Yesterday, I zoomed out to Ilsan after signing my contract, because I wanted to thank two of the people who made the contract possible, which were my two former bosses who gave me such glowing recommendations.
I stopped by the hagwon where my friend Peter teaches, too, and we had a quick supper at a local hole-in-the-wall Korean fast-food joint (these are called 분식집: bun-shik-jip = minute-meal-house).
I ordered 치즈라면 (chi-jeu-ra-myeon = cheese ramen), which holds a special place in my heart.
Cheese ramen is the first “Korean cuisine” meal that I ever ate in Korea. I was stationed at Camp Edwards in 1990-91 while in the US Army, and I was out running some errand over to Camp Casey at Dongduchon with my sergeant. We were zooming along in our humvee, on some twisting road (there were no expressways back then, yet, in northern Gyeonggi-do, like there are now), and the sergeant announced we were stopping for lunch. We pulled up at some apparently random “next-to-some-US-base” ramen joint, that was set up at the intersection of two roads, and he ordered us cheese ramen from the ajumma that apparently knew him.
“Korean delicacy,” he explained, tersely.
“Yes, sergeant,” I nodded. I was curious and excited to finally have an “off-post” cultural experience, having been on “lock-down” for my first 3 months in Korea (due to the gulf war going on in Kuwait, half a world away).
Being February, it was cold. The warm, gooey mess of spicy ramen with a slab of plasticine american cheese melted into it was comforting – a perfect mix of the exotic and familiar. I was hooked, and have been ever since. Living in the US, I would simulate Korean cheese ramyeon by adding a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a slice or two of american cheese to bland, US-purchased Japanese-style ramen, such as Maruchan or Smack Ramen.
Yesterday’s cheese ramen was, as usual, unnaturally delicious and warmly nostalgic.
How is it that we later feel nostalgic for times in our lives that, at the time we were living them, were so difficult and unpleasant?