from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #22: The Best Burger I Have Ever Had

with 4 comments

While on the subject of food…

In the movie Shikgaek (食客), there’s a side story in which highlights the comic relief: the assistants for the two chefs who are competing for the knife of the royal chef of the Joseon Dynasty. Woo Jung-geo, the assistant for the antagonist, constantly pesters Ho-seong, the assistant for the protagonist, for the secret of the best ramen he has ever had, ramen that Woo Jung-geo was treated to by Ho-seong while they were in the Army. The problem is that Ho-seong has no idea what his former subordinate is talking about.

Because of Woo Jung-geo’s persistence and creepiness, Ho-seong tries to recreate the conditions of the Army, first by making ramen in the wild outdoors, then by doggedly working Woo Jung-geo at the plow before feeding him, and finally by beating him, but each time Woo Jung-geo spits out a mouthful of ramen and cries out in agony, “This isn’t it!” At the end of the movie, Ho-seong presents Woo Jung-geo with a present: a package of ramen with a note which reads, “The secret to great ramen? Eat it when you’re hungry.”


Ho-seong (left), Woo Jung-geo (right), Korean Army mess-kit with ramen (front and center)

To be honest, I was disappointed at the conclusion of this side story. That is no secret to enlightenment. Nevertheless, I mention this side story because of the premise of the episode as a whole and because a similar episode happened to me.

To say I was completely miserable as a private is a gross understatement. There will never be a period in my life that can match the abject desperation as I felt during the first half of 2004. I couldn’t speak Korean and even if I had been able, I doubt I could have understood what the hell was happening around me. I just kept my head down and somehow made it through all the humiliation and subjugation and forced labor. There were days when I would return to the company after a bout of cleaning covered in shit water.

Like I mentioned in the previous entry, I didn’t eat much back then, either. More often than not, rice and kimchi was the whole of my meal. Even when the mess hall offered something that wasn’t seafood, it was rarely edible.

The Army is the place where you can see human nature at its basest. We are nothing but animals, and I once read a journal article which stated that altruism in animals is a biological mistake. Altruism is a recessive trait. The only true altruism exists between family groups for the sake of maintaining one’s hereditary line. Reinforcement of this idea was all around me. I spent almost every single minute of every day surrounded by people at close quarters but I have never felt so alone as I did back then.

That being said, there are moments in life which completely blow your mind as I guess unexpected acts of kindness do, because nobody ever does them.

One day, in maybe my third month as a private in Daegu, I was sitting in the squad room before dinner alone in one of those very rare moments I was allowed to be alone and at peace. I was sitting cross-legged, facing my locker as a private should, trying to get a little bit of Korean-studying time in before the inevitable interruption, when I heard the click of the doorknob and turned to see the Professor peeking into the room.

The Professor was the second-highest in our squad hierarchy (our two-go). He was given the nickname because he had been studying science or medicine at Johns Hopkins and, frankly, he was a huge nerd. He didn’t enter the room but, instead, ushered me over with a couple waves of his hand.

“Fuck,” I thought. Gochams (higher-ranked conscripts) only called you over for one reason: you fucked up somehow and were going to get it.

Squad fifteen was located at the far end of the third floor, next to the outdoor staircase nearest the headquarters. It was out onto the staircase that he called me. I followed him out onto the landing and steeled myself for a lengthy berating, a berating that never came. Instead, he shoved a crumpled brown paper bag into my hands.

“Eat it quickly,” he said. I was more than a little confused. After a moment of hesitation, I opened up the bag and peered inside. It was a Whopper Junior. I was dumbfounded. I had been ordered to eat quickly, but all I could do was look at him quizzically. I asked him a question with my confused expression because I didn’t dare ask with words.

“I was out of the base on business and the officer took me to Burger King,” he said nonchalantly. “It’s just leftovers. Eat it quickly.”

I still don’t know why he gave it to me. It was true that he didn’t really associate with the other members of the squad, but I could think of at least a dozen other people in the company he could’ve given it to.

“Thank you, sir,” I managed to choke out. I was seriously choked up.

Fearing the others might come or that the Professor would change his mind, I ate that small burger in seconds. I didn’t have the time to savor each bite, but it was the best burger I have ever had in my life. It made me want to cry.

Yes, the best burger I have ever had in my life was a Whopper Junior, a burger roughly the size of a fist. But it wasn’t the burger that was made it special. It was an act of kindness out of the blue during a time when it was the least expected, a time when it isn’t unheard of for ordinarily rational people to hang themselves with their bootstrings or douse themselves with gasoline and set themselves on fire.

A version of this story is included in my seventh chapter, “It’s a Jungle Out There.”

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4 Responses

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  1. best yet. basically everything starting from “there will never be a time in my life” is really good. what do you remember about that burger besides how fast you ate it? did that guy ever do anything like that for you again?

    sang

    September 14, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    • Thanks, Sang.

      I don’t remember anything about the burger itself. It tasted good, I’m sure, but I really did practically just swallow it. And no, the Professor never did anything nice for me after that. I don’t remember if he ever said anything to me after that, for that matter. It was a one-time deal.

      I guess I can just try and make shit up about how it tasted or otherwise beef up the ending. Thanks for the input.

      holdenbeck

      September 14, 2010 at 8:03 pm

      • you dont need to beef up the ending. but the detail about how he never said anything to you ever again is a pretty good one.

        sang

        September 14, 2010 at 8:34 pm

  2. I haven’t gotten around to revising the chapter yet but I made a note of it.

    holdenbeck

    September 15, 2010 at 11:06 am


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