I step out of the brisk wind and incessant grey Washington drizzle into Dae Young Palace, a Korean-owned Chinese restaurant that I’ve frequented since my high school days for their delicious jja jjang myun – also known as black noodles. I bow and say hello to the waitress in Korean, to which she seems delightfully surprised.
Everything feels familiar despite the years that have passed. I sit in the booth next to the door, with its cold, red vinyl seat. The waitress brings tea and I order. While I wait, I fumble through an out-of-date Korean paper (the JoongAng Ilbo), picking out the words I know and trying to string together the story. I take a bite of long-fermented kimchi and the sour, spicy flavour brings me back to a kind of childhood emotion; I remember the wonder and curiosity I felt when first diving into Korean cuisine, and exhale with kind of satisfaction at how natural it has become.
The waitress brings the dish, the white noodles smothered in black sauce and topped with slices of cucumber. I stir it up, making sure every strand is covered. Stirring is always the most dangerous part – if one noodle flips off the end of your chopstick, that means staining black sauce is all over your shirt-front, it’s happened to me more than once.
As I eat, slurping up noodles and washing them down with hot black tea, the waitress pops in and asks me questions about how I learned to speak Korean. The words come to my lips slowly and sheepishly. Did I eat jja jang myun in Korea? How did I find the food there in general? The woman’s smile is a bit snaggle toothed, but her voice has the sweet and honest tone of a mother. I wish I was more fluent, that I wasn’t so hesitant to elaborate on my answers and have conversation.
I pause and look around; traditional carvings hang on the wall with plaques of Korean quotes and posters for OB Lager. Everything is reminiscent of Korea, save the Green Day song playing on 107.7. I think about how easily one could live in a Korean bubble, all but free from American reality. I wonder what it must be like to feel a kind of homesickness all the time.
Paying my bill I thank the waitress for the meal, and tell her I ate well. Then I step out into the rain, as it washes away the familiar face of my hometown.