The Woman Behind the Food (real talk about expat life)

Last Friday I found honest to g-d, legit, imported Philadelphia cream cheese and it made my day. It's not that I'm particularly attached to Philadelphia cream cheese as opposed to other types or brands of cream cheese,  it's just that most of the cream cheese I can find in Seoul is "licensed by Philadelphia" and it's just... not quite right. It's yellow and, of course, slightly sweet. It makes terrible cream cheese icing and it's not the thing I want for baking at all. I'd say it's not the thing I want for bagels at all, but let's not pretend I can get bagels in Seoul that won't make me weep the biggest, Jewiest, New Yorker tears while shouting a stream of obscenities at anyone who will listen*. So I bought a pound of cream cheese for which I still don't have any plans but just knowing I have it is a strange comfort.

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I've been thinking a lot about why I find Seoul so frustrating. On my best days I think it's a fine place to live and on my worst days I hate it.

I hate its sprawl that means running two small errands can take a whole day despite clean and fast public transportation. I hate its toxic air that traps me and my asthmatic lungs in the house, instead of exploring the city's plethora of green spaces. I hate its burgeoning food scene that seems to care more about being cool than being good. I hate its hundreds of cafes that aren't even open in the morning and that are for hanging out and being seen rather than enjoying a well pulled and poured cappuccino. I, a NEW YORKER, hate its fast paced, always have to be ahead, pushing on to the train before people get off, cab upstreaming, culture.

Other than the pollution, I'll admit these are all relatively privileged problems. Just a series of small, daily irritations, nothing life shattering. But the little things, they drag you down, y'know?

Before we moved here we asked everyone we knew who had been to Seoul or lived in Seoul how they like it and everyone told us it was a fantastic city and I feel immensely like I'm doing it wrong. In what way am I so fundamentally different that I can't love this place?

On my best days I find Seoul solidly "ok" and I'm thankful. I'm thankful that living here allows us to live a more comfortable life than we'd be living in New York. I'm thankful for my two bedroom, open floor plan apartment that could fit our Brooklyn studio three times inside it that has room for huge dinner parties. I'm thankful my husband doesn't have to feel anxious about paying off his NYU grad school debt. I'm thankful for the time off work and the opportunity to let my body rest and recover from nine years of more than full time kitchen work. I'm thankful for our health insurance that allows me to spend 3-4 hours a week at the physical therapists after three years of just living with my hand going numb and dropping things on a regular basis because I didn't have the time or money to deal with it. I'm thankful for our bratty, snuggly dog and for the pretty park nearby where we walk her. I'm thankful for the opportunity to easily travel through Asia.

On my worst days I'm homesick and so very lonely. Purposeless. I think about what's going on in the kitchen I left and the friends with whom I could be brunching. I wonder if New York Cares found a new volunteer to teach my class but I don't want to look because I know if they have it'll just make me sad and jealous and I know if they haven't I'll feel guilty and even sadder.

On my best days I'm excited. Excited to figure out how to light photos in my hobbit hole apartment. Excited to have the time to read cookbooks cover to cover, to compare and create. Excited that there's still huge swathes of the city I haven't explored and markets I have yet to find. Excited for Spring and flowers and the end of this ice cold wind.

And most days I live caught in the middle, torn between enjoying my freedom and just wanting to go home.

*Since starting this post, I've attempted one batch of bagels. They definitely need work, but I'm confident that soon I'll be making the best bagels in Seoul which is to say, they'll be better than the worst thing in the world.