I’m a Korean mother, and I can’t help it.

When I was growing up, I never experienced a summer of complete freedom. My mother believed in the power of math workbooks as fervently as she believed in the power of the Bible. Every day I would have to labor away doing the prescribed five pages of what she called “Daily Math.” Ugh. I hated it with every fiber of my being. My friends were spending their days at the swimming pool, at summer camp, or just loafing around watching tv. How Korean of my mother, I thought, to ruin my summer by making me do math!

I vowed to myself that if I ever had children of my own, I would let them enjoy their summers unencumbered by scholastic assignments. When I finally did have children, I remembered that vow. I signed those kids up for all kinds of fun summer camps and activities. I’d pull into the parking lot to pick them up, basking in the glow of virtue you feel whenever you do a kind turn for someone.

“Oh, thank you, beloved mother,” I could practically hear them say, “Thank you for letting us go to this magical place where we could work on God’s eyes rather than algebra problems!”

“Thank you, sweetest and kindest of mothers, for letting us frolic with our friends getting bronzed in the golden sun, rather than making us hunch over a math workbook at the kitchen table all day growing as pale as grubs…”

But no. Every day, three slump-shouldered, resentful grouches would climb into the car and inform me that they didn’t want to do “Summer Playground” or “World Cup Soccer Camp” or anything really, other than hang out at home. “Don’t sign us up for any more camps!” was the message I heard loud and clear, and I was actually ok with that.

So this summer the kids basically became feral. I would come home from work to see them sprawled in exaggerated poses of relaxation as if they were posing as allegorical statues of Indolence, Sloth, and Torpor. I bore it for as long as I could, but as it turns out, I’m way more Korean than I thought I was. Their sleepy eyes, uncombed hair, and languid movements began to offend me. I literally couldn’t help myself. I started leaving them lists of things to accomplish by the time I got back from work. Nothing too onerous, mind you! The tasks were on the order of: “Load dishwasher,” “Do one load of laundry,” or “Put shoes away in the mudroom.” But every once in a while I’d slip in a small directive that might require slightly more effort:

  • Brainstorm ways to alleviate the refugee crisis.
  • Come up with an action plan to reunify the two Koreas.
  • Find a cure for cancer.

The other day I overheard my son talking to his younger sister.

“Now when Mom asks me what I’ve been doing all day, I can honestly tell her I really have been working on a cure for cancer!”

Apparently the kid has connected his computer to a massive global project out of Stanford University, which harnesses the collective power of volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers. I can’t really understand the science of it all. (Despite my mother’s attempts to stack the deck with “Daily Math,” all those workbooks did nothing but send me reeling straight into the torrid embrace of Russian Literature). But here’s what the website has to say:

“Help Stanford University scientists studying Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and many cancers by simply running a piece of software on your computer. The problems we are trying to solve require so many calculations, we ask people to donate their unused computer power to crunch some numbers.”

You can check it out for yourself here:

http://folding.stanford.edu

and here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folding@home

As far as I can tell, the boy has discovered a way to plug into an astonishing feat of alchemy by which supreme laziness is transformed into something rather enterprising…It’s genius, really, and it makes this Korean mother so proud!

Related post: Amadeus and my own preternaturally precocious offspring.

Oh deer.

foxIt’s a wild kingdom in my backyard. First, this fox appeared. Since spotting him, I’ve been trying to convince my daughter that this is a pretty clear sign that keeping pet ducks is not a good idea. So far, she’s not buying it. It’s true the fox hasn’t done a thing about the fat, lumbering groundhogs that have taken up residence under the barn and run-in shed. We saw our adopted kitty lurking around one of the huge holes they’ve made, but at half their size, I can’t imagine what she could possibly do to deter them from their destructive burrowing.

And then there are the deer. Recently, a whole herd of deer has been camping out in my backyard. Today I counted ten of them. Just looking at them makes me feel itchy. Almost every one in my family has been treated for Lyme Disease at one time or another, thanks to deer ticks. Once my husband stopped his car to let a deer cross the road. Instead of saying “thank you” and going on his merry way, the deer rammed into the car and put a huge dent in it. Furthermore: I find their eating habits deplorably rude. The yard is lush with weeds. I wouldn’t mind one bit if they ate those, but instead, they go for the plants I’ve bought and lovingly cultivated. They treat my garden like an all you can eat salad bar. Which is all to say: I don’t like deer.

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Oh sure! Make yourself at home! Can I pour you a drink?

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If only they could do something useful, like graze in straight rows…

I’m trying to live with it. It helped to read up on deer symbolism in Korean culture. Because they are beautiful and gentle (except when they are ramming into the side of a car), they are considered to be holy animals. Deer are often portrayed in Korean art as one of the ten symbols of longevity along with the sun, mountains, water, stones, clouds, pine trees, turtles, cranes, and mushrooms of immortality. They are associated with longevity because their antlers are ground up and used medicinally and because when they’re not greedily helping themselves to my garden, they are supposedly adept at finding those mushrooms of immortality. Finally, deer are associated with friendship because they travel in herds. When they move from one location to another, they turn their heads to make sure they don’t leave anyone behind. I’m not so sure I’m going to make friends with these deer, but as long as they stay in the paddock, I think we can maintain a cool civility.

 

 

Jook & Jeju Island

This is what we’ve been eating almost every day for breakfast (and sometimes lunch and dinner too!) since Thanksgiving.

I tried jook aka congee aka rice porridge for the first time sixteen years ago in a hotel in Jeju Island. I had never tasted it as a child. My mother never cooked it, because my father wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’s probably the unfussiest eater I know, but jook reminds him too much of the thin gruel he had to eat as a malnourished child growing up in war-ravaged Korea.

As for me, the taste of jook was a revelation – a mellow, homey, cozy dish that tastes like a warm hug from someone you love. I have dreamt about it all these many years. I don’t know why it took me so long to finally try to make it, because it’s dead simple, really. It’s the perfect winter comfort food. It would make a great baby food, because it’s so easily digested. In fact, it’s sometimes fed to convalescents, because it’s so mild. Finally, it’s an easy way to use up the remains of a Thanksgiving turkey or a rotisserie chicken, bones and all. Have I convinced you? I’ll share the recipe with you at the end of this post, but first – Jeju Island.

I lived in Korea from the age of 8 months to about 3 years. About 16 years ago, my parents took me back to Korea for the first time since we moved back to the U.S.  We visited Jeju Island, a tropical island off the southern coast of Korea with dramatic lava formations, gardenia bushes taller than humans, and citrus and palm trees. It’s the traditional honeymoon destination for Koreans and a favorite vacation spot. Dutch sailors are known to have shipwrecked on the island in the 17th century. This perhaps explains why there is a distinctive, more Caucasian look to people from Jeju Island. My mother’s family has roots here. Her maternal grandfather owned a factory there that capitalized on its natural resources; it produced buttons made out of shells and canned sea food for export to China.

We traveled all over the island in a rickety old tour bus hung with ratty floral curtains of indeterminate vintage. Our tour guide told us that Jeju Island is famous for three abundances – wind, rocks, and women.

At a Stone Sculpture Garden, we saw plenty of rocks:

and creative depictions of the culture of the Jeju of old…

The Dol Harubang is the symbol of Jeju Island. They were carved out of the plentiful black volcanic rock and strategically placed around the island to scare off demons or invaders.

With their suggestive shape, they are also considered a symbol of fertility. Rub the nose for a boy, or an ear for a girl.

During the Joseon Dynasty, Jeju was used as a penal colony for political exiles and as a place for horse-breeding. One of the stops on our tour took us to a horse ranch. While all the other chump tourists donned doofy looking hats and red vests to ride, I settled myself on a comfy bench next to my mother, and prepared to watch.

My mother nudged me and said, “I think you should ride.” (N.B. – She did not suggest that we should ride).

“Hunh?! Really?” I asked, “Why?!”

“When else will you have a chance to ride a horse?”

I’ve never been a horse person. In fact, horses scare me. I had had opportunities to ride before, but had always declined them. My mother’s suggestion that I ride, delivered so earnestly and with a slight undercurrent of urgency, was so surprising to me that I, as if under a spell, got up off the bench and suited up. No matter that I was wearing a long sundress and had never been on a horse in my life, my mother’s wish was my command.

The horses lined up for what I thought would be an easy amble around the track.

Suddenly, a scrawny man in a wife beater rode up on a moped, and started blowing a whistle. The horses took off running:

I clung to the horse’s back as we whipped around the track. I miraculously managed to stay on my horse, but the next day I felt like I had been hurled down ten flights of stairs and had then been trampled by an angry mob all wearing soccer cleats.

“Moooom! I’m like a sack of broken bones. I can barely walk!”

My mother complacently listened to me complain about the pain for days.

The most illuminating discovery for me was that Jeju Island is known for its strongly matriarchal social structure, which is unusual for Korea. The women of Jeju Island are famous for their strength, indomitable spirit, and iron wills. Another revelation which explained so much!

Our tour guide explained to us how this social structure came to be. Men who fell out of favor with the king were banished to this tropical island paradise. And then – oh, the cruelty! – they were forbidden to work. Instead, they were forced to sit back and watch their spouses work. The women became “pearl divers” or haenyeo. These women were mythologized as mermaids:

…but in fact, diving is a hard and dangerous job. You can still see haenyeo bobbing around in the ocean these days, but the profession is dying out with the last of the elderly women who practice it. For centuries, the women have dived underwater for minutes at a time with no breathing apparatus.

We probably ate some of their catch at one of the restaurants we went to:

Waitresses kept bringing plate after plate until the long low table we were seated at was covered with seafood. Some of the seafood arrived at the table ablaze; many of the dishes were so fresh, that the creatures were still wriggling. As uncultured as it may seem, I couldn’t eat a thing and had to avert my gaze for the entire meal.

Luckily for me, I was filling up every morning with jook, a daily staple of the breakfast buffet at the Hyatt Regency:

Jook

Ingredients:

1 cup rice

6 cups water or broth

1 turkey or chicken carcass, bones and any leftover meat

Sesame oil

Soy sauce

Roasted, salted seaweed

Scallions sliced thin

Bring to a boil the rice, water/broth, and the turkey or chicken carcass. Lower heat and simmer for about an hour. Remove as many bones as possible. (I can never manage to get them all out, but the kids have become adept at discreetly fishing them out while eating). Put in a dash of sesame oil and a dash of soy sauce. Sprinkle a little seaweed and scallions on top. That’s my bare bones version, but the possibilities are endless. The hotel restaurant had lots of other things you could sprinkle on top such as shredded marinated beef and abalone.

 

Poison Ivy

I couldn’t bring myself to post anything all last week, because on top of an extremely challenging and stressful week at work, I’ve been dealing with an incapacitating poison ivy rash. I must have rubbed up against some poison ivy by mistake when I foolishly ventured outdoors a few weeks ago. (When will I ever learn?! Indoor kitties should stay INDOORS). 

For more than two weeks now I have been dealing with a repulsive, oozing rash. Whenever I see people (and I see people ALL DAY LONG), I feel compelled to blurt out awkward things like, “Oh, hi, I swear I don’t have leprosy or Ebola…it’s just poison ivy. The pus isn’t contagious, but you probably don’t really want to shake my hand.”

Just poison ivy, but the itching! – the torturous, unrelenting itching that has brought me more than once to tears of despair! I can only describe the feeling as having insects crawling underneath my skin. I have become a bag lady, toting ice packs everywhere I go. Ice is the only thing that brings any kind of relief, and believe me, I’ve tried everything.

My mother was aghast when I turned up at her house last weekend, dripping from ugly patches all over my arms and legs. Unable to sleep for worry over her miserable daughter, my poor dear mama got up in the middle of the night to consult with everyone’s favorite primary care physician, Dr. Internet, who told her that chicken was the cure. I woke up to the smell of chicken soup. Even though I stopped eating meat years ago, I ate bowl after bowl of the soup, and maybe a dozen eggs that weekend. At this point, I would eat raw, pulverized worms if I thought it would help. Alas, the chicken cure has not had any discernible effect. What’s more, when I later googled “chicken” and “poison ivy” myself, I could find nothing. Could this all have been a ruse devised by my crafty mother to get me to eat meat again?

“Do you think it’s because Mom was searching on Korean websites?” I asked my husband.

“Of course,” he replied with an authoritative air, “She would have been looking on mudang.co.kr or something like that.”

Mudang means shaman in Korean.

If I thought insurance would pay for it, I’d ask to be put into an induced coma for a couple weeks. I’ve resorted to knocking myself out by trying sleeping pills for the first time in my life, with mixed results. I’ve engaged in fisticuffs with my husband, who tries to grab my desperately clawing hand to prevent me from tearing at my festering pustules.

Well. If you’re still reading, I’m astonished. Thank you for indulging me. I know there’s nothing more tedious than to hear someone complaining endlessly, so I will conclude this mournful lament with a solemn vow to never speak of such things ever again and a whimper: uuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggggggghhhhhwwwwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

 

Kings and Queens

I sent an email to my mother the other day, asking her to ask my dad for clarification of our lineage for my Last Day in Seoul post. You may be wondering why I would be emailing my mom, when it’s my dad who had the answer I was looking for. My dad is a brilliant man, but is completely flummoxed by anything more technologically advanced than his beloved yellow legal pads and fountain pens. He has never typed a single word of his gazillion books by himself. He has never once had his own email account…Oh hang on, I totally take that back. The man is a freaking genius! 

Getting no response, I ended up writing a very generic description of the facts as I remembered them in my post. Yesterday, my dad used my mother’s account to finally send a message back to me. I’m guessing she probably typed it up for him as he dictated it to her. In it, he outlined our ancestry in painstaking detail going as far back as, no joke, 247 AD. It was all dryly factual, perhaps with the exception of his recounting of the well-known legend of our ancestor Alji, who “as a baby came out of a Golden Box, which was found in a tree.”

Here’s an excerpt to give you a general idea:

King Kyung Soon, the last king of the Silla dynasty had three sons. The first was called Prince Ma Eui, who…became a Buddhist monk and left no children. The second son was Prince Kye Rim and he was named Grand Duke of Kum Seung and is the first forefather of our branch of Kims. My father was the 36th generation of Prince Kye Rim…My mother was the 17th generation of Admiral Soon Shin Lee of the Lee Dynasty, the well-known admiral who defeated the Japanese Navy of 350 warships with 13 fishing boats at the Noryang Battle…

At the end of my dad’s very long message was this editorial comment:

Adrienne, what is most important to us and to your children is the fact that we could all become like Kings and Queens. If we live and behave as decent human beings, we will be recognized as Kings and Queens. 

Love, 

Dad

Happy weekend to all you Kings and Queens out there.

Last Day in Seoul

On our last day in Seoul, my sister and I took a walk to Gwanghwamun Square. It was overcast and smoggy, but there was plenty to see on our walk toward Gyeongbokgung Palace. The palace and monuments leading up to it are impressively situated with the majestic Bugaksan Mountain as a backdrop.

We walked past the 40th Anniversary Monument of Gojong’s Enthronement. Gojong (1852-1919) was the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, and the first emperor of Korea.

For some reason I found myself drawn to these little figures on the gate…

They reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on…and then I remembered:

Admiral Yi (1545-1598) is one of Korea’s greatest heroes, a naval commander who never lost a single battle. He is famous for his victories over the Japanese navy and for improving upon a warship called the turtle ship or geobukseon:

My dad once told me long ago that we were related to Admiral Yi. Genealogy is a big deal in Korea. Many people have books listing all of their ancestors for generations among their most prized possessions. I know my family has one somewhere. Sure, there are a gazillion Kims, but are you the right kind of Kim? Certain Kim bloodlines have more cachet than others. This information is important when marriages are being considered. You wouldn’t want to marry a Kim from the same ancestral clan, for example. When I was in high school I had to do an oral presentation on our family history. When I asked my dad for some details, he casually told me that we were directly descended not only from the great Admiral Yi, but also from kings and queens of the Silla Dynasty. I was puffed with pride and my classmates were suitably impressed when I wove that fact into my presentation. It was only years later that I realized that EVERY Korean person is somehow related to some king, queen, (or illustrious admiral).

Still, I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that we were related to Admiral Yi as I walked past the exhibits on his life and accomplishments in the museum below street level, underneath his and King Sejong the Great’s statues.

The Admiral was as bad-ass as they come:

He was inventive, resourceful, and creative:

He was a poet…

And look! Great Grandpa Sun-sin loved keeping a diary – it was his most prized possession:

Later that day, with my head full of all the amazing things I had learned about my forebear, I asked my dad to remind me how exactly we were related to Admiral Yi. He told me he was his mother’s great x 17 grandfather. I waited for him to point out all of our ancestor’s excellent traits and qualities and to confirm all the connections I had made myself. Instead he said this would explain why my grandmother was “unusually large and husky” for a Korean woman.

This explains so much! 

You can just start calling me The Admiral from now on.

Just past the statue of Admiral Yi is the statue of King Sejong the Great (1397-1450), which was erected in 2009. King Sejong was an enlightened ruler, who is most famous for creating the simple, phonetic 28 letter Korean alphabet so that everyone could be literate. One of the most interesting features of this alphabet is that the shapes of the letters are meant to depict the shape of the mouth and tongue when making the sounds. Before the creation of Hangul, only the upper classes could read and write, because Korean at the time relied so heavily on the use of Chinese characters. Scholars and noblemen opposed the creation of the alphabet, fearing that it would sour relations with China and go against Confucian principles, but King Sejong persisted in working toward his vision of universal literacy:

The language of our people is different from that of Chinese and hence cannot be expressed properly in Chinese characters. That is why there are many simple-minded people who can not express themselves even if they have things to say. Taking pity on them, I have made twenty eight letters, only hoping that all our people learn them easily and use them comfortably every day.

I can attest to the ease of learning how to read and write Korean – my mother once taught this simple-minded person how to do it in an hour. Now if only I knew what I was reading and writing!

Past the statue of King Sejong is Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 as the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty. It was destroyed by the Japanese in 1592 and after being rebuilt, it was destroyed again by the Japanese in 1915. Restoration to its original form began in 1990 and is ongoing.

On the extensive grounds of the palace are several museums, including the National Folk Museum.

Korean jangseung, or totems like these were often placed at village entrances, often in male and female pairs, to ward off evil spirits, protect against disease, and to ensure a good harvest. The inscriptions are identifiers. The male figure is “Great General Under Heaven” and the female figure is “Great General of the Underworld.” Now that has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?

There was an impressive collection of stone statues of civil servants. Statues such as these are often placed to stand guard at the graves of important people.

One area of the grounds has been designed to recreate a street in the 70s. My family moved to Korea for a couple years when I was a baby in the early 70s. I was too young to remember anything about it, but I thought it might bring back memories for my sister.

She once told me that all the kids had to bring candles to school. They would wax the floors with them on their hands and knees…

The 70s recreation did spark one memory for me…I was very excited to see this poster hanging on a wall. First, check out the Korean version of Audrey Hepburn:

For as long as I can remember, my dad’s been trying to convince me to cut my hair short. He always begins his pitch by talking about how when the movie Roman Holiday came out in Korea, all the women ran out to get their hair cut like Audrey Hepburn’s!

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The next morning we headed to the airport…My mom especially wanted to make sure I got a picture of her with her brother and his hat! I love the fact that even in his seventies, he calls my mom noona, (big sister). He very solicitously made sure she didn’t have to wait in long lines like the rest of us schlubs!

I was touched to see that a whole party of people made the hour and a half drive to the airport to see my parents off:

One of the men told me that he had named his son after my grandfather and that his daughter has my mom’s name. He earned his doctorate in Systematic Theology, because my father first taught it to him. There was a lot of love for my parents in that airport. They may have never won any naval battles or sat on any thrones:

…(well, maybe just once), but they’ve lived their lives with integrity, and they’ve earned the respect and love of people on both sides of the globe. I’m proud to be their daughter.

This trip to Korea was an experience I will treasure for a lifetime, and I’m so grateful to have been able to share it with my parents and my sister.

The Great Admiral of the Underworld is signing off for now…Until next time!

Lumpy and Stupid Visit the Country, Part 2

I remember once long ago asking my father what part of Korea he was from. He told me and then added, “There’s absolutely no reason why you would have ever heard of it.” On Tuesday we drove two and a half hours south of Seoul to Yesan-gun in South Chungcheong Province to visit my father’s last living sibling. As we were driving there I looked it up on wikipedia and found that in 2009, it earned the designation of a “‘slow city,’ one in which traditional cultures and communities are preserved.” Its most famous native son is the resistance fighter Yoon Bong-Gil. In 1932 during the Japanese Occupation, he carried out a bombing in Shanghai which killed a Japanese general and a Chancellor. Left seriously wounded were an army commander, the Japanese Consul-General, and a special envoy. As we got closer, the view out the window was mostly muddy rice paddies and greenhouses. In the midst of this agricultural landscape, it was quite a startling sight to see the monolithic memorial in Yoon Bong-Gil’s honor decorated with what looked like a million Korean flags.

We pulled into a narrow alley and came to a stop here:

This is a newer house that was built in the place of the old hanok, where my father lived as a child. It is now occupied by the widow of one of his older brothers, the second woman to the left:

My father’s brother (furthest to the right) and his wife (furthest to the left) drove the short distance from their own house to meet us there.

I was delighted when my aunt brought out an ancient-looking photo album. We have very few photos of my father, and none of him as a child. I had never seen this photo before:

My dad is not in this photo, but pictured are a lot of my aunts and uncles. My grandmother is in the center, fifth from the left.

Here’s one of just my grandmother. My dad has always said I look like her:

What do you think?

We admired the garden and the cats in the courtyard before heading to lunch. The calico’s name is “Nabi,” or Butterfly – a generic cat name in Korea. I wish I knew what the other kitty’s name is…My mom says it was probably also Nabi!

The county’s other claim to fame is Sudeoksa, a Buddhist temple, which has been designated a National Treasure. We drove there for lunch along with busloads of tourists who had the same idea:

A pama (perm) and a bright colored jacket – the official uniform for tourism.

We took a few photos:

and then went to my uncle’s house:

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a picture of the whole house, which is perched on supports with the entryway on the second floor.

This is the view from the front entrance:

Inside the house we were thrilled to find:

25 day old poodle puppies!

and a sweet Yorkie.

Both dogs immediately took to my dad, who has always been a dog-lover. Now I’m thinking it’s genetic…

After letting the mother poodle finish up his yogurt…

…my uncle kept hand feeding her and the Yorkie something else. He would crunch something in his own mouth and then spit it into his own hand to feed both of the dogs in turn. I was dying to know what it was. Later my dad told me it was candy.

After hugs and farewells, we headed back to Seoul with a stop for dinner:

…where this:

became this: