Before we had kids, my wife and I lived in Songtan, South Korea. It’s a small, crowded, bustling, smog-filled, wonderful city 34 miles south of Seoul (at the northern tip of Pyeongtaek in the Gyeonggi Province, if that helps). Songtan began life as a rural village but, after an American airbase was built in 1951, the sleepy town grew into a city.
We loved Korea, and we loved Songtan. The people were friendly and outgoing. The streets were filled with taxies, bars, restaurants, shops, karaoke clubs, open-air markets, and older women bent over with grandchildren strapped to their backs with wool blankets. Shopkeepers would grab your arm and try to drag you into their shops, promising the very best special low price on antique chests that looked suspiciously new. You could get a new suit made-to-order for $20. The US military police patrolled the streets with rifles, looking for drunk and disorderly GI’s. They always found some.
Across the street from the airbase was Mrs. Kim’s McDonald’s, a food cart that sold hamburgers topped with egg, corndogs, various meats on a stick, and deep-fried insects. I’m a bit skeptical that the McDonald’s Corporation officially endorsed her business, but she did wear an authentic company uniform, circa 1972.
More than anything else, we loved the food. Chap chae, bulgogi, pat bap, bibimbop, tteok-bokki, samgyetang. Kimchi and banchan. Soju and OB beer. Instead of peanuts, the local bars served dried squid snacks. I can’t say we loved them, but they were...intriguing. And squiddy.
My wife and I both taught for an American university that had campuses worldwide on U.S. military installations. The quality of education was low, and the administration's quality even lower, but we got to travel. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay in Korea for long. We were transferred to Tokyo and then Okinawa, and eventually, we moved to a small town in Ohio.
We had to get out of Ohio—quick!—so I took a job in Dubai. By this time, we had two kids and lived in a luxury high-rise in Deira, in the city center. Our apartment complex had a swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, massage chairs, baby-sitting, game room, gym, and playground. The building was attached to a shopping mall, which is very Dubai. We could shop for groceries, go to a movie, or eat in a five-star restaurant without leaving home. There wasn’t a ski slope or underwater art museum, but still.
The one thing we didn’t have was Korean food, and we missed it.
My oldest daughter made a new friend, Eun-Ji. She was Korean, and her family lived right down the hall. One day, we saw Eun-Ji with her mom, Yumi, at the playground. Next to them sat a handful of ajummas—homemakers, middle-aged women, aunties. We introduced ourselves, proudly using the 12 words of Korean we knew. The Korean women smiled and bowed. Yumi spoke in perfect if accented English, telling us how badly she spoke the language. I was no longer very proud of my 12-word fluency.
The kids ran off to play.
“We lived in Korea,” I said. “Songtan.”
“We loved it there,” my wife Maura said. “I really miss the food.”
“What are your favorite Korean dishes?” Yumi asked.
“Bulgogi,” I said. “And chap chae.”
They turned to each other, whispering in Korean.
“We will come to your house and prepare these dishes for you. When is the best time?”
We were stunned, but then it started coming back to us. In Korea, if you complimented someone’s perfume or sweater, they might just show up at your house the next day with a beautifully wrapped gift. The same perfume or sweater.
Maura looked at me. I shrugged. A time and a date were set.
Six days later, the doorbell rang.
I opened the door. Seven ajummas stood there, with children. They smiled and bowed, each holding several grocery bags and stacks of Tupperware. I said hello and let them in, worried there wouldn’t be room for everyone in our slender kitchen.
As it turned out, the size of the room wasn’t a problem. The women had brought a portable gas stove and two enormous woks set up on the dining room floor.
Our kids were mesmerized. Cooking in the dining room? Giant woks?
A small army of Korean women set up knives and cutting boards on the dining room table, chopping vegetables and working together like a well-oiled machine.
Chap chae is a mixture of glass noodles, thinly sliced beef, garlic, sesame seeds, fish cakes, and vegetables. The noodles are so creamy and delicious. Bulgogi literally means fire meat in Korean. It’s made with marinated meat, generally beef. If you’re eating at a Korean restaurant, the meat and veg are grilled right at the table by you. Once everything’s cooked, you put it in a large romaine leaf, roll it up like a burrito, and eat. Cool, fresh lettuce is the perfect contrast to the warm, spicy meat.
If my kids thought the ajummas were strange, the women thought I’d come from another planet. It was a Tuesday at 1:30 in the afternoon. I wore sweatpants and a ripped t-shirt. Why wasn’t I at work? their confused stares seemed to whisper. Why wasn’t I wearing a suit?
“You are not working today?” Yumi asked.
“I took the afternoon off.”
“What is your job?”
“I’m a professor. English literature.”
“Oh, I see.” She translated for some of the others. “You may take the afternoon off if you want?”
“It was just office hours...I can reschedule.”
They looked at me as if I was a lazy slob who didn’t work hard enough or dress well enough. I mean, it was true, but they didn’t know that.
“And I really want to learn how to make Korean food,” I said.
“You will be here?”
“I don’t like to cook,” Maura said.
The ajummas’ crooked eyebrows, dubious glances, and whispers told me that they thought this was weird and not in a fun, quirky way. The man should play golf in his free time or drink to excess with colleagues. Not cook. That was women’s work.
I looked at Maura, who was smiling, enjoying the fact that a small pack of Korean women clearly thought I was a silly person and probably not a real man. My emasculation was very amusing to her. It wasn’t that amusing to me.
“At what university do you teach?” a woman asked.
I told her the name. It was a government school for Emirati girls. The university had a decent reputation in Dubai. It shouldn’t have, but it did.
“Ah, very good, very good.”
The woman smiled. They all did. Maybe I wasn’t such a bad guy, after all, they were thinking.
Maura asked if anyone wanted coffee, which they politely declined. The ajummas began opening packages of food and chopping more vegetables.
I stood around looking like an idiot, wishing I’d worn a newer t-shirt and my “good” sweatpants. “How can I help?”
The women smiled, with courteous hands in front of their mouths to hold back the laughter.
“You do not need to help.”
“But I want to.”
Yumi, the Ajumma-in-Chief, sighed almost imperceptibly. “You may wash the lettuce.”
“Okay, great. I’ll get right on it.”
“But be careful. Do not tear the leaves.”
“And be sure to use cold water!” someone called out. “Do not use warm water!”
Several women giggled. They stole furtive glances at me but just as quickly averted their eyes. Clearly, I looked like the kind of idiot who’d rinse lettuce with warm water, rendering it limp and lifeless. But that was totally unfair. I’d only done that a couple of dozen times, and it’d been weeks since the last episode.
Soon, the ajummas were squatting down by the gas stove, heating oil, grilling meat, and vegetables, stirring the glass noodles.
I watched them cook and asked a few questions. I was learning.
When the food was ready, the kids came running in from the bedroom. The oldest ajumma made a plate for everyone. She wore a flowered apron and didn’t eat anything herself.
The kids sat around the dining room table. The rest of us gathered in the living room with plates on our knees. The women tried not to smile while I struggled with chopsticks and slippery glass noodles dripping with oil.
“This is so good,” Maura said.
The ajummas bowed and smiled, rejecting the compliment.
“Oishi desu yo!” I said. “Totemo oishi!” This tastes so good, I tell you. Very good indeed!
The women stared at me with crooked eyebrows. They looked at each other and shrugged.
I turned to my wife, who was laughing. “It is good. You’re right. But you’re speaking Japanese.”
“Oh, sorry.” I looked at the women. “This is great. Thanks so much.”
“The pleasure is ours,” Yumi said.
We finished our food. Afterward, my wife made coffee, and we talked for a while. The women seemed to relax and accept me. I wasn’t so bad, even though I was lazy and dressed terribly. Or maybe they hadn’t been laughing at me the whole time, I thought. Maybe I was just paranoid. They weren’t laughing at me or even with me. They were laughing out of shyness and awkwardness, like the way I spill food and dribble down my chin when I’m around new people.
“Andrew would be happy to cook for you sometime,” Maura said.
“Uh, yeah...” I looked at her. Thanks for volunteering me. “Of course. I’d love to.”
“He can make Italian, Tex-Mex, Indian...”
The ajummas conferred.
“Can you prepare French food?” Yumi asked.
“Sure. What would you like? Coq au vin, beef bourguignonne, onion soup?”
“It all sounds very good. Whatever you make will be acceptable.”
Acceptable? That was just about in my range. “Great. How about next week?”
“Yes, next week. This is a plan.”
We set a day and a time.
Their English was heavily accented, and our Korean was nonexistent, but the language of food is universal. We felt a little bad as if we’d tricked them into buying us dinner and cooking it for us, but after I tasted the meal and ate the leftovers for the next few days, I didn’t feel so bad anymore.