Coming home in autumn

by

I come home to Korea at least once a year, but this is the first time in 15 years that I’ve been back in the fall.

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The persimmon trees are bearing fruit, even in my neighborhood in urban Seoul.

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The rice fields down south, in Jeollanam-do, are a vivid yellow-green, almost fluorescent in hue.  When they turn fully gold, they’ll be ready for harvest.

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This is the only time of year you can find fresh jujubes, sweet and crisp and light, like tiny oblong apples.  I’d only seen them dried before, dark red and wrinkled.  And you can still catch the last of the summer’s peaches, which are stay crisper than American peaches even as they ripen and turn honey-sweet.

I’m so happy to be home.

I’ve heard that adopted children, when they meet their biological parents, feel a shock of recognition that’s almost physical.  I wonder if they feel the way I do here, when I look at the signs with their hangul lettering or hear snatches of conversation with the intonations I know so well.  Everything feels familiar, even when I think it’s strange.  There’s the Korean love of cartoon mascots, the googly eyes and smiles they like to put on inanimate objects, donuts, coffee cups, even fermented blocks of soybean paste.  Girls walk by, giggly and made-up, and even though I’m too tall (and too crass) to ever have that Korean girl look, I feel like I know who they are.  I walk into a bakery, a branch of the Paris Baguette chain, and as I bite into a sugary donut, still warm, I know instantly the texture and flavor—sticky rice flour, or chapssal, filled with a sweet cream cheese.  It’s delicious.

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Even when I sit drinking coffee at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, it feels like such a Korean place—the way they place your coffee on a tray, the way they offer green tea lattes.  I flip through a fancy food and travel magazine, and I realize I know one of the dapper, cosmopolitan men featured for their good taste–my friend’s father.  (I won’t say whose father it is, as she’ll be mortified enough when she sees this.)  He’s heading the Cultural Ministry’s tourism marketing, which reminds me, I should try to find out what he knows about the Korean government’s fellowships for studying Korean food.

I know this country.  I don’t know who the pop stars are today, I didn’t know about the famous Chunhyang folktale of Namwon until yesterday, and I have no idea where the most famous Buddhist temples are.  But I still know this country better than I thought I did.   I’m so thankful that through this cookbook project, I’ve not only learned more about this country, but also come to see how much is already familiar to me in the most intuitive and fundamental ways.

I’m so happy to be home.

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7 Responses to “Coming home in autumn”

  1. Don Cuevas Says:

    Grace, could the jujubes be related to the non-plum “ciruelas” in México? They are described in this post on the forum, “Any Port In A Storm”.
    http://tinyurl.com/y93xa8y

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

  2. claire Says:

    Thanks for a pictures of fall, it’s a wonderful season there. Have you seen this site? I am proud to say that I helped edit some of the text when I was living in Seoul.
    http://eng.templestay.com/default.asp
    I stayed at Golgulsa, Musangsa, Sudeoksa and Hwagyesa through this program. We even got to pick and roast green tea. It was a great experience.

  3. claire Says:

    While looking through the site I found a photo of myself under ‘Evening Buddhist Ceremonial Service’. hee hee. I look like my knees hurt. Which they did.

  4. Grace Says:

    I see you answered your own question! The ciruelas do look delicious, though. In response to the guy who asks what they’re used for, the dried ones are used in Korean cooking fairly frequently, often as a garnish after being chopped into thin cross-sections or slivers, and also whole in chicken-ginseng soup.

    Claire, thanks for the information on templestays! I would love to try that one day.

  5. Leslie Says:

    nice post…I’m glad you’re enjoying being home!

  6. Harriet Says:

    Your pictures and descriptions are just lovely – they evoke lots of memories for me as well. Keep writing….I’ll keep reading….

  7. Grace Says:

    Thanks, Harriet! I really appreciate hearing what you think.

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