Hye Rae and I met about two years ago. I’ve mentioned her a few times here, sometimes by the name she first introduced herself, which is Helen. (Adopting English names is common practice in Korea, especially for young kids these days who go to English kindergartens or after-school language academies. Why Helen? I once asked her. Helena Christensen, she replied). We started as co-teachers at an English kindergarten and became friends soon after that. But really, she’s like a sister. So many unexpected gifts have risen out of the choice to move to Korea on a whim. Hye Rae is one of them.
When we started hanging out at her house regulary, she would send me home with a container of kimchi. I almost couldn’t eat it fast enough, and I worried that she’d run out if she kept giving me so much. Later I learned that she never, ever runs out of kimchi because her mother-in-law keeps her stocked. When she’d come to my apartment with our other co-teachers, she’d bring a bag of Korean pantry staples–sesame seeds, gochugaru, doenjang and sesame oil. I didn’t know how to cook any Korean dishes back then, but she sparked a curiosity by gifting me with what was needed to make most typical recipes. And soon, we started teaching each other how to cook.
Before last weekend, I hadn’t met any of Hye Rae’s family besides her husband and her son. She’s told me many stories about them, though, and because there’s always a few of her mother-in-law’s homemade or homegrown elements in whatever she cooks–gochujang, soy sauce, dried seaweed, rice–the stories naturally tumble forth. Her mother-in-law’s soysauce is dark and strong and, of course, made the traditional way with just soybeans, salt and water. Her gochujang is thick and sticky and a deep garnet hue, with a flavor that has ruined me for all store-bought brands. I don’t know if Omoni knew that her gochujang has gone into nearly every Korean dish I’ve ever cooked, and I don’t know if she cares. But as I sat at her tiny kitchen table for two last Sunday, I felt like I had to tell her anyway.
Hye Rae called her thirty minutes before we arrived to tell her we were coming, because otherwise, Hye Rae said, she’d insist we didn’t. Not that Omoni doesn’t want the company, she just doesn’t ever want anyone to go out of their way for her. She must have thrown together a pot of soup with oysters and radish so that we’d have something hot to eat, even though Hye Rae assured her we’d already had dinner.
We’d spent the day bouncing around Gwangju, and after a visit to her sister-in-law’s house, we took a bus to Nokdong at the southern tip of Korea, a small beach town that was once used to quarantine people with leprosy. We stopped at the fish market in the knick of time to select an octopus, a gift, as the last gates were shut and locked. The fish lady pinched our octopus by two tentacles, held it up for Hye Rae’s inspection, and shoved it into a black plastic bag. Omoni greeted us in a floral housecoat, purple pants, and checkered scarf, her cheeks ruddy. Oboji was watching the Olympics in the bedroom on their twin bed, also layered up to his ears. He gestured for me to sit at a warm spot on the floor, and we watched women’s curling while Hye Rae and Omoni caught up in the kitchen. Ten people lived in that two-bedroom home while their children were growing up. Oboji was a farmer, and Omoni’s job, among others, was to keep her family fed. I’d never seen a more spectacularly organized kitchen, or imagined a more selfless kind of life than that of these two. Omoni is over seventy years old, and she still refuses help making the year’s batch of kimchi or cooking elaborate meals for holidays when her house is once again full of people–her daughter and three sons who are grown up with families of their own. That night, we slept in the small second bedroom on the warm floor next to big sacks of rice that Oboji harvested, and though we set our alarm to wake up earlier than Omoni, she still beat us to the kitchen to make breakfast.