Fried Cabbage in the Kyomushil: A Poem

a poem written and read by Victoria Su, ETA ’15-’16

 

I wrote a poem on the eve of Thanksgiving. 

That morning I was still suffering from the hurricane of homesickness that had struck me all of a sudden the night before. My host family’s extended family had been visiting, and while they were friendly and warm, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider in the midst of this joyful family reunion. I thought about how I had spent all my past Thanksgivings surrounded by family, friends, and the irresistible smell of my mother’s candied yams, and how this year I would just be alone in my room staring at my computer screen, worrying about how to make the Lesson 9 “target language” interesting for my middle schoolers. The simultaneous thoughts of missing Thanksgiving this year and how far away Christmas (when I would go home) was, mixed with feelings of guilt and regret for wishing away the precious time that remained between me and my third graders hit me hard, and I cried silently in my room all night. 

There is a famous Chinese poem that goes like this:

独在异乡为异客,每逢佳节倍思亲

Roughly translated, it means “Alone in a foreign place, I am a foreign guest; every holiday season brings a double measure of longing for my family.” When I learned this poem in middle school I didn’t really understand it. Who knew that it would be in middle school again that I would experience this poem’s core sentiment as reality?

The next morning (Thanksgiving Eve), when I had finished my first class of the day, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the teachers cooking paechu jeon (배추전), which is a cabbage pancake (basically just sheets of cabbage dipped in a flour-water mixture and fried). Korean cabbage tastes pretty similar to Chinese cabbage, so even though we never eat it in pancake form like this, it reminded me of home. The warmth of the smells, the sounds, and the taste of the food and more importantly, the inviting mirth of my fellow teachers filled me with an unexpected joy and inspired me to write this poem in the little time I had before my next class.

 

 Fried Cabbage in the Kyomushil (teachers’ office)

Eager noses pressed up against doors and windows, peering in,

breath fogging up the glass

What is it? What is it? I can’t see! Smells good—

Here comes Teacher, will she take pity?

it’s cold outside—

oh!

Time for class.

Kids scurry off—still, a few noses and sighs

Linger in the corridor.

 

A chuckle slides opens the door: Welcome.

Step into the room now, another world—

Warmth.

tips of Ears, Nose and Fingers suddenly aglow

the hearty crackling of grease permeates the air,

paechu jeon sizzling in a pan.

 

The room is bright with anticipation

as six or so surround the expert hand—

flip! crack! sizzle…

a steady buzz of chatter and cheer

complement the spitter-spattering of the prize—

Do you have cabbage in America?

—a deft motion, deference (or maybe preference) to the delicacy at hand

and—flip!

crack!

 

startled!

for a split second by the flying object

momentarily poised to wreak havoc

 

break—disrupt, disturb, suspend—our heady expectation of perfect satisfaction to come

 

then, swiftly as it came, summoned back as if by magic

SNAP! Perfect landing.

 

sizzle, crack, sizzle…

back to the same simmering state, just

sizzling,

sizzling,

smelling of

simplicity

 
And common grace fills the room.

 

Soon—a Feast! It’s not quite Thanksgiving, but the spirit is here

Chopsticks separate at lightning speed

Dip, drip, devour

Crispy cabbage with a kick of spice

Flavor of delight.