The Kimbap Lesson

By Anna Dahland Kim

I lived in South Korea for most of my 20s and 30s, and I made a Korean friend. I met her in
the local swimming pool. We were doing laps and ended up resting at the end of the pool next to each other.
“Would you teach English to my kids?” she asked in Korean.
This is what people asked me all the time, and it was annoying. I had a job, I had kids, and I just wanted to swim.
“No!” I said.
For once, this was not met with awkward silence and a dismissal. She didn’t swim away.
Instead, she spoke to me as if I were a regular person instead of an English resource.
“OK, then,” she said. “Can we just be friends?”
She ran a small Korean fast food restaurant a few bus stops away from the campus where I
worked and lived with my husband and three children. Her children and mine drew in coloring books at the tables when the restaurant was empty and played in the alleys behind it when customers came. On chilly winter afternoons, we all crowded into the tiny back room and sat together on the warm ondol floor under blankets watching TV.
Two years later, she had moved into a bigger restaurant, and I had increased my family by
another child. I was also going through a tough divorce.
One beautiful spring day, in the middle of the afternoon, I was hanging out in Mi-ran’s
restaurant. The kids were at daycare, and I had escaped the campus for a few hours to take a break. As always, Mi-ran welcomed me. Her new, modern restaurant had lovely windows at eye level that looked out onto the streets. Mi-ran could tip them out and slide food under them, serving passersby who didn’t want to waste time coming in for kimbap, the Korean style sushi roll, or a quick bowl of fish cake soup, or maybe a cup of chewy rice cake slathered in sweet and tangy hot sauce. Like her previous restaurant, her new place specialized in traditional Korean fast food, served quickly, cheaply, and with a smile.
I was sitting in the back dining room, situated behind a set of tinted glass sliding doors,
which doubled as her living space when business was slow. I was doing essentially nothing, staring at the large, flatscreen TV she had put on the wall mostly for decoration and atmosphere. The sound was off.
“You bored? Want to learn to make kimbap?” she called from behind the counter. “Come
here, I’ll give you an apron.”
There was no business at that hour, so Mi-ran talked me through the steps: take a paddle full
of rice from the rice cooker, spread it with the paddle over half the sheet of seaweed, then grab one each of the precut strips lying in the half dozen stainless steel containers set into the professional chef’s counter.
“What kind do you want to make? If you want tuna, I’ll open a can for you.”
“No, it’s OK. I’ll make a regular one.” I put one strip of processed ham, one strip of
cucumber, one of egg, one of fish cake, and one of sweet pickled radish.
“Good. Now you just have to roll it up.”
“Like this?”Mi-ran laughed. “No. Harder, like you mean it. Like this!”She grabbed the bamboo-covered roll with her expert hands, squeezed and rolled, and then
deposited a perfect kimbap roll on the cutting board in front of me.
“I’ll just let you do it,” I said, slightly defeated. I lifted the roll to bite into it.
“Onni! You have to cut it first!”
She always called me Onni, older sister, like she had known me her whole life.
I took a large knife and sliced the roll into bite sized pieces. As soon as I was done, Mi-ran
grabbed a piece and stuck it in her mouth.
“See?” she said with her mouth full. “You make really good kimbap, Gyosu-nim!”
When Mi-ran called me Gyosu-nim, which means esteemed professor, it wasn’t with
deference. To her, I was Onni. She was just reminding me that even a professor who lived with her head in the clouds could learn to make decent kimbap if she exerted a little effort.
A couple of days later, when I went back to her restaurant with my kids so they could play
with her kids as usual, Mi-ran ran up to me in the back room as soon as the customers had left.
“Onni! Onni! You’ll never believe what happened? It’s crazy!”
“The cops were here. They questioned me for twenty minutes. And then they came back and had me explain it all again because they didn’t believe me the first time!”
“What? What about?”
Sometimes Mi-ran’s stories could get a little disjointed, especially if she interrupted herself
to take an order or she got going in rapid Korean and I missed a word here and there. But this time, she sat down and spoke slowly to make sure I got exactly what she was saying.
“Remember when I taught you how to make kimbap? Well, a cop was walking by and saw
you through the window.”
“He thought I was using an illegal foreigner worker.”
I laughed.
“No, really Onni! I tried to tell him that you are a professor and not an illegal worker.
Besides, why would I need a worker when I make all the food myself? But anyway, I told him you’re not an illegal worker. I told him you’re my friend and you work at the university down the road.”
“Oh, that’s funny,” I said.
“No, Onni! That’s not all. When I said that you were my friend, do you know what he said?”
“He said, ‘I don’t believe you. Why would a professor be your friend?’”
“Oh my gosh.”
“So I told him he could go ahead and call you if he didn’t believe me, and I gave him my
handphone, but I guess he finally believed me. Isn’t that crazy?”
“Totally crazy.”
We laughed. Mi-ran leaned over to hug me, then gave me an exaggerated, pleading look.
“You are my friend, aren’t you, Gyosu-nim?”
“Oh, stop!” I said and slapped her arm.
“Next time you want to cook, we’ll close the windows, OK?” said Mi-ran and went back to
the front to see if any customers were approaching the window. We were still laughing, but in my heart, I felt sorry for her. And myself.
What a world we lived in, where it was inconceivable for us to be friends