Hayley Teacher blahblahblahblah-yeyo, said the cooking lady.
After nearly 4 years, this is still the extent of my understanding when she speaks. Fail.
It was lunch time, and for the third day this week we were eating one of my favourite meals. This is partly because kindergarten is finished and there are no children, and we’re always treated to lunches of near banquet proportions when there are only a handful of teachers and not a hundred kids to feed. However, it is also partly because this is my final week, and the cooking lady is either trying to tell me she loves me through food, or ensure that I eat enough to keep me going for weeks after I leave the school.
So, for three days in a row we had a sort of countdown of Hayley’s Favourite Korean Foods, and yesterday’s was the best meal we’ve ever had at school. Dakdoritang/Dakbokkeumtang, the spicy chicken stew I raved about in a previous post and even took back ingredients to cook it for my family during a visit home.
Everyone was very happy. We gathered around the table and ate until we could eat no more and then we ate some more.
Aw, I will miss that kiddy-sized table with the far-too-small chairs and all the teachers crowded around slurping their soup and smacking their lips in that disturbing Korean way. I will miss the gorgeous soups and stews and the freshly made kimchi and the delicious meats and sauces and noodles.
But more than all that, I will miss the cooking lady, known to me only as Ajumma.
Hayley Teacher blahblahblahblah-yeyo, she said, as I mentioned earlier. She was watching me with an odd expression on her face – her usual delight at watching me enjoy one of the meals she knows I love, but also sadness, presumably about the fact that no other teacher will ever eat as much as I do, and with such evident pleasure.
I looked at my director for translation, as usual. She says she is very sad that you are leaving, and she wants you to remember her food. I grinned happily at them as I scooped more stew on to my spoon. I will always remember her food! I assured them, mumbling through a mouthful of chicken.
Something else was said, and my director looked sort of emotional. She says that tomorrow is a very sad day because it is her last time to cook for you. She wants you to tell her what you want for your last lunch, and she will make it.
I looked at the kind, motherly face with the gentle smile that I have grown so fond of over the years, and had another pang of “I can’t do this!”. Yukgaejang, I choked out, trying to pretend the tears in my eyes were a result of the spiciness of the stew. There was some discussion; people looked dissatisfied. Are you sure? they asked me. You can have anything, anything! Yukgaejang is not very special. It is very simple.
This is true. I have yukgaejang all the time in diners and train station restaurants. It’s my favourite soup. It’s cheap and basic. But no one, no one, not even the fanciest restaurant I’ve eaten it in, makes it half as well as the cooking lady. She has magical yukgaejang powers. Her yukgaejang is my absolute, top, number one, favourite food from my Korean experience. It is a drug to me. If you read this old post, you will perhaps begin to understand the extent of my feelings for the cooking lady’s yukgaejang.
I explained this to the disappointed colleagues who were clearly hoping for a feast of barbecued meats and the like. I want yukgaejang, I said obstinately.
I came downstairs today to find the table laden with steaming bowls of heaven, and the cooking lady looking anxiously at me to see if I noticed.
She got the biggest hug any school cook has ever received from a teacher.
I, in return, ate yukgaejang until it physically hurt me to eat any more, and I had to turn away the latest in the steady stream of newly filled bowls that kept appearing in front of me. It’s all over, I declared sadly, looking around the lunch table for the last time.
Goodbye, sweet cooking lady. Thank you for being my Mum Away From Home. Sarangheyo – very, very much. So long, and thanks for all the soup.