When in Korea…

Friday being a national holiday for Buddha’s birthday (cheers for that, Buddha!), we all had a long weekend, and I took the opportunity to go with a few friends on an island-hopping trip. Korea has lots of beautiful islands, from the major holiday hotspot of Jeju-do to the many small, uninhabited islands. We went to Hongdo and Heuksando off the south-west coast, staying on Hongdo overnight and taking a cruise around the islands the next morning.

For the cruise, we had to be up to have breakfast at 6.30 and be on the boat by 7.30. This is all very new to me, not really being a morning person, but I found myself eating my very first traditional Korean breakfast nonetheless. I actually thought my students were joking (or just didn’t understand the question) when I was trying to find out what they have for breakfast and they said “kimchi and rice and soup”. I should have known it would be perfectly accurate! It was fine, much as I would have liked a bit of toast or a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. I suppose there’s no real reason why our breakfasts should be restricted to a few ‘acceptable’ food categories – it’s just a matter of what we’ve grown up associating with morning food. The Koreans have grown up eating soup and rice and fermented cabbage for breakfast. Nothing at all weird about it to them!

We had a Moaner on the trip – one of those people who complain about absolutely everything. The food is horrible, the bus is uncomfortable, the people are too loud, the shops are too expensive, the weather is too hot/wet/cold/whatever, we have to get up too early, the journey takes too long, this would all have been so much better if I’d organised it because I would have done X, Y and Z instead of A, B, and C… sigh. I used to know someone like this, and it just sucked the pleasure out of everything for me. He had to point out the flaws in everything and explain exactly how he would do it all better, whereas I tend to try to see the positives and just make the most of the experience. Nowadays, I can’t be bothered with – and tend to avoid or at least minimise contact with – people who want to nitpick everything and aren’t happy to just relax and enjoy the present for what it is. Look, come on, you’re in Korea, I said eventually to the Moaner in a soju-inspired-confidence moment, as politely as I could when I was basically telling him to give over, things are different here. We might not like it all, but it’s an experience. Go and rant on a blog or in an email or something, but for now why not just make the most of it? When in Korea…

It was this theory that led me to the point where I was on a ferry at nine in the morning drinking soju (Korea’s ubiquitous hard liquor, if you remember) and eating a plate of raw fish.

The cruise was great, taking us around the islands and giving us a commentary (not that we could understand it, as it was all in rapid Korean), but the best part for me was when a little fishing boat pulled up alongside us and tethered itself to our boat, proceeding to sell raw fish and soju to anyone who wanted it.

I went out to see what was going on and get a few photos of these mad people and their ways, but it seems that I have been living here too long, for I somehow returned with a familiar green bottle, some cardboard shot glasses, a handful of chopsticks, and a paper plate of raw fish.

Those of us who were more Enthusiastic Traveller than Moaner joined our Korean passengers in their decidedly unWestern breakfast, and a couple of us ended up loving it – even Irish Friend Three, who I admire because she doesn’t really like seafood but never refuses to try the next unusual fishy dish she is offered here. We scoffed it down and knocked back our soju and were singing merrily as we left the ferry not long after 9am.

Ah!! Soju! cried some elderly Korean men excitedly as they spotted the leftover soju stored for later use in a pocket of my backpack. They laughed delightedly and cheered and pointed and gave me huge thumbs up signs, grinning from ear to ear with pride and pleasure at the idea of a foreigner enjoying their national drink way of life. Happy! Happy!

I have to say, it was one of my best experiences so far, simply because I realised that I’m unlikely to repeat it in any other country in the world. To sit miserably in the corner dreaming of chips and pizza and complaining about the weather would have deprived me of the joy of getting to experience a very real slice of Korean culture. The Moaners can moan, but I’ve got fun, laughter, and memories that are just incredible to me (and, admittedly, a little bit of a hangover).

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” – James Michener


5 thoughts on “When in Korea…

  1. McBouncy says:

    So jealous of your adventures but have to confess I hate fish… but Im sure I would find some other local food to survive on. I miss you, we need to skype soon. Remind me on the best time to find you. xx

  2. Geri – thank you! And gombay! (Korean for cheers)
    McBouncy – I don’t really like fish either, although I love raw fish, sushi, sashimi etc. Koreans are very fond of fish stews which kind of turn my stomach a little. However, I do always try. And sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised! Re: Skype, we’re currently 8 hours ahead of you and I work 9-5. :)

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