I spent nearly an hour in front of an immigration officer and I like to think that the panic in my eyes convinced him to take pity on me. I’ll spare you the details except for the fact I started to question my entire existence. Should I just hop on a cargo ship to Russia?
Luckily the nice man, who made a string of phone calls and also seemed alive inside unlike the poor lost souls at Seoul immigration, even printed extra copies of a paper I needed. Faith in humanity restored! I bowed and thanked him as I left.
I called my friend and wandered into an alley off the main road to hear her over the icy wind. That’s when I discovered a little time capsule.
At the end of this street was a dusty looking warehouse that seemed to have a cafeteria inside. An old woman stepped outside to rearrange the menu sign and nicely didn’t comment on my awkward loitering.
The menu of four items had kimbap and noodles for half the price of even a local restaurant. But it was so intimidating, so very local and Korean and I felt embarassing in my foreigner skin. Was I Korean enough for this? I left. Then came back. Then I circled the dusty warehouse a few times to build up courage.
“I don’t even like noodles,” I thought.
“But you like experiences! Just go in! Old ladies don’t bite!”
I walked past an empty garage, weaved my way through motorbike parking, and slid the dusty plastic door open. My first thought was, like a saloon, everyone would stop eating to stare at me.
Luckily, not so. There were three little cooking stations, each surrounded by a U shaped bar. Almost like what you see in a sushi restaurant. Dilly dallying was not going to make me any less weird so I sat down at the first of three stations which happened to be hosted by the woman adjusting the sign earlier.
My taste in noodles is very specific and limited to: naengmyeon (chewy buckwheat noodles over ice) and malabokkeummyeon (Chinese egg noodles stir fried in mala sauce). I will on occasion accept noodles if they are 1. spicy or 2. chewy like the handmade ramen that you get at rabokki restaurants. Generally I find noodles in broth to be uninspiring, but I can see why people might like something warm and mild.
Kalguksu are handcut wheat noodles in broth. I watched my lady throw a chunk of dough in the pasta flattener and then hand cut it into separate strands. Very fun to witness, especially given there were only a few other patrons and people-watching was limited.
Sitting in the warehouse with people hand-making noodles and chopping ingredients for the dinner rush, it really felt like I had gone back in time to the 1970s. The sign outside did say something about “fifty years ago…”
I ate as many as the noodles as I could given I’m not a general fan and noodles are extremely filling. Towards the bottom of the bowl a woman wiping the counter next to me asked in Korean if I needed more broth. I was already stuffed or otherwise I would have said yes. Your girl loves broth, and I needed a vehicle for the pepper slices and seasoning that were out on the counter. Do you think they would let me buy just broth next time?
Now that I’m no longer working with the nutritionist (I learned a lot and it’s time to go my own way with the knowledge), I’m aiming to eat a lot more Korean food. One to re-acclimate and two to get out of the house.\
At the bar, there were large water bottles filled with light brown liquid. I asked the woman what it was and if I could drink it.
“Yes. It’s water.”
I’ve had it before, long long before, at a Korean restaurant in Gainesville with my exchange friends. I didn’t take to it then but I really like it now. This is coming from someone who now drinks Korean raisin tea on a regular basis.
“What is it?” I asked when I was paying. In cash, I don’t think they can even take card.
Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.
I’m really glad I went and I also recognize how important knowing Korean is. There wasn’t an English word in sight but my brain no longer separates an English menu from a Korean menu. In ways both monumental and minuscule, language is a door. Both a cat door and a garage door, if you will.
The experience also makes me think of this again: in Busan I feel like a person. I may always be a foreigner but today I was a customer first and what a lovely little feeling to have.