First published here.
My favorite Thanksgiving turkey traveled illegally to a foreign country, packed in dry ice, to be later cooked, sliver by sliver, in a toaster oven.
To know this story, it’s necessary to meet Bridget, a short, red-haired, smart, freckled, thirty year old Ivy League M.A. from upstate New York. She arrived in Suwon, South Korea with a passion for cooking. We lived together in a too small apartment near Na Mun or South Gate in a small Korean town of 100,000 people. Bridget had lived a dream life in the states, until her dream husband had left her for a graduate student, because, as he told her, “the sex is incredible.” Bridget spent a tumultuous and increasingly bleak four years, eventually living with her brother and unemployed before landing a job at a Korean university where, on a much needed respite in Songtan, outside the U.S. air force base, she met a married, good looking Captain and fell in love. This soldier tore raw a heart Bridget believed could not possibly be re-broken. “No more married men!” she swore to me afterwards, when he returned to his wife. "I don't need the karma." And when a group of Romanian graduate students arrived in Suwon to study, she asked them all immediately whether or not they were married. All but one said no.
Bridget and the Romanian student Bogdan had been living together for nearly a year before she found out about his wife. It turned out that all but that one of the students had lied. She called me in Seattle where I had arrived home for a vacation, asking me to come back as her ally, and offering me a plum position in the same university where she taught, so I flew back and the three of us lived in Pal dal Gu where in the summer the walls sweated and in the winter we sat on a tiled floor where the heat rose up to warm our bottoms.
We were all in those days, much as we are now, a mixture of bruise and possibility. Mark, our friend, the smart bon vivant, complained that Korea was the least favorite of the Asian countries he’d traveled in. He called Bogdan “ham and cheese” to poke fun of his nearly constant need for sandwiches in a nation of rice. Ken, the son of two university professors, brother of a disabled sister, spoke fluent Korean and woke up shocked one night at three am to find the father of his 25 year old girlfriend pounding on his door, and he was even more surprised when she humbly went home with her father. At 23, I had grown up in the household of two seriously depressed, seriously Republican parents, and I felt no more out of place in Korea than anywhere else I’d ever lived. I had recently fallen for an engineering student, Patrick, from Paris, who was working at an internship at Daewoo. He and his roommate Pierre really didn’t like Korean food, particularly not the way it smelled. “It stink, it really stink,” they complained. Patrick said he spent all day at Daewoo looking up dirty jokes on the internet, mostly about New Zealand sheep farmers, which he claimed was much more mature than many of his coworkers who spent the day, unabashedly, printing porn photos on the Daewoo office printer.
Bridget, being the extraordinary sort of person she is, pulled herself together. By November she had partially forgiven Bogdan for being married, primarily because he was on his way toward a divorce. When he and the other Romanian students had flown back to Romania for summer vacation, they had assured us that they had done nothing out of the ordinary, and that they were acting as regular Latin men (given their anger directed toward the recent Romanian governmental debacles, they took great pride in their Latin heritage) and that their wives understood this centuries longstanding tradition of womanizing. They returned at the end of the summer, in late August, shocked and more than slightly humbled to confess that it turned out their wives had that same Latin blood coursing through their veins and had, nearly all, taken lovers who they found physically inhabiting their apartments. In short, few marriages of the Romanian grad students survived the three-year separation, and fortunately for Bridget, Bogdan and his wife parted ways.
Bridget had the idea that these Romanian students, lost boys to her Wendy Darling, needed to experience an American thanksgiving. Imagine, for a moment, the lives of these students, traveling to a foreign country, only barely speaking English, to take graduate level business courses that were—they later found out—even more barely in English. They were all excited to take their first trip to a dentist in their lives--only to find that the Korean dentist suggested that all of their teeth--all of the students' teeth be pulled out. They never went back to the dentist for the rest of their three years there even though it might have been a problem of translation. They'd been waiting their whole lives to escape the confines of communist Romania, only to find the world they'd longed for harder-edged and less glamorous than they'd wished. Bridget saw all of this and more with her larger-than-average sized heart, so, in September, returning from her own vacation home, she smuggled a turkey, tightly wrapped in dry ice in her luggage, and carried it as undeclared contraband through customs. We scoured black market shops outside the U.S. base at Songtan for two cans of jellied cranberry sauce and bread rolls and canned green beans. Korean apartments don’t come equipped with ovens, only ranges, so Bridget sliced the turkey into small pieces and roasted each one in her toaster oven, magically juggling the sweet potatoes, gravy, mashed russet potatoes on the range, so that they were all hot at the same time. She had even found a can of mushroom soup for a green bean casserole that was also dutifully squeezed, half at a time, in aluminum trays, into the overworked little oven. By the time twelve Romanians, Mark, Ken, Patrick and Pierre, a Korean student and I sat cross legged on the floor, we had only a few bites of turkey, cranberry sauce and casserole on each little plate, beside giant helpings of potatoes, gravy, rice and kimchi.
Mark would be returning to other parts of Asia that winter. Patrick and Pierre returned to Paris, and Bridget and Bogdan would make it another full year in Korea before returning with the other students to Romania together—I don’t know where they are now. Although I've looked for them everywhere. Ken, alone, remained in Korea and then went to China to teach and he teaches there still. He's on my Facebook page now, and so is Mark. I took a three-month trip through Southeast Asia that winter, and then in the spring returned to Seattle. They say the further you are from home, the more like a member of your own country you feel. I’m not sure about that. But I can say that my favorite Thanksgiving meal, so far, is one that a plucky, red-headed upstate New Yorker risked deportation and what she once called her last unsurvivable heartbreak to share.