Wednesday, March 12, 2008

More Kimchee, please

A few weeks ago, I finally made my way over to my Bruderhofer friend's home. They had been inviting me for weeks, months even, via a friendly voicemail. 'Hello Tamar, this is Caroline Kurtz. Just wanted to let you know that we'll be having a Mexican culture evening, and you're invited for supper.' Since there is only one phone amongst this commune of 300 or so people, I couldn't really return the call. The day I visited them, they prepared a beautiful pot pie, with two decorative hearts made from the crust in honour of Valentine's day. They had saved these Israeli songs that I had brought over last Summer, and to my amazement, they not only remembered the tunes but also the words. These are singing people, a sort of Christian version of the pioneering kibbutzniks in Israel who spent many a desert evening around a campfire singing the old Zionist songs at the kumsitz. I was most impressed with their daughter Grete who had decided for her senior class project to teach herself Korean. I told her I'd look out for Koreans in my travels, knowing that in my secular lifestyle, the chances of me encountering one were far greater than one stumbling onto their isolated compound. Some selfish motives were also at play, as when given the slightest nudge towards an opportunity to learn about a different culture, I am off and running. So within hours of my hunt, I find my first specimen of desire. Well, it's not human, but rather an article in the New York Times about how the South Korean government has finally, for the first time in history, agreed to send one of their engineers into space to become the first Korean astronaut on April 8, to the ISS (International Space Station). And since Koreans are very attached to their native condiment, kimchee, a multi-million dollar project was put into place to produce and package a special edition kimchee that would be safe in space. Kimchee, for those not familiar, is a very spicy fermented cabbage, usually found in jars in Asian markets. According to the article, for this culture, a day without kimchee is a sad day indeed. I can kind of relate to the pickled food addictions. I remember when my brother Josh introduced me to pickled okra. I couldn't believe I had lived as many years as I did without ever having tasted this mouth-watering food! I ate it every day for a month. Then I ran out. I hastily searched some local farmer's markets, and found a new jar. This one was terrible. All vinegar. I was over my pickled okra fetish. But after reading this article, I was determined to test this postulate. Surprisingly, we have an Asian market in a neighboring town. I didn't know what country the employees there were from, but I had a hunch. I walk in nonchalantly, barely containing a grin at my anticipated mission. I head over to the dried fruit section. My dried peaches are gone! This happens every year, yet I'm always shocked and dismayed. This market is the only place that carries these incredibly potent and delicious dried peaches, and they simply run out every March and don't re-order til the following year. I settle on some unknown darker orange fleshed fruit called a 'sharon' fruit. I suspect it's a persimmon. Then I walk over to the sushi display. There are various other delicacies made on the premises. I see a container of kimchee sold by the pound. Wow, it's really expensive. I pass on it. I bring my few items to the check out. The man standing there is the one who is always there. He doesn't smile, and never has. At least not that I've seen. I had a conversation with him the previous year when I tried to find out when they would be re-ordering the dried peaches. It didn't go very well, and he seemed very indifferent. Still, as he rung up my items, I sussed out an opening for me to talk to him. He told me my total. I got out my credit card, and casually asked him where he was from. 'Korea,' he answered. I asked him if he'd heard about this man, who was chosen from a competition of 36,000, to be sent to outer space. He backed up and looked off to the side, trying to gather the words he needed. He told me that he had heard of this, and in fact they had also chosen a woman to pose as an alternate in case something happened to the man. I believe that's what he was trying to convey to me, as it seemed this was the first time in a very long time that he was put in a position to use his English. I was so glad that he had already known this information, because it would have been very tricky for me to convey this via pantomime, and what's more, he didn't appear to be the sort who would have enjoyed the display. Then I mentioned the bit about the kimchee. And how they spent lots of money perfecting a version that would not be harmful in space due to the bacteria. He made sure that I knew that it was good bacteria, lest I think his people were enjoying hazardous snacks. I conceded that it was good on earth, but the effects of radiation in space could render it dangerous, and that was the reason behind the costly research. We both stood there nodding, like we had just solved some weighty political issue. As he gave me my receipt, I said, 'Millions of dollars spent on this kimchee.' He had already gone back to his work behind the counter. I wasn't even sure if he had understood what I'd said. Then as I walked away, he looked up and said to me, 'Koreans have to have kimchee.' We both laughed hard. The sushi chef looked alarmed at this unfamiliar sound coming from behind the counter.


Bill Braine said...

Excellent. Do they still have the stuffed black bear?

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess we're not going to have any kimchee anytime soon since it's sold by the pound and expensive. I guess it won't be offered at any upcoming races. I really enjoyed reading about the kimchee and the guy in the store.

I think it's incredible that you were able to find something to talk about to the guy at the cash register. It's great that you are so versatile and can carry a conversation with someone who doesn't appear to want to be engaged in a conversation.

I had something similar happen yesterday. At the gym there was a guy working out with a "Louis Armstrong Middle School" shirt on. I asked him where it was and he mentioned that his wife previously worked there for 10 years and it's a magnet school in the Queens. We had a brief discussion about the architecture of the older schools, which he really liked, and touched on the Bronx HS of Science which I visited in '72 with the HS Debate team.

Anyway, I got a lot of info by asking a simple question and the guy was very engaging in conversation once he had a topic we could both talk about.

I see you included another member of your family, your brother Josh, who introduced you to Pickled Okra.


tamar said...

bill~ thanks! I don't ever recall seeing that.. I'll have to check again.. there're so many other fascinating items in there, I suppose I could have missed that

kevin~ yeah, I often find it easier talking to strangers.. it's a family trait. that's cool that you have those experiences too. I think they're very important, to recognize that we're all in this together.. re my family, they make guest appearances periodically in the form of comments..

Anonymous said...

I was actually thinking about talking to pat the gym today. I had a brief conversation with somebody I've seen many times but never talked to. It was strange because we talked about the movie and sequels to "Planet of the Apes" which was playing in the workout room. I've never seen any of the "Planet of the Apes" movies.

It's good to see your family make guest appearances from time to time. Isn't Anna's birthday this coming Saturday?


Just_because_today said...

I wonder if he really understood what you said to him. We, foreigners, get really good at nodding and making believe that we understand when indeed we have no clue. Nodding is a preferred choice than huh?

tamar said...

kevin~ you never saw 'planet of the apes'? I saw it (one of them) a very long time ago, and remember it was a powerful film..
anna's birthday IS coming up! it's this friday, the 21st! How did you know? HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANNA!
Actually, Anna just let us all know her boyfriend proposed to her recently! She's always wanted to get married, so we all rejoiced, eventhough none of us really believes in marriage :-)

JUST~ Aw, come on, you're no longer a foreigner here.. No, this guy really understood what I was saying.. I feel for anyone that lives here and English is not their first language; I think it is a really difficult language.. next to Hebrew, anyway..

TeeJay said...

Korean food and space missions in the same blog. Great story, Tamar. :)

tamar said...

TeeJay~ thank-you! I like to find the odd blends.. especially where food is concerned.. I'm sure you can relate :-)

Jon said...

Just so you know... Kimchee = gas like you've never known

I really like the fact that you take the time to know this stuff, AND try to talk to those that would really care. You are pretty awesome.

Anonymous said...

Tamar: You never indicated whether Anna said yes to the marriage proposal? You mentioned her birthday in an earlier blog post.


tamar said...

jon~ that is SO sweet! (not the part about flatulence) :-) *thank-you*

kevin~ whoops, I did didn't I? she did say yes, but for the rest of us that know her, the monumental part of the transaction was the 'being asked' part, since that's been her main goal in life since she was 6 years old.. in that respect, she and I have little in common.. :-)

Anonymous said...

So when it Anna's wedding? Will this be a big thing with the entire family attending or low key since your family doesn't believe in marriage?