My wife and I lay in bed, the windows wide open to the Korean summer night. A breeze blows into the dark room, the breath of the mountains and rice fields. We listen to the raucous cacophony of frogs echoing through the countryside, thousands upon thousands of amorous amphibians calling for mates. They’re so loud it seems frankly impossible, like they’re all right outside my window or there’s some kind of hidden surround-sound speaker equipment in the room projecting frogsong at full volume. It’s too hot to close the windows, and I know I’ll have to put in earplugs to sleep. But for a few minutes I just bask in the music of it.
My wife, Hyunju, speaks just loud enough that I can make out her words through the background tangle of croaking. “Frogs saved my life when I was a baby.”
I laugh, staring up at the shadows cast on the ceiling by a passing car’s headlights. “How’s that?”
As she unpacks the details of that story, I think back over the years we lived with my wife’s parents, and a whole constellation of confusing moments suddenly snap into sharp focus. I finally grasp the previously obscured logic of the ambient attitude toward eating in this house of Korean farmers.
But before I share how frogs saved her life, you have to understand that I came to live with them as a fat American. I’ve struggled with my weight forever, as do most of my friends and family back home, not to mention the hefty majority of people in the U.S. It’s the fattest country in the world, maybe the most obese culture in human history. So you can imagine my reaction to hearing my mother-in-law urgently pressing my two young boys to eat this, eat more, eat faster. My Korean isn’t great, but I can understand enough to offer this loose translation of the typical stream of dinnertime demands she pours on me, my wife and above all my kids.
“Here, eat this. Have some of this, too. Is it good? Eat a lot. Why aren’t you eating? Eat it fast! Eat more. Do you want to eat this, too? Why won’t you eat it?” Imagine this refrain repeating for the duration of an entire meal, spoken at a volume close to what would be considered shouting in my own native culture.
I was obese at one time, and it’s hard as hell for me to keep from putting the weight back on now that I’ve lost it. The insistent pressure to eat struck me as bizarre, unhealthy and almost manic at first.
And this peculiar relationship with food permeated life in the house. Once, for example, I opened the fridge and found a tiny, plucked bird the length of my thumb sprawled on top of the eggs in the refrigerator door. My mind reeled and my face scrunched up in disgust. What, why, who? I went and found my wife upstairs, reading.
“Did you see that bird in the fridge?”
She didn’t look up from the page. “Yeah.”
I waited for more. Nothing came. “So…what’s up with that?”
“It’s just a little bird that flew into the window and broke its neck.”
Oh. The living room in their house has a huge window with an eye-popping view of green rice fields and mountains, and a bird smacks into it every now and then. My mother-in-law had been watching TV when the creature met its end, and she quickly went out, found it and plucked the thing. All in, it surely didn’t have as much meat on it as you’d find in a single chicken nugget.
Once I stood in the kitchen, peeling a banana. I tossed the peel in a bowl my mother-in-law uses to collect food garbage for composting. I also threw out the bottom section of the banana, maybe an inch long, which was bruised black. Hyunju watched me, a subtle expression of wifely disapproval forming on her face.
I wondered what I’d done wrong. “What?”
“Come on. What is it?”
“My parents…say things to me about you wasting food.”
“Wasting what food?” I looked at the small piece of discolored, discarded fruit. “You mean that?”
“It’s fine. You’re so picky.”
It’s a theme that’s echoed over the years of our marriage. I grew up in a middle-class Midwestern town in the United States, and if an apple had a worm in it, we threw it away. If upon peeling a potato, we discovered it to have black spots, we threw it away. If the milk in the fridge went past its expiration date, we threw it away.
But in the house where my wife grew up, they cut out the section of the apple with the worm and ate the rest. If they peeled a potato only to find black spots, they kept peeling until left with whatever small heart of carbohydrate was untouched by decay. If the milk outstayed its expiration date, they drank it anyway.
Once I bought a package of crackers, and later when I opened them at home, I took one bite and realized they were really stale. “Dammit!” Into the garbage they went.
An hour later, my three year-old walked in eating the crackers. Horrified that my son was consuming something out of the garbage, I tried to ask my mother-in-law about it in my broken Korean. Embarrassment clouded her face and she quickly tried to change the subject.
Every day she sorts through their garbage, separating things that can be burned. I know what happened: she’d found a full sleeve of crackers there and taken them back out, indignant at the waste of it.
Living on the Korean farm, I’ve seen my mother-in-law walk through the fields picking long, green grasshoppers off the swaying rice plants and dropping them into an empty water bottle, to be munched up later. I’ve seen the family happily knocking back black crickets. I’ve seen small octopi flopping and rollicking on the kitchen counter, squishy mounds of flesh defenseless against gravity out of the water, snatched up and cut into pieces that continued to wriggle as sauce was poured on them and my father-in-law shoveled the still-squirming tentacles into his mouth.
My first insight into their way of thinking about food came when I started helping them farm. Digging up the family’s plot of sweet potatoes, for example, left me sore for days. Harvesting them involves squatting for hours on end, not to mention digging into the earth with a hand-held tool and trying to do it carefully so as not to damage the precious vegetables. And then there’s loading them into back-breaking bins and lugging them away. The first time I harvested sweet potatoes, my mother-in-law gave us a huge box of them. After four hours of squatting, hacking, pulling and carrying tubers in the sun, I went home and steamed a batch. They weren’t fried, weren’t dressed up with anything. Just steamed and peeled.
And they were the best potatoes of any kind I’ve ever had in my life.
But that was nothing compared to the rice farming. Every fall, I hang onto the side of a rice combine, a small tank-like vehicle driven by my father-in-law. My wife’s uncle, or sometimes brother, or perhaps neighbor, hangs on next to me. The combine lurches as my father-in-law starts or stops suddenly, bucks unpredictably as it negotiates the uneven terrain, spins suddenly on a dime in the paddy’s tight corners. The machine is all deafening noise and sharp metal corners that I try not to hit my face on as the metal beast jerks. My job is to operate three chutes on the side of it, filling fat sacks with the rice as it comes out and closing the bags as they fill, then laying them flat on the very same narrow platform I’m squatting on until they can be dropped off on our next orbit of the field. When we finish a paddy, my father-in-law feeds the straggling rice plants from the edges of the field into the combine by hand. The mouth of it is an angry, mangling maw, a mouth of iron teeth greedily pulling the plants in, and he puts his arms, hands and fingers right in there, just an inch away each time, so close that if he made the slightest mistake his hand would get caught and pulled in and the contraption would mangle his arm up to the elbow before one of the rest of us could possibly get up to the controls to turn it off.
While harvesting the rice, I’m very careful not to spill because if I do, one of my in-laws will silently and solemnly scoop the handful of grains off the platform and carefully place them in a bag. And when my kids eat dinner, my wife doesn’t allow them to leave one grain of rice in the bowl when they take it to the sink.
Farming with them opened my eyes to their perspective on food, how hard-won it is, a thing I’d never realized before as a fat American. But the deeper insight came with my wife’s story about how frogs saved her life.
In our dark bedroom, surrounded by the symphony of ribbit, ribbit, ribbit, I reach out and find her warm hand, interlacing our fingers as she tells me the story. “When I was a baby, maybe a year old, we didn’t have enough food. My parents were young, newly-married farmers and struggled even to have enough to eat. I got too skinny. Everybody thought I was going to die.”
The idea of my wife almost dying, the notion that I nearly lost her decades before we even met, spawns a sickly ache deep in my gut. “Wait, I thought your mom’s family had money, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, but my dad’s family didn’t.” In Korea, especially back then, when a woman married a man, she left her family and joined his. So there was a barrier against the bride’s side getting involved in their lives, even if the young couple found themselves in trouble.
“So what happened?” I squeeze her hand lightly.
“One day a neighbor came by and saw me, and of course was worried that I wouldn’t make it. So she told my dad to catch frogs. There are so many in the fields.” Hyunju paused, letting the chorus of croaks make the point. “So he did. He went out to hunt frogs, and with those they had enough food to keep me alive.”
* * *
We’ve moved out of my mother-in-law’s house now, and live in an apartment downtown. It’s lunchtime, and my wife is gone teaching English. I’m in an indulgent mood, so I cook my boys a lot, heaping mounds of rice and fried donkasseu, these heavy, breaded slabs of chicken with cheese, which they love. Also, I set out plates piled high with fruit—apples and grapes and strawberries. The boys eat until they’re stuffed, and then I make them brush their teeth.
I hear the front door open. My mother-in-law walks in, yelling “Daddy!” She doesn’t speak English, and she addresses me as Daddy after years of hearing my boys call me that. Sometimes she comes to our apartment because we live near the place where local farmers sell their produce every fifth day, market day. People from out in the countryside stream in on market day, either to buy or sell.
She speaks in Korean, too fast for me to catch. I ask my sons what she said. “She wants to take us to market day to get corn dogs and ice cream.”
My knee-jerk reaction is to blurt out, “No. The boys just ate a huge lunch, and they already brushed their teeth.”
But I remember the frogs. I imagine what it would feel like to see one of my own babies skinny and crying, starving and close to death, and me helpless to do anything about it.
So I smile, nod and say, “Sure. Go ahead.” And when they return an hour later, she brings a whole bag of boong-aw-bang (a kind of fish-shaped doughnut), styrofoam containers of dumplings and a bag of Korean-style popcorn half as tall as me. All of which, of course, she leaves at our apartment.
She only wants us to eat, eat more, eat fast and eat a lot.