Five feminists sat down for lunch, each with differing levels of proficiency in English ranging from native (me) to barely able to follow along, and differing levels of proficiency Korean ranging from native (three women) to non-existent (me). Talk shifted quickly but smoothly from “How was your flight?” to ““What do you mean the United States doesn’t provide paid maternity leave?” as we ate from a bounty of salads – octopus, cold noodle, mushroom. I counted six total – seven if I included the pork belly (which wasn’t really a salad); eight if I included the black sesame porridge that served as our opening dish.
The owner, a man, came by frequently to make sure we were happy. We were, or at least I sure was.
As I emptied my plate, the woman next to me kept replenishing its bare spots that exposed the pale blue design of trees and river. The food, the dinnerware, my companion all so delicate. I think everyone was surprised at my enthusiasm to not only try but enjoy everything over our conversation of infant mortality rates. I ate until I was more than sated.
Then came the banchan – the small dishes that are served with the main course at most Korean meals.
The main course. What I had thought was the main meal, well, wasn’t. As we discussed self-care for researchers who study emotionally raw subjects (domestic violence, child abuse, and the struggles of single mothers were among the areas of expertise), a bowl of rice and a mild stew were placed in front of me.
I ate what I could, which wasn’t much. The smaller women around me somehow managed to empty their cast-iron bowls. Then, they poured tea into the remaining rice, those burned portions that stuck to the bottom, to create a wonderful broth that tasted like popcorn. This, they said, was what women traditionally ate after serving their husbands and children. The leftovers. They told stories of women who were beaten if too much remained, of women who dared to leave enough food for themselves after cooking all day.
Black coffee was served downstairs as conversation turned to domestic violence supports and the history of comfort women. Small roasted yams were served along with the coffee, the steam and aromas from both twisting upwards into each other as they filled my nostrils. An unexpected combination blending perfectly. Our meal complete, I wasn’t sure which part of me was more satisfied – my belly or my mind.