The promise of easy money drove me to South Korea. Student loans and credit card debt led me to accept a position teaching English a month after I finished my bachelor’s degree. Friendships, wanderlust, and, I admit, the paychecks kept me in Korea for over a decade. Becoming a vegetarian was a wholly unintended side effect.
Throughout my childhood my mother found ever more elaborate hiding places for plates of fried chicken, to prevent me from stripping every piece of its tantalizingly delicious skin. I treated the undertaking a as sort of game, whose prize was delicious fat cracklings and the opportunity to be sent to bed without dessert. Friends unaware of the proper order of cooking breakfast foods – eggs after bacon, so they can be fried in the bacon fat – were shocked by my scorn and sympathy. Several weeks into my first year in Korea, in a fit of homesick pique, I ate nothing but McChicken Extra Value Meals for nearly four days.
Much like the consumption of tasty, tasty dead animal flesh, the healing power of soup transcends culture. My mother made soup: chicken soup when I was sick, tomato soup when I was sad. In Korea there is a soup for every ailment, from hair loss to impotence to SARS. When I succumbed to the crud that annually afflicted students and teachers alike my sixth winter in Korea, my co-worker JaeEun offered to buy me some good soup for lunch.
JaeEun led me past the restaurant on the first floor of our building and down a side street to a one-story restaurant with faux-wood log paneling on the outside. The seating area was on a raised platform about a foot off the ground. Many traditional Korean restaurants offer floor seating only, nary a chair to be found, with thin, entirely unsoft cushions provided. The heating in older buildings runs through the floor, however, which meant my aching tailbone was blessedly warm.
Most Korean restaurants have a small pad of paper, each page printed with the menu offerings, at every table. You mark your order and hold the paper aloft until a server plucks it from your hand. Here there was no visible menu. JaeEun signaled our server and explained what was needed in the rapid, clipped Korean that, for my first year, made me think that everyone I overheard was in the middle of a fight. With her lifetime of experience combatting Korean colds, I trusted JaeEun to order for me.
Korean meals come with an array of side-dishes, or banchan. Usually my favorite, today the kimchi was too cold and crunchy, like cactus spikes sliding down my already tender throat. When lunch was set before me, the soup smelled so hearty and, somehow well-meaning, I wanted to weep. Conversation stopped as I greedily sucked down my homeopathic cure.
The steam from the broth cleared out my sinuses, and the spiciness caused my ears to pop. Public nose-blowing is highly improper in Korea, so I turned towards the wall, bent over at the waist, and laid my chest against my crossed legs, making myself as small as possible. I tried to quietly expunge my snot, going through nearly an entire dispenser’s worth of thin, scratchy napkins. If the looks JaeEun shot me were anything to go by, I failed.
Greedily slurping the broth, I avoided the chunks of meat in my soup. I gnawed through one and a half of them, which left me with a jaw ache that only compounded the pain in my glands and sinuses. The toughness of the meat reminded me of the time, at eight, I had asked my father for five dollars to go roller-skating. He refused, and, in retaliation, I chewed his wallet. He was unmoved.
JaeEun noticed my selective eating. “You are not eating the meat. You must have the blood to recover.”
This sentiment was not as unsettling as it sounds. In addition to my upper respiratory distress, two months prior I had been diagnosed with anemia. As my American coworkers succumbed, one by one, to this season’s nasal apocalypse, the Koreans in the office repeated to me that, already weak, I required “many of the meats” to stay healthy.
“It’s so tough,” I said, gesturing to the meat in my stew. “It’s like ojjingga.” Ojjingga is dried, rubbery squid jerky, Korea’s most inexplicable and disgusting movie snack of choice. “I feel like this cow had a very terrible life.”
“Oh, no. Is not cow.”
“Oh, no.” JaeEun covered her mouth with her hands, since it is also considered rude for Korean women to laugh out loud. “This is funny.”
“What am I eating, Jae?” I picked what I felt to be the most implausible animal for comedic effect. “Is this a horse?”
“Oh, no. It is dog. Bosintang.”
“The fuck?!” I dropped my spoon on the table for emphasis.
“You look more healthy now,” she said, nodding earnestly. “It is working.”
“You gave me dog? That’s horrible! I’m horrified!”
“But, Tristan, you do not even like dogs. All the time you are saying that dogs are not good.”
Fact: I do not like dogs. They have no standards and show no discernment in bestowing their affections. They’ll let anyone scratch their bellies and are equally thrilled to meet each new stranger. Their open affection and unbridled neediness remind me too much of myself when I’ve been drinking.
But that doesn’t mean I want to eat one.
“I don’t want to eat a dog,” I told JaeEun.
“But you do not like them. You said even cows are more cute than dogs. This is better, I think?”
Arms crossed over my chest, I said, “This is not better.” My attempt to sound stern and uncompromising was hampered by the three pounds on mucus still rucking around in my head.
“Why?” JaeEun knit her brows together and looked at me with open confusion. This soup represented the best possible cure for my cold. “How is it different from eating cow or chicken or porks? It is all animals.”
At eight I went fishing with my best friend Carol and her older brother, David, a strapping proto-sadist in the way of almost all fifteen year-old boys. I hadn’t caught any of the fish, too squeamish to even thread a worm through the hook. While the siblings cast their lines, I sat on the wooden pier of the family lake and made up songs about the turtles.
Several hours and dozens of fish later, we walked up the steep hill to the family homestead with a red Igloo cooler full of catfish and snapper. David dumped the fish onto the tarp laid out by his mother in anticipation of the gutting and de-boning. The mostly recently caught fish still twitched and gasped for breath.
David picked up a nearby wooden paddle, propped against the side of the house. He went into an elaborate batter’s windup, bringing the paddle down on the head of one of the survivors. He repeated the process over and over, rendering the fish ready for his mother’s knife. My entire body ran cold, from my head to the joints of my feet, a cold unmatched by the greyest Korean winters.
Perhaps capitalizing on my discomfort, perhaps only seeking to include me, David offered me the paddle. “That one,” he said, gesturing to a survivor. “Get that one.”
Craving acceptance, I didn’t refuse. I took the paddle and swung, but not hard enough. The blow glanced off the fish, causing it to bounce off the tarp and several inches into the air, gills flapping all the while.
I dropped the paddle and ran. I have no memory of how I got there, but I ended up in Carol’s closet, unwilling to leave until I heard my mother’s voice calling me from the kitchen. She had been summoned while I was hiding, told I wouldn’t be spending the night, but needed a ride home.
Too embarrassed to meet anyone’s eyes, I walked through the house to the garage and the safety of the family car. Through the buzz in my ears I heard, only distantly, words like very sorry and no idea.
The fish’s cloudy eye rotating in distress as I brought the paddle down has followed me into adulthood. I see it in moments of stress. It pops into my mind, unbidden, anytime I do something unkind, the first memory in the highlight reel of all the times I have been needlessly cruel.
I saw this fish when JaeEun said it is all animals. I saw the unfocused eye and the trembling gills. I saw my arm bringing the paddle down for the kill. Two weekends before my lunch with JaeEun, I spent $30 on chicken breasts at Costco, then $28 on a zoo ticket. The lions at the zoo sprawled inactive on the ground, listless, as dead as the chicken breasts in my freezer for all I knew.
“But it is all animals,” JaeEun said to me in the restaurant, as I threw my spoon to the table in indignation. “I do not understand why dog is different than cow,” she said.
JaeEun was not wrong. She meant to tell me that all animals were fair game for souping. Meat is meat and food is food. However, I finally understood that no animals could be eaten. Who determined the hierarchy whereby kittens are adorable and calves are veal? It is, when you get right down to it, all animals.
Five years later, I have become adept at making and ordering vegetarian food for myself. Though there have been a few restaurant miscommunications (especially in my native Mississippi, where bacon is apparently a vegetable), dog was the last animal I intentionally consumed. My personal feelings about dogs or cows or jackals or seahorses (obviously horrific, misshapen errors on God’s part) don’t mean I get to eat them.
So I don’t.
Tristan Durst is a graduate of the MFA program at Butler University, where she served as the fiction editor for Booth. Aside from on small misunderstanding in Vietnam, she’s never been asked to leave a country and never return.