Birthday Soup

Our first day in Korea dawned sunny and warm, perfect weather! We ventured out in search of breakfast, following behind my youngest daughter like a string of ducklings. 

We headed off toward the beach, and it became lunchtime before we knew it. Still determined to find us a bakery, Megan brought us to a beautiful bakery along Haeundae’s main road. David and Megan each had a little onion pie, I had a flaky pastry with salami and cheese, and Erin chose a small pink macaroon, saying that she prefered to wait for ice cream. Every pastry and cake in the shop was beautiful, like they had come right off the pages of a foodie magazine.

Still looking for the beach. We kept walking close to the shore, and ended up on the street where they hold the yearly Busan International Film Festival. The theater complex was huge, and in a little seating area along the sidewalk there were bronze plaques with handprints and photos of popular Korean film stars. 

“See over there? That’s Gonju Beach,” Megan said. 

“I thought the Aquarium was at Haeundae Beach,” I said.

Megan looked around. “Oh yeah,” she said.

Back we went, and finally found the beach. We went through the Aquarium, too, where a young woman weaving a breathing mask took our temperatures with a scanner to make sure we weren’t sick. People here are cautious about catching MIRS, which has made its way from Seoul to Busan. Though we didn’t see a lot of people in masks, it wasn’t an uncommon sight.

The Aquarium was nice, as aquariums go, and we went back to the apartment. Megan’s host family had invited us over that evening for dinner, so we ventured out again to the subway for a long ride across town to Hwamyeong.

Dinner was amazing, and I felt so honored to be fussed over and welcomed. Yu Seok went to a lot of trouble to make a special meal with foods mostly reserved for holidays. They live in a tall apartment complex in Hwamyeong, and the apartment was gorgeous, a mix of contemporary and heavy, dark wood with traditionally elegant Korean furniture. Big kitchen and living room, three bedrooms, and long balconies on each side of their unit. 

Samchon was there as well, and a cousin who had just returned from finishing her bachelor’s degree in violin at a school in Cincinnati. Megan’s host sister, Minji, was still at school and wouldn’t be able to come, and Megan’s host dad surprised us by coming home just before dinner. He works at KAI, Korean Aerospace International, as a designer. He usually leaves for work an hour away from home on Monday morning and doesn’t return until Friday evening, but he drove back especially to meet us for dinner.

Dinner was amazing. We sat on the floor in the middle of the living room and ate around two square black tables pushed together. The tables were loaded with small dishes of food, and we each had a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup. Megan told us to use our chopsticks to take bits of food from the serving bowls and put it in our bowl of rice, where we could eat it from there. We could also put rice into the soup. 

Yu Seok made an amazing variety of food. She had deep fried squid, cod, and shrimp arranged on a plate with dipping sauce. There was kimchee and a milder version that was served in a milky sauce. Megan said her favorite was a little dish of crunchy baby anchovies. There were dishes of bulgogi, bowls of a noodle and vegetable dish, and plates of small radish and vegetable rolls, with a dish of creamy sauce for dipping. The seaweed soup we all had in front of us was a soup specially made for birthdays, with bits of pork in it.

The entire meal was delicious, and the experience of being welcomed and honored by a Korean family was precious and humbling. Even Erin, my Kraft macaroni and cheese daughter, said she enjoyed the meal, even though she was having a little trouble with the chopsticks and didn’t eat much.

When we finished eating, Megan’s host dad offered shot glasses of soju for us to try, explaining that it is a traditional Korean rice liquor, and apparently is also the most popular drink in the world. We also tried a milky white liquor which I prefered to the soju, though it was also good. Megan and Erin also had some, since in Korea, you are already a year old when you are born, and everyone turns a year older together on the first day of the year. So Megan, who is 18 at home, is twenty here and totally legal, as is Erin.

After dinner, we sat in the living room and talked some more, the three of us on the couch and Megan and everyone else on the floor around the coffe table. Cousin brought out plates of fresh plums and clementines, and Yu Soek offered us glasses of white wine. I really don’t know anyone’s names, because we were never really introduced, except that at dinner Yu Seok shyly told us her name when asked, apologizing that it was hard to pronounce. Cousin spelled it for us, that’s the only reason I can tell you what it is. 

Yu Seok is a nurse at a convalescent hospital, and Father, as I’ve already said, designs light aircraft at KAI. Cousin is going back to the US in a few weeks to begin graduate school in violin at Michigan State. I think Samchon teaches business math here in Busan, but he got a PhD in the US and studied and taught at the University at Champagne-Urbana in Illinois. He’s actually been to Iowa several times. Minji did come home a little before the end of the meal to join us. She goes to a performing arts high school, and is studying dance. At one point she showed us her most recent costume, a version of a traditional Korean gown.

We had a little trouble with language, but not much. Megan said Yu Seok has been trying to learn English, and I could tell she was frustrated at times, but she did really well, much better than my Korean. Samchon gave us a ride home, since he lives near us in Haeundae. I could hardly keep my eyes open during the trip and nodded off several times, which was embarassing, but a little wine and soju and jet lag finally just did me in.

I have pictures, but they are on my phone, and before I try to add them I’m going to save and publish this so I don’t lose it. I’ll also corre t my spellino and the names of the Korean things. I can already tell you that this evening with Megan’s host family will be the highlight of our trip. It was very special, and I feel honored to be welcomed and included like that. But I’m learning that’s what the Korean people are like — very friendly and accepting and kind. 

David thinks he would like to live here, especially when Samchon told us there are no taxes. Speaking of money, tomorrow is a shopping day– looking forward to that, too!

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2 thoughts on “Birthday Soup

  1. Yes, on the day you are born, you are already one year old. So say you were born in June. You are one year old. In January, you would turn two, even though physically you are only six months old. I asked Samchon when Yu Seok’s birthday was, and he said she had a moon birthday, which I think means that the actual date changes from year to year, kind of like the way Easter is different each year. I remain confused too.

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