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.


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.

Finding Meaning and Renewal in Korea

말없이 살다보면 도심이 자란다.

Rest. I needed it, and I got it. But it didn’t quite come in the form that I had originally planned, and it ended up moving me in ways I did not expect.

Back in July, coming off of a massive project and some difficult events in my life, I found myself longing for white sand, crystal clear water, and no interruptions. I wanted to go on the kind of vacation where you did absolutely nothing, and I wanted to go for a long time.

Well, the usual stuff started happening, the stuff that had prevented me from taking any kind of extended vacation since founding Blue Oxen Associates. I was talking to potential clients, I had people who were depending on me, and I didn’t want to go on vacation until I had more certainty in my schedule.

Enter my Mom. We had traveled to Korea together in 2002, just before I founded Blue Oxen. It was a beautiful and important experience for me on many levels, and I had been wanting to go back ever since. About a year ago, my Mom told me she was planning a trip there, and she asked me if I wanted to join her. I said yes, but the usual caveats applied: I’d get back to her when I had more certainty around my schedule.

Mom and Jessica

Several months later, as I found myself wondering how I was ever going to take a vacation, my Mom reminded me of her offer. Without hesitation, I said, “Let’s do it.”

Putting that stake in the ground was critical. I’d probably still be postponing and making excuses otherwise. I wasn’t going to be lying on a beach sipping something fruity. However, I was going to have a special opportunity to spend quality time with my Mom and my younger sister, Jessica, who decided to join us as well.

Moreover, I was going to Korea, and that had added significance for me.

Being Korean has always been a strong part of my identity, a fact that sometimes surprises people when they hear it. I emote American. Most people recognize me immediately as such from how I carry myself, how I speak, how I am. Warren Buffett has often noted how lucky he was to have been born in a time and place where his unique skills and personality were both accepted and advantageous. I’ve always felt exactly the same way. I love this country, and I love how it’s shaped who I am.

The beautiful thing about being an American, of course, is that this country was founded on the premise of heterogeneity. It is a melting pot, a delicious soup of diverse identities. I have never had a problem reconciling my multiple facets, nor have I ever felt a need to go out of my way to express any of them. I’ve always been able to appreciate my commonalities with others while remaining conscious of and comfortable with the differences. That probably explains my eclectic social circle and my career focus.

As easy as it’s been for me to be a Korean in America (and I know that my experience is not universal), it doesn’t work nearly as well the other way around. Korea is as homogeneous as the U.S. is diverse. Koreans don’t celebrate differences; they sort them into a rigid hierarchy. Hierarchy is so engrained in the culture, it’s built into the language. When you meet Koreans, they’re more likely to ask your age than your name so they know how to talk to you.

Koreans are both individualistic and conformist. They expect you to take care of yourself, but they don’t want you to stand out too much in doing so.

Shame is a pervasive emotion. The word for Korea is 한국 (hanguk), which literally translates to “great country.” But 한 (han) has other meanings, including “collective shame.” Many things seem to trigger this shame, and the consequences are often dire. Not surprisingly, Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world.

I understand how things are, and I don’t necessarily like them, but I also see their upside. Then there are the things that I love. I love the work ethic, the pride, the passion. I love the Korean aesthetic, the love of story, of song, of intellectualism, and of beauty. I love our relationship to food, which is the very essence of life and culture.

I’m proud of my Korean roots, and I want to know more.

And so a month ago, I found myself in Korea for the fourth time, sharing the experience with my Mom and younger sister. We spent most of our time in Gyeongsangbuk-do, a province on the southeastern side of the country, an area known for its rich traditions, its farms, and for giving birth to Confucianism in Korea.

I unexpectedly found peace on the stark, lush island of Ulleungdo. It started on a cliff beside a towering mountain peak overlooking the East Sea, where I closed my eyes and felt the strong clean wind rejuvenate me. It continued as we explored the island, immersing ourselves in its beauty and culture.

From Ulleungdo, we travelled to Andong, which served as our home base in Gyeongsangbuk-do. We spent that week getting lost in the countryside, travelling along rolling fields of rice and the all important chile, visiting traditional temples, villages, and Dosan Seowon, the 16th century school founded by Korea’s most famous Confucian scholar, Yi Hwang.

We ended our trip in Seoul, where a Korean Wikipedian, Cheol Ryu, organized a meetup in my honor. I cannot describe what it meant to me to meet my peers that night, Koreans who cared about the world in the same way that I did, who are working hard to make a difference there.

It would take me a year to try to capture all of my experiences there, everything that I felt and learned. One month later, I’m still trying to collect and organize my notes from the trip.

Over the next week or so, I hope to share at least some of my experiences. For now, I hope that this brief taste (along with some pictures and videos) will do.

The Dreaded Email Backlog

Got back from my vacation to Korea yesterday afternoon. Here’s my quick summary of the trip: Aaah.

Other than some massive jetlag, I feel very refreshed. I’ve had to hit the ground running since returning because of the usual work pileup and also a business trip later this week. Although I would have loved a few days to transition back to real life, I feel great, and I’m happy to be back.

I took over 2,000 pictures and almost 40 videos, and I filled up almost 100 pages in my manly journal. I have many, many stories to share, both about my experiences in Korea as well as other stuff I had a chance to think about.

But I first want to kick things off by running some numbers on the Dreaded Email Backlog. Amazingly, it wasn’t bad at all, which raises serious questions as to why I (and others) don’t do this more often. It’s a little after 9am on Monday morning, and I’m largely caught up on my email (although the work backlog still beckons).

After two weeks of not checking my work email, I had 202 new messages in my inbox (not counting filtered messages). 14 of those messages were vacation-related bounces, 18 were automatic notifications from the Blue Oxen server (which needs a tune up), and about 40 were newsletters that should have been filtered. There were about another 25 web site notifications that should have been filtered; I just had never gotten around to setting the rules.

Cleaning these up got me down to 100 messages. I used this as an opportunity to fix my filters, and I ended up unsubscribing to 12 newsletters. A quick scan and cleanup cut my inbox in half to about 50 messages. Then I got down to work.

I used Gmail’s Priority Inbox to help. Prior to my trip, I didn’t really use this feature, but with a huge inbox, I was curious to see if it would be helpful. Not so much. I had about 60 messages automatically labeled priorities. About 30 of them were mislabeled, and 10 messages in my inbox should have been labeled, but weren’t.

Working through my inbox took me about five hours. Now that my filters have been updated, it should be much easier in the future. Plus, I realized I was subscribed to way more newsletters than I needed to be, and so taking the effort to unsubscribe will help a lot as well.

All in all, dealing with the backlog was relatively painless. Was this representative? Preparation helped a lot — I put a serious dent on my email backlog before I left. I’m also finishing up one project and starting up two new ones, so the email load isn’t as high as it would be if I were mid-project.

My experience served to reinforce several things:

  • The best way to manage information overload is to reduce the load. Do a careful audit. You’ll be surprised how much junk you’re probably receiving.
  • Filtering is your friend.
  • The world will not collapse if you are not checking email constantly.

More importantly, you will feel significantly better if you take time to get away. I’m going to be a lot more disciplined about having “off” time in my day-to-day life.

Creating Space and Setting Boundaries

The past year has been mentally and emotionally exhausting, both in my professional and personal life. I’m pretty self-aware, and I’m good at making adjustments on the fly, but this past year really pushed me to the edge, and the space and people around me were exacerbating the situation.

So I started making some structural changes. In February, I hired a coach, the fabulous Lisa Heft. She was a great peer sounding board, and she created a safe space for me to think through the things I needed to figure out. That process gave me a clear vision for what I needed in my life to be happy and productive, and it helped me create a staged strategy for coping with the challenges that I couldn’t immediately do away with and for pro-actively preventing those things from becoming problems again.

I’ve implemented many of those changes over the past few months, and the results have been amazing. I feel more rested and creative. I’m working less, but I’m more productive. Life has slowed down, and good things are happening.

Godzilla Impression

I also have a lot more work I still need to do on myself. By slowing down, I let new things into my life, which have caused things to pick up again. This is where it gets tricky. I’m determined not to repeat old, destructive patterns. It means I have to be disciplined about my space and mindful about my wellness.

I’m getting really excited about the things that are happening right now. Lots of changes are afoot, and I’m feeling my friend, Mr. Adrenaline, start to reassert himself. But that rush is still tempered by remnants of exhaustion. I know I’m not totally whole yet, and I’m not going to get there if I don’t continue to assert my boundaries.

My biggest need right now is rest. Real, prolonged rest. And for the first time in eight years, I’ve created that space for myself — two weeks next month in Korea, sans laptop. I’ve had to fight off the urge to cancel the trip a number of times over the past few months in order to accommodate various work engagements. As hard as that’s been, I know it’s going to pay off in spades. (I have also found my professional colleagues exceptionally supportive in this regard, in some cases, forcefully so, further proof that I work with and for people who are much smarter than me.)

I’m excited to be going back to Korea, to eat my way through the country, to explore my roots, and to be totally present while doing so. And I know I’ll be chomping at the bit when I return.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to hold my space, do my thing, and see where my energy takes me. I feel great about where I’m headed.