Written and photographed by Karly Pierre
Translation by Karina Prananto
My chipper hello and quick bow in the doorway of Kim Min-kyeong’s apartment are met with a panicked “Shhh!” Kim presses a finger to her lips and waves me and my Korean teacher into her apartment, then ducks into her kitchen.
“Her neighbor,” my teacher explains as she closes the door behind us, “she can hear us. She’s an older lady.”
Kim is at the stove sautéing chunks of chicken coated in red sauce. Her slight frame is lost in an oversized sweatshirt. Steam rises from the pan and she adjusts her glasses. My teacher carefully observes Kim for a moment, then tilts her head skeptically. She whispers to Kim; they laugh and my teacher rolls up her sleeves. She tosses in a plate of chopped carrots and cabbage, and soon she is manning the stove. Kim stands behind her, looking over her shoulder.
“Maesil,” my teacher says.
Kim shuffles off to the refrigerator and returns with a jug of plum syrup, which she then pours over the chicken, and my teacher tests the dish again. She furrows her brow, then nods in approval. While the chicken simmers, Kim offers me a mug of tea. As I sip the lukewarm black tea, Kim sets the table: steamed broccoli, cabbage salad (baechu geotjeori, 배추 겉절이) and radish kimchi (kkakdugi, 깍두기).
“These are from my family’s field,” she says, pointing to the vegetables. “My mother wakes up at 5:00 in the morning every day to work in the garden.”
Today’s lunch is a bit unusual for Kim. She doesn’t cook much these days. “I’ve been studying for my real estate agent exam, so my mother brings meals for me and my husband,” she says. “I took the test last week, and I did okay.” She plucks a broccoli floret from the bowl. “I’m a government worker. But now I’m taking a break, and I’ve never been happier.”
Kim, 37, grew up in Gwangju. Her father worked at a bank and her mother was a real estate agent. Though as a child she was mostly timid, she also recalls being a bit of a tomboy and beating up her little brother. P.E. was her favorite class.
She bites into a chunk of radish with a crunch and my teacher chuckles.
“Why are you laughing?” asks Kim.
“You chew so loudly,” my teacher replies, amused.
As a child, Kim remembers eating her mother’s sujebi (수제비) and duck soup (oritang, 오리탕). “We’d have oritang twice a month,” she says. “On holidays, my mother would make honey cookies. That has to be my favorite childhood food memory.”
Though Kim enjoys her mother’s cooking, she has never asked her for a recipe. “I’d rather just eat it,” she says.
When I begin asking Kim questions about her cooking skills, my teacher interrupts. “You saw her today,” she says. We all laugh.
“I don’t know how to cook,” Kim admits. “I took a few cooking classes at HomePlus. I only went there three times. There were usually two to five women in class, a mix of young housewives and students…It was pretty easy. I learned how to make tteok-galbi (떡갈비), kimchi jjigae (김치찌개), and doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), but dak-galbi (닭갈비)—I still can’t make that.”
Eventually during the interview, the tables are turned and Kim begins a comprehensive interrogation of my life: How long have you been married? How is life in Korea? I slowly string together a few Korean phrases while being corrected by my teacher. I come to the conclusion that my interview with her is over and turn off my recorder. We settle in for girl talk.
Suddenly, my teacher gasps. Something Kim said has shocked her, but Kim remains blasé and even chuckles.
“She was in the hospital,” my teacher explains. “She had stomach cancer.”
I learn that Kim had surgery in April. She attributes the cause of the cancer to the stress of her job. She playfully mimes being poked and prodded during her chemotherapy sessions. In a few months, she’ll return for a reevaluation.
“I don’t mind going to the hospital,” she says with a smile. “I can rest there. It sounds strange, but it’s true.”
There is something behind her nonchalance – like she’s had an awakening.
“From now on, I want to have an exciting life,” she says.
Before I leave, we take a picture together. She quickly runs her fingers through her bobbed hair and shrugs indifferently. My teacher snaps the photo. As I pack up, Kim asks me if we can be friends. We are the same age, after all.
The fact that we’re the same age resonates with me as I press the elevator button. As I get older, I’ve become more aware of the passage of time. Like Kim, I’m learning to cherish life more.
When the elevator door opens, an old woman is already inside. She’s bent over a cart of freshly harvested radishes, the thick white roots still speckled with dirt. Their sharp, earthy aroma fills the elevator.
“Those are beautiful,” my teacher says.
The old lady smiles with pride and nods. When the elevator doors open again, she pushes the cart into the lobby, her back bowed from a life of hard work, and walks out into the amber glow of the fall afternoon.
300 grams chicken thighs
1/2 head shredded cabbage
1/2 carrot (large slices)
1 thickly sliced yellow onion
1 chopped large green onion
5 sliced sesame leaves
1 packet cheese tteok (떡, rice cake)
2 tablespoons red pepper powder
3 tablespoons gochu-jang (고추장, red pepper paste)
2 tablespoons cheongju (청주, refined rice wine)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/2 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon ginger concentrate or juice
black pepper as desired
- Wash the chicken thighs, and then cut into bite-sized chunks. Mix the sauce ingredients and marinade chicken.
- Wash and cut the vegetables.
- Add cooking oil to a heated pan and stir-fry chicken.
- When the meat is nearly cooked through, add cabbage, onion, tteok, green onion, and sesame leaves, and stir-fry. Simmer until fully cooked and then serve.
Karly Pierre has an MA in Mass Communication and has worked as an editor and writer for several publications. She is currently an assistant professor in the ESL department at Chosun University.