I Survived Eating Pufferfish

I was extremely busy last night and crashed when I returned to my hotel.  It’s physically draining to be running around all day, hurrying up, stopping, waiting, springing into action.  Tomorrow night will be a very busy day for me as the most important dignitaries arrive here in Busan for the APEC Summit.  To read all about the APEC Summit and the goings-on here in Busan, visit http://www.apec.org/ or http://www.apec2005.org/.  The latter site goes into much more depth about what’s happening now here in Busan than what I could describe in a single blog entry.  It is quite an exciting time to be here in Busan.  I’m amazed to be on the front lines watching the action and advance preparations unfold.  I’m not a spectator, mind you, but I am watching while I work hard doing my small bit to make sure the show goes on smoothly.  The big show, the APEC Economic Leaders’ meeting, is yet to come on November 17, 18, and 19.  I will be here all the way through the Summit and will watch the last major plane fly away a few days later.
Yesterday I tried “bokguk,” or pufferfish soup.  The pufferfish, also known as the blow fish, is a spiny creature that blows itself up into a balloonish shape when it is frightened by potential predators.  The defense mechanism is one way for it to appear larger than life, scaring away the predator.  The pufferfish is also poisonous, secreting a poisonous toxin intended to kill its predator.  Many Americans know that Japanese enjoy eating pufferfish, better known in Japanese as “fugu.”  Stories occasionally come out of Japan claiming that someone died from eating “fugu,” typically caused by the improper preparation of the “fugu” dish.  In Japan, chefs receive extensive training on preparing “fugu” properly, removing the poison glands so that the puffin fish meat remains untainted.  It is considered a delicacy in Japan.

I did not realize that Koreans also eat pufferfish, although this fact makes perfect sense since Busan is just a few hours by boat off the coast of southern Japan.  In Korea, pufferfish is not generally considered a delicacy, and here in Busan, numerous shops serve the fish in a soup for about 5,000 Korean won (about $5.00).  The soup includes bean sprouts and chives and can be served either spicy or mild (depending on whether you want to eat it with red pepper paste.  It is typically served with rice and a variety of panchan, or side dishes.   The pufferfish meat is cut into large chunks and served in the soup.  One typically eats every part of the fish except the head, organs, and spine.  The meat is delicious.  Served fresh, the taste and texture do not taste like fish at all.  To use an overused cliche, the meat tastes more like chicken.  (Actually, it tastes more like frog leg.)  Perhaps best of all, the pufferfish has so few bones that it is very easy to eat. 
I’ve wanted to try “fugu” ever since I first read about it when I was a teenager.  Perhaps I’m crazy wanting to eat something that kills some people (I think the victims are typically children or the elderly).  I have no desire to eat live octopus, which here in Korea the cephalopod is occasionally known to kill an unwary diner if the struggling animal lodges itself in the diner’s throat and suffocates the diner, as happened to an unfortunate Korean man in the past year.  I personally think it’s cruel to eat live animals and would rather that my food not move on my plate while eating it.  I have the same apprehension whenever my wife’s family eats “drunken shrimp,” a Chinese delicacy featuring live shrimp soaked in alcohol.  I just cannot bear to eat an inebriated shrimp starting up at me with those big black eyes, as if to say, “Hey dude, surf’s up!”
According to Wikipedia, all species of pufferfish off the coast of Korea are considered poisonous.  It mentions a hilarious episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer Simpson eats pufferfish and is mistakenly told he has just 24 hours to live.  Like Homer Simpson, I too ate pufferfish and lived to tell about it.  Perhaps more daringly, I ate pufferfish at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant I’m sure is run by a Korean family as a small business.  I’m positive the cook did not attend professional pufferfish culinary training.  Well, I survived anyway.  Will I try it again sometime?  Oh, I suppose I will, depending on the occasion, now that I know how delicious it is.  Hopefully next time I will try it at an upscale restaurant, where I would feel more comfortable about how my meal has been prepared.

Checking in from China

I talked to my wife tonight on the phone. She has been in China with my son since early last week. They are doing very well. Life in Shanghai is not as comfortable or convenient as it is in Seoul, but she’s glad she went home to spend time with family. My wife and son are staying with my in-laws, who as you might recall returned to China last December before we left for Seoul. My sister-in-law’s family, who also live in Shanghai, met my son for the first time. My son has really taken a liking to his aunt (probably because she is a lot like his mom, her sister). They all live in pretty cramped quarters and have had a few minor family quarrels, but all in all, the visit has been a good one. My son really misses me. Whenever he sees a photo of me, he says excitedly, “Baba!” the Chinese word for “daddy.” I can’t wait to see them again. My temporary, pseudo-bachelor life has its good moments, but there’s nothing like being with the ones you love.

My son is apparently quite a celebrity in China. As a mixed-blooded child—half American, half-Chinese—he obviously looks different than Chinese children. My wife told me that strangers go out of the way to meet the little guy because he looks so different. She recently took him to a neighborhood photography studio for a photo session. The session so well that the studio acquired the rights to his photos and will display his album as a studio sample. He is a very photogenic kid. (I’m glad he inherited his mother’s good looks!) Although my son has been noticed here in Seoul, he has gotten far more attention in China than he has in Korea. This may be because Koreans have seen so many foreigners and mixed-blooded children that they are no longer a novelty. Chinese, on the other hand, have experienced much less exposure to foreigners and have met few mixed-blooded children. When I first visited China in 1994, I received many inquisitive looks from Chinese. I was a bit of a novelty, even when I was in Shanghai. However, in recent years the foreign mystique has diminished, and many Chinese now won’t give foreigners a second glance.

On the other hand, mixed-blooded children in China born to a foreign parent are still relatively rare. As a result, like my son, mixed-blooded children still elicit stares from Chinese. And Chinese typically hold them in high regard. Some Chinese believe that mixed-blooded children are physically more beautiful than either full-blooded Chinese or foreigner (e.g. Western) children. A recent poll indicated that 63% of Chinese would like to marry a foreigner. During my 1994 visit to China, my wife and I received critical stares from strangers who disapproved of our bi-racial relationship. Now, our mixed marriage is apparently hip. Attitudes in China have changed dramatically in the past decade. This may explain why Chinese are generally favorably disposed to mixed-blooded children. Rather than being a social burden, mixed-blooded children have become a status symbol of sorts.

Koreans, in contrast, typically do not hold mixed-blooded children in such high esteem. Koreans tend to prefer full-blooded Korean or non-Korean children. This is partly due to the fact that some mixed-blooded children in Korea are born out of wedlock to Korean mothers who are abandoned by foreign partners (particularly soldiers) who leave the country. Many of these children are born into unfortunate circumstances where the father reneges on his responsibility to take care of the child and disappears from their life. It is a very interesting contrast between two cultures that are similar in many ways but differ in some key social aspects. It is partly a product of cultural and historical influences.

Happy New Year 2005

Happy New Year, dear reader!  2004 has been quite a year for us.  It started in the Seattle area, where I was working for a local accounting firm as an IT consultant.  It ended in the Washington, D.C. area working for the Foreign Service, studying the Korean language in anticipation of our departure to Korea.  Although the tsunamis put a huge damper on this year’s festivities worldwide, life is good in our home.  I am very thankful for the changes in our life and the unique opportunity we have to travel and work overseas.

Have you made a New Year’s resolution?  I usually make a few, but this year I haven’t thought about it much.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve been too busy.  If I were to make some resolutions, they would have to be as follows:

  1. Finish Korean language class with an adequate testing score
  2. Arrive in Seoul safely
  3. Take a real vacation

Weight is always something to watch, but fortunately I don’t have to check off a lot of the typical New Year’s resolutions.  The three goals listed above are definitely achievable.  I feel a lot better about learning Korean now.  It will always be an uphill battle for me, though.  I’ll know soon whether we make it to Korea safely without event.  Hopefully the worst that will happen is dealing with a fussy child on a trans-Pacific flight.  The third may not happen anytime soon because I first need to adjust to working in Seoul, get through my job’s busy season, and prepare for the upcoming APEC Conference in late 2005.  If the APEC Conference in Seoul is anything like it was in Chile this year, it should be interesting.  I’m sure that President Bush won’t have to pull his security guard into meetings like he did in Santiago.  We may not be able to go on an extended vacation until next November or December.  I have plenty of vacation saved up already.

I hope you had a wonderful 2004.  Please pray for the safety and restoration of those affected by the tsunamis in Asia and Africa.  Let’s hope that 2005 is better than 2004 for everyone.