At the end of my last recounting of life in Ulsan, I mentioned how scary a cab ride could be. It’s not the norm of course, but if you use taxis with any kind of frequency, as I do, it is not entirely uncommon to find yourself – after a couple of minutes, if not a couple of seconds – thinking that you’d be best served to have the cabby pull over and let you out right then and there. My passive nature and my desire not to offend has thus far kept me from actually doing this, but I suspect if these encounters continue, my instincts of self-preservation will kick in and I’ll find myself jumping out of a cab in the middle of a crowded boulevard. If my Korean improves enough to allow, I might even find myself telling the rare, offensive cabby just what exactly I think he should shove up his ass.

One night some time ago, I went to GooYoung-Li to visit with some friends. We hung out at Boni-K until Yeun closed the coffee house at eleven. It was pouring rain and the buses stopped running at 9:45, so I had no choice but to take a cab home. I got into the cab at the front of the queue, greeted the driver in the customary manner and told him my destination. He responded in kind, his “an-yang-ha-say-oh” a languid drawl seemingly aimed at the dashboard instead of me. The two slits that were his eyes gazed in bewilderment at the instrument cluster while he tried to realign his head in an upright, driving position. In the rear-view mirror I saw him try to open his bloodshot eyes a little wider.

Jesus, I thought, this guy needs toothpicks to prop his lids open, and he’s either stoned on junk or drunk out of his mind. The later was more likely, as Korean cabbies are notorious for their alcohol habit; but there wasn’t a hint of alcohol on his breath, and I’m told that hard drugs are extremely difficult to come by in Korea, so I allowed for the possibility that maybe he was just tired.

“Moooo-geooo-dong?” he inquired dreamily, as if trying to recall some rumor or ancient riddle.

“Ney, mu-geo-dong,” I replied hopefully. “NaMoon apatu.” That’s the name of my apartment building. Mugeo-dong is the University District. Every cabby knows both. Well, almost every cabby: mine nodded at infinite space like a bobblehead doll with a rusty spring.

Okay, I said to myself, get out. Before he takes off, just get out.

But I didn’t. Instead I leaned forward in my seat and watched him crawl into traffic, his hands clutching the wheel like some student driver, his eyes apparently staring at the rain drops on the windshield instead of the road ahead. It was the first and only time I had been in a cab that drove below the speed limit, and boy was I glad for that. Other cabs and cars sped past us, spraying the cab with sheets of rain water. My cabby gripped the wheel ever-tighter, focused his eyes into ever-narrower slits and somehow managed to navigate what must have seemed to him some cosmic obstacle course, replete with meteors, ice storms and super-novic flashes of light.

With every turn, every lane change, every approaching traffic light, I held my breath and reminded myself that, barring him driving into oncoming traffic, I’m at least not likely to get killed if he crashes. He merged onto the main thoroughfare to a symphony of horns, managed to avoid running into a stopped bus without running the cars in the adjacent lane into the cars in their adjacent lane. He climbed into the flow of traffic just as we were approaching the turn-off to Mugeo-dong, looked in the rear-view mirror (Oh please don’t do that!) and reiterated his bewilderment as to my exact destination.

I may as well have told him to take me to the Space Needle – I am sure he would have considered my request in the same way he considered NaMoon apatu, wracking his distant brain for some piece of information he knew was in there somewhere, but somehow couldn’t be accessed. I decided to guide him to my apartment, hoping he still understood the words for left, right and straight ahead.

When we finally arrived at my apartment I sighed and handed him a ten-thousand won bill. He regarded the note for a good twenty seconds, calculating my change, I suppose. I was surprised when he came up with the proper change. Come to think of it I was surprised to find myself back home in one piece.

It was the end of the work day and as usual, I was exhausted. It’s only a six hour day, but there is something about this job that takes it out of me. Perhaps it’s all the fluorescent lights, which have always bothered me; or perhaps it’s the lack of a break that might allow me to catch my breath, step outside and let my retinas grab a dose of sunshine, my stomach a morsel of sustenance; or maybe it’s the five and a half hour marathon with children, who have a way of taking it out of you – or perhaps just a combination of all these things. At any rate, I staggered out of the building longing for a quick trip home and a horizontal position on my sofa. But I was just about out of won and I needed to find a cash machine that would swallow my American debit card and spit out some Korean money.

In the two days previous I had had no luck finding such a machine, and being down to my last 4,000 won I had no choice but to find one at last. I wanted to take a cab, but 4,000 won wasn’t enough to cover the fare, so I paid the 1,000 won fare and hopped on the bus to Mugeo-dong. Like his cabby cousins the bus driver bolted, jolted, dashed, shimmied, shucked and jived his way from stop to stop, pausing briefly to let people on and off – tarry your way off or onto a Korean bus and your likely to get your nose crushed by a hydraulic whishing door. In fifteen minutes time I skittered off at my normal stop in Mugeo-dong. From there I walked up and down the boulevard and meandered through the side streets, lucklessly searching for a means to get some Korean cash. After an hour’s search I gave up and decided I didn’t have the energy for the twenty minute walk back to my crib. I had just enough cash left to hop a five minute cab ride home, so I made my way to the queue across from the university. I got into the car at the head of the line and gave the driver my destination. Apparently however, he didn’t like the way I said Mugeo-dong, because he proceeded down Mugeo Road in the center lane, prepared to take me god knows where. As he approached my turn I told him he needed to go left. Fortunately, the light had turned red. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in the turn lane.

Now, for a Korean cabby that shouldn’t matter much. It’s not like they drive on sidewalks here, but traffic rules are general guidelines at best, especially for taxis, so making a hasty left turn is hardly our of the ordinary –  but for my driver it proved more than reason enough to begin chewing me a new one. He started ranting about my pronunciation of Mugeo-dong – at least that is what I inferred. Of course, he might have just been pissed that he was taking me for such a short ride, and the fare wouldn’t exceed the 2,200 won drop fee. Who knows how long he waited in that queue for a fare. In either case, he scooted to the front of the turn lane, bolted in front of the oncoming traffic and proceeded to speed up the hill toward my house, yelling at me what were doubtless obscenities every ten seconds or so. I sat in the back like some helpless lamb watching this guy stew till I thought his lid would blow.

I immediately recollected the times I witnessed pent-up Korean drunks popping off in bars. Once, a guy got into a yelling match with his presumed girlfriend, which nearly turned into a round of fisticuffs with the fellow that tried to calm him down and remove him from the premises. Even after the cops intervened he tried to re-enter the bar for another round. Another time it was a guy who cleared the contents of a large table, not once but twice, with what must have been one long swoosh of his arm. Twice we heard the loud crash of dishes, glass and silver shattering and clanking to the floor. The second eruption led to his attempted removal, which led to him pulling the place apart while three guys fought mightily to drag him out of the establishment. You can see it in the faces of some of these guys here. The pressure just building up and the need to release it rising. I was seeing that with my driver, and all because I didn’t make it clear to him that I wanted the NaMoon Apatu in Mugeo-dong instead of some other dong.

Half way up the hill he at least gave up yelling at me, instead reverting to menacing glares through the rear-view mirror. I was heartened by the knowledge that this whole experience would be over in a minute or two. I turned my attention out the side window hoping to find some pretty girl to look at, some diversion, but was soon disheartened when we got stuck behind the usual narrow-street logjam. He began yelling at the traffic as if in doing so it might clear it up. I should have just gotten out of the cab right then, but for some reason it didn’t even occur to me, so I spent an extra three minutes with him, suffocating in his seething stew.

When he pulled up in front of my building I gave him my last three thousand-won notes. I didn’t even want the change, but I waited for it nonetheless, needing the bus fare for the morrow. He handed it to me and while exiting the cab I bade him a cursory “an-yang-ha-sa-yo”. I, of course, didn’t know the meaning of his curt retort, but if I had to guess I’d say it was something along the lines of, “Fuck off foreigner asshole.”

It took two bottles of cheap Korean beer and a half a score of cigarettes before I was able to finally enjoy the much needed repose I had been looking forward to for the past couple of hours. It took another day before I got his blood-shot glower out of my mind.

These tales notwithstanding, cab rides are normal affairs, just like they might be back home, with the exception perhaps that Ulsan cabbies drive as fast as – or rather just a bit faster –  than traffic, weather, speed traps and decorum will allow; ignoring traffic signals, creating and then squeezing into little nooks and crannies in the frenetic flow of traffic, and racing each other to the next fare. I get queasy in cabs here.

Perhaps this is because I am unaccustomed to being in the back of a car. All I see whizzing by I see from the side, instead of the front. And of course all that weaving and braking in rain and at high speeds catches me off guard, no matter how much I psychically prepare myself for it. I’d be better suited in the front seat, where at least I would have a semblance of control, but riding shot gun with a perfect stranger with whom I don’t even share the commonality of language feels uncomfortable to me. Besides that, upon entering a cab one often encounters the overpowering smell of kimchi. It’s a garlic-soaked, chili-laden, fermented smell that, once consumed, reasserts itself in the form of a slightly sweet, though more pungently sour, form of severe halitosis. If you happen into a cab shortly after a cabby has had his meal, you’re in for a nose full.

There is no food in the States I can think of that is so ubiquitously consumed as kimchi is consumed here. Virtually everybody eats it, usually several times a day. It’s a rare bird who will tell you its not their favorite food, a rarer bird still who claims not to like it and a bonafide Korean freak who will tell you they don’t eat it at all. Many Koreans won’t even leave their country without it. I remember boarding a plane in Hanoi that was destined for Busan. I couldn’t believe my nose. I had gone three weeks without seeing, hearing of, or catching a whiff of the stuff, as it is – to the best of my knowledge – not even available in Vietnam. I was still in Hanoi, but I may as well have been in Seoul, as the smell on the plane left no doubt as to what nation the bulk of the passengers hailed from. I don’t know how many of them brought kimchi with them, but I assume it was the majority.

Kimchi is not just their national food. It’s their national treasure. Without it I think the Koreans would lose a major part of their collective psyche. There’s even a museum in Seoul dedicated to nothing but kimchi. Eighty different types of it are on display. I can only imagine the smell. One of my students recently visited the museum. She loves kimchi, but even she said the smell was awful.

Personally, I like the stuff alright, though I only eat in occasionally, when I am dining out. I won’t have it in my refrigerator, as it coats everything with its puissant odor, and when I open the door the smell comes wafting out like some cooped-up, bloated ghost and proceeds to permeate my walls with its essence for some while thereafter. It’s bad enough getting on a bus or a train only to find myself enveloped with its fetid after-effects, but to have it in my house too is more than I can bear, despite whatever medicinal benefits it’s purported to have.

Speaking of which, it is a universally accepted fact here in Korea that not only does kimchi taste wonderful, but it is also extremely good for you. Three of its primary ingredients – garlic, chili peppers and cabbage –  are generally known to health experts around the world to be cancer fighting, vitamin laden superfoods. Of course, it’s other primary ingredient – salt – is not.

Garlic is, of course, thought of around the world as a cure-all for just about any disease or ailment. It is known to help boost your antioxidant enzymes; helps to prevent cardiovascular disease; it’s an anti-bacterial; can prevent or reduce skin clots and even help reduce the damaging effects of nicotine, which makes addicts like me breath just a little easier. It’s also said to be an aphrodisiac, which might explain why I have been so damned horney lately. I have been eating lots of garlic to help ward off any potential flu, as the Koreans are extremely wary of the swine bug and tend to look at foreigners as little more than potential carriers of the virus that might kill them.

But I digress.

Chili peppers are also considered, taken in small doses, to be very healthy. Some researchers have found that capsaicin can limit or even reduce the growth of prostate cancer cells. Also, chili peppers have a high dose of vitamins C and A, which are both immune system boosters. They also have antioxidant properties.

Cabbage is of course a super vegetable. Though many people, myself included, don’t care much for it’s taste, particularly when it’s had the snot boiled out of it, cabbage is nonetheless loaded with vitamin C. It is not only rich in vitamins A, B and E, but it also has a nitrogenous compound known as indoles. Apparently there is some recent research that indicates that indoles can lower the risk of various forms of cancer.

So, given all of this, why is it that Koreans, right after the Japanese, suffer the second highest rate of stomach cancer in the world? And why is it that many other forms of cancer, which have been relatively low in Korea, are on the rise? Could it be the kimchi isn’t as good for you as Koreans steadfastly maintain; or could it be simply that they eat too damned much of it? The typical breakfast in Korea: kimchi and rice with perhaps an egg. The typical lunch: kimchi and rice. Dinner can be a potpourri of wonderful food, but kimchi, along with many other salty, pickled foods, is always on the table too.

All in all, Koreans eat an awful lot of pickled, fermented and very salty foods. In my brief research of stomach cancer, it turns out that the incidences of it in the West have been reduced drastically in main part due to the advent of the refrigerator and hence, the reduced reliance on fermented and salt-cured foods. Of course, everybody has a refrigerator in Korea, but that isn’t going to stop them from eating the food that defines their culture. Refrigerators also have nothing to do with the ubiquitous consumption of ramen, which is a fast food par excellence in Korea. Every super market and convenience store has half an aisle dedicated to nothing but the salt and MSG laden stuff. It’s tasty to be sure, and as simple and cheap a meal as you could want, but in the end, it ain’t all that good for you.

So despite whatever health benefits that come with the ingredients that make kimchi what it is, there is clearly a point of diminishing returns, and that point is ironically proving to be the death of some of the people who love kimchi more than anything else in the world. Then again, something’s got to kill you, and just as I choose to continue to smoke because it aids me in many ways in the short term, you’ve gotta take the good with the bad. I suspect that Koreans would be quite hesitant to even acknowledge the adverse affects of too much kimchi, so I don’t bother to tell them. Then again, they’d probably not want to acknowledge the adverse affects of stress and the evidence that is out there to suggest that stress has an awful lot to do with cancer as well. This is probably the most stressful place I have ever been, full of people working like dogs, toeing the line, doing what they’re told and having little time to rest, reflect, relax and blow off steam in productive ways. And in the face of stress we tend to rely on things that make us feel good, be it sugar, alcohol, nicotine, shopping, drama, sex or kimchi. In the end we all get to choose our poison. We can only hope the poison has a good deal more positive attributes than it does negative ones.


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