A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
About 70 little kids strapped on their backpacks and hats to pile into yellow schoolbuses. We were off to Sunchang, a county known for making the best gochujang. Gochujang is red chilli paste and features in many Korean dishes.
“Ellie Teacher! Sit with me!”
The Grade 2 girls gave me chocolate and gum and tried to teach me a card game. I couldn’t figure out the rules, but I won! Then they played a few rounds of a game where you say a word, then the next person says a word starting with the last letter of the previous word. The girls played in English! Then they got stuck on Y and that was the end of that.
The bus weaved through some obnoxiously beautiful Korean countryside and tiny farming villages.
We arrived at a place where a fluffy dog and fluffy bunny greeted us at the entrance.
“Look, teacher! Rabbit!” squeaked the tiniest Grade 1 girl in English. We had been learning the alphabet animals in class earlier that week. I felt very proud.
We entered a centre where a man explained the glorious history, ingredients and uses for gochujang. Then we were ushered into a kitchen.
The kids carefully stirred in the ingredients 20 times and dipped their pinky fingers in to taste. It was good! Store bought gochujang can taste a bit bitter and floury. But this was sweet and flavoursome.
Then we were handed a plate of ddok rice cakes, odeng (fish cake), vegetables and instant ramen. The ramen seemed to be the most exciting part. An ajumma poured some stock into a pot and we mixed it all in with a spoonful of gochujang. In between stealing each others’ hats, the mischievous Grade 1 boys carefully supervised the ramen.
After a while, the kids started squeaking “Meokda! Meokda!” Eat! Eat! There was a flurry of wiggly ramen and splashes of red sauce.
It was perfect – not too spicy, rich in flavour and those Grade 1 kids cooked the ramen perfectly.
We piled back into the bus to go to a farm.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We’re going to pick sweet potatoes!” explained one of the teachers.
The kids assembled in a tent with peanut plants at their feet and a shed full of cattle staring at them.
“Hello cows! Moo!” We waved.
The kids we given bags, a small hoe and led out to a patch.
“Um… Can I join in too?”
The teachers giggled and I ran out with my potato bag to the kids.
The kids squealed with excitement as sweet potatoes emerged from the dirt. I was pretty excited too. It was like digging for treasure!
The quiet Grade 2 boy who sits at the back of class tugged my shirt and handed me an enormous potato.
He nodded. My heart swelled.
We returned to the gochujang centre to make keyrings on special paper that shrinks and hardens under heat. I wrote my name in fancy writing.
“Woah! Daebak!” My naughty Grade 3s and 4s passed my keyring around.
“Mine!” shrieked one of the Grade 4s.
“Is your name Ellie?”
I’d show you a picture of it, but it seems to have fallen off my bag. Or the Grade 4 kid really did steal it…
It was time to go back to Jeonju.
“Goodbye dog! Goodbye rabbit!”
We waved goodbye to the animals and piled back into the bus. On our way out, we were handed a little tub of Sunchang gochujang to take home. So the next night I made dokbokki for dinner. It wasn’t as good – I obviously needed Grade 1 kids to help me make it.
It was one of those moments when I was really glad that I’d signed up to this program. I’d never heard of Sunchang’s famous gochujang and I can’t think of any other time I’d go pick sweet potatoes in rural Korea. Plus it was great getting to know my students. Those little guys have really grown on me.