Friday, July 8, 2011

Gukka Daepyo

All day yesterday, the news programs ran the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics story on a continuous loop, cycling through Kim Yuna's speech before the IOC, the old white guy flipping over the card reading "Pyeongchang", Kim Yuna shedding tears of joy, various people reacting to the news around the country, and back to Kim Yuna's speech again.

Rather coincidentally, Unni and I spent the evening wining and dining an authentic Korean Olympic athlete. The nephew of one of Unni's friends from Daejon is "gukka daepyo" (national team member) on the South Korean rowing team who competed in both the Beijing Olympics and last year's Asian Games in Guangzhou. He was in Seoul for some sort of medical treatment and needed a place to stay for the night, so he crashed at our place. Unni summoned me directly to her studio after work to help her entertain our young guest.

The hands of an Olympic rower

First we had a lengthy meal at an all-you-can-eat sashimi restaurant called Dokdo, where for 22,000 won per person you can enjoy an unlimited supply of tuna sashimi in the peculiar half-frozen Korean style, plate after plate of it until you eventually either explode or give up and waddle away.

Then we partied until late into the night at the home of Unni's friend Jongshil, whom we happened to meet on the street. Jongshil is a successful businesswoman who manages several branches of a popular coffee chain, a job which apparently leaves her with plentiful income and a lot of free time.

Her husband is an Asiana pilot who, like most Korean commercial pilots, was formerly a career airforce officer. He showed us a plaque stating that he piloted the South Korean president's exclusive jet from 1978 to 1985.

Jongshil and her husband have traveled widely, and their home is full of souvenirs from various places. They recently returned from a trip to Turkey, from which they brought back an assortment of painted ceramics (which Unni scrupulously examined), about a dozen bottles of wine, and various other souvenirs.
Stuff from Turkey
Assortment of dried fruits, also from Turkey
Jongshil was eager to have us sample some of the latest batch of makkoli which she had made herself at some sort of makkoli-making school she is attending. It was quite strong and still bubbling from the yeast reaction.

Still-bubbling homemade makkoli

After we'd had enough makkoli, they cracked open some of the wine they brought back from Turkey. By this time I'd begun to feel the effects of eating and drinking pretty much continuously since I got off work.

Unni and her exotic friends (from left): the pilot, the makkoli brewer, the foreigner, Unni, and the gukka daepyo
Unni's friend Jongshil has the sort of ultra-confident and energetic personality that is both inspiring and exhausting; she is always suggesting fun excursions and is full of helpful advice which she dispenses with an air of absolute authority. In addition to managing coffee shops, brewing makkoli, traveling all over the world, and collecting a massive library of English-language novels, Jongshil also fancies herself something of an amateur practitioner of Hanihak, i.e. Korean traditional medicine.

When meeting someone for the first time, she sizes you up, seizes your wrist, takes your pulse, and then proceeds to prescribe a diet that she promises will cure any physical infirmities you may have, based on the four basic body types encoded in Korean medicine. She has declared that I have the "soyang" (lesser yang) body type, and assures me that if I eliminate chicken, onions, and garlic from my diet my hand tremor will miraculously be cured. (Such is my desperation to be freed of this tremor that I would be tempted to try her advice, if it were possible; but swearing off garlic in Korea is like trying to be a vegetarian in Mongolia).

This time she analyzed our gukka daepyo friend and concluded that in his case he must avoid coffee at all costs. "Honestly," she said, "the fact that someone of your type could become a gukka daepyo despite drinking coffee is a miracle." She then tried to make him pinkie swear that he would not touch coffee again.

At that point I changed the subject by asking Jongshil's husband if he had heard any inside gossip about the incident last month when some South Korean marines mistakenly fired their rifles at an Asiana flight thinking it was a North Korean fighter jet. He reiterated Asiana's stance, which is that the flight was on its normal inbound route and had not strayed off course.

Then we got on the subject of history when I asked him what it was like to fly for Presidents Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. He also shared with us some interesting insights into the Kwangju massacre from his perspective as a career military man who was in active service at the time. "There are two sides to every story," he said, adding, "It was a crazy time - the commies had everyone stirred up. People forget that a lot of soldiers got killed there too."

After we finished the wine, the couple served us from their exotic collection of teas and tea accessories. Then they brought out the piece de resistance: a series of little pottery figurines from China with some peculiar properties:

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