Just a stone’s throw north of the city of Seattle, on picturesque Aurora Avenue, dwells a little restaurant by the name of Maru. Inside the tables are made of inconspicuous marble, the free dish of mints are the chocolate-mint kind, and the beer is bottled and fulfills brand expectations. Earnest, weepy K-pop floods through invisible speakers while teenagers pretend to be pre-teens on flat-screen televisions overhead. The atmosphere is peaceful, because families eat in near-silence, bent prostrate over their phones.
I like this place. I order the same meal every time, dolsot bibimbap, which I then drown in hot sauce to hide the taste of the copious and healthy vegetables. I recall the candy they made from the flavor of the burnt rice at the bottom of the stone pots. I use my words of perfect Korean, which include hello, goodbye, thank you, and “where are you going” to my one-year old daughter as she marches laps around the seating area. I drink my Hite beer, crisp as a glass of seltzer water and nearly as flavorful, and feel homesick for the time, ten years ago, when I used to be homesick.
I think of the crowded streets of Busan, a maze of twisty passages, all alike. I think of the ajummas, sweeping the pavement with miniature brooms, or elbowing me in the ribs in subway stations. I think of a market with a plastic bucket full of overturned tiny turtles, some still pitifully waving their limbs in the seaside air. I think of street meat and cicadas and drunken businessmen on morning trains, testing out their English in uncertain terms. I think of a couple, late at night, playing go on the floor of their convenience store, the light behind their profiles spilling out into the midnight blackness, waiting for the last trickle of customers from the bars. I think of street children pointing at my voluntarily-bald head, crying bakbagi, and laughing in fits.