A Taste of How Korean Culture Has Become International… in Southern California


It’s no secret that Korean culture is huge internationally and has been for a long time, whether it’s K-pop, Korean dramas, or kimchi. I love it, but I still find it weird, especially when I’m in Southern California, where I remember (from many, many, many years ago) Korean culture being the exclusive province of Korean people, and everyone else being completely ignorant or suspicious of it.

Yesterday, I had lunch with my mom at Yigah in Garden Grove, which specializes in Korean beef soups. As we left, I held the door open for a UPS delivery man carrying a large box. As this older white man walked through the door, he said, “감사합니다” (“thank you”) without missing a beat, which left me chuckling.

Afterward, my mom and I went to Arirang Market to pick up some groceries. At the Korean barbecue stand, I noticed to my surprise that each menu item had the Vietnamese equivalent written underneath (pictured above). I pointed this out to my mom, who shrugged her shoulders, and said, “Vietnamese people love 불고기 (bulgogi).” (Garden Grove is also known as Little Saigon because of its large Vietnamese population.)

As folks become more exposed to and enamored with Korean culture, I delight in the subtle nuances that most people don’t know. At Yigang, I had 육개장 (yukgaejang), a delicious, spicy, beef brisket soup made with mountain vegetables. I imagine many people enjoy it. What they may not realize is that “개” translates to “dog,” which is what this dish was originally made with. 육개장 was a peasant dish, but when the Korean nobility (양반) discovered they liked it, they started making it with beef instead.

A Funny Thing Happened the Other Day on the Internet…

This past week, I spent two days in Tiburon supporting my former colleague and bootcamper, Dana Reynolds, who was facilitating the Code for America staff retreat. Any time spent with the good folks at Code for America is going to be inspiring time, and I couldn’t help expressing this sentiment on Twitter after the retreat was over:

Total time spent tweeting this: Maybe 30 seconds.

Then a funny thing happened. Someone named Jang from Korea responded to my tweet with a question:

I didn’t know Jang, so I glanced at his Twitter profile, and I saw that my friends, June Kim and SeungBum Kim, followed him. That was a good sign, so I responded, resulting in the following exchange, each message less than 140 characters:

I was planning to send an email to some folks at Code for America to follow up, but it wasn’t necessary. Conversations on Twitter happen out in the open, and Cyd Harrell, Code for America’s UX evangelist, saw the thread and responded. This is what happened:

I don’t know what’s going to emerge from this whole interaction, but something good will. At worst:

  • I learned something new about an issue I care about in a country I care about
  • I made some new connections
  • I facilitated some new connections
  • I strengthened some old connections

All from simply tweeting how I was feeling one evening.

This is what can happen when you have ways to communicate with lots of people transparently and with very little friction. But it’s also critical to recognize what underlies the technology that makes this sort of thing possible: people, trust, relationships, and literacy.

Bottom line: This sort of thing makes me very, very happy.

A Day In A Networked Life

I live a networked life, but there was something about yesterday that made me fully appreciate how lucky I am and how amazing this world is. Here’s yesterday’s rundown:

6am — Up early. Long day of work ahead of me.

7:30amAsaf Bartov (currently in Israel, soon to be in San Francisco) and Moushira Elamrawy, newly hired global community reps at the Wikimedia Foundation, are holding IRC office hours. Decide to listen in. Happy to see several old friends from around the world there. It’s just text scrolling on the screen, but it almost feels like we’re in the same room together. Moushira lives in Egypt, which was serendipitous, because while we chat, something cool happens there. Again, networks.

8:30am — A colleague of mine in North Carolina passes along an unusual request from a colleague of hers in Belgium. She wants to use a YouTube video of a Korean rap song for a workshop, and she wants to make sure the lyrics aren’t offensive. I’m amused, but my Korean isn’t good enough to help her. I ping a friend from Korea on Facebook, whom I met at a conference here in San Francisco last summer.

9am — Take a peek on Twitter, and see my friend, Nancy White (based in Seattle), asking for stories about social media in public health education. I don’t know any off the top of my head, and I could easily have retweeted Nancy’s request and left it at that. But I immediately think of two friends on Twitter who could help — Steve Downs (based in NYC) and Susannah Fox (based in D.C.) — and I decide to introduce the three of them instead, in public and over Twitter. Total time spent on this: About a minute.

I had met Steve in person almost a year ago. I discovered Susannah accidentally through an article that evoked a blog post here. I still haven’t met her in person, but I’ve enjoyed all of our interactions since. Steve and Susannah immediately get to work, retweeting the request to specific people and supplying a stream of great stories to Nancy. I check in a few hours later, and I’m blown away by the response.

9:30am — Plotting a surprise for a dear friend. Can’t share the details here in case said friend reads this blog post. I’m in the early stages of scheming, and after talking to a few people, I decide to set up a Facebook group. A few hours later, 30 people are on the group and work is happening. Many of those folks are friends I haven’t seen or talked to in a long time.

Throughout the day — Lots of work, and I need to focus. I have calls for four different projects. On three of them, we use Google Docs for collective, real-time synthesis. How were we ever productive before real-time, collaborative editing?!

I end up working until 7pm, then settle in for the evening. I disconnect, cook dinner, chat with a friend, do some reading, then go to bed early.

This morning — I wake up before 6am, refreshed. My friend from Korea has responded. Not only does she verify that the lyrics are indeed not offensive, but she sends me a transcription of the entire song! I thank her, and forward the news to my friend in North Carolina.

Later in the morning, I ponder all that happened in the past 24 hours, and I sit to write this blog post. As I write, Travis Kriplean IMs me from Seattle. He pings me about some great news, and we end up having a great, thought-provoking conversation about tools for engagement. My mind is racing again, and now I have to go read one of Travis’s papers.

Israel, Egypt, Belgium, Korea, and all throughout the U.S.: Over a 24-hour period, I interacted with friends and colleagues from all over the world, including one in Egypt while incredible things are happening there.

I spent about 20 of those minutes on my computer in my office here in San Francisco connecting people to others, creating online spaces, and walking away. Amazing stuff magically happened.

While all this was happening, I focused and worked productively, again from the comfort of my home office, using tools that have only recently become widely available.

What an amazing, wonderful world we live in, where possibility is reality.

A Symphony of Yaks

Our Ferry to Ulleungdo

One of the reasons Ulleungdo is so pristine is that it’s hard to get to. The island is small and mountainous, and there’s no airport. The only way there is by boat.

From the port of Pohang, it’s about a two-and-a-half hour boat ride, assuming all goes well. Leading up to our trip, my Mom was worried that it wouldn’t. Rain was in the forecast, and the East Sea is notoriously fickle.

I was less concerned. I knew it was a large boat, and I figured that if the weather was good enough for us to go, we’d be okay. My sister, Jessica, in her usual ultra-organized fashion, had packed Dramamine and Sea-Bands, these mystical bracelets that were supposed to ward off seasickness. I declined both. Jessica and my Mom opted for the wrist-bands. The Kim family is hardy… and medicine-averse. We’d be fine.

The good news? My no-vomit streak of almost three years remains alive and well.

The bad news? About 200 people, including my Mom and Jessica, were not so lucky.

Cramped Quarters, Painted Windows

There was no sign of the horror that was to come when we arrived at the port early in the morning. Although the sky was gray, the sea looked calm. The boat itself was a large catamaran that carried about 400 people, and it looked strong and stable.

Boarding the boat, we got our first hints of the unpleasantness to come. The inside felt stuffy and crowded. Many of the passengers had brought floor mats, which they placed in the aisles and sat in picnic-style. There were large windows all along the walls, but most of them had been painted over with tacky images of the island.

Sitting On The Floor

Koreans are obsessed with television. There are widescreen televisions everywhere, playing a constant stream of weepy dramas and obnoxious reality television. Our ferry was no exception. There it was, planted in front of all of us, blocking the gorgeous view we would have had had the windows not been painted over.

We sat among a large tour group of middle-aged travelers, mostly women. You could barely hear yourself over the din of excited chatter, intermixed with the cacophony of silliness that was streaming from the television.

Although the sea had seemed calm, the boat was rocking from the start. At first, it seemed like a minor nuisance, like driving on a road with minor bumps here and there. Occasionally, the bumps turned to swells, eliciting screams of amusement, followed by a rise in excited chatter.

My own amusement soon became boredom, and I began to feel drowsy. My senses had been on full alert since arriving in Korea, and my weariness from travel and jetlag was finally getting the best of me.

I dozed off.

About an hour later, I stirred. Something strange was happening on the boat. I listened, still only half-conscious, and realized that the chattering had completely subsided, replaced by almost total stillness, interrupted by the occasional sound of yakking. My eyes were still closed, and my brain was unwilling to process this. I could not be hearing what I thought I was hearing. It must be a dream.

I opened my eyes and looked around. Silence. People were draped over their chairs and on the floors, their faces pale. I looked over at Jessica and my Mom. My Mom was leaning forward, with her head against the back of the chair in front of her, her face scrunched in deep concentration. Jessica just looked miserable.

“I threw up,” she said.

“Uh huh,” I responded. I leaned back again, still unable to process what was happening around me. “Wait, what?”

“I threw up. And Mom feels like throwing up.”

Jessica described what happened, and I listened, saddened by their misery, still unable to process the other sounds I was hearing throughout the boat.

“Drink some water,” I urged them. They drank some water, and I closed my eyes again.

Silence, yak, silence, yak, yak, yak. I opened my eyes again, this time fully conscious, and I finally realized what was happening. People were barfing all over the boat. It was a symphony of yaks, and I had an orchestra seat.

My Mom sooned joined the chorus, and I turned to help her. The boat had supplied everyone with these comically inadequate plastic barf bags. Jessica had taken things into her own hands, pulling out two large shopping bags, one of which my Mom was painfully filling with the remnants of that morning’s meal. Then Jessica rejoined the fray.

As I did my best to comfort my family members, I tried to tune out the sounds around me. All that did was shift attention away from the sound to the smell. Imagine 200 people on an unventilated boat retching continuously for an hour. The whole place reeked of regurgitated ramen and spicy 반찬. It was like the blueberry pie scene from Stand By Me, only with smell-o-vision.

The motion of the boat wasn’t bothering me, but the smell and the sound were starting to take its toll, and I began thinking nostalgically about my no-vomit streak. Trying to ignore what was happening around me was only making me more conscious, so I changed tactics and tried to soak (figuratively) everything in.

I scanned the boat, sympathetically observing my fellow passengers, as the boat staff ran around futilely with fistfuls of lilliputian barf bags. I cracked inappropriate jokes and avoided the subsequent glares from my Mom and sister, who were doing an impressive job of filling their shopping bags.

Thanks to the weather, our trip took an hour longer than expected. Watching 400 mostly seasick passengers disembark from a stuffy, smelly boat after three hours of continuous ralphing, I understood for the first time what true gratitude looked like.

As I helped my Mom and Jessica off the boat, grateful for the fresh air and stable land, we all thought the same thing: Ulleungdo had better be worth it.

Why I’ll Only Eat Naengmyeon In Korea

I was only in Seoul for two days, but I went out of my way to eat 냉면 (naengmyeon) while I was there. After having eaten it several times in Korea, I’ve basically stopped ordering it in restaurants here in the States. Once you’ve had a really good bowl, you can’t accept anything less.

Why is it so hard to make well? Consider 물냉면 (mul naengmyeon), the classic summer version of the dish. Imagine, if you will, a bowl of buckwheat noodles piled high in a cold broth, with a few slices of beef, cucumber, and Asian pear, all topped with a boiled egg.

Naengmyeon

Simple, right? And… well, simple. It probably sounds fine, but not particularly appealing.

The magic happens when you put some care into the noodles and the broth. The noodles are thinner and silkier than soba. Truly good noodles aren’t simply a vehicle for a broth; they actually taste like something. And of course, the right levels of chewiness and slurpiness are essential. As you can imagine, there’s a world of difference between homemade and dried noodles. As you also might guess, most restaurants don’t make their own noodles.

And then there’s the broth. Naengmyeon is a classic North Korean dish (mul naengmyeon is often called Pyongyang naengmyeon, after the North Korean capital). Given its origins, very few people actually know how to make the broth correctly. True mul naengmyeon uses a clear, rich stock made from beef and pheasant.

Naengmyeon is generally served with spicy mustard, rice vinegar, and sugar on the side. If the broth is good, the condiments are largely unnecessary — maybe a dash of mustard for heat and a tiny splash of the vinegar to accentuate the flavor. At most restaurants, the broth is so mediocre, the condiments serve as the flavor.

We ate mul naengmyeon at the original 강서면옥 (Kang Seo Myun Oak) in Seoul the day we arrived, just before setting off to Pohang. There’s actually a second restaurant in Los Angeles, but it’s nowhere near as good as the original. These folks are master craftsmen. You can taste the quality of the ingredients in everything they make, which is cooked perfectly.

How good is their naengmyeon? There’s food that tastes good, and then there’s food that feels good going down. Their naengmyeon was both. At most places, I leave some of the broth, partially because there’s so much of it, but mostly because it’s not that great. At Kang Seo Myun Oak, my bowl was absolutely clean afterward. I drank every last drop.

I also got to try something new — 한우소편육 (Hanu So Pyun Yuk), steamed, sliced beef shanks made from Korea’s native Hanu beef, which is often eaten with naengmyeon.

Hanu So Pyun Yuk

These were absolutely perfect — moist, tender, beefy. As with the naengmyeon, it felt good going down. There’s nowhere to hide with food like this. Your ingredients have to be great and your technique exquisite to pull it off.

After touring Gyeongsangbuk-do, we returned to Seoul, where I had chance to eat one more bowl of naengmyun. This time, we had 비빔냉면 (bibim naengmyeon) at the best bibim naengmyeon place in Seoul, bar none: 오장동흥남집 (Ojang Dong Heungnam Jib).

Bibim naengmyeon comes from Heungnam in North Korea, where seafood and sweet potatoes are plentiful. The noodles are made from sweet potato starch, and it’s often served with raw, marinated skate.

Ojang Dong Heungnam Jib is a family-owned restaurant founded in 1953. It’s in the neighborhood where my Mom grew up (Ojang Dong). It was her favorite naengmyeon place then, and it’s her favorite place now. It’s also my favorite naengmyeon place, not just because of sentiment, but because the food is so incredibly tasty.

Hwe Naengmyun

As with mul naengmyeon, most restaurants butcher this dish. Again, it starts with the noodles. The proprietors make their noodles from their own sweet potatoes, which they grow in Jejudo. The noodles are slimy, but firm, with just the right amount of chew. The spicy pepper sauce is just about perfect: substantial texture with a nice balance of spicy and sweet.

I finished my bowl in about six minutes, then spent the next ten minutes waxing poetically about how perfect everything was there. I badly wanted another bowl, but I decided to hold out so I could eat other meals later in the day. That was almost certainly my dumbest decision on the trip.

Damn it. I want a bowl right now.