Last Train out of Seoul

On 25th of June 1950, Korean war started with the invasion from the North. After the temporary American military government left several months before, Seoul had already been full of northern sympathizers. My mom was only about five years old, but she remembers the invasion. She recalls seeing tanks, but I am not sure whether that is a real memory or the memory of what she thought she had seen. My grandfather had already been taken by then, a story for another post. There was my grandmother and her three daughters, my mom being the last child.

My grandmother knew they had to flee the city as the North Korean army was very close to the capital where they lived. Before 28th of June, my grandmother was contacted by her cousin who worked at the Seoul train station. My grandmother’s family had been quite rich and influential then so she was able to secure a place for her family on the train leaving Seoul.

My mom remembers packing her small rectangular suitcase, a foreign import that not many people could afford then. Once at the station, my grandmother’s cousin provided them with sitting spots inside the train. My mother remembers sitting on the train seat with her suitcase under her feet. So many others had piled in standing up or on top of the train. Even those people on top of the train or holding onto the side were lucky as everyone else had to flee the capital on foot.

So one of the last trains from Seoul left with my mom and her family, crossing the river on one of the few bridges across Han river.

And on the 28th of June, at 2:30 am, Korean army blew up the bridges across Han river in a desperate attempt to slow the invasion. Only, no Seoul residents were told that there would be no escape for them afterwards…

생태 식해 (Saengtae Sikhae, Spicy fermented pollock)

The fondest memories I have of my grandmother is helping her with her yearly food preparations. 생태 식해 (Saengtae Sikhae, Spicy fermented pollock) was one of my father’s favorite dishes so of course, my grandmother made it every year.

She would usually go to a fish market to get the freshest pollock early in the winter as that is the season they are of the best quality. She would never use a fish that was ever frozen as that affects the taste. She then washed and cleaned them thoroughly and salted them for several days. After a number of days, they would be cut into smaller fishes then put in the traditional Korean pot with spicy pepper powder, cooked millet, and shredded radish. The dish was ready to eat after a week or two. As Korean winters are fairly cold, Sikhae would last a fairly long time just outside in the pot. But often, we would put it in the refrigerator to make it last longer.

Sikhae is often made with many different kinds of fish, but my grandmother only used pollock as that was the one she thought that was the most quality fish. So every year, preparation of Sikhae was one of the early winter rituals we went through. The day fish was prepped, we would usually make spicy fish soup with the leftover parts of the fish. I would sometimes help her clean the fish or prep them for salting. For some strange reason, her Sikhae always tasted so much better than the ones that were store bought. I am not sure what secret ingredient she put in as I don’t think there was anything out of ordinary. It is probably that she only used the best and freshest fish, and used her own prepared red pepper.

Why sons?

You learn about gender inequality early in your life in Korea. The idea of male superiority infuses into your life, almost as you are born…as people questioned my mother why after having a second daughter and the last child she will be able to have, my mother was still happy to have me.

My father was the 5th first son of the generation of first sons, carrying on supposedly an important noble lineage (although not as famous as my mother’s ancestors). That meant he needed to have a son, and if he did not, adopt a son of one of his brother’s children as his own. Even at a very early age, I was aware of these questions. When I was very young, I remember my sister telling me I have to be like a son to my father because he did not have one. As though not having a son is such a bad thing. A message received…being born as a girl is something to be unhappy about.

Thankfully my father never adopted any of my uncle’s sons and he did at least send a message to his daughters that women are equal to men, at least his daughters I guess. Of course, what he preached never really showed in his behavior toward my mother. So the next message received…wives were indeed not equal to husbands.

Then there are messages from your schoolmates in the elementary school, those who will tell you that boys are superior to girls. Sadly so many girls truly believe that by then, since that is how they grew up. If a girl has a brother, the treatment toward the younger or older brother is so obviously better that it is hard to ignore. When girls receive top marks, which I have done often, it is often because they are lucky or they are still young so when they grow up, things will change. Another message received…boys are indeed superior to girls.

I have received so many messages in my life, and not just as I was growing up in Korea. I am glad that I escaped to a country with more equality although I have experienced rampant sexism in the U.S. as well. At least my life is not all about getting skinny and finding a husband, a pattern which even very accomplished and smart ladies of Korea seem to fall into.

What is strange is that, at many points in Korean history, there were queens, and women of extraordinary abilities who were never forgotten. What has happened to our society to change that?

I am still waiting to receive that message…


Perhaps it is time to speak a little more about myself. Obviously, I can talk endlessly about the Korean culture, family history, food, etc., but ultimately and eventually some presence of myself has to be left on these pages. Many labels can be made to a person like me: a Korean transplant living in America, an immigrant, a Korean American, a first generation Korean living in America…whatever label happens to fit at any given moment, there is always one persistent feeling inside me.

That is…the sense of un-belonging.

I have no place I really call home. I am a Korean who has lost the country she knew as that country is forever etched in the imprint of history. The Korea I know, learned, and admired no longer exists. That Korea only exists in my memory. The Korea I visit often to see my parents is not a place I belong anymore. I am a Korean who is a foreigner in her own land. Yet in America, I am an immigrant. No one who sees me will ever consider me just an American. I am first and foremost, a Korean in everyone’s eyes and that is confirmed with my accent, which is not even really a Korean accent. 

So where do immigrants like me belong? Not the country I am from certainly as they do not consider me part of that society any longer. Yet not this country either as I don’t really belong here as I come from somewhere else. Hence, I become like many other immigrants. I live here and I am successful here. Yet where I belong is perhaps in those past etchings of the Korea of the past.

Pigeons in the bathrooms

I don’t have many stories of my dad’s younger years as he has never been a talkative man. The only stories I have heard repeatedly are mostly stories from the three mandatory years he served in the military. Korea had and still has a compulsory military system. In my father’s days, they had to serve three years. Now I believe it is closer to two. So there are just a few stories that I know about my father besides the ones about his military years; one of which is the story about the pigeons.

My father hates pigeons. He generally likes animals and I thought he had a fairly fond spot for birds. I mean I had a veritable zoo of birds when I was young which I had to feed and maintain so I assume he liked birds. I figured he just didn’t like pigeons for some reason. I don’t like them either since they are a bit like rats with wings. So I didn’t really think much of my father’s reason for disliking them. Then one day out of the blue he told me the reason why he hates pigeons.

My father was around nine when the Korean war started and he had to flee his home with his family. I am not totally sure where exactly his home had been nor where they had to flee to. I think his home was somewhere near Daejeon (mid-ish part of South Korea) and he had to flee to somewhere near Pusan (only area not at one point taken by the North). As there was not many places to put so many refugees, he and his family had to spend their “refugee period” at a temporary shelter, which was a public school. That made sense since public schools tend to have lots of rooms and bathrooms.

He told me that there were so many corpses from the war that they could not bury them fast enough, which meant they had to be put somewhere until the burial. Unlike now, there were really no morgues or cold houses so the place people piled up corpses ended up being the bathrooms (coldest place I guess) of these temporary shelters. My father remembers having to go to the bathroom at night, alongside these piles of corpses and the only sounds he had heard had been the sounds of pigeons. So to this day, the sound of pigeons gives him the creeps (literal translation). Some experiences stays with us forever it seems.

Korea through foreigner’s eyes

When I go back to visit Korea and my parents, I mostly see Korea from a point of view of someone who grew up there. It is true that I stand out in Korea as someone not from there, not because I speak with an accent, because I don’t (thanks to my parents). Korea is a society of conformity. There is always a certain way people dress or a certain manner that they behave. Having lived so many years of my life away, I no longer conform and stand out in the way I dress or the way I arrange my hair. I am a Korean who does not belong in Korea. Even so, I don’t quite look at Korea with a foreigner’s eyes. I was born there and raised there, so the spirit of the land has been infused inside me no matter how much I’ve changed and how many years have passed.

It was therefore quite refreshing to be able to see Korea through a foreigner’s eyes when I first traveled there with my husband. We created a book together after our first journey. You can preview the full book here:

Our schedule was quite full as my parents were rather ambitious about showing my husband as many sites of Korea as possible. And sometimes even the weather collaborated with our whirlwind tour by sending us a typhoon (tropical storm) while we were on the island of Jeju.

Korea through a foreigner’s eyes was different, full of history, wonder, idiosyncratic customs, intricacy, delicacy, full of flavors and excitement.
My husband asked me once: “Can you imagine what it would feel to grow up in a place that has thousands of years of history?”
My answer to that was a simple “Yes” of course, with a smile.

Simple poetry

As I was writing a post about Korean calligraphy, a Korean poem came to my mind. My first calligraphy presentation had been a short and simple Korean poetry. That is to say, there really is nothing simple about Korean poetry even in its simplest form. To this day, I remember every line as the image the poem evoked was truly beautiful.

비 갠 여름 아침
– 김광섭

비가 갠 날
맑은 하늘이 못 속에 내려와서
여름 아침을 이루었으니
녹음이 종이가 되어
금붕어가 시를 쓴다.

Below is my best attempt at translating the poem into English. It is almost impossible to translate Korean poem as there are nuances and expressions that do not exist in English.

Clear summer morning after the rain
– Gim Guang Seop

Clear day after the rain,
translucent sky descends
and settles into the pond
painting a perfect summer morning.
The melding becomes a paper
where fish compose poetry.

서예 (Seo-Yeh, Korean Calligraphy)

I started learning Korean calligraphy when I was in the first grade. I suppose as a descendant of a noble lineage, learning of the calligraphy was a must. Korean calligraphy is not simply writing beautiful characters. There is a certain mindset or a way of being that one must adopt.

Image by Samuraijohnny

Since I started when I was just seven years old, all of that way of being was not verbalized to me. We were taught to sit quietly, settle our 벼루 (Byeo-roo, ink stone) on the table, pour just a little bit of water into the well of the ink stone, and start grinding the 먹 (Meok, ink stick). The more expensive the ink stick, the more fragrant it is. The cheaper ones you can usually tell by how bad they smell.

This process of slowly grinding the ink stick, is what settles you and put you in the mindset of tranquility. There is really no hurrying this grinding process nor do you want to go fast as it will just splash (but ink won’t come out any faster). Usually the calligraphy session full of first graders would start out loud, then within 15-20 minutes, everyone becomes quiet, mesmerized by the never ending circular motion of grinding ink stones and the ink smell permeating the air.

붓 (boot, brush) and 선지 (Seon-ji, paper — special calligraphy paper) comes next. Initially the beginners use cheaper practice paper and also have to fold papers to create guidelines for the letters. Then within a year or two, the practice paper is replaced with the special calligraphy paper (한지, Korean paper is well known for its quality). The beginners start with the standard 한글 (Hangul, standard Korean), next step is the cursive, and then pictures or other characters.

The posture you have to assume is very strict. It is said that those who are able to write beautiful calligraphy could also wield sword equally well. When you write, you can never drop your elbow or lean. The tip of the brush is the only thing that touches the paper on the table, like a tip of a sword. Imagine how much strength must go into that.

Sadly it has been a few years since I held a brush in my hand, but I still do remember that rich fragrance of the ink stick and the utter calm that settled over me whenever I held a brush.

Child bride

My great grandmother was a child bride. That is not to say that she married an older man and had to be an actual bride like it is sometimes done in certain countries. It just meant that my great great grandfather found her when she was about ten and brought her into his household and designated her as the bride for his son. It was a custom that was sometimes practiced in the olden days. There were older brides (woman 10-15 years older than the man) who married child husbands and there were child brides who came into the household at an early age, but the actual marriage did not occur until the child husband or child bride were much older.

Having literally married into a family at a young age, my grandmother was probably not from a very prosperous household. But she would not have been brought into such a rich family if she had not been exceptionally bright and if my great great grandfather had not thought she would bring luck and prosperity to the household. Although she was loved by great great grandfather, her life was definitely not easy. She was in a strange household with no family to support her. She had to work very hard and help out with everything, cooking, making food, whatever household chores that were needed. I heard that at times she worked so hard that she’d get spontaneous nose bleeds. Yet she survived and eventually married my great grandfather.

She did bring much luck to the household. The family prospered and everyone came to love her. Unfortunately, her husband (my great grandfather) was not so enamored. I don’t think he hated his wife. It was just that she had not exactly been his choice. He probably resented that he had not been given any choice by his father. Of course, that was the way things were in those days, but I think something of the resentment toward his father made my great grandfather not love his wife so much. More to come on what such feelings lead to…

Three Sauces Nostalgia

Here I go again! Another post about Korean food. But it’s really hard to avoid topic of food when talking about Korea and my childhood memories.

There three main essential sauces in Korean food: 된장 (Doenjang, soy paste sauce), 고추장 (Gochujang, red chili paste sauce), and 간장 (Gangjang, soy sauce). My paternal grandmother used to make these from scratch each year, starting from soy beans as all three sauces come from the same source.

I always knew when she started this process as the house would be full of the smell of steamed soy beans when I come home from school. She usually bought a very large sack of soybeans in the fall and steamed them all at once. I have no idea how she managed to do that since her steaming process always happened while I was in school during the day. All I know is that by the time I came home mid-afternoon, she would have steamed and somewhat cooled the large sack of soy beans already.

Image by 온맘으로

And the fun begins!

Both my grandmother and I would stand on the large steamed sack of soy beans and start smooshing them under our feet. It is a bit like those videos of wine makers who are crushing grapes with their feet although the beans were inside the sack and mushier. I often got really enthusiastic and jumped up and down on the sack and thankfully nothing splattered. Every time you step, there is this smell of steamed soy beans everywhere. As much as I associate that smell with my childhood, I did not like the smell when I was stepping on them. I just liked crushing the soy beans with my feet.

Eventually you do need to take the soy beans out of the bag and make sure they are paste-like. There are always some larger chunks of bean here and there (that’s part of the charm), but essentially you should be able to shape it like a clay. The shape my grandmother usually made was a cube, about 10 cm (or close to 5 inches) on each side. Of course, me being the child, I often made 2-3 chunks into cones or other fun shapes. My grandmother usually let me make whatever shape I liked for a few of them although I now know that some of those weird shapes were not optimal for the fermentation process. These shaped soy bean pastes are called 메주 (meju).

These meju pieces are then dried very carefully. My grandmother would usually set them carefully under the shade right outside the back of the house, protected from the rain (rain and freezing is a no-no). And there they sat until the weather started to get cold. She treated meju like her pets. Once the weather got cold, the meju pieces would come right back inside the house and take up very prominent places right next to 연탄 난로 (Yeontan stove – Yeontan is a coal briquette that was commonly used in Korea for heating when I was young). That and heated floors (more to come on this).

Around February is when the next phase starts. It is still cold out, but not completely frozen over. My grandmother would take these cubes and put them inside a large 독 (dok, Korean clay pot) and fill it with sea salt water. Sea salt is very important. Even though I was young, she made sure to tell me we never use just any regular salt. Don’t ask me why not…something to do with it being natural? Some kind of aid in fermentation process? No idea.

I don’t know how the magic happens, but once the cubes starts floating in the water (initially they stay at the bottom), the water turns dark. This is essentially beginning of soy sauce. I am sure I have forgotten some little process that happened while I wasn’t paying attention, but this miraculous sudden floating of cubes and dark water in the pot was what is left in my memories.

My grandmother would then fish out the the wet meju and divide them in half. The soy sauce would be used as soy sauce of course. Why divide the now again soy paste (but fermented) in half? Well, there are 2 other sauces to make. To make doenjang, one half of the paste is put into another dok and covered with sea salt to ferment further. It should be done in a month or two although you can let it ferment as long as you like. There are “young” doenjang and “old” doenjang and anything in between and are used for different dishes.

The other half of the paste is mixed with red pepper flakes — Preparation for this is a whole another story. Essentially, my grandmother would spend weeks drying red pepper on our balcony. You cannot go near this balcony while peppers are drying since it is so hot you will start crying — and rice flour (and there might have been some barley flour in it, etc. But mostly the 3 main ingredients are meju, red pepper flakes, and rice flour. This mixing process happens in a gigantic bowl. My grandmother used to have a wooden spoon that was about 3 feet tall. I used to stir the bowl by walking around it holding the spoon.

These three sauces are just basic, but they take 6+ months to make. If you buy soy sauce, I recommend you always looking for “naturally fermented” and ones without some kind of additives or wheat in it. The sauces are fermented so the preservatives are not necessary. I do not understand why companies that make these sauce nowadays add just random stuff. Needless to say when I go shopping for these sauces, I literally spend more than half an hour reading every brand’s ingredient so I find the right one with no preservatives, naturally fermented, and no additives.

Another note…I introduced just three sauces here, but within each 3 sauces, there are incredible variety of sub-sauces. There are soy sauces for soup, dipping, cooking, etc. (all different, I know!). There are dozens of different kinds of doenjang and gochujang for different occasions.

As this post is getting long, I will have to introduce you to the incredible Korean pots (독, dok) that behaves like a refrigerator in my later post. Stay tuned…

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