Hungry after a long day at the hagwon with a slight headache breathing through my temples, I wandered into a local eatery. There were no less than 7 policemen in their full blue and gray gear, loudly, violently and quickly consuming a crowd of plates. They ate with typical Korean gusto, so it was not surprising. However, one always feels good eating where the local cops eat. I ordered my mandu-gu soup and sat back. There were no empty seats left now that I had sat down to share a table with three young dudes. One table of men kept gaining occupants and simultaneously gaining volume. My soup arrived along with my tablemates. We had all ordered the same thing, which made me smile. It was soft dumpling soup, with a splash of seaweed and egg in peppery chicken broth. It was delicious. I ate slowly and appreciated each bit, sampling my side dishes of soy marinated potatoes, spinach in spicy sauce, fried egg, kimchi and marinated seaweed. The policemen finished and left, but the tables never emptied, as soon as one-person left, another arrived. This was definitely the place to eat, I felt embarrassed I hadn’t eaten here more than twice. Then, one of the guys at the loud, ever-expanding table inexplicably brought me a bottle of water and a glass. I was thirsty but it was too busy to reach the self-serve water area. I finished every plate including my ‘bap’—aka rice. It was one of those great dinners where you feel a part of your city.
I asked for two things in Korean, got what I ordered, paid exact change after being told how much it cost in Korean and left saying goodbye in Korean. It was a success. I could write about almost every meal I’ve eaten in this country. The delightful successes, the frustrating failures, the good, the bad, the very ugly and smelly have all been on my plate. This one just felt normal and completely at ease. Walking the two blocks home, I saw one of the resident stray cats munching through a trash bag. He is strong and healthy looking with the unstable eyes of a street urchin, which lets me know he is eating well and knows his business. I was thankful to be able to have eaten off a plate in a warm, cozy corner of a popular diner. It’s important to be aware of our good things, no matter how small.