Erin Choi’s column “A Summer Abroad” pieces together recollections from her pilgrimage back to Korea.
At the eastern port of Jeju Island lies Seopjikoji, a chunk of land jutting out to sea. It’s a beautiful volcanic formation. The porous black rock contrasts with the lush greenery growing on top of it. The water, a deep blue-gray, froths as it meets the land. Jeju is known for its fickle weather — blazing hot then bone-chilling cold, raining then sunny. I never knew clouds could mean hot weather, but somehow it works, like a steam cooker does. The ocean breeze battering me from all directions, my makeup melts off like butter, my clothes stiff with salt as they dry.
I’m a tourist here. So I do tourist activities.
5,000 won at the base of the trail gets me a neon-orange Jeju mandarin slush. A couple feet up, a raggedy wood board advertises Horse Rides for 6,000 won. “Why not?” my mom shrugs. What is tourism but experiences you can buy? We ride some overworked horses for five minutes. I feel sorry as I sit on the horse, its bones shifting to accommodate my load. Guided by an old man with leathery hands, we make one small lap around the predetermined track. The horse sways with each step. I’m afraid its ankles will snap.
After, I buy it a withered carrot for its struggles. They do not accept card.
As we continue our trek upwards, the air thickens with moisture. Seopjikoji used to be home to an ancient lighthouse, a smoke beacon. A homing signal for lost sailors. Stacking it out of volcanic rock, the people would start a fire on the lighthouse’s flat top to alert people of incoming intruders. The lighthouse is still there, partially. I think it probably got remade. How much of the original needs to remain for something to still be itself? In front of the structure, or at least its remake, I smile and pose.
The heat is ruthless, violent, smothering us in our own sweat. “Can we get something to drink? God, I’m dying.”
Fortunately, there’s a cafe-restaurant combo nearby, which looks more like a museum than any food-and-drink establishment. Super blocky, modernist. A concrete monolith by Tadao Ando. The cafe on the first floor boasts a menu of 10,000 won beverages and 20,000 won egg-salad sandwiches the size of my index finger. Unfortunately, I don’t really like egg-salad.
But again, I’m pretty hungry, so I go up the stairs to the restaurant, which is a separate business called Mint. I try to Yelp it, without much success, but I do find a travel blog that calls it one of the Top 11 Instagrammable Things to do in Jeju. “The view is there,” another blogger writes. “Flavor is NOT.”
“Mom,” I said. “Let’s eat somewhere else.”
Though I am excellent at complaining, due to my limited proficiency in Korean, I’m not much help searching for other restaurants. My mom scrolls through recommendations. In the meantime, I walk circles around her. A small succulent has sprouted in a pore of the volcanic rock along the trail. The Jeju equivalent of the rose that grew from concrete, I guess.
The restaurant we finally arrive at is a small stall among many others. Parking is tight, mazelike. The owner is on her phone when we come in. The store is empty and the AC is off, even in this unbearable heat, as if she doesn’t deserve temperate air in the absence of customers. Her face lights up when she sees us. “Welcome in!”
This is a donkatsu restaurant, and it serves four variations of the same dish (all 9,500 won). In a kitchen she can barely turn around in, the owner prepares the base — a pork loin dipped in egg wash and breaded in panko, dunked in hot oil until golden brown. Choose a sauce, and the owner will ladle a generous amount over your slice. She brings out two teetering dishes on each arm for our group of four, a precarious balancing act, before setting them down on the yellowed (yet clean) table. I divide the cutlet into eight slices and fork one into my mouth. The pork gushes out a savory, warm broth.
I eat slowly, chewing the meat to a paste. The owner/server/cook is watching us, smiling. Gray strands escape the flower-print handkerchief covering her hair. Sweat beads her hairline, trickles down the slope of her nose. Her hands are deeply cracked from the labor. Strangely, she reminds me of my beloved grandma. I want to tell her it’s okay to raise the prices, that it’s okay to turn on the AC when she’s alone.
I go home full. We rarely revisit restaurants here in Jeju, but we come back every couple of days, drawn to it by some homing signal.