Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chess Phobia

I’ll repeat something I’ve said here before. My friends who think I’m brave, outgoing, and extroverted inevitably will be surprised—maybe even disappointed—at some point when they discover that I have a serious streak of cowardice. And it’s always cowardice over some seemingly minor thing. There’s the way I am terrified of speaking on the phone, even to people I know very well. Never mind that I can walk up to a complete stranger in public and start a conversation over some fascinating hat he or she is wearing. The phone is a different beast entirely. My guts actually twist into knots when I have to call someone on the phone.

Then there was the time when my pal Walter and I were in Thailand. I had the guts to give a gorgeous Thai waiter a slip of paper with a message stating in poetic but crystal clear terms that I’d be willing to do all kinds of things alone with him on the beach that night. But then when his sweet, adorable little girlfriend came running after me when I left the dining hall, telling me in broken English, “Do you think he is nice? But he is…he is…my…” I was humiliated, and therefore TERRIFIED to go back to the dining hall that night, where I knew I’d see that waiter AND his girlfriend. Walter found this quite entertaining. He’d seen me do all kinds of things he thought were brave, but here I was, too much a coward to own up to a situation I myself had created. (Eventually, I did let Walter drag me back to the dining hall, and I turned as bright red as my hair was dyed at the time when the waiter teased me about what I’d done. Oh, was Walter amused!)

So yes, I can be the most yellow-bellied coward of all in the stupidest little situations.

Ahem. So chess… Chess is one of these. Years ago, I had a beautiful and brilliant love who taught me to play chess. I was just starting to bloom then, and was still very insecure and doubtful that my own mind could have wings. Meanwhile, he, my chess playing love, was brilliant and often more beautiful than I felt capable or worthy of embracing. So somehow, our chess games got wrapped up with all my doubts, fears, and insecurities, and when we broke up, I stopped playing chess because I just couldn’t handle it.

Now fast forward a few years, to the moment in which chess has re-entered my life. It has come from an unexpected source. I have written here before about my student who is so talented at creative writing. This kid is a supernova. These days, he spins galaxies of philosophy, history, and imagination on the tips of his fingers, like they’re nothing at all. He is as much my teacher as I am his. Our Friday night tutoring sessions are no longer spent on English. Instead, we have “Philosophy Night”. Well, a few weeks ago, I showed up at his house for Philosphy Night. He and his mother were in the living room when I arrived, and while I was untying my shoes, he muttered something to her in Korean and pointed at the chessboard they have in their living room. (A glass board with glass pieces. Magical looking.) His mother nodded, and he picked up the board and carried it upstairs toward the room where I tutor him, the pieces wobbling haphazardly on the board. That was when my heart filled with panic. In the way that agoraphobics can't bring themselves to leave their homes, I just have not been able to sit down at a chess game since the days when I was with that beautiful love of mine. I have had chess-phobia all these years. I have been terrified of other people seeing me play chess, especially those whose intelligence I am intimidated by. (And young as he is, I am definitely intimidated by my student’s intelligence.) I know it's irrational... it's a matter of needing more practice... But phobias are never rational!

So I made the excuse of needing to use the restroom before we began. I leaned against the bathroom sink and tried to calm down and breathe. I had a fierce inner battle between pride, fear, and the desire to not be a slave to either. I took a deep breath, and then went upstairs and sat down with my student. I told him I didn't remember how to play at all, which was a lie. I just wanted to stall... I wanted to eat up time by having him explain the rules of every piece’s movements to me. He didn’t allow that to go on for long. He made me set up the pieces to play. And he made me be white! He made me move first! I know, I know, being the first to move is an advantage in chess, and beginners are always supposed to play white, but it was so terrifying to me to have to make the first move. Not only was I about to show that I was a total idiot, but it was going to happen in the first five seconds of the game! I tentatively moved my middle left pawn forward two spaces. "Good choice," my student said, and from that simple compliment, half of my fear disappeared. (Who knew the approval of a 16-year-old kid could mean so much to me? But he’s really not a kid anymore, and it truly meant everything.) I was nervous and hesitant through the whole game, taking way too long to make every single move, and feeling too panicked to realize when my pieces were in danger. After the inevitable ass-kicking, he then gave me some end-game lessons. He showed me how to pair a rook and a king to attack the opponent’s king, and how to do the same using a queen and king pair. I was SO impressed by what a great chess teacher this kid is. No one else has ever been able to explain chess strategy in a way that my brain can hold onto, but somehow, this scrawny, 16-year-old boy seems to be the best chess teacher I could find. I went home feeling SO happy. I dug out my Bobby Fischer chess puzzle book, given to me years ago by that old love of mine, and I stayed up late going through chess puzzles.

Now Friday night tutoring sessions are “Chess Night”, not “Philosophy Night”. And I am asking every intelligent person I know to please, please kick my ass at chess so I can get over my phobia and learn this game, at last!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Living With a Korean Family: Part 2

As I've told you all before, I live with my Korean in-laws. Here are some photos I've been collecting to show what life (especially culinary life!) is like in a Korean household:

Mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm! Now what might THOSE intriguing things be?! Those, my friends, are the DWIN JANG bricks my mother-in-law recently brought back from Korea! Or rather, they are dried bricks of mashed, fermented soybeans that will soon be soaked in brine to make dwin jang, which is a fermented soybean paste used in soup broths and sauces. For those of you who are familiar with Japanese miso paste, this is very similar, but the Korean version is much, much stronger.

Here's how dwin jang is made. You boil a crapload of soybeans until they're soft. I think you then mash them through some sort of wire mesh to remove the skins from the beans, but I'm not 100% of that. Anyway, the beans end up mashed. Then they are compacted into the bricks you see here. In Korea, they are dried outside (I believe it's done during cool, dry seasons) for a while, until the outer surface is dry, and then they are brought in the house to dry through to the core. (The reason they are left outside at first is because they initially have a strong smell, though by the time the surfaces are dry, they have no strong smell.)

Notice the mold you see on the bricks in the two photos below. This is good mold. And any harmful molds or bacteria will be killed by the salty brine the bricks will soon be soaked in.

See the big pottery jar in the photo below? Soon, when the weather gets sunny, my mother-in-law will put the bricks into this jar and fill the jar with very salty brine. She will put a thin white cloth over the top of the jar, and on top of that cloth, a pottery lid. During the daytime, she will take the lid off and let the sun shine down on the white cloth to kill any mold that might try to form on the surface of the jar's contents. Over time, the soy bean bricks will soften and expand into a thick paste at the bottom of the jar. As the bean paste sediment settles, a dark liquid will be left at the top of the jar. This, my friends, is the soy sauce we all know and love! My mother-in-law skims it off with a ladle and uses it in cooking. All in all, it takes several months for the dwin jang paste and soy sauce to become ready to eat. But it's worth the hard work and long wait, because this stuff is delicious!

Moving on... Below is a bottle of red ginseng tonic. Koreans love red ginseng (and so do I). It is bitter, but is supposed to have great health benefits. Especially for you men! Need some romantic jumper cables, fellas? Don't choose Viagra! Take red ginseng tonic instead! Make love like a Tae Kwon Do master!

This is a jar of fermented blackberries my mother-in-law picked last fall. Here, they are being drained to give us the sweet blackberry wine we often drink at large family gatherings.

Onto kimchee! There are hundreds of types of kimchee, some spicy, some not. (Remember, the hot pepper didn't come to Korea until the 1700's, so for those of you who can't handle spicy food, there are still many types of kimchee you can eat!) The most common types of kimchee are made from Chinese cabbage or Korean radishes, but just about any vegetable can be made into kimchee. I've tried cucumber and green onion kimchee before, which are both excellent. In Korea, you can go to a kimchee museum and try samples of kimchee made from all kinds of roots and leafy green vegetables.

This is a bag of fresh chili powder my mother-in-law brought back from Korea. Her relatives own a pepper farm, so this is the freshest, highest quality stuff you can get:

On the counter, you can see halved Chinese cabbages in bowls. The night before, they were rinsed and then dipped in brine. The brine was not rinsed off of them until morning. Do you see the metal pot on the floor? Can you guess what's inside?

That would be the hot pepper paste. It is made from chili powder, garlic, cooked sticky rice, salt, ginger, and a little Vietnamese fish sauce, all pureed together.

The hot pepper paste (along with chopped green onions, Korean chives, and Korean radishes cut into julienne strips) is smeared all over the surface of each cabbage, and in between all the leaves. The outer leaves are then tucked around the cabbage halves like this, and then placed tightly in jars to ferment. After a few days of fermentation, they will be kept in a special kimchee refrigerator:

My mother-in-law and two relatives preparing all the cabbage halves. Kimchee is labor intensive, so it's easier and more fun if you have people helping you.

On a different day, my mother-in-law made some kimchee that wasn't spicy. Here are the radishes and cabbages she bought:

The type of kimchee she is making here is called "mool kimchee" (water kimchee). It is pickled in a brine flavored with ginger, garlic, and Asian pear. It is DELICIOUS! The brine is just salty enough to kill bad bacteria, but not so salty that you can't drink it. The brine has a slightly carbonated feel when you drink it. Once mool kimchee has been fermented in jars for a few days, it is refrigerated and eaten. It ferments much faster than regular kimchee, so it is made in smaller batches and eaten more quickly.

Finished mool kimchee:

Do you remember my last post about living with a Korean family? I showed a picture of steamed wild sesame (perilla) leaves that had just been put in a jar with soy sauce to ferment. Well, they're still fermenting! These things can be left in a jar for ages. Seriously, you can eat from the same batch for two or three years, and it is perfectly fine:

A few miscellaneous photos...

One of the most fascinating things about living with people from a different culture is the differing concepts of how kitchens ought to be arranged. I grew up in a house where food and dishes were always kept in very separate cupboards, but in my in-laws' kitchen, it is common practice to keep food and dishes together in some of the cupboards. (Though for the most part, they are kept separate.) The thing that has been hardest for me to get used to is that the food is often kept in open, uncovered bowls. Now, it is usually dry things. I'm not talking about open bowls of soup or other liquid things in the cupboards. Instead, it will be something like an open bowl of dried seaweed sitting in the same cupboard as our clean rice bowls. The one that is hardest for me to get used to: open bowls of tiny dried anchovies (used to flavor soup broth) that are left in the cupboards with dinner plates and soup bowls. EVERYTHING in the cupboard ends up smelling like dried fish! In the picture below, you can see an open bowl of flour on the bottom shelf among the dishes. This will probably be used later in the day to make breaded fried sweet potato slices.

Here we have bags of dried herbs sandwiched in between the dishes!

One last picture. You never wear shoes inside Korean homes. I have grown so accustomed to this that when I go to American homes and my hosts tell me I can leave my shoes on, I feel like you would probably feel if you wore your tennis shoes in your bed! Of course, not having your shoes on makes it inconvenient if you want to dash outside for a second, to get the mail or something. So many Korean households have a few pairs of random, communal slip-on shoes placed outside the door that anyone can use to run outside for a second. I think my father-in-law probably bought most of our communal shoes at the thrift store! (His favorite place to go.) This was very strange for me when I first lived with them. Americans don't usually share shoes. By contrast, in this household, any guest that comes over is likely to slip on a pair of these shoes to go look at my father-in-law's garden. Now I've gotten used to this, and I think it's really convenient.

That's all for now... more to come!