Korea 003 – The Mad Biker
THE MAD BIKER
I’m glad Robert was the first person I met on that cold miserable night. In some ways he was so weird he made the place I was staying and the situation I found myself in appear normal. He stood about six four, the top three inches of that, thick black curly hair. I met him in the dark hall, his huge white teeth cutting through the darkness of the hallway, a smiling beacon of good will and welcome. He said he knew of a CHEAP place to eat. With Robert the word CHEAP always came out in capital letters accompanied by a triumphant raising of the eyebrows as if he’d yet again outwitted a world that continually tried to overcharge him.
He had the room next door and before we went out, he showed it to me. It was identical to mine except it had no window and most of it was filled with a large bicycle. He leaned over the bicycle and grabbed a heavy coat.
“Six years,” he said.
“Six years I’ve been biking around Asia. Best way to travel. You’re free, know what I mean?” He rummaged around a bit more and pulled out a heavy sweat shirt. “No trying to read bus or train schedules. Schedules in Asia are just a joke anyway. Nothing runs on a schedule. They go when they’re full and don’t go when they’re broke down, you know? Hell, if they do go, the last place you want to be is on them. Chickens in your lap, pigs underfoot, and about a thousand Chinese peasants staring at you and spitting. No thank you! Not for me. On a bike you’re free.” He turned to look at me. “And it’s CHEAP.” A quick upwards toss of the eyebrows. He reached out and plucked a hat from the handlebars, pulled on some gloves and was ready.
“The only thing is,” he continued as we walked out of the inn and down the alleyway in search of a restaurant, “you got to keep an eye on the seasons.” He cocked a suspicious eye upward at the dark sky as if daring the weather to try and slip any change past him. He did a quick little dance step with his feet and giggled. For a moment, I thought he would wet a finger and hold it to the wind. “After a while you develop an instinct, just like birds have, you know, when they go south for the winter. I follow the warm and dry seasons all around Asia.”
I found this hard to credit with the icy rain still coming down and steam rising from every doorway and building vent around us. I looked pointedly at his sweat shirt, coat, gloves and hat and said, “I hope you’re not going to tell me this is the warm and dry season in Korea.”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I blew it coming to Korea. I don’t know much about the place. Who does?”
I thought about this last comment of his as we walked along. It was true. No one seemed to know much about Korea.
“Bitching cold in Korea isn’t it? And it sure ain’t CHEAP.” His eyebrows disappeared under his hat rim.
I waited to see what would emerge next.
“Five times,” he suddenly announced.
“I’ve been arrested five times for brushing my teeth in public.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Brushing my teeth. In public. Arrested,” he said as if that made everything clear. “I’ve still got the paperwork for each arrest if you want to see it. Asian police are so uptight. I like to get up early and watch people go to work. Reminds me that I’m not missing anything by not having a real job, you know. Whenever I feel an urge to get a job, I go and watch these people.” He shook his head in wonderment. “In every country they’re the same. Robots. That glazed look in their eyes scares me. I sit outside subway and bus stops, brush my teeth and watch them rushing to work. Sometimes if I’m in a hurry I just hop on my bike and brush my teeth as I bike down the street.”
I pictured him perched on a cement wall, a six foot four inch hairy gargoyle foaming at the mouth and staring intently at commuters. It’s a wonder worse than a couple of arrests didn’t happen.
Robert suddenly stopped and announced, “This is the place.”
We were standing in front of a small restaurant. In the window were fifteen horrible plastic models of the meals you could get inside. I recognized them instantly as the same models as those in the windows of restaurants in Toronto’s Little Korea neighbourhood. I passed them every day as I went to my old job at Ontario Hydro. Their bright colours and waxy appearance always made me lose my appetite.
Robert and I stepped through the door. Inside, all was chaos. I had read that Koreans do not linger over a meal. Here was the proof. Chopsticks flashed between bowls and mouths in a blur of motion. No one was shy about slurping a little bit (I was told later that this was the Korean way of including their ears in the feast. Eyes can see the food. Tongues can taste it. Noses can smell it and hands can touch it. But the poor ears unless you make a lot of noise get left out of this greatest of Korean pleasures – eating). The air was split with shouts for more food and drink but I noticed little conversation. Eating was far too serious a business to waste time in idle chit chat. Here was no quiet clink of wine glasses, no polite repartee, no orderly progression of courses. The entire meal arrived in about a hundred thousand bowls all at once and within minutes the customers finished and sped out the door, their chopsticks clattering on the table beside their empty bowls.
Robert, oblivious to the astounded stares that greeted our entrance, muscled his way through the crowd. I timidly followed. Both bearded, over six feet tall, wearing jeans and running shoes we couldn’t have been more conspicuous in this sea of cleanly shaven Korean men with identical hair cuts, white shirts and ties if we were riding unicycles and playing the cymbals.
Despite the crush of people it was almost as cold inside as outside. The only heat came from a small oil heater on the floor and Robert pushed his way onto a seat next to the heater and got one for me as well.
Had I been alone I’m sure I never would have eaten that night or perhaps any night thereafter. But Robert was in his natural element. A man who taunts Asian police by brushing his teeth in public has no problem causing a scene in a restaurant. At least to me it was causing a scene. In Korea it is the natural way of placing your order. Elbows planted in spilled food, knees hopelessly jammed and entangled under the too short table and towering above the rest he pushed aside the mass of empty bowls in front of us and shouted “Ajimah!”
Technically ‘Ajimah’ is a form of address appropriate for any older married Korean woman. At a food stall in the street or a booth in a market or on a crowded bus ‘Ajimah’ is said quietly to get a woman’s attention. In a restaurant it means, “Yo, waitress, get over here” and you’ve got to give it all the lung power you’ve got or you’ll never get noticed let alone served. All three syllables are punched hard loud and fast with a burst of air from the diaphragm: A-JI-MAH!. A drill sergeant’s bark. It isn’t even necessary to make eye contact with the Ajimah or even know where she is. The Korean men (for it was almost always men in these restaurants) rarely even looked up from their food.
Ferocious and demanding cries of ‘Ajimah’ rose all around me and, still a novice, I expected a slim, harassed looking young woman with sweat dripping down her forehead to timidly emerge and on the verge of tears find out what all these boors wanted. I expected the apocryphal wisp of a girl, the poet and actress trapped in this dead end job, dreaming of better things. I’d seen her in movies and met her in books and plays, a frail birch bark craft tossed on stormy waves of gluttony and abusive customers. Nothing prepared me, however, for the battleship of a woman who sailed out in response to that cry of “Ajimah!”
She was huge, solid, and almost regal in bearing. Her presence managed to overpower even the ridiculous effect of the hideous flowered prints on her oversized blouse and baggy pants. They clashed worse than the plastic models of food in the window or even the ibul back in my room. Nothing seemed to faze her. She went from table to table delivering food and drink impervious to the clamour which had in a few short minutes stripped me of all my composure. I noticed that she didn’t really have a system. She simply responded to the loudest and most strident cries for service. In this way she asserted her power over the room. To get her attention we had to shout and plead in direct competition with everyone else. She had reduced us to supplicants at the foot of her bulky indifference.
While Robert’s cries of ‘Ajimah’ became more and more shrill I glanced around the room to see what was for dinner. There was no way I saw now that I was going to convince the Ajimah to come outside so I could point to the plastic model of a meal as I had planned. I was going to have to find a different system. That posed some difficulties. There was such an abundance of bowls and plates at each table, I couldn’t tell what a meal consisted of, nor where one meal ended and another began. The menu posted on the wall was in incomprehensible Hangul, the angular Korean script. The prices were written in the Chinese system. No help there.
I hadn’t come up with a strategy when suddenly the Ajimah was at our table piling the empty stainless steel bowls onto her tray. She stacked them higher and higher till I thought for sure they would topple into my lap. Without missing a beat and not once making eye contact, she cleared the whole table, wiped it down, poured some tea and disappeared.
“Damn, damn, damn”, said Robert. “Damn. I had her right here and missed my chance.”
“Isn’t she going to come back?” I asked. I knew Robert was as in the dark about Korea as I was but, overpowered by the scene in which I found myself I instinctively clung to him as a guide. Deep down, I was still hoping the battleship wasn’t the waitress and the real one would emerge, take out an order pad, flip it open to a clean new page and stand with patient pencil poised to take our order. But deeper down I knew I was dreaming. The Ajimah from hell was my waitress. She outweighed me by sixty pounds and my only link to her was Robert the mad biker.
“Listen,” Robert said. “Do you like rice and vegetables?”
“Do you mind a bit of spice?”
No, not really.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. The next time we get her attention just shout ‘bi-bim-bap’.”
Next time we got her attention? I didn’t remember ever having it, but I guessed that just having her within five feet of you counted for the same thing.
“What does it mean?” I asked him.
“Bi-bim-bap? That’s Korean for spicy rice and vegetables. It’s the only dish I know the name of. And it’s CHEAP!” He smiled and his eyebrows shot off in all directions. I felt his feet do that same little dance under the table.
I knew then we were going to be okay. Robert enjoyed this, and I figured no behaviour of ours could possibly make us stand out any more than we already did. We both waved our hands through the air and shouted “Ajimah! Bi-bim-bap!” We did it over and over again sometimes in unison, sometimes in a row-row-row your boat kind of chorus, and once in four part harmony. It was hysterical and tears ran down my cheeks. I was too fatigued to care.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and I turned to find a Korean man leaning across towards me.
He pointed at us, held up two fingers and queried “Bi-bim-bap?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” I replied still laughing.
He picked up a small shot glass, beat it rapidly on the table and then shouted “A-JI-MAAAAAAAAAH!” Something in the way he said it not only stopped the Ajimah dead in her tracks but actually turned her towards the source of the sound. Our new friend pointed at us and said, “Bi-bim-bap. Tul-gae.” He then gave me a thumbs-up sign and bent down to his own meal once more. It seemed we were going to get dinner.
The flow of bowls began. Each time the Ajimah passed us she dropped off a few more bowls. They contained various vegetables and kimchi, the spicy and fermented cabbage that is served with every meal in Korea. (As many types of kimchi in Korea as cheeses in Europe!) Finally, she brought a large bowl filled with rice and various vegetables crowned with a fried egg. Beside it she placed a full bowl of dangerous looking red pepper paste. This was bi-bim-bap.
I pulled my chopsticks out of their paper wrapper and tentatively grabbed at a few things in the various bowls. By this time we had quite an audience, and I didn’t really know how to begin. The bi-bim-bap looked quite good and I not so deftly picked up a bean sprout with my chopsticks and then a bit of rice. A shadow fell over my bowl and I slowly looked up. It was the Ajimah, and she was frowning.
Before I could protest she picked up the bowl of red chili paste and dumped the entire contents on top of the fried egg. She then took a large spoon and holding it like a dagger plunged it into the bowl and chopped and stirred vigorously until the whole bowl was reduced to a foul and lethal looking red goo. She gave me the spoon and indicated I was to eat. I looked in vain for the vegetables. They had been shredded and mixed beyond recognition. My first small and tentative spooful brought hot tears to my eyes and the Ajimah’s frown deepened.
She took the spoon from my hand, reached into the bowl and came out with a mound of food about the size of a large egg. She brought this closer and closer indicating I was to open my mouth. Nothing like travel to broaden the mind and make you feel like a two year old again. I had no choice and opened my mouth. For the first moment as I chewed I thought I’d be okay but then the inferno hit with the force of a bomb. I gagged and coughed and spluttered uncontrollably and desperately drank off my entire cup of lukewarm tea. I thought my throat had been seared shut forever. Everyone burst into laughter and the Ajimah, satisfied that Robert and I were eating properly, nodded approvingly and moved off, parting the sea of men as easily as the battleship she was. I shook my head in awe.
The ice was broken and now all of our neighbours, the “salarymen” Robert told me they were called, joined in. Each time either Robert or I looked up or hesitated in any way one of them would lean over with their chopsticks and tap on one of the bowls on our table indicating we should try a bit of whatever it contained. “Traditional Korean food,” they proudly announced again and again in their limited English.
The salaryman beside me tried to correct my technique with the chopsticks and not to be outdone Robert’s neighbour immediately did the same. The entire population of salarymen in the restaurant adopted us. We felt obligated of course to try every “traditional Korean” dish indicated and then vigorously nod our approval. There was no respite. Whenever we emptied a bowl the Ajimah promptly refilled it. The hospitality became oppressive and in desperation I finally turned to Robert and suggested we get out of there while we could still move.
He agreed and after paying the bill and waving goodbye to everyone there we pushed and shoved and fought our way to the front door. Just because they were now our friends didn’t mean they would make room for us to get past. That wasn’t the Korean way. At the door we were each given a stick of gum from a large basket, and bowing and waving we burst out into the alley. My first meal in Asia and I was exhausted. Three thousand, two hundred and eighty five to go.
“15 countries,” said Robert with a shake of his head.
“I’ve been to 15 countries in Asia and have never, ever, ever, gone through anything like that. Like eating dinner with your mother and seventeen tour guides.” I had to laugh because that was exactly what it felt like.