Bergen County, New Jersey

Summer 2016

One day at my seasonal job at an English summer camp for international students, my manager called me urgently: “Come to the office, the Korean ambassador is here!”  I ran up, we shuffled things around to make the place look better, and I was encouraged to offer our guest a coffee when he arrived.

He soon did, short and stout with a grey combover and a staunch drinking tummy. At first impression he seemed serious and quite business-like, but as soon as he started speaking he revealed a very playful, almost silly character, giggling and joking. His English was quite rudimentary, despite having lived in the US for thirty years.

I don’t think he was an ambassador of any kind, but he did seem to be a head of the New Jersey Korean community and had arranged a school group to come every year for the last four years from his hometown Hapcheon-gun in the South of South Korea, even, as I understood, convincing the district to pay for their experience.

Later in the summer, he would treat his students to a Korean meal in New Jersey. My manager asked, smiling, if he was invited. Yes! Was the reply, and so are all three of you! Come to the meal! He treats the students to this meal every year, he proudly explained, using his own money.

The Korean students arrived a few weeks later. They stayed with each other, not mixing much with the other nationalities except the most advanced speakers. While the other students were desperate to stay up later than their 11pm curfew, the Koreans went to bed early and awoke early, talking and showering by 6:30am, banging doors and laughing loudly, to the consternation of the other students.

The group was excellent at snacking. They would buy bags of American and Korean chips, split them open not on the seam but down the middle, and lay them out on the table for everyone. They always had something to eat and something to drink. They entertained themselves merrily, playing games and telling jokes.

The day of the field trip arrived. When I asked about timing, I was told the trip would be from 2pm until 10pm- a long excursion for a dinner. My coworkers opted out, and though I had some misgivings about spending all day with a group that spoke almost no English I tagged along.

After a last desperate puff of cigarette the group leaders ushered me onto their rented bus along with the students. I had no idea where we were going, except for the Puerto Rican bus driver’s verification, “Hackensack?” at the beginning of the ride.

An hour later we pulled up next to a government building, somewhere in New Jersey. It appeared to be a city hall, and we were shuffled into a presentation hall. A stout patriot explained that he was a Freeholder, apparently one of the oldest government positions in the country and unique to New Jersey ( … Who knew?) A young Korean translated, I think badly (though I don’t speak Korean), and the students fidgeted. They were given official looking folders with papers in them. We were shown around the building. I caught one of the shy Korean girls giggling with her friend in my direction and she explained, “You’re so pretty!” I returned the compliment.

Back on the bus, going somewhere. I was slightly creeped out when we arrived in front of an unmarked building in an empty parking lot, which turned out to be a warehouse full of cheap Chinese made makeup, hair clips, hats, wigs, beads, and other random goods. I realized we were calling a visit to all of our ‘ambassador’s Korean buddies in Hackensack. The owner of the warehouse passed out Korean popsicles. I was handed a red bean one, which made me very happy. Cold, sweet, and milky, studded with sweet chewy red beans, it was perfect in that baking parking lot. The Korean girl gave me a taste of her lime one.

Next a visit to a small outdoor Korean war memorial, where an old Korean man passing by gazed over longingly, wanting to say hello. I imagined more Korean was spoken in the neighborhood than English. A whisper of ‘hungry!’ swept through the ranks, and I knew dinner would be next, though it was only 6. The dinner was clearly everyone’s focus of the evening. I love people who love to eat.

The restaurant was on the side of a busy street, with a big parking lot. Only a few tables in the big restaurant were occupied, and we were seated at three long tables on one side. The shy girl wanted me to sit with them, but it was decided I would sit at the grown up table with the group leaders. The owner of the restaurant came out and sat with us, another friend of the ‘ambassador’. Our party grew to included several more by the end of the meal. When presented with a menu, I asked that they order me whatever they were getting, which was explained as a summer soup. Not on the menu.

Ten cold cans of Coors Light hit the table, along with a few bottles of Soju decanted into silver long-spouted pitchers. Beer and soju were mixed in our glasses, and everyone toasted. One of the group leaders showed me how to put one of my chopsticks upright in my glass and smack it with the other one, creating a fantastic fizzy bubbling in the glass and mixing the two liquids. Soju is a kind of rice wine, like sake, and mixed with beer makes a lovely lightly sweet and easily injested cocktail, perfect with flavorful and spicy food.

Banchan arrived- those free small plates that come with any Korean meal: kimchi, spicy chewy squid, and to my delight a whole fried fish for each person, hot and flaky and salty, with a delicate coating and fresh sweet meat.

I was glad to be at the table with the adults when more extra dishes kept hitting the table. I was offered tidbits off of a cold meat plate, with what seemed to be boiled sliced pork belly, pig ear (so fantastic- chewy and crunchy and full of flavor), and blood sausage with rice. Later, a mysterious dish of big chunks of raw fish and grassy herbs I couldn’t identify, coated with a heady spicy marinade.

The main attraction turned out to be Samgyetang, which I had never tried before. A big bowl was placed in front of me, with fine clear broth, floating jujube berries, and an entire small chicken. Wondering how I was to eat a whole chicken with my chopsticks and spoon, I gave it a poke, and it melted sumptuously, relaxing easily into bite sized pieces and revealing a stuffing of sticky rice and big sections of ginseng. The dish is made unsalted, and small dishes of salt and spice were meant to be used to season the broth and to dip the meat as desired. I kept my broth almost as it came, enjoying the lovely richness of the good integrated chicken fat and the pure delicate flavor of the soup which revealed its own complexities when left saltless. The meat was soft and edging it with flecks of salt made it deeply satisfying. The rice provided substance and starch. Fantastic.

Sometime at the beginning of the meal my neighbor asked me if I would like to come with them to the empire state building. I assumed he meant up on the observation deck for an evening view. I later realized he meant not the empire state building itself but rather the neighborhood- Koreatown. Which is where we went after dinner, and where we did the only logical thing to do after eating an enormous meal: get fried chicken and beer.

Korean fried chicken is a marvel in crunch and spice. I understand they fry it twice, which lends it its distinctive tongue crackling addictive texture. It comes in different flavors, usually honey with some spice and spicy with a lot of spice. The spicy version at this restaurant was exceptionally spicy; even the Koreans had a hard time with it. The students were playing a game, and they made the new punishment eating a piece of the hot chicken.

A great day of eating. Stuffed, we took the remainders to go and headed back to the dorm. Back in the lounge area, the leftovers were thrown onto the table. Then opened. Then we ate them. Why not?