1) It is VERY important to the Universe that I understand:
2) It is very important to the Universe that I know the maximum amount of information that a person who is not Korean and does not live in Korea could possibly know about Korea.
3) The Universe has spent the past few years of my life going very far out of its way to ensure that I interact with Korean culture multiple times per day every day
4) and I get it.
5) I get it, Universe-
BY LJ (ILLUSTRATION BY JEN)
I’ve lived in Koreatown for three years and five months, not counting the nine months I didn’t live in Koreatown- a terrible nine months. But the Universe, like I said, is a little bit obsessed with making sure I'm kept as close to Korea as a Canadian can be, and so the Universe brought me back. Pulled me back. To the exact same street I lived on in the first place, my beautiful & beloved Palmerston Boulevard. I swore to myself on the first day I moved back here I'd never stop being grateful for this street and it still blows my mind that I didn't.
I didn’t care very much about Koreatown the first time I lived in Koreatown. There was one Korean stationary store I used to frequent because Korean stationary is neat and beautiful but I barely ever ate Korean food because I spent most of my first round of living in Koreatown either vegan or vegetarian or anorexic and Korean cuisine isn't one that caters to any of those things. Thank God by the end of Koreatown Round 1 I'd graduated to “pescatarian” or whatever you call it and there was this one night I was wearing all grey. I was wearing pale grey men’s lace-ups with grey cableknit stockings and this grey plaid dress I eventually threw out because it bummed me out too hard to wear something so GREY and a grey men’s overcoat and it was November, the greyest month of the year. It was the greyest weather, rainy, out, and I wanted to eat something I’d never eaten. So I stopped into Ka Chi, the Korean restaurant at the corner of my street, and ordered shrimp fried rice and it was special. There was something very special about that rice.
I’m very indifferent about fried rice Chinese food style but after living in Koreatown I am thrilled to report that Korean fried rice is one of my favorite rices on the entire planet, of all the different kinds of rice I've eaten. My fav Korean fried rice you get at a place called Thumbs Up because they crack an egg overtop of theirs and the yolk never fully cooks through and I’m all over it. I’m all over over-medium. The rice in Korean fried rice stays white instead of going tan like Chinese or Thai and it’s also way gummier, and glistens somehow. They add the wee baby shrimp that come from a can and chopped up wee vegetables and if you get it to stay they give you a long-handled spoon with a tiny mouth so it takes you a really long time to eat it which is always what I'm after in a spoon.
I like that I live close enough to Koreatown that I’ll let myself go get Korean take-out with my hair still wet. I live close enough to Koreatown that I treat it like it's an extension of my bedroom. I work nights so often eat my dinneriest meal of the day around lunchtime and I’ll just sail on into Thumbs Up in leggings and Ray-Bans and then check Instagram with my legs crossed with my topknot dripping down the back of my neck while I’m waiting, all “Nahhhh don’t waste a plastic bag on me, hashtag neighbours” and then I eat it straight out the styrofoam container while watching Downton Abbey cross-legged with a pillow on my lap and it’s one of those things that calls a lot of attention to my singleness, to myself, but in a lovely way, which is rare for me. It just makes me so happy I never have to report back to some "boyfriend"-character about how I’m eating gross fried rice right now or feel accountable for feeding him a bite of it or picking him up ribs or whatever. On some level I can see how this is an objectively kind of depressing thing for a single woman to be doing at 3 PM on a Wednesday with wet hair but while I’m living it it’s just so obvious that one day I’m going to be nostalgic for this era of my life. When I lived a block away from a country half the world away from me.
2. FACES SWEATER
There’s a little store at the corner of the street my street meets at the gates called either Chouette or Cherie or Chrysler or some other cutesy French word that begins with a CH but I’m like 85% sure it’s Cherie, or possibly Cherie misspelled. I discovered it existed about a year ago and I was like “SHIT this store is my fashion secret weapon and I am never telling a single person about it or else they’ll all start coming here” but then I just started telling people about it because, you know, karma. The best thing I ever bought from Chierey or whatever is this sweater with a bunch of Faces all over it, and here is a picture of me looking embarrassingly "sexy" while wearing it (those cheekbones are an illusion caused by biting down on the inside of my lower lip don't think they are real every blogger's face is a lie)
My Faces sweater is one of the most frequently-complimented items of clothing I’ve ever owned, except the annoying thing is that everyone always asks me some variation upon the extremely dumb question, “SO WHOSE ARE FACES ARE THOSE?” enough for me to have come up with the efficient stock response: “Oh, just strangers, except this one looks like me, and this one looks like George Harrison.”
And everyone’s like “Oh my god it does!” and so there’s another window into what the reality of my day-to-day life is like. I stopped in to Chiaaipette a few weeks ago before work and impulse-bought this crazy dress on crazy sale, army green spackled with a white and pink Jackson Pollock effect, it’s a really unflattering length and across the torso is a picture of a tiger’s face wearing Union Jack-print sunglasses- I tried it on and I asked the salesgirl what she thought and she enthusiastically told me she could imagine me wearing it in the summertime, on a sidewalk! Or the beach! Wearing flip-flops! And I was like “SOLD,” and then I found the sickest necklace ever, and bought that too, because ENGLAND (is the country I love the best).
3. "P.A.T CENTER"
Two blocks up Bloor Street is my favorite Korean grocery, the weirdly-clinically-named “P.A.T Center,” which unfortunately calls to mind the movie A.I (AKA the creepiest movie of all-time which gives me the insane heebie-jeebies to think about ever) and in no way betrays the infinite layers of WHIMSY that lie within. The first time I went into P.A.T Center was post-brunch with my friend Amanda and it was all so fucking exciting we like over-excited ourselves to a point where we both fell silent and got kind of tired and weird. We were in the freezer aisle and Amanda picked up a sausage-style roll of fish-cake colored in a Neopolitan ice cream rainbow and said “This is cool I guess," we were so overwhelmed by all the coolness. EVERYTHING was cool! But then we found a SESAME CREPE and Amanda was all "Girl- it, like, bends" and I laughed so hard I cried and got a second wind and then coolly bought myself a can of bulgogi-flavored tunafish, which tasted like if you dumped half a bottle of Srichacha into a bowl of vegetable alphabet soup. I ate it with a bowl of microwavable purple sticky rice. Korea.
I also bought a box of these butter-flavored cookies called DreamAnimals that literally taste like if you mixed butter with sugar and somehow they became a crispy animal-shaped cookie with the names of the animals printed along the side of the animal’s body only you didn’t add flour or anything. They were only butter and sugar. I’m especially into DreamAnimals because a lot of the animals included in said Dream are fucking WILD i.e. bats, camels, furseals, goats, leopards, macaws, something called an "m.duck," wildboars, etc- I was so pleased to get a tapir. I never thought I’d ever have a tapir cookie in my life.
P.A.T Center also has an extensive selection of premade Korean meals and condiments and japchae and so on and so forth but sadly, this is a story of the only time P.A.T Center ever let me down. A couple days ago I bought this takeout container of shrimp fried rice and what I thought were a bunch of tempura vegetables, but it turned out that the tempura vegetables were actually just ONE (I don’t know why I thought it was a bunch of things, I’m stupid kind of and don’t really notice things whatevy) fried piece of weird chicken that I ate even though I was DEEPLY not in the mood to eat a giant fried chicken thigh or whatever and it was kind of delicious but also disgusting, in that way fried meat can be when you’re not really in the mood for it, and then I had to go to work and it was nice because at least I didn’t get hungry til late but the whole time I just kept picturing this giant piece of chicken, hard as a rock, intact inside my stomach with the word PEAFOWL printed up one side. Gross right yes I know.
4. STEAMED BUNS
When you’re waiting in line to pay at P.A.T Center they sell earwax-pickers and tongue-scrapers and I’m always tempted to buy them but never do, because I don’t want the cashiers to think my ears or tongue are dirty. They’re not. They’re so clean.
On an island near the check-outs is a display of Steamed Buns. Saran-wrapped onto Styrofoam trays are a bunch of diffferent cake-y items that can you feed you three times for the horrifyingly low price of $2.50. That is 83 cents per meal for those keeping score and probably the cheapest and easiest way to not die in the entire city of Toronto right now. Plus they’re all fucking delicious, and the #1 ingredient in all of them is glutinous rice flour, so if you like your baked goods gummy (I do), you’re in luck. Eighty-three cents per meal guys.
The steamed bun in the picture at right is my favorite of the three steamed buns I’ve tried. At this point in my life I am not even sure if I’m ever going to bother with trying another type of steamed bun again because these ones are so rad. The crumbly bits on top are not streusel as your bored Amero-Canadian (that’s a thing?) mind might assume but rather red bean stuff. Last Thursday I got really high after work, and then I came home and that normal thing that happens to people when they get really high happened to me- you know, when eating food sounds really exciting and then you eat it and it tastes insanely better than usual. I heated up a portion of steamed bun and then was all “I’m really high and feeling creative about cooking!” so I melted some butter and honey together in a pan. That’s probably not very impressive to people who cook but I literally never cook anything and to be myself in a kitchen at like 1 AM utilizing a pan at all, like, I’m still really impressed with myself for doing that. I dumped my little dish of honey-butter onto my warm beany steamed bun and it was so fucking beautifully delicious I don't even know. I remember just sitting there eating this thing and thinking about the alphabet. "The Alphabet exists! Alphabet. What a cool word to mean alphabet!" And it was cold out that night. I just sat there eating this beautiful treasure looking out at the night through my window and I was like “Oh my god. Honey is the opposite of cold.”
I work at a restaurant, and have for two and a half months now. I love my job, I love my restaurant, I love my co-workers, I love every single thing about every single thing about it. One day I am going to write a novel about my job at my restaurant and some days I feel like I’m about to spill over with all the sentences I wish I could write down about all the marvellous people I work with and marvellous things that have happened there but I’ve written words down for long enough to know that when a thing is so marvellous as this one, you’ve got to let it rest to let it rise, or else you just spilled sugar all over a table and that’s pretty sloppy and worthless of you. I left this to the end of a very silly thing so that only the good people who stuck out two thousand words of glutinous rice flour and Styrofoam get to see this tiny black slit of the truth. I want to write these next few paragraphs like peering through a cracked-open door into a tiny room with all the lights turned off:
His name is Jae-Sun but we call him Sun because Jae-Sun is too complicated for us boneheaded North Americans to say. One night I was so up in arms over it and I swore I would start calling him Jae-Sun because “It’s your name!” but I couldn’t. I went right back to Sun like everybody else, I couldn’t help myself, it was shorter and easier and I'd already learn it into my skin. But then I apologized, and he said it was alright. And I imagined myself as exact me only transplanted into Korea as a dishwasher and I thought of how little of a fuck I'd give if I spoke no Korean and everyone called me just Jane so I decided not to beat myself up about it and freely called him easy Sun forever.
At first I liked him because he was the only person at my job who dressed cool and I felt very alone in a big sea and everyone else ignored me. I clung to him. He knew the words Comme Des Garcons. And then time passed and the whole world opened up and I became friends with everybody but Sun is still my favorite, because I'm no sell-out. His English is terrible, and at our staff party he asked me if I was an actress. I laughed. I told him I was a writer, and then I became his English teacher, and at the end of every night we had a lesson. I taught him the sentence “I’m stressed out because my job is hectic,” and it was a crazy fucking breakthrough. Everyone in the kitchen who watched it happen was like WHOA. It was very obvious that something special and heavy was going on. So now when people need Sun to do something either complex or specific they ask me to ask him and he understands me. We understand each other. One night he asked me to explain the difference between could and should and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to use my brain to do but I did it. And then when he finally figured it out he asked me, “But what about would?” and Diamond the line cook and I started laughing hysterically and I told him, “Oh, don’t worry about would, it’ll never come up. I, like, never say that,” and it was so funny and when I went to New York for the weekend he was so sad and asked Diamond to explain “Little by little” but she couldn’t explain it the way I could, or would, or should have.
It’s only been two and a half months but it feels like it's been years. As time passed we’ve realized that the easiest way for me to teach him English is just by talking. Every night at the end of the night I tell him everything I’m thinking or feeling, everything that’s happened, and if he doesn’t understand what I said he asks me and I tell him, and it’s so nice for me, explaining the feelings I’m feeling in the simplest language instead of the most complex- I’ve learned that so many things I always thought were so crazy are actually really obvious.
Last week, the most beautiful thing happened- I told him about the Beatles. He said he'd heard a few songs by them and I asked him which and he said "Hey June?" and I kind of wished it was actually called that. I wrote the word REVOLVER on a napkin and he did the rest himself. A few days later we both worked the busiest service in the history of my restaurant’s existence and at the end of the night I asked him, “Are you stressed out because your job is hectic?” He nodded his head yeah, and then sang me the chorus to “I’m So Tired” by the Beatles. I teared up like crazy and started telling everyone “Sun just sang me the Beatles!” and I made the joke, "He's my life protege!" and everyone thought it was sweet, and they were right, but here’s the part I need a couple more years to sit with:
How much more it meant to hear him sing it than it did to write this down. And how to write that down.