The reason why you can’t pressure me to talk to the cute guy in the navy blue gi at jiu jitsu training is because in my head I’m facing a battle with my 23 years of never having dated, wondering why men I’m attracted to are never attracted to me, even though I’m blessed with a confidence in myself grown of so much support around me by my loved ones, because who needs lovers anyway when your heart is already bursting from the laughs and truth shared with your own people, and I think celebrating Black Day on April 14th in Korea (following Valentine’s Day, February 14th, and White Day, March 14th) is a perfect way to illustrate every interaction I’ve ever had with someone I’ve pursued, in that my friends, all six of us crowded around a table in a restaurant in Chilgok, awaiting our jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles), urged me to invite the one single man we spotted to come eat with us, in observation of the custom where singles dine together, and when I expressed my doubts, they dared me that if the waitress delivered him jjajangmyeon, I would have to invite him to eat with us, and so when his noodles arrived, black bean sauce a dark abyss in his bowl, I swiftly got up from the table and crossed the room–because confidence sometimes takes swiftness–and asked him if he wanted to join us, hoping that English was a thing that he spoke; I waited for him to finish the huge pile of noodles he had just chopsticked into his mouth, and after the awkwardness grew drops of sweat on the nape of my neck, he responded, “I have an appointment soon,” and I thanked him and traipsed back to my friends at our table now crowded with beer and jjajangmyeon, and so I’m not saying that this rejection traumatized me–and, really, the spirit of this Black Day could only be compared to my birthday, I was so excited about it and had been looking forward to it for months–but this scene of a man being more interested in his noodles and his “appointment” than in my socially-stilted invitation is right on point with the mystery and confusion and fear and inconvenience that conglomerates for me on days like this, when I happen to be eating jjajangmyeon, too independent to be sad, but too lonely to overlook such a lifestyle-acknowledging day, and maybe I’m just too unaware of how romance works or maybe I’m confused about how to be lonely, because talking to the guy in the navy blue gi with the really good English and the three stripes on his belt just seems like so much work and effort that I believe in my heart of heart of hearts that he has a girlfriend and/or there will be no opportunity for him to like me because, really, I’m not interesting until you get to know me or I’m comfortable enough to be witty, and why do you care anyways, when I just want to celebrate Black Day every day because what a fun way to observe a lack of romance in your life, with a heaping bowl of black bean noodles and your friends around you helping you be more than you think you can be.
Today’s guest post is by C.J. Sweetwood. Follow him on Twitter at @fearsteveswrath and/or contact him at email@example.com.
In December of 2014, I found myself staring into the abject and disparaging face of culture shock. I had taken two weeks off of my job teaching in Korea to go on a journey through Vietnam, but my tendency to be a complete and utter miser while traveling had landed me a bad flight with a worse airline out of Shanghai. I had decided to take my seven-hour layover there as a blessing in disguise, not a major pain in my ass, since I had never been to China and could try something unusual. My problem was focus: Shanghai is the largest city proper in the world, with a population of more than twenty-four million. What do you see in such an unimaginably large place with only a few hours to spare? I needed a goal, an objective for a bite-sized adventure, and when it hit me, it seemed perfectly and moronically stupid.
This is the story of how I ate Chinese food in China.
First, an aside about Shanghai: Tokyo stretches to the horizon when you fly into Narita, but Shanghai is another beast entirely. The city is constantly shrouded in a stunning grey cloud of wreathing and writhing smoke and haze, a man with eyes agleam in a puff of cigar ash. When you pass through the veil of choking smog and brackish clouds, the city emerges as a dim and dingy metropolis that seems to claw its way to the edges of the earth. The air is tinged with the taste of tar and the scent of cigarettes, and that sense of choking, cloying atmospheric claustrophobia is entirely normal.
I tracked down a map as soon as I passed through customs, and got a better sense of what the city was by staring at the sprawling, chaotic, ad-infested map of Shanghai. Korean city maps are concisely written, with clean lines and spotless images. The map of Shanghai is the total polar opposite. After puzzling over it, I made out that I had to take the maglev to get downtown the quickest. So I stored my bags at an airport kiosk, paid my yuan for a broken train ticket from a lady who looked borderline suicidal, and climbed onto the fastest train on Earth.
Interesting note about the fastest trains in the world: They’re surprisingly barebones. I’m not sure if it’s because they need to store more people or cut down on weight, but the seats on the maglev (and even the Korean KTX) make airport benches look cozy. I took a window seat, expecting to see some grandiose view of the countryside, but instead I was treated to views of a brackish harbor and acid rain-soaked buildings, replete with dripping stains and tattered clotheslines. It was a surprisingly bleak and dreary trip, but it took all of seven minutes. I spent most of that trying to focus on singular buildings and failing, eventually just giving up because my eyes hurt right as the train slowed to my stop.
I wandered out into Shanghai, and an apt comparison came to mind: It was the Star Wars universe. It was dirty, grimy, and lived in, but that feels far more alive and wondrous than our own reality. The city was run-down, jumbled and worn; yet it emitted this pulse of life, of breathing and burning humanity that the wide roads and subdivisions of my home could never hope to emulate. I marveled at it all, even the battered subway entrance as I slithered through the impossibly large crowds into the metro.
I walked into a subway car and immediately hit my head. The handrail was right at forehead level for me, and I drew a combination of sharp glances and comical chuckles from the locals as I rubbed my head and muttered obscenities under my breath. I rode out to Nanjing road, one of the central downtown shopping districts in Shanghai, and started out of the metro to locate an old colonial district called The Bund.
I didn’t get very far. Nanjing road is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world for a reason, and the amount of people relentlessly flowing through the thoroughfares stopped me cold. As an American from the west, used to wide places and personal spaces, this was insane. I stood there slack-jawed, staring at the teeming masses of Chinese shoppers stepping over dead rats to visit the Gucci store, at the foreigners in man buns and elephant pants taking pictures of historically significant pavement, and the touts and louts peddling prostitutes and pink roller skates. In all the travel I have done since, in all the trials and tribulation I have ever faced on the road around the world, be it waking up stranded in rural Huailen in the dead of night, getting lost in Sumida in a typhoon, or even nearly being robbed in Vientaine, nothing ever stopped me in my tracks but this one moment in Shanghai. It’s a challenge every traveler must face, the initial assault on your senses when you travel alone, the sheer realization that you are a single human in a mass of billions, a true stranger in a strange land.
Of course life never lets you rest on your laurels, and it doesn’t always allow for contemplation of the magnanimity of human existence either. I was shook out of my stupor by a man offering me prostitutes (“Long time love only twenty dollar”). I politely declined, and quickly learned that politely declining usually doesn’t work that well in Asia. The best way to be left alone? Keep walking, no talking. Unfortunately, I hadn’t absorbed this yet, and couldn’t get the touts to leave me be. To get away from a man trying to sell me drugs, I dipped into a nearby yellow building and walked smack into one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen.
Without realizing it, I had walked into an M&M’s world, during a live dance performance of M&M’s in terracotta warrior costumes, set to “Disco Inferno”. I marveled at the surreal nature of human existence and bought a magnet before I realized the drug dealer had followed me inside and I had to lose him. I lost him in the street, and remembered what I came for. I decided to turn down a nearby alley and find something to eat.
A ways down the street I noticed a small house with fish tanks out front. As I walked past it, staring at the pictures of food on the windows, a man a picnic table out front called out in broken English: “Hey! You food?”
I nodded, and he invited me inside. The restaurant was a converted house run by him and his family. His son was the cook, chain-smoking as he slaved over a wok in the back, black soot and grease stains lining the walls. The first floor was just the kitchen and some picnic tables, and I wondered if they lived upstairs as I sat down. The man produced a menu, all in Chinese, and smiled a gap-filled grin. I perused the menu, disregarding the words and looking only at the pictures until I saw an image of something any self-respecting American has had delivered a hundred times: Bell peppers and beef. I pointed to it, and the man exclaimed “Ahh…Beef Peppah.”
He gave me a thumbs up, dragging on a cigarette all the while. “Tsingtao?”
I nodded, and he produced a massive bottle of beer from a nearby cooler while his wife produced a plastic wrapped batch of dinnerware. He plopped down with a couple friends at a nearby table, and chatted in Chinese as his wife peeled open the containers and filled one with rice from a cooker on a grimy table.
I sipped my beer and watched the family: the husband gesturing at the paper and talking with his friends, pausing often to shout random things about my size-sixteen feet. The mother, smiling slightly as she showed the oblivious foreigner how to take cling wrap off serving dishes. The son, who put back four cigarettes as he whipped red chunks of beef and crisp bell pepper in a wok with sauce from a stained bottle. Finally, he produced my meal and handed it to the mother, who set it in front of me and stepped back to watch. The husband took a long drag on his cigarette as I took a bite.
I can describe that meal, definitively, as the best Chinese food I have ever eaten in my life. Nothing has ever come close. I have eaten at five-star restaurants in luxury hotels that paled compared to this meal cooked up by a chain-smoking teenager in a rundown basement family restaurant in Shanghai.
It was life changing, and I tried to convey that as best I could. The husband smiled knowingly and gave me a thumbs up while his wife relayed it to their son, who calmly popped another cigarette in his mouth and nodded with grim satisfaction. I paid my grand total of six American dollars and thanked them profusely as I wandered back into the street, still dazed and overwhelmed by the food.
I looked at my watch. It was time to head back to the airport, to my impending red-eye flight to Saigon and to the next stage of another life-shaping adventure.
I’ve finished my first week in South Korea, and I love the adventures I’m facing. There are aspects of the culture that allude me, but there are parts of it that I feel like I fit into comfortably. However, it can be kind of scary only knowing how to say about five phrases, because eventually you’re going to run into a situation where “Thank you” and “Where’s the bathroom” are not helpful, like in my first Korean cab ride as I journeyed from the Daegu airport to the campus where I’m now living. I self-consciously told the driver, “Hanguk-mal-moteyo” (more or less, “I don’t speak Korean.”), and the awkward chuckle we shared was followed by a 20-minute silence, unless you count the sound of me praying that we were headed to the right destination and that I wasn’t going to end up dead somewhere my first time out of the country.
But, I’m alive, and I have no complaints about this beautiful place. Here are some thoughts on how it made an impressive first impression:
Korean society is group-oriented, and so respect for others is essential. For instance, the monorail that runs through Chilgok has Smart windows, meaning they fog over when passing housing districts, allowing privacy for commuters and people in their homes. Additionally, they have special seats reserved for the elderly, the disabled, and those who are pregnant or have children with them. They also expect you to be quiet on the monorail, like it’s a public library, since commuting is often the downtime of people’s busy days. All of this ensures people are given the space they need to function and have some peace. In the U.S., I’ve yet to encounter the same value of public consideration for others.
Korea has its classy down. On the flight from Incheon to Daegu, they played classical music before take off and after we descended, and the overhead lights turned a calming blue. The flight attendants were 1960s well-dressed. They wore kerchiefs around their collars and fancy bows in their perfect hair. They wore classy gray or turquoise (as I’ve seen them) dress suits. American flight attendants are generally very friendly and good at their jobs, but I just can’t emphasize enough how unclassy Americans seem to look compared to Koreans, at least on a general scale. And I know I’m basing this sweeping generalization on very few observations, but I don’t have time or money to conduct proper research, so my conclusions still stand. Korea is just so classy. Deal with it. Please?
“But,” you protest, “what about those horrible squatty potties???” You might not think that squatty potties, essentially porcelain holes in the ground, are all that classy. “We sit on thrones of porcelain glory!” you insist. No no no. Sit down and shut up, dear reader.
I am all about the squatty potties. I’m at the point where I’m actually disappointed if I open a public stall and it’s not a squatty potty. Here’s why: There is research out there that talks about how our bodies are made to excrete at the angle that squatting allows, as evidenced by the colon and other bowel-related ailments that started after the invention of the modern toilet. So, as long as you have legs that bend and you pull your pants down appropriately, it’s so natural. Super natural even. And if you’re a slight germophobe like me, then you don’t enjoy sitting where so many others have sat their butts, anyway. The benefit of squatty potties is that there is no butt-sitting that will ensure the exchange of butt germs. It’s a miracle! The flushing knob is also close to the floor so you can just step on it instead of touching it with your hand, or pushing it with your foot like I do. And, yeah, I know: “But you’ll get pee-pee on your shoes. Ew!” Yes, yes, this is inevitable, especially if the person who squatted before you was drunk, but Koreans also have an etiquette that suggests, if not requires, you to take off your shoes when entering homes or restaurants like the one I went to my first night in Chilgok, where we sat on the floor–the night I stepped in a drunk person’s urine a little bit (with my shoes on, mind you). So there, everyone. Squatty potties for the win!
In addition to my growing love of Korea and squatty potties, I’m proud of myself for taking risks, however small. Five years ago, I would never have imagined myself living in another country on my own. The night of my first full day at DGEV, everyone went out for chicken and beer for a coworker’s birthday. Jet lag hasn’t affected me very much since I’ve gotten here, so even though the other new teachers were not up to going, I hopped on the shuttle and followed my coworkers to Chilgok. If I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have met a young couple who told me they went to church. If I was still the hyper-cautious, shy person that I was five years ago, I wouldn’t have asked them if I could tag a long. So now I have church buddies. This trip off campus was also a good start to getting to know more people I would be working with. As soon as I stepped off the shuttle, a girl put her arm around me and asked me about myself. That meant a lot to me. They welcomed me into their group, and I felt like I belonged, even though I couldn’t read the hangul that faced me in every direction, even though I barely knew these people.
At Chicken Daily, we sat on the floor at a low table in our socks and chopstick-fed ourselves breaded chicken. I had a shot of peach-flavored soju which did not exactly taste like juice as someone had promised me, but it was much, much better than the beer, which was real bad, just as they promised.
I’ve had great food so far. Our cafeteria, unlike most school cafeterias in Korea, is quite good. The rice is sticky and I don’t have to eat tentacles with every meal. There are also always American options, too, even if that just means chicken nuggets or a PB&J sandwich. And, again, I can’t complain. I will take fried, breaded sweet potatoes or kimchi or tentacles over something I would have eaten in America. Because it’s different, and that’s what’s exciting.