Scenes from the Kitchen

By Eugene Lee, ETA ’16-’17

I’m crying. The feeling is at once gripping and unfamiliar. I’m crying. I’m crying. Repetition does not pull me closer to this fact, as I try to stop by sheer force of will. My snot-soaked sleeves are punctuated with the timeline of the flood’s unknowable duration. Quietly, I set my knife down and wait—I am careful not to rub my eyes. I cry every Friday. I cry every Friday after school and yet the feeling is always unfamiliar, arriving without notice. Eventually, I emerge from my tears and can see clearly again, but only to see the object that has become both the beginning and end of my Friday afternoons: an ordinary, benign household onion.

* * *

He averts his gaze for a moment, looking out into nothing. My native language swims in his mind elusively in a way I will never quite understand. I have come to see this gesture is a habit as he prepares a question. I pick up another onion from the wide, blue basket and savor the way it halves effortlessly under the weight of my knife. My left hand is rounded as if holding an egg, just as I was taught, and my index finger guides my knife as I make my way across one half of the onion. I am swiping the newly cut crescents into a second basket on the floor when my host father finally speaks: “My personality…it is…so positive?” I nod. “이게 맞니?”1

 I nod again.

“My personality! It is so positive…I always want learn everything.”

“I always want to learn everything.”

“I always want to learn everything! Many old people don’t…want to learn…but I always want to learn. I always like to learn.”

I have always wanted to learn how to cook. But catching up on years of missed cooking experience means making lots of food, and food is typically limited to three meals a day. It has been less than a month since I began learning how to cook at my host family’s Chinese restaurant on Fridays, and yet I have already gained years of experience because of the sheer amount of onions necessary for 짬뽕 and 짜장면.2

“Me too,” I reply. “Me too.”

* * *

Fluency is this: noodles grabbed from behind precisely at the moment they come out of the machine, thrown into the boiler without so much as a second glance; crumbs from the fryer peeled off the oil’s surface with a strainer and flicked into a bin in such a way that each glistening, golden crunch flies as if held together by an invisible thread; cucumber slivers cascading into a bowl under a slicer, the cucumber then flipped in the air and caught precisely with the other side down as if handled by a bartender. Fluency is anticipation born out of persistent repetition and calculation dissolved into the subconscious in such a way that work becomes breathing. For the non-fluent, it is a subtle mastery that is both mysterious and beautiful to witness.

* * *

I have always been told my hands are pretty. My fingers are long and slender and there are no visible cuts or bruises. Each crush into the bitingly harsh heat of a piece of fried pork brings me face to face with the fact that my hands tell a comfortable history of privilege. I break apart the Siamese pieces of freshly fried pork—conjoined in twos, threes and fours, in split-second intervals. Time is precious—each point of contact sears redness into my fingers, and it takes pure willpower to push on. I glance at my host father’s fists. A white bandage is wrapped around his left index finger and there are multiple dark spots marking the backs of his hands. Before we started frying he pointed them out like constellations, urging me to heed the cautions etched in their stories. His hands are heavily muscled, with huge veins forming great valleys and canyons. They are worn like the white, slightly yellowed poster tacked onto the kitchen fridge, lined with scribbles of various phrases in English filled with hope of remembrance. I have no such poster but instead have decades of memories written in English, some painful, embarrassing bruises and some callouses that mark pivotal moments like the time I first read “Othello.” And though he cannot see this palimpsest, I wonder if he overhears conversations with my friends and sees them the way I see his hands—like artifacts that, by charting the past, look forward to tougher palms and longer sentences.

* * *

“Half spoon of soybean sauce.”

“Just soy sauce; not soybean sauce.”

He laughs. “Okay, half a spoon of soy sauce!”

I take the ladle and scoop—clumsily. I can sense that his nod is caught in that odd space between a pledge to exactness and an indulgence of laissez faire. I toss the sauce into the pan and hear a sizzle. Time passes and the stir-fry in the pan is splashed with shades of black, brown and red that belie their disparate places on the spectrum of taste.

한번 먹어 봐.3

“‘Try it?’ No, that doesn’t sound right… Ah! ‘Have a taste?’”

“Have a taste!” He teaches me to sample the sauce from the piping hot ladle, which fogs as I bring it closer to my mouth.

I’ve had this stir-fry many times since arriving at my homestay, but this time the flavor is cosmic—it explodes in my mouth in every direction, as I at once perceive the various seasonings that compose a certain flavor and simply enjoy the taste for what it is. Ah, so that’s been garlic this whole time. I hope that learning English, though a more gradual endeavor, will one day also make the ordinary beautiful again. All of those unheard conversations and words flickering past here and there will hopefully one day start to take on some kind of meaning. I nod in approval and I turn to my host father, who spends a moment in thought. Finally he smiles, and though his cheeks are worn with constant smiling, I know that he means approval—maybe not for taste but for effort.

* * *

Just as the blemishes of an amateur chef’s poorly cooked meal can highlight the care put in, so too can the pauses between correct and incorrect grammar showcase the herculean efforts of a language learner. But beyond the glorification of effort is the simple reality that, even for fluent speakers, language is hardly ever perfect. Like cooking, it is usually a pastiche born, for the most part, out of necessity. My host father helps me pour the stir-fry onto a plate, my forearms unaccustomed to wielding a restaurant-sized pan holding dinner for six. My arm trembles from both the weight and the heat. He smiles and gestures me to bring it out to the table, where my host siblings are waiting, hungry from the long school day.

The dish may not be perfect, but for us, the makers, parts of it are more memorable than others. And maybe for my host father, particular words or phrases in the conversations we will have at the dinner table will be infused with a little more significance. Every Friday is a chance to teach while being humbled by the mistakes that lie between the nascent and the refined. Every Friday we become two souls in a kitchen that, above all inhibiting factors, speak by tacitly recognizing the other’s desire to share.

잘 먹겠습니다!”4

Eugene Lee is a 2016-2017 ETA at Baeyeong High School in Jeongeup, Jeollabuk-do.


  1.  Ige matni? Is this correct?
  2.  Jjambbong and jjajangmyeon, spicy seafood noodle soup and black soybean noodle soup, respectively
  3. Hanbeon meogeo bwa, “Have a taste.”
  4.  Jal meokkesseumnida, I will eat well, or an etiquette phrase one says before partaking in a meal