapshots. It reminds me of picking up a photo envelope at Walgreens and flipping through quickly to check it’s yours. That’s why I insert more paragraph breaks, to slow the flipping.
I am returning to fiction drafts this fall (no professional pages or cover letters to write!). Right now, oddly, I am more comfortable sharing chunks of my life than showing fiction narrative. I need to get further into that work again, before I post from any of it.
One Week In
I eat bibimbap on the plane. The lunch comes with an instruction card. Add the sesame oil, add the chili paste. Mix it, eat it. I sit cramped in economy thinking how lucky I am to move to a country whose food I like.
A few nights ago we find a restaurant friends recommended, ordered bibimbap and ramen. Claire calls the ramen spicy but eats it anyway. She drinks four cups of water. Grant likes the bap. We share a kimbap roll. Justin adds more sweet chili to his bowl.
I can’t figure out how to eat the ramen. The noodles slip off the spoon. There is no fork. I bend my head right over the bowl to slurp.
Today I ask a colleague how she eats noodle soup. She catches the noodles with chopsticks.
I go to five grocery stores and one small market. The box of nectarines I buy are actually plums, as good in cereal. I think, Why would I suppose nectarines would be so small here?
All the aisles are new. I go through a grocery store slowly, walking up and down each aisle to see what’s hiding. I can’t read any of the signs. Claire and I lean close to a cellophane package to see what those things are. They are tiny dried fish with dark dots for eyes.
Because no one has time to cook anymore, or no one has time to cook the many sides that land at a Korean table, a grocery store might feature a cooler of soy sauce black beans and marinated lotus root and chopped pickled vegetables.
I pay fourteen dollars for two hundred grams unsalted butter. I buy long slender cucumbers for two dollars apiece. I spend thirty dollars on a bottle of wine that cost half that this summer home.
I learn that cauliflower is near impossible to find. So are green beans.
We will eat a lot of cabbage. This will be no problem for me.
I buy a bag of bean sprouts because I will always be able to buy a bag of bean sprouts. At home that night, I rinse a bowl of sprouts and eat them raw which is probably the worst way to eat bean sprouts.
Claire complains I am killing her when we go for a walk up a hill in our neighborhood. She stops on the sidewalk and refuses to go one step further so I walk on without her, up the hill. Soon she is at my side again, to complain about walking, to stop and start. She says, My feet hurt. I hate this. This is your fault.
This is my fault. I split blame with Justin that we are here, walking on sidewalks. One morning I am so mad at the unceasing complaints I turn to Claire and say, Look where we are. We can see trees and a stream and mountains here. I say, Mahboula was a shitty neighborhood. We couldn’t walk like this.
But this is my fault: everything is new: unfamiliar: unusual: awful. We arrive to where we are walking and I take my sandals off to show Claire a blister on my heel, another on my toe. We are all getting used to walking, I say.
I run in the morning saying thank you.
I run in the morning along the river because I am afraid of getting lost at street level and because the river is quiet. But busy. So many are walking, sometimes elaborating their stride with claps to the front and back, alternating arm raises, open and closed hands, fist pounds to the lower abdomen. Occasionally I pass someone walking backwards.
Koreans have a long life expectancy, which I learn from a video shown during orientation. I also learned that when the country was set to default a global debt, men and women lined up at banks to donate their gold. I almost cry thinking about that.
One morning I run in mist that turns to rain. Few people are out. The cicadas are quiet.
Grant is interested in cicadas so we google them. Such ugly insects!
Dragonflies are out. They jump and weave through the air.
One morning I am running and need a toilet. There are public toilets along the river path but I don’t know if you need a coin or if the toilet is pit or squat or clean. I open the door. The toilets are clean. Piano music plays. Over the sink is a button for police emergencies.
I eat a red bean popsicle because it’s such an odd idea. I like it. Justin likes it. All week I try food like this, taking a little of each dish at orientation lunches. My friend Kate told me that Korean food is very one note, like the same flavors are repackaged for the next meal. Another colleague said that at one point during her first year here she couldn’t eat kimchi anymore.
If the kids stop liking rice, we’re in trouble.
Last spring I ordered dried seaweed on Amazon and couldn’t talk Claire or Grant into trying it. Eat these like chips, I said. At dinner this week I have a package open and Grant takes a leaf, like drawing from an Uno pile. He eats it, asks for more.
I find a new favorite Starbucks drink, an iced oatmeal latte. It is a just sweet enough and served with a scoop of puffed cereal and dried fruit on top.
We meet friends for an afternoon at a Lego play cafe. Grant and Claire choose kits and sit at low tables, building a pet shop or plane, putting the finished work in a clear plastic bin to be disassembled for the next kid.
Someone says that during our time in Korea we’ll see things that prompt the thought Why isn’t that everywhere? and other times we’ll see things that prompt the thought What the.
Justin read the recycling rules and I laughed like it was stand up.
At Starbucks I see people layer three or four sleeves the length of their cups.
The compost bin is inscrutable to us yet so we put a ziplock of food waste in the freezer to keep it from stinking our kitchen.
I iron clothes for the first time in a decade.
I scrub a toilet for the first time in a decade.
I learn there is a woman looking for housekeeping work and say, Yes. Please. Please get us in touch.
We have no SIM cards. I have no data on my phone so while waiting at a curb I am not checking messages or reading a map of where we are or seeing how many stars this chicken place has. Claire and I get lost on a ten minute walk from our apartment but it feels enough like an adventure neither of us are cross. Blessing.
I will probably have no idea where I am going for another year or two. People reference a neighborhood or landmark or say “in the city” and none of it means anything yet. My concept of space and distance is skewed. The first morning I head out for a run I stop an American woman to ask which direction the path goes and learn the Han river is seventeen or eighteen miles away. Seoul is suddenly much bigger.
On bus rides to and from school I look out the window. The blocks of apartment towers all look the same. At street level there is an overwhelming amount of signage. A colleague and I remark how ordered and pretty Korean letters are, how lovely the language sounds, soft babbling with upticks.
I only know one Korean word now.
I have to practice it in my head before opening my mouth. I ask the convenience store clerk, Did I say that right?