07 August 2022

Tofu Insecurities

The bodybuddy/lifemate and I emigrated (with intentions never to return, at the time) to South Korea back in August 2013, and in that country, we landed in a city in the mountainous center of the country where all of the beautiful Koreans are from because Daegu is the place where all the apples are grown, and eating apples makes one beautiful, so I’m told. And in that city there’s a neighborhood called Sinmae, where, by the time we left, had opened its first Uniqlo. And in that neighborhood there’s an open-air market that becomes especially lively on Thursday nights when vendors that usually vend elsewhere join the Sinmae party. And in that open-air market there’s a Thursday night vendor that sells tofu. 

For the first few months, we happily enjoyed the market on weekdays to pick up our weekly staples of fresh 야채들 (veggies), fresh 김치 (kimchi) and fresh 반찬 (banchan), and fresh 돼지고기 (pork shoulder), with Thursdays being especially special cause that’s when we’d chow down on plates of 튀김 (fried snacks) and pick up fresh 두부 (tofu) from the vendor that only came to town on special Thursdays.

On one of these special Thursdays, we approached the 두부 vendor, and there was a man standing there instead of the usual woman from whom we typically bought our 두부. And as we approached, we exchanged hellos and then asked, in Korean, for some 두부, the same way we always had, and as the man began bagging up our chunk, he pointed at the bodybuddy/lifemate and began speaking in a tone that was not what we considered friendly. And then he kept on going off in Korean, while we were giving him our won in exchange for the chunk of 두부. By the time he was finished, after pointing at us and making a scene, his assumed wife, the woman we typically bought from, appeared as other vendors looked on. She gracefully gave us our 두부 bag packed in a handled, black plastic bag and quickly whispered thank you, in Korean, as she shooed us away. 

It became apparent to us that the man was upset that the bodybuddy/lifemate appeared to be a white American (which he is), and I appeared to be a Korean female (which I am). This appeared to upset him, and we were not sure why, but obviously, I have my guesses, but they are all kinds of conceited, and the Truth is murky, at best. 

The reality, however, is that, yes, the bodybuddy/lifemate is a white American, and I was born in Korea to Korean parents, but then I was shipped to Those United States after I was abandoned upon the doorstep of an orphanage at the tender age of three. And so, I feel feels about that man, just like he feels feels about us. It’s life, and there’s nobody to blame, and there’s nothing to be done about the situation. The problem, for me, is that Koreans are aware of the fact that there are hundreds of thousands (about 200,000) babies of Korean descent, scattered around the white world. This is a harsh Truth, and it is True. 

Like all good marketing/advertising campaigns, people will find attractive and thereby mate with those with whom they have had the most exposure. 

And so, I was being blamed for mating or pairing myself with a white man, when the reality is that I was sent to go live among them, be raised by them, be one of them. So, I could just as easily be angry at that man for being a countryman of a country so poor that it exported its young. And that would be some petty-ass shit. 

But what’s to be made of those Korean-Americans who end up with white men and return to Korea only to be scolded for their choice? I can easily wiggle out of the situation, as I’ve just done above, but the Korean-Americans, the Korea-Koreans, what’s their excuse when confronted with a mean man scolding them for their interracial decision, etc.? 

Anywho, we continued to patronize the 두부 vendor, and the woman seemed embarrassed but not overly friendly. And some of the vendors, it seemed, felt bad for us. We were always charged only 5,000 KRW (about 5 USD) from our pork lady, and she would obviously fill our bag with about 10,000 KRW of meat, no matter how much we asked for. And the kimchi/banchan lady always added a banchan or two to our order (service) and would give me way more kimchi than I could eat in a week. One time, while I was shopping alone during the afternoon while the bodybuddy/lifemate was at the job, the kimchi/banchan lady fed me to my mouth, with her fingers. Not an uncommon move in Korean culture but felt oddly intimate to me, as a known, not-Korea-Korean-nor-Korean-American Korean. We harbor no ill feelings toward our time in Daegu, because we had some seriously good times there, and it was a great place to acclimate to our new life abroad. 

By September 2014, we were settled in Seoul. About three months prior, the bodybuddy/lifemate had to make a decision between two locations in Seoul or staying in Daegu. We made our decision and had a cat by November 2014 in our office-tel in Nowon. Obviously, we’ve since left Korea, and we had zero plans to be in These United States for three years, but here we are, trapped from a pandemic that has left us grounded (longer than most people, I think, because I simply will not fly, yet). And so, we have worked hard to build the type of life where we will be in Seoul part of the year and Honolulu part of the year, and eventually (maybe ten years or so), we will add Alaska to begin our dream of triangulating on a trimester sort of schedule, around the world. And then, I will finally be happy. As if happiness is sustainable. Fucking enjoy it when it sweeps through. When it leaves, it’ll be back again. 

For instance, I had the blessed fortune of being the private tutor to a wonderful Korean girl turned young woman. Obviously, we parted ways when I left the country back in 2018, but I’ve tried my best to keep in loose touch, because we (the bodybuddy/lifemate and I) have always had plans to return to Seoul, routinely. And so, I’ve done my best to keep tabs and be available, and we’ve kept in touch all these years. And then, I realized that she recently crossed an age milestone, and I was suddenly stoked with fear that I’m not cool enough! 

“I must up my game,” I announced to the bodybuddy/lifemate when I realized this realization. The urgency is that she is now in my wheelhouse, and so, the stakes seem so high now. She’s cool. She’s smart. She's friendly. She's beautiful. She’s like grown. She's a person! It’s crazy. And so, in my mind, I can’t just be like, you know, Tiffany Teacher. I need to be so much more. I need to show her that I am cool, too! That we can be friends! And I sound so fucking pathetic. Ugh. Teenagers. 

Don’t worry. I’m not freaking out.

My point is that she’s smart and adorable. In short, she’s my favorite Korean. Thus, I took a gamble about a month ago and sent her a video, a short little vlog of a shopping trip to the grocery store. As car-less bikedestrians, we bike everywhere, so I thought it’d be a fun little vid. It was. She liked it. And then, I won. I won it all! She asked me if I would like a video of HER “daily life”!!! I didn’t even know that that was what I wanted, but obviously, it was. And then, she sent the video last week!

But being the cool “older friend” that I am, I didn’t check the message or watch the video until today. “I’m busy.” I am busy, but I was also counting down the hours to watch the thing. And so, I watched her video this morning, and I cried from the overwhelming happiness her face brought to me. Aside from me discovering my Korean-self, being steeped in my Homeland and stoking the flame of my identity, meeting and getting to know my favorite-Korean has absolutely been the best part of our first move to Korea. Not to mention the joy of her father and kindness of her mother. They are, simply, the best family, and I feel so lucky and grateful that we have been able to stay in touch, and that they want to stay in touch with me (smiley emoji)!  

In the end, my favorite-Korean’s video brought up a lot of Korean feelings about our first time in Korea, and I remembered the account that opens this writing. I cried a lot in Daegu, because it was where we spent our first year in Korea, and obviously, being the adoptee that I am, I have a lot of ongoing issues that routinely need maintenance. It sucks, but that’s life. And mostly, it doesn’t suck, so there’s that. 

We have plans to return to Seoul, for about a month, this coming winter, so that we may celebrate my favorite-Korean. And that trip will set up our transition to the Seoul-Honolulu dyad. Until then, I’ll just be here being motivated by the paralyzing fear that I might not be “cool enough" ... sigh.