So last evening I hooked up with the brother of someone I know over in the states, and was entertained to the fullest in Korean style. Now, let me make it clear that when a Korean decides to entertain someone, there are few things they won’t do or offer – they are very big on making a good impression and demonstrating their hospitality.
So I was picked up at a subway station at like nine thirty at night and driven an hour out of Seoul to Yangpyong to their Bed and Breakfast, where the man of the house had a wood fire burning in the barbecue pit and a grill full of various meats, vegetables, corn and potatoes. And so, in the cool and fresh mountain air, we sat around outside at the picnic table and ate and talked until after midnight (anytime my dish came anywhere near empty it was refilled with twice as much as before), and as the last embers died down in the barbecue pit, I was escorted to my own suite for sleep.
Now this place is made up like a mountain lodge, the entire interior is in bright pine paneling, there is a freestanding fireplace in the main room, and each of the guest rooms has its own bathroom and kitchenette. Oh, and the bathroom has a real, modern, western-style shower, even with the massaging jets. And so rather full, refreshed, and lying in bed I drifted off to sleep to the “gaegul” sound of Korean frogs calling out into the night.
In the morning, after a light breakfast of an egg-and-cheese sandwich on toast, it was a brief stint of watching Korean celebrity game shows (an experience not to be missed, especially if you have no clue what they are saying - I mean, some of these make Mexican television look downright understandable) and a live baseball game from the United States (a Korean plays for the Florida Marlins). Then it was into the cars and off to a restaurant for some Chunju Papsang. Now, the Chunju meal is one where there are many, many side dishes (28 for our brunch), and that is in addition to the rice, the two platters of spicy fish, the soup and the Nuroonji.
Now, for those of you who are not familiar with Nuroonji (and who knows what the English spelling is supposed to be), I have a theory on this particular dish, which is basically leftover burnt rice with boiled water. When Koreans cooked rice over a fire, it was in big stoneware or iron bowls. Inevitably, the rice around the edges browned, burnt, and stuck to the bowl. So the Koreans came up with a clever way of encouraging their children to do the dishes for them. The decided that, if you boil some water in the used rice bowl, it will not only un-stick the stuck-on burnt rice, but also make a “treat” for the kids.
Thus, after scooping our rice out of our hot bowls and putting it into different bowls, we poured boiling water over the stuck-on rice, covered the bowls with tight-fitting wooden lids, and let them sit while we completed our brunch, after which we uncovered the bowls and ate the mushy rice-water that is Nuroonji.
Now, lest you get some idea that I look down on this particular after-dinner treat, you are very wrong. First, any culture that can turn pre-treating the dishes into a favorite snack is pretty darn clever. Second, it isn’t too bad. And finally, there is always the Nuroonji candy you can get, which is supposed to taste like burnt rice, or more accurately rice that has in effect caramelized along the edge of an iron bowl.
After this, it was a drive along the river and through small villages, all in the process of getting me back to Seoul in time for my 2:00PM meeting. Now, aside from the excessive quantities of food, the free lodging and the offer to take me to an escort bar (I graciously turned that one down), the Korean hospitality took its usual excesses. First of all, there was the whirlwind nature of the visit, including the two hour-long drives just to pick me up and drop me off. Then, during the midnight barbecue, my host started giving me the decorations from his outside pavilion, including a set of brass bells used by a Korean shamen and a larch Ching (a sort of high-pitched Korean gong used in the samulnori).
Then, back in Seoul, but early for my meeting, he wouldn’t let me carry my own backpack, then took me for a coke (which he bodily stopped me from paying for), bought me five tickets to tonight’s lottery, and bought a gift for my son. Now THIS is the excess of Korean hospitality. And I wont even mention his arguments with his family over what to do (calling his wife on the cell phone every five minutes to have her bring something else outside to the barbecue) and his dragging them around for brunch when they only wanted to sleep in and relax…
But this is some of the excess of Korean character that has endeared them to me. This is not atypical behavior – they are constantly trying to give you their belongings, buy things for you and your family, give up their time and space for you, and, if you allow them, they will even bring themselves to the verge of alcohol poisoning just to make sure you have a good time.
But anyway, tomorrow morning is an early (5:20 AM) train ride down to Kwangju on the KTX (my first bullet train experience – 350km/h). Then it is a few days there for the May 18 memorials, then finally, after more than a month, I will hop a plane back to the States, to my waiting family.