Gifts, bribes and the delectable treats I won’t take

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Gifts, bribes and the delectable treats I won’t take


I met a kind, loving family over the weekend to do a story about their lives in the small town of Nonsan, South Choongchung province. At the end of our meeting, a father in the family slipped a white envelope in my hands, calling it “the train fee.” It seemed to happen very suddenly. I knew his intention was completely innocent. He acted like my big uncle, patting my shoulder to thank me for coming such a long way. But I slipped the envelope in his wife’s pocket as I left their house.
How strange. I saved my professional ethics. But I flushed my cultural etiquette down the toilet. Luckily, the family seemed to be understanding.
In Korea, there is a subtle difference between an intentional bribe and courtesy money. Some might laugh at this, but such things exist. Usually, it’s much more clear what you’re getting.
About four years ago, I was offered another white envelope from someone I met for a story. He was a “name advisor” who designed special engraved stamps imbued with magical powers that could eliminate ominous energy residing in people’s names. Each stamp cost a fortune, up to a couple million won. A friend later told me that he was one of the top name advisors in Seoul. He even paid tax on his income, which is very unusual for Korean fortunetellers, who often set up establishments by simply placing a mat on their living room floor.
I should have known what I was getting into the second I stepped into his office, which was located atop an imposing building in Teheran Valley, where Korea’s high-tech companies are clustered.
I didn’t take the money, but mainly because I didn’t trust him, the same way I avoided the roast beef dish our family placed on an alter for ancestral ceremonies that everyone else ate after the rituals. I was a superstitious child. I didn’t take the name advisor’s money because I worried that doing so would allow his corrupt spirit to have an ominous influence on my fate.
A week after my visit, the man sent me a custom-made stamp, supposedly cut from a date tree that had been struck by lightening ― a quality that supposedly cures any bad energy in one’s name, according to his secretary. The stamp came with a cryptic diagram that interprets my life fortune based on my name.
I kept the stamp in my drawer, and used it once to renew my saving account last year. But as far as I can tell, my financial situation hasn’t got any better since then.

How to Cook

Roast Beef & Pine Mushroom

Ingredients (for 1 serving): 200g of pine mushrooms, 150g of beef, 60g of green onion, 1 teaspoon each of sesame oil, salt and crushed pinenuts. For sauce: 3 teaspoon of soy sauce, 2 teaspoons diced green onion, 1 teaspoon each of sugar, crushed garlic, sesame oil and sesame seeds, plus a dash of pepper.
1. Rinse the mushrooms. Slice thinly.
2. Cut the beef and green onions into small cubes.
3. On a pan, pour the sauce. Simmer for 5 to 10 min.
4. Add the meat, then the green onion. Boil for 2 to 5 min.
5. When cool, skewer the meat, mushrooms and green onions.
6. Serve sprinkled with crushed pine nuts.

by Park Soo-mee
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