In 2012, before knowing anything about my birth family, I was randomly placed in Gwangju with EPIK (English Program in Korea). Little did I know that my birth parents would live 1.5 hours away and my aunt and uncle only a 10-minute bike ride away. It’s a small world, isn’t it? Oh, I have more examples about it being small world, but maybe in another post.
During my time in Gwangju, we met occasionally, but mostly whenever my parents were in town. Recently, however, she has been calling me about meeting up for dinner (at the very last minute).
An a Friday evening, she called and demanded that I meet her at a particular bus stop within an hour. Some things I learned from living in Korea is to be flexible, go along with it, and family first – for real. So, I dropped whatever I was doing and went to meet her with Adam. She threw us into a taxi and we rode near Mudeung Mountain for a delicious Korean vegetarian buffet; she knows I prefer vegetables. Since her English is non-existent, we conversed in basic Korean. I asked her what her plans are for the weekend. She told me to go and eat some more at the buffet.
That particular buffet is one of my favorites, 수자타, which I believe is associated with a Buddhist temple, thus the vegetarian food. For 7,000 KRW, you can eat all that you can in the cafeteria-esque restaurant. Since it’s located near the ever popular Mudeung Mountain National Park, hikers flock to refuel up after a decent hike. If you are in Gwangju and want to check it out, here is a map.
I thought it would be the last time I saw her, but I got a surprise call a week later.
“Meet me at the same bus stop at 6.”
“I can’t. I have plans at 7.”
“We’ll finish eating by 7.”
Hahaha, what a jokester. If you experienced eating with Koreans at a traditional restaurant, you will know that it can take a long time.
I canceled my other plan and rolled with the punches yet again.
This time, my uncle (my birth mother’s brother) and their son joined. I rode my trusty bike and we met at the street corner. My hands were full of grease as I made a pitstop to fix my fallen chain. She also pointed out the black grease that somehow ended up all over my neck. Typical me.
Dinner was 한우, or local Korean beef. Most of the beef eaten in Korea comes from Australia since there is not a lot of space to raise cows here. It is supposed to be fancy, I guess.
Within the past year, I became a bit strict with my abstinence from meat. There are a few reasons for this decision (squeamish about eating animals, health, environment, just don’t enjoy the taste of it), but I will never call myself a vegetarian and limit myself to any particular type of food. It’s important to keep my mind and options open, especially when traveling. I sucked it up and ate the small bits of cow, masking it by wrapping it up in lettuce along with onion, garlic, spicy sauce, and mushrooms.
This restaurant was an interesting one. At first glance, it looks like a swanky and clean place loaded with patrons. We were seated at what appeared to be a low Korean table, but in reality, there was a gap in the floor so you could sit as you would in a chair. My legs appreciated it.
The restaurant is attached to a butcher, so you are expected to buy meat and mushrooms and bring it back to the table to barbecue. You only pay 3,000 won ($2.5) per person for all of the side dishes (soup, sauces, vegetables, kimchi, porridge).
The side dishes were “self service”, so you can go and load up on as much as you want. My aunt topped the black sesame porridge so high into the bowl that it was overflowing on the sides. She did a quick save by licking the side of the bowl, as you would a melting ice cream cone, before looking my way and asking, “do you want some?”
Italians have the stereotype of eating and eating until you eat some more, but Koreans and Filipinos certainly have this mentality as well. I made wraps, picked at the “salad”, and slurped down 됀장찌개 (fermented bean soup). But if I dare took a rest and put my chopsticks down for longer than 30 seconds, my aunt or uncle would demand “먹어!!!!!” “Eat!!!”, sometimes in an intimidating manner. Afraid of the repercussions, I complied and ate some more.
Food was the main topic of discussion, as usual with my Korean family. I’m not sure if it’s because that’s what they usually talk about or because it’s the most that I can understand in Korean. They carefully observed me as I ate the delightfully spicy kimchi, proudly smiling with each bite. Koreans, especially in the Jeolla province, are proud of their cuisine, as they should.
Before Korea, I never knew that people would be so concerned with my eating habits. Even my coteachers point out what I eat at school lunch and openly discuss it in front of me. Heaven forbid I don’t take rice one day, it is a tragedy and absolute mystery. Suppose I’m used to it by now though.
Spending time with my extended birth family has certainly been an experience. Initially, I was pleasantly surprised to have found my birth parents and sisters, but never would I have guessed that my aunts and uncles would also welcome me into the family so warmly.
If anyone is interested in dining at this restaurant, here is a blog about it and here’s another one with drool-worthy pictures. Here is a map and bus directions. Look for the bowling pin on top of the building.