Sweet comforts

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Sweet comforts


Winter refuses to go away.

A few weeks ago experts at the weather center said this was the warmest early February in 36 years, but a cold snap over the last couple of days has sent the mercury plunging below zero.

During fickle weather like this, it’s easy to catch a cold, and Koreans tend to reach for a cup of citron tea to keep the doctor away.

Citrons are stored in jars filled with honey or sugar for a couple of months. Parents add hot water to a spoonful of the honeyed citron and feed the concoction to their kids at the first sign of the sniffles.

Citrons were brought to this land around 1,200 years ago during the Silla Dynasty by Admiral Jang Bo-go, who got hold of some seeds from a Chinese merchant.

The seeds found a home in Namhae, South Gyeongsang, and the citron fruits that grew there became famous for their sweet scent and taste.

But the citrons from these parts are more expensive than those from areas because output in the region was limited.

Locals regard citron trees as a financial boon because in the 1970s and 1980s, just a few old citron trees could help finance college education for their kids.

Money may not grow on citron trees like in the old days, but most locals from Namhae usually have one or two stories to tell about citrons.

Popular Namhae-born poet Ko Doo-hyun is no exception. Twenty years ago, when Ko was starting out in Seoul, he found a package waiting for him when he returned home after another poverty-stricken day in this strange new city.

On the parcel was the clumsy but instantly recognizable handwriting of his mother, and inside the layers of brown wrapping paper were some knitted underwear, socks and mittens - and nine large citrons.

“Citrons this year good. When cold, make tea and drink. Life not so easy, eh? When spring come, good news too will come. Remember, look down, not up even when it’s very difficult. Keep your head high and take good care,” his semi-literate mother wrote.

The letter later became part of the poem “A Package Delivered Late.”

Government statistics show that 420,000 businesses have gone bankrupt in the past two months, and the number of people who can’t find work has risen to 4 million.

Unless you have been through the experience yourself, it is very hard to fully appreciate the despair and hopelessness that follows in the wake of getting laid off or seeing your company go down the tube.

But sometimes a small thing like a hot cup of sweet citron tea, some heartwarming words from a friend or a dish of steaming noodles is all it takes to make life more mellow.

The writer is a deputy economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Na-ree [windy@joongang.co.kr]
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