HCB’s Guest Post: Squid Jerky and Two Months in Korea
Our second month living in Korea flew by so quickly we barely registered our two-month anniversary last Monday. Instead of marking the occasion with something special, we just lived our lives, which is probably accomplishment enough: DME went to his Korean class; I graded papers and attended an electrifying department meeting. These days, the actual activities of making a life are absorbing more of our energy and attention than arbitrary dates and anniversaries. We’re not counting days and weeks here, and that’s a huge step. Well…I am marking our 60 days in a special way, with this little guest post.
I always have the best intentions of contributing to Abrupt Departure. I want to tell the world about my parallel adventures in Seoul. But honestly, what I’d really like to write, the interesting stuff that deserves to be written, that is, my daily life as a new instructor at this Korean university, isn’t suitable for a blog—or rather, the blog I’d like to write isn’t suitable for junior faculty. I’m seeing a whole new world, and it’s all amazing. But that account shall have to wait. Mine isn’t a confessional profession.
Besides, when it comes to this genre, I’m not the talented one. DME’s posts are really good, you guys. He’s brilliant at teasing out the emotional truths and complexities of our situation, or of writing about daily life in a way that’s very, very funny in a deeply revealing way. Me? You don’t need to hear from me. I’m obsessed with humorous but ultimately inconsequential cultural differences and details that amuse me to no end, which aren’t actually funny or entertaining beyond being different. In Korea: Bus drivers sometimes drive with the doors open! Motorcycles drive on the sidewalk! McDonald’s delivers! Restaurant tables have little drawers containing clean chopsticks and napkins! If you decide you don’t want to stop on a floor after you’ve pushed the button in the elevator, you press that button again to cancel your order! The grocery has a giant kimchi section, the way Safeway has a salad bar! Koreans cover their mouths when they laugh but not when the cough! Instant coffee packets come with creamer and sugar already mixed in! I could go on and on and on with these Rabelaisian catalogues of microcosmic observations, and I do, and if you want more, I’m on Facebook. I experience Korea, indeed, much of life, as the accumulation of thousands of little different details.
DME, who sees the big picture, is flourishing. He’s hit a groove and loving life here. And now I’ll leave you with a little story, the tale of squid jerky. I love this story because it’s one of the few moments when, in our second month here, Korea’s been too much for him.
A few days ago we took a bus downtown with a few billion other people to view Seoul’s famous cherry blossoms. And they were stunningly beautiful, especially after such a frickin’ freezing March. Old men and women in costumes performed traditional dances, DME took a nap in the sunshine by the river, and when we got hungry, we explored the food carts. I opted for a fantastic ear of grilled corn, which was perfectly buttered, salted and seared. DME, embracing our new life, decided to try something new.
Shortly after arriving in Seoul, DME observed that American seafood preparations go out of their way to mask seafood flavors via a liberal deployment of butter, cream, lemon, wine and—in the Chesapeake region—mayonnaise, cream cheese and canned parmesan. That’s not the Korean way. Korean seafood preparations, he observed, do everything they can to enhance—nay, magnify—the flavors of the sea. Which brings us to squid jerky.
Nothing enhances the natural seafoody flavor of squid more than jerkifying it. The process isn’t clear to me, but based on limited first-hand observations, I can report that squid meat is flattened, marinated, grilled, then, well, tenderized or extruded in this large device that looks something like a sandwich press, if a sandwich press were designed to process squid jerky. I wasn’t able to get photos of anyone making the jerky because all the vendors were on the sidewalk, and literally thousands of people were also on that same sidewalk trying to move quickly toward the blossoms.
Thankfully, we have better photos: DME eating squid jerky. It’s like a flip book of culinary despair.
“What does it taste like?” I ask. DME’s reply made my blood run cold: “You know when you find a dead seal on the beach? You know how it smells? That’s how this tastes.” For a hot second, I was seized with complete insanity and a desire for solidarity and reached for the cup as if I were going to try some too. DME slapped my hand away. “No!” he said. “It turned my stomach… and I like seafood. You would die.” I said that it was funny, because he likes sushi, even the chirachi bowl, but he doesn’t like squid jerky. DME replied coldly that only the type of person who’d spend two months in Korea and eat zero seafood would even think of drawing a comparison between fresh tuna, hamachi and salmon and marinated squid.
After eating 1/100 of his squid jerky, DME abandoned his cup on a wall next to the rest of the festival detritus. Maybe, just maybe, he made someone’s lucky day.