It's been a while, I know. This past weekend was Solnal, the Lunar New Year, popularly (outside of Korea) known as the Chinese New Year. In Korea it's not anywhere near as cool as in the Wikipedia article I've linked to. It's more like Thanksgiving, with lots of food, meeting family, and traveling to visit relatives. As you can see in the photo above, we all got dressed up, even Maxine.
We had family over all weekend, and I cooked a big pot of chili con carne (very entertaining article about this popular food) for one meal.
It went over very well, complete with shredded cheddar cheese to mix in. I thought it was pretty good, too, though I deliberately made it a bit mild. Koreans always seem to think that Americans don't eat spicy food, but they have a hard time handling TexMex style spicy. I don't even like my chili as hot as some people. According to Wikipedia, I should have used some chili peppers instead of the Korean chili pepper paste that was available. Maybe next time.
Maxine, unfortunately, was not allowed to try it.
She had her usual fare: porridge. Not too hot, not too cold. She did get to try my dessert, though.
It's a very simple combination of different Jell-o and pudding mixes, layered in clear coffee cups, but it was a huge hit. Tae-ho ate two of them, and Maxine seemed to like it, too. It was impressive because Jell-o is one of those products that hasn't made it to Korea yet. This was the almost-end of my stash, which was originally intended for Popsicles. (Did you know that "Popsicle" was a trademarked name? God bless Wikipedia!)
Since moving in with Horyon's parents, I have cooked a few times. It's one of those things that connect people together in a unique way. Horyon's mother usually does all the cooking in their home, and she is a fine cook. Of course, Sookmo is a good cook, too. We made dumplings again this weekend, along with all the other foods customarily served for the New Year.
But this post is not about the big meals, it's about a small one.
When we moved in here, I was a bit worried about cooking. You see, I enjoy cooking from time to time, but cooking in someone else's kitchen is always kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's kind of fun to use the gadgets, spices and stuff that you don't have. On the other hand, it can be hard to figure out what's available, where things are, and what is acceptable to one's host. Add the language barrier like the one that exists between me and my mother-in-law, and it can be a daunting prospect.
Usually in situations like this, I tend to stall, but at this time I had a chicken from the grocery store that had been in the fridge for three days, and I wanted to do something with it before it decided to rise from the dead. So I braised it in some pepper steak sauce that I had recently bought. It was ready to eat around 7:30, too late for Maxine to eat it. Horyon and my father-in-law were both out, and Maxine had just eaten, so I sat down with my mother-in-law and we ate together.
It was nice. It's been two or three weeks since that meal, and as I look back, I can see that it was the beginning of the two of us getting into a comfort zone.
When I joined the Peace Corps, part of our training was a home stay: two weeks living with a family, sharing meals with them, practicing language with them, sleeping in their home, and learning how to live immersed in a very different culture. It didn't seem like an insurmountable challenge at the time. I had been through training with the other volunteers in both culture and language. It was my first time being in a foreign country, and I had no reason to think that I was unable to live up to it. Funny how bits of memory like that come up sometimes. I stayed in Gyansham Poudel's home almost twelve years ago, and don't think of it very often. I can't remember what town it was in, or the names of his wife and children, but it was such an important experience at the time, because we all knew that the family stay during training would foreshadow (in some ways) our entire Peace Corps experience.
I've been in Korea so long now that I had long ago given up on having a meaningful "cross-cultural experience." (To forestall those of you who would bring up my marriage to a Korean woman, I would simply suggest that any marriage is a sort of cross-cultural experience which is almost by definition meaningful.) I got off to such a rough start with Horyon's parents that I had become comfortable with the wall between us. I am ashamed.
Now, on the eve of our departure, the walls are starting to come down. And in my mind, one of the first bricks knocked out of that wall was the braised chicken that I shared with my mother-in-law, with rice and small talk.