Or are they?Baby fiddlehead ferns are fine for some, but the previous night we were talking about grilled meat, a luxury that unifies everyone in Korea and whose communal importance cannot be overstated. The price of beef is a constant topic of conversation here. At Budnamujip restaurant, in an area far south of the Han River and the city’s center, the specialty is galbi, short ribs traditionally seasoned with such flavors as Asian-pear juice, sesame seed, rice wine, sugar, and of course, that Korean mainstay, garlic. After you put on a bib, mounds of galbi are grilled before you: the meat at Budnamujip is cut off the bone with a jeweler’s precision. Lacking toughness or the sinewy nature of inferior galbi, the meat-to-suet ratio here is just right and the jolt of sweetness from the complex seasoning is perfect. Our waitress kindly cuts ribbons of kimchi as well, and we coat the beef with a touch of hot-pepper sauce, add a pickled garlic clove, and wrap the whole thing in lettuce.
Koreans view eating as a communal affair, but when confronted with high-quality meats I’ve seen them clam up, lost in the flavor of the animal. There is something almost hypnotic about a good plate of galbi—you eat quickly, greedily, and meanwhile time slows down all around you, in some newfound coda to the theory of relativity. Only the fat man next to us—the one with the enormous ruby pinky ring who is yelling at the poor waitress over the bill—is immune to its spell. As for us, we eat until we can eat no longer.
One night, with the liquor flowing, the conversation turns to a favorite subject: the ajummas, the older women mocked for everything from their highly permed hair—I’m told this was originally supposed to save money on salon visits during the lean years of the 30’s and 40’s, when one perm cost two bags of rice—to their penchant for wearing sun visors to protect their aging skin. “I once found my flight back to Seoul at the Manila airport just by following those visors,” a BBC correspondent tells me. But tonight Charlie, who typically has many arch things to say about his country, surprises me. “Everything we have we owe to the ajummas,” he declares. The whole Korean economic miracle, he goes on to tell me, rests on these mothers waking up at five in the morning and shepherding their charges through kindergarten, the after-school classes, the Sunday schools, and all the way up to Seoul National or M.I.T. “In effect they’ve built this country,” he says.
I’m reminded of this a few days later when I attend my girlfriend’s mother’s high school reunion. Her mother graduated from the prestigious Ewha Girls’ High School, and older Korean women from all over the world—with southern California in heavy preponderance—have gathered here today to pray and sing and gossip and laugh like little girls. The photographs they wear on their chests poignantly show themselves when they were young students, lost beneath bushels of thick dark hair. Sinatra’s “My Way” plays faintly in the background. They talk about their children, leaving me with the impression that about 85 percent of Harvard’s and Yale’s student body must be Korean at this point. Afterward, a very competitive Tupperware party/bake sale breaks out to raise money for their alma mater. This is a who’s who of Korea’s elite; even Nobel Prize winner and ex-president Kim Dae-Jung’s wife is here, surrounded by bodyguards with earpieces.
I did it my way, indeed.
Toward the end of our stay, my girlfriend and I hike up one of the steep mountains that clasp urban Seoul in their embrace, providing a welcome antidote to the great concentration of cement. Nearly a third of the way up the mountain, we—who are both in our mid-thirties—are exhausted and drenched. Meanwhile, senior citizens in serious Gore-Tex suits (the ajummas in full perm-and-visor mode) are charging up the slopes like rams, pushing us out of their way, while some of the septuagenarian men are taking time out from the merciless climb for a little weight lifting by the side of the trail. What can account for such vigor and drive?What can account for the need to climb higher and higher until the city you have built spreads before you endlessly, neon crosses rising over lube shops and cafeterias snapping to glowing life even as a pink-hued industrial dusk settles over the metropolis?To begin to answer that question one must at least be able to climb to the top of the mountain. And I cannot.
Gary Shteyngart is a T+L contributing editor.