“Are you a feminist?” My dining companion asked me, as we waited for the last of the pork to cook over the charred black grill and bucket of charcoal built into our table. We were at a barbecue restaurant in Seoul that specialized in serving fatty pork belly in 0.5″ by 8″ slices, glorified dinner bacon, if you will.
I looked up to where he sat on my left. “Yes, I’m a feminist,” I said, happy someone had finally brought up this topic for the first time since I’d come to Korea.
The rectangular table we sat at, comprised of two benches and a couple stools, was too big for just the two of us. But the abundance of space made it less awkward; it was the third time I’d met this relative stranger.
“Then you must be angry.” He was wearing a bib, the cotton apron-length kind handed out to diners at these restaurants, to protect themselves from their own acts of clumsy, alcohol-induced spillage, and to poorly shield their clothes from the smell of burnt oil and fat emanating from the greasy heart of each table.
“What do you mean by angry?”
There was a specific method to which the pork was to be cooked. After placing it on the grill, the slabs would be turned over onto each side 1-4 times, cooked until almost well-done before we would cut the slices into small bite sized pieces, then wrap them in lettuce and other edible foliage, along with with garlic and salty fermented bean sauce, to be eaten with bare hands.
“I mean mad and angry at men. Do you go to protests to express your anger against men?” He said with a grin and in a voice that was suddenly too loud. “And what about your boyfriend? What about marriage?”
The man was a publisher at a major publishing house in South Korea, he looked to be in his early 50’s if not older. He had greying hair, and what I’d initially thought of, as a familiar fatherly face. Under the fluorescent tubes, his skin was wrinkled and greyish, but his eyes were like brighter than pebbles under a sunlit stream.
We first met at a media event when a mutual acquaintance said: I want you to meet Mr C, he’s also a writer, and could be good for your network. We said hello and I did the usual bow, because that’s what you do when you first meet someone here.
Mr C was a veteran journalist, “Just a regular Seoulite,” he claimed who’d been lucky enough to graduate from a prestigious university, and pass the impossibly difficult journalism vocational exams. He’d gone on to join one of the most established, albeit right wing papers in Korea.
These days, he was writing a book of interviews with acclaimed film directors in the nation. He was self-made person, who had worked his way up his entire life, all within the constraints of South Korea’s highly hierarchal social system. He told me about the kind of stories he wrote, and the kind of stories he wished he’d written, and now we were talking about feminism.
“No,” I said. “I don’t hate men, and I don’t go to protests. Feminism is an everyday philosophy. It’s humanism. Rights that men have, also belong to their mothers, wives, daughters, aunts, granddaughters, etc.”
At that moment, the waiter walked over, balancing another plate of raw pork belly on his tray. He set it down, not before checking off the tab/bill and giving me a bizarre look that seemed half knowing, half disdainful. I was suddenly conscious of how we looked. A man sitting with a woman half his age, an obvious foreigner, in the middle of half-drunken English conversation, in a restaurant located in the middle of a bar district overflowing salarymen wandering in packs outside.
“And even if my boyfriend and I aren’t married, we share the same values.”
The strong smell of uncooked flesh, distinctly pork-like, filled the air. I looked at the flat pink slabs, each layer of meat a different gradient of textured skin, slightly iridescent muscle and dull yellow-white fat sitting in a plate beside a half-empty bottle of beer and opened soju — next to beer and soju posters with actresses in a variety of wet t-shirt contest poses.
“I see,” Mr C finally said, flipping small cooked pieces of pork over once again, pushing them to the edges of the grill to make room for fresh meat. He grasped at a crispy looking slice with steel chopsticks and chewed on it for half a minute before picking up his shot glass and downing the remainder of soju. The cup clinked back onto the table and he made a hissing sound from the back of his throat to signal his satisfaction. Then, he smacked his lips.
“Let’s go to a DVD room after we finish the food,” he said. “We can continue our discussion in a more intimate setting.”
Read more from Crystal Tai at crystal-tai.com.