My favorite restaurant in the area is a small BBQ place close to the school. Not quite close enough to spit on, but I imagine I could hit it with a blow-gun from the corner of the street. I've become something of a regular at the place, whose actual name I can't read, but I mentally refer to it as "The Bashful Pig" since a cartoon graphic of a flush-faced swine shares the large yellow sign out front.
I always order the same thing. In fact I don't even have to order any more. The smiling ajummas start my meal before I have a chance to get to my seat. As I understand it, ajumma is one of the many personal pronouns Koreans use to refer to people of different ages and social standing. It means essentially "middle-aged woman," but usually also one who is a restaurant or business owner. I see it as more or less the equivalent of "matron" or "marm."
I like the Bashful Pig for a variety of reasons. First, they have the wonderful Korean floor-heating system which keeps your feet toasty as you sit on a cushion at one of the low tables. Second, they trust me enough to let me come back the next and pay my bill, since I didn't have enough cash one night at the cost of the meal was too little to take my bank card. That brings me to the third and best thing– I can stuff myself to capacity for 5000 won, or about $5. I always order galbi-tang, which is a rare non-spicy soup made from beef-ribs, onions and rice noodles. As is customary, all main courses at a Korean restaurant come with at least 3 side dishes of different kinds if kimchi and other vegetables. Also, you get a small metal dish of rice. This may not seem all that substantial, but bear in mind that if you empty a dish in this place, they will come over and fill it back up. In that respect, most places like this are "all you can eat." It feels a bit wasteful for me.
When I first arrived here I was very conscientious about finishing all the food that was put in front of me. After all, people are starving in the North only a short distance away, and it wasn't that long ago that South Koreans were eating dog for lack of meat. In fact, a still popular dish called budae jjigae ("army or army-base stew") was devised after the Korean War, and incorporated hot-dogs, canned ham and vegetable scraps from American military bases into a traditional spicy stew. Nowadays, it is inevitable you will jettison various half-full dishes as you leave a restaurant— it can't be helped.
The first time I had made real progress on cleaning the plates of my spread at the Bashful Pig, I was feeling good about what was in my mind, "finishing" a meal. But my hopes were dashed when the smiling ajumma swooped down, replenished my radish kimchi and gave me another bowl of rice, all before I could manage the breath for a feeble "anio."
Now when I go, they give me two bowls of rice at the get-go, so I try and pace myself, and never let my dishes get perilously close to empty until the end when I'm obviously ready to go. It's sort of like an odd game one has to play against hospitality.
I'm also surprised at the degree to which people get drunk at restaurants. As I was eating my dinner last night, two men across the the room were obviously quite well into their cups. I counted at least 8 empty 375 ml soju bottles sharing table space with their elbows and frantic gesturing. That's like two buddies downing 5 pints of Russian Prince after work at an uptight family diner or something. Sheesh. I'm hoping there were more of them before I got there.
So if you ever find yourself in the small potato streets of Hasangdong in Siheung City, look for that cheeky yellow pig who's cheerfully embarrassed that he's schilling for a restaurant that cooked his friends and family.
A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.