Ginger and Generosity
by Rebecca Biage
(Suwon, South Korea)
South Korea is known for many healthy foods: kimchi, rice and seaweed to name a few. However, ginger is one health item that is often overlooked. Ginger is an herb that's been used to treat various ailments like arthritis, stomach pains, and nasal and throat congestion.
About 80% of ginger in South Korea is grown in a small town called Geumsan, located about 150 miles south of Seoul. This piqued my curiosity so I booked bus tickets and packed for a weekend in Geumsan!
The weekend excursion started off pleasantly albeit in an unexpected way. After arriving at Seoul's Express Bus Terminal I had a bit of time to spare. After a quick breakfast at one of the cafes, I headed to the gate. As I stood there waiting an elderly Korean woman nearby said to me, "Are you going to Geumsan?" She was short with dark gray hair, a sweet smile and sparkling eyes framed by glasses.
Initially I was stunned. I don't have many encounters with elderly English-speaking Koreans.
"Yes," I replied. "Just for the weekend." She asked if I knew anyone there and I told her no. I informed her of my interest in visiting the Ginger Market. She was traveling there also, as she would be visiting relatives. We continued to talk, her inquiring about my work and where I was from. I discovered her name was Kyung; she moved to the States during the 1960s and lived in Colorado. She had previously worked at a library university and was now retired. The other interesting discovery was that her daughter and I had attended the same Boston university.
Soon it was time to board the bus. I was a little disappointed that our seats were not close to each other, but I figured we would meet up after disembarking in Geumsan.
The bus ride started off with turtle-like traffic as we left Seoul; however, about an hour later we finally picked up speed. The bus driver did pull-off to the rest stop for a 15 minute break. Passengers happily stretched their legs, bought snacks and made quick bathroom breaks before returning to the bus. While outside I noticed a few tree leaves changing a golden yellow color. As autumn is my favorite season, I took this as a good sign of more warm colors soon to come.
When the bus finally arrived in Geumsan Kyung offered to help me find the hotel. About twenty minutes later I was checked-in and Kyung headed towards her relatives' home. Later that evening I phoned her and we made plans to meet for breakfast in the morning.
Kyung picked me up at 8:30 sharp the next morning. To my surprise, though, we weren't heading to a local coffee shop. We were heading to her aunt and uncle's house for breakfast! Kyung informed me that her aunt said "nothing would be open yet". I was pleasantly surprised by this offer, but also a little nervous. I wondered how this breakfast would unfold.
Upon entering the house, I stepped into a square-shaped living room. In the middle lay a large blue rug bursting with colorful designs. A small, round black table with an intricate stencil design was in the middle of the room. Against one wall was a pale tan couch, with shelves holding knick-knacks and books, including a full collection of Chinese language books. Along the living room wall were two bedrooms, the bathroom and the kitchen.
After exchanging pleasantries with Mr. and Mrs. Kang (Kyung's aunt and uncle), breakfast was promptly served. The four of us gathered around the small black table. A delicious and healthy feast lay before us: two different kinds of kimchi, vegetable jeon (pancake), rice with chestnuts, anchovies with roasted almonds and peanuts, simmering chunks of eggplant, and fresh cucumber sticks. This is how Koreans do breakfast!
We ate and conversed during the feast, with Kyung providing excellent translation service. After the breakfast Mr. Kang offered coffee. Even though I politely declined, Mr. Kang insisted and soon brought out four cups of piping black liquid. Mrs. Kang jokingly informed me that this was the first time Mr. Kang had ever prepared coffee for a guest. We sipped and chatted a bit more. When coffee time was over Kyung offered to walk out with me, as she needed to hit up the store. I thanked Mr. and Mrs. Kang profusely for their kindness as I left.
On the street Kyung and I hugged goodbye and wished each other safe travels. As I walked back to my hotel I thought about the breakfast. There can be moments of frustration as an expat, but it's unexpected moments like these, meeting Kyung and sharing an authentic Korean breakfast, that nourish my nomad spirit.