Saturday, June 03, 2017

Golden Evenings, Mornings, & Maids

Tuesday night I was invited over for dinner by Roxanne, the Korean lady with whom I went on a walk two weekends ago. She had told me that her brother-in-law was a fabulous cook, and he and her sister and their little girl happened to be visiting this week. The little girl, Korean age 5, was struck by shyness upon my arrival, but while her parents cooked and her uncle watched the World Cup qualifying game between South Korea and Portugal, she ran around happily. She was clearly invested in the soccer match as well, as when Portugal made the second of its three goals, she wailed "an-dae!" (Nooo!). We all sat on a quilt on top of another blanket on top of a mat at the low table, which would've collapsed under the weight of all the food if it hadn't been constructed of solid wood. It was a huge spread. There was spaghetti with freshly made sauce, and salad topped with fried tofu and Jeju tangerine vinaigrette. There was kimchi and pickled garlic and hashbrowns, and scrambled eggs with peppers and rice. And more. And when I had finally stuffed myself to the point of pain, they brought out the soup! It was really, really good. The Koreans must have the world's highest metabolisms. How can you eat so much – admittedly good, healthy things – and still remain thin? Last week, I got a health assessment at the City Hall, which informed me that I needed to lose 10 kg. Now, if I lost 10 kg – not that that is likely to happen in this lifetime – I would be exactly the weight I was in college. But how am I supposed to lose any weight when I keep being fed all of this gloriously delicious food? And I don't walk enough. Roxanne and I did walk around her neighborhood for about an hour after supper, before she took me home; we're supposed to go on another long walk next weekend.

Friday morning June and our curriculum coordinator (a tall thin muscular girl I'll call Mel, who reminds me a lot of my sister) and I went with Kristen, a Korean teacher, to see her family's beekeeping operation. Her parents have beehives partway up Hallasan, where the air is fresh, and are purists in that they don't feed the bees sugar water, which is common practice to boost production even here. Instead, during the months when there are no blossoms, my colleague's father makes his bees their own special rice cake (they are Korean bees after all!) which includes pollen and honey (Kristen grumped "he loves his bees more than he loves me!"). Right now, however, there are blooms on the trees, and the bees can busy themselves conventionally. We had to wake up ungodly early (6 AM) in order to see the honey harvest in action; Kristen told us that her mom usually gets up at 4:30 AM so that they can be finished by nine, before it gets hot.

We drove up the winding 531 Road until we came upon a whiff of smoke and a blue farm truck parked in a gap in the trees. There were two small fires burning in the grass near a tent where three older ladies in boots, hats, gloves, and kerchiefs were industriously processing rectangular wooden frames of honeycomb. A man with a netted hat trundled the frames in from the hives on a wheelbarrow, and the women loaded them into a huge aluminum centrifuge, which spun them first one way, then another, causing golden honey to leak from a spigot at the bottom through a sieve and into giant semi-translucent white plastic containers that were sitting in a depression dug into the ground and lined with a tarp.

The shady clearing on the other side of the tent was full of white hives. There were hundreds of bees in the air, but they were lulled by the smoke from the smudge fires and the little bellows-powered smoke dispenser that the three men (the husbands of the ladies in the tent) used when they lifted the lids off the boxes. I noticed that the men dunked each frame in water before they stacked it on the wheelbarrow. Perhaps to discourage clinging bees? A few insects still rode into the tent, but only one or two remained when the centrifuge turned on; they were destined to be drowned in their own honey. I was impressed by how few bees were harmed in the process--there was a small pile of bodies in the honey sieve, but the spinning doesn't affect the larva sealed in their hexagonal incubation chambers, and most of the adults had decamped before the machine activated. We caught the honey drizzling from the tap with a spoon and ate it.

Before the frames were returned to the hives, a woman pulled a large knife from a pot of boiling water on a small gas camp stove and quickly tidied them by scraping off excess beeswax into a gargantuan plastic strainer--they later bagged this and gave it to us. They also presented us with an entire liter of fresh honey, and treated us to a huge breakfast at a lowland restaurant owned by the parents of one of Kristen's friends--the restaurant actually isn't open that early, but they served us anyway. We told Kristen that we should have been the ones doing the treating, but she just smiled and shrugged it off. Beekeeping is an extremely hard job. When her parents aren't minding their bees, they are working in their tangerine orchard. Her dad doesn't look his seventy-five years. He claims that bee pollen and stings are medicine. Mel got inoculated on the inside of her cheek when she fished fresh honeycomb from the strainer and popped it in her mouth--it contained a bee. She was a tough girl and a good sport, pulled the stinger out, and kept smiling. Surprisingly, she didn't swell up. Maybe if you're eating the honey of the bee that stung you, you're ok! I did check my own piece of honeycomb carefully after that, though.

I had already bought two liters of her parents' honey from Kristen two weeks ago--one for myself, one to be sent back to Grandmommy via Susanna when she visits at the end of this month. It was nice to meet the bees it came from. A middle aged man stopped by during the morning to buy several hundred thousand wons' worth; her parents don't advertise, but he's a regular customer. He asked us if we could drink--that's a sort of "getting to know you" sally around here. Neither he nor Kristen's parents and their friends speak any English, but I was able to discern from my minimal Korean that they were harassing her about not being married – she's in her mid 30s, and beautiful. She told us that she wanted to be a "gold maid" rather than an old maid. If you are a "gold maid" you are accomplished and single. Therefore, you are perceived as unwed by choice rather than otherwise.

Oh, a while back I just wrote about a lady in my adult class who is taking care of her elderly parents. I had simply assumed she was married (as that generation of Koreans usually is), but I have since have longer conversations with her and discovered she's also single. She's an impressive woman. And her spoken English has improved remarkably over the last several months. She claims she doesn't see a difference, but I do; her confidence is much greater. My Russian, on the other hand, continues to deteriorate. June, Mel, and I ate at my house Friday night (Kristen and the other teachers were invited, but they declined, primarily because my dinner wasn't announced until the last minute!) and spent the postprandial period chatting in Russian – or rather, Mel spoke beautifully, June concretely, and I stuttered painfully. I understood everything, but listening is a passive skill. I have lost so much facility. Мой язык как камень. I continue to pray that Irina's and my book will find a publisher.

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