Thursday, May 25, 2006

Kitchen Korea & Kitsch Korea

Finally old enough to travel, Lee Jung Mie came south to work in a new bar just opened up in Seoul. Her grandmother cried to see her go; Jung Mie thought it was a shame that her grandmother did not come along to the new, hip scene. "I have bad hips" was Grandma's excuse. At the bar, Lee's boss could care less that she has never opened a bottle of beer in her life; she’s never even seen a bottle of beer until tonight, and she doesn’t know how to open it. “Here. You open.” Lee Jung Mie gives the unopened bottle to a customer and hurries back to the kitchen. Raised on cornmeal, Lee Jung Mie knows nothing about the dishes the bar serves, even though the cuisine is supposedly North Korean. Lee Jung Mie never had the right connections up north to get more quality goods. Tonight there's a bar customer, Park Bo Yong, who leans back with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He stretches his arms over the back of a bench. “This is what my father’s life was like in the 1950s and 60s, before the money boom." Back then goods were poorly made, service was bad, and people were bored. We all feel nostalgia now and then. On a stage lit by The People's bulbs, Jong Su Wang now sings North Korean standards that his big uncle taught him. “Sounds like my country cousin!” Park comments and cheers and chugs down his Taedong River Beer, a North Korean brew that North Koreans can’t seem to find anywhere. Park asks the waitress if he could show her around the city when her shift ends. Lee Jung Mie puts down her tray, removes her apron, and says, “Okay, let’s go.” They leave, and a dozen customers sit for an hour or two without service.

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