This past Sunday, I hosted my two private students and threw a jjong-party for them. The term "jjong-party" normally refers to end-of-term parties; such parties are a way for overstressed students to let off some steam after final exams. In my case, the party was to celebrate the end of six months of private tutoring. These two Korean kids, Amy and Sam, have been in the US for a few years, but their parents felt that they needed extra help with their English skills. Their mother used to work at the barbershop that I go to every six weeks to "get my ears lowered" (as my father used to say); I showed her my private-tutoring website, and she signed her kids on. They were the only two students I actually acquired through that website, but they were enough: the monthly income I got through tutoring was sufficient to help me over many of the financial obstacles that lay across my path. (I did snag some proofreading work thanks to the site, but that's another story.)
So I left my place around 10AM and drove over to Fairfax, which is about an hour away. Traffic was bad, as usual, right around Exit 60 on Route 66; God only knows why there's a bottleneck on Sundays. I arrived at the kids' apartment about two minutes late, and saw that they were already out on the front steps, waiting for me. The look on their faces was absolutely priceless: they were obviously so ready to have a good time. They had told me sad stories of their parents' general inability to cook, and because I had spent six months torturing them with cell-phone images of my own cooking (much of which I've blogged here), they were primed for some good eating. Once we were all in the car, I asked Sam and Amy whether they wanted a quick snack before we drove out to Appalachia. "We're good," Sam said. "We want to be hungry for lunch." I started the car, and we were off.
I'm a jokey teacher. It's a faculty that's hard to turn off, but in this sort of situation, there's actually an advantage to having a sense of humor: it makes a long drive more lively. So I joked about the poop smells that often wafted down from the farms along 66; I joked about skunks (Amy said she'd never smelled one); I joked about slow-witted drivers. I drove safely, of course: with kids in the car, there was no way I was going to be my usual speed-demon self.
We pulled into my town, which I suppose I can finally reveal (since I'm moving in a few days) is Front Royal, Virginia. Front Royal sits at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains; from my apartment on the edge of town, it's a five- or seven-minute ride to the entrance of Skyline Drive, a 105-mile stretch of road that snakes along the top of one part of the Blue Ridge mountain range before plunging into the George Washington National Forest. The area that Skyline Drive runs through is known as Shenandoah National Park. It's both deer and bear country; we've got plenty of black bears in the area.
Amy and Sam marveled at how small, cute, and quiet Front Royal was—a far cry from their crowded, noisy apartment complex in bustling, expensive, self-important Fairfax. They took to the ambiance immediately, and in truth, Front Royal does have much in common with Tolkien's notion of Hobbiton: it's a quiet town full of rotund, apple-cheeked folk who bustle about their parochial affairs and enjoy any opportunity to celebrate. We stopped at the local Food Lion first (I made the joke about how "Food Lion," rendered in Korean as eumshik saja, can mean either "food lion" or "let's buy food!") because I needed to buy one last batch of food and drink for the jjong-party. Amy and Sam gamely waited in the car while I quickly picked up some pico de gallo, a 12-pack of Coke, some sour cream, and one or two other items.
We drove back to my apartment and tromped upstairs to the third floor. My apartment number is 301; I joked about the Korean movie "301/302," a thriller about a cannibalistic neighbor. The joke fell flat: neither kid had seen the movie. We went in; I started working in the kitchen while the kids explored my place. Sam took an interest in my pullup bar, and blasted out six pullups in a row. He's considering joining the US Army, a choice that will likely produce mixed feelings in his parents, who will doubtless weigh the potential dangers of army training and active duty against the fact that Uncle Sam will pay for Sam's training and—if he so chooses—his further education.
There was little for the kids to do but wait for the food to arrive, and they let me know in no uncertain terms that they were hungry. I asked them to help me set the table while I worked on lunch: pulled-pork barbecue quesadillas. Stealing a technique from Wolfgang Puck, I coated one side of two tortillas with mayonnaise, then built the quesadillas while the bottom tortilla slowly roasted: American cheese on the bottom, then pork, then a bit more BBQ sauce and sriracha, some jalapeños, and a sprinkling of shredded Mexican-style cheese, followed by the top tortilla. The first quesadilla was a bit over-browned; I claimed that one for myself, then reduced the heat and built the next two quesadillas perfectly. I slapped all three onto plates, served them up with a side of homemade oi-kimchi, and waited for a reaction.
Sam closed his eyes as he chewed, and seemed to be in heaven. Amy had stopped talking and was concentrating on her food. "So good," Sam crooned. Amy nodded. "I want to cry," she said. I was delighted. The kids took out their digital cameras and lovingly snapped pictures of their food—probably so they could taunt their parents later on. Here are my two kids (click on this and all successive images to enlarge):
I must say that, after hearing Sam and Amy's war stories about their parents' botched attempts at cooking, I found it hard to swallow the notion that Korean people could be incompetent chefs. I can thank my mom for that stereotype: because of her, I thought all Korean women possessed innate culinary skills, just as cats all naturally land on their feet after tumbling through the air.
We ate at a leisurely pace, talking but also just enjoying the silence. Once we were done, I apologized to the kids for the small lunch (we all had one quesadilla each), but I promised them a much larger dinner. They gamely nodded. Once we were done, we put away the dishes and headed out to Skyline Drive. I reminded my charges that we were in deer and bear country; I paid for a one-week pass at the gate (my yearly pass had expired sometime before), and away we went. As we cruised along at the mandated 35 miles per hour, I peppered Sam and Amy with questions, and found out that both of them were of age to drive, but that only Sam (who's the elder sibling) had a learner's permit. As I did with Mike and his family, I drove out to Mile 20, there to visit my scary tree, a terrifying, skeletal thing that stands alone, just off the road, and looks as if it belongs in a horror movie. When we got to the tree, it became obvious that I wasn't the only one creeped out by it: a couple other carfuls of tourists had stopped, and people were taking turns photographing the gnarled timber. Here are two pics of the kids in front of my evil tree:
We turned around at Mile 20, stopping at overlooks along the way, and Sam—to whom I had offered the chance to drive—finally gathered up his courage and asked if he could get behind the wheel. So I let him, despite the fact that he hadn't brought his learner's permit with him. We pulled off at an overlook; Sam got into the driver's seat, wrestled with the seat adjustment, checked his mirrors, and got us under way. I didn't get a picture of Sam driving, but I did snap one of the kids at an overlook, snapping their own pictures of the great Shenandoah Valley:
Sam told me that he wasn't a very good driver, and that he'd almost gotten into an accident once (I assume this happened while an adult was seated next to him). His sister seemed rather nervous that he was the one in charge, but I felt relaxed: little could go wrong on Skyline Drive, with its sparse traffic, single lane in one direction of travel, and low-low speed limit. Sam himself was a bit nervous and timid with the accelerator; he drove us along at about 30, well below the speed limit. I kept telling him to speed up, but he would always fall back to 30. After a few miles, we stopped at an empty overlook and switched seats, with me regaining the wheel. I humorously groused about how short Sam was while I readjusted the seat to accommodate my massive proportions.
Somewhere along the way back downhill, Sam and Amy caught sight of a bear. I completely missed it. Later on, Amy said she'd only caught sight of the bear's big, fat butt. Sam got out of the car and climbed up the forested berm, looking for where the bear had gone, but he was unable to spot it. We drove on. I was glad the kids had seen a bear; I had been afraid that we would have left Skyline Drive without seeing any wildlife whatsoever.
While we drove, it became obvious that both Sam and Amy were so taken with Front Royal and Skyline Drive that they had conceived a desire to move here. This enchantment with the area became, I think, the subtext for the rest of our day. We drove back to my apartment and decided to watch a movie before having dinner. I had suggested this order of events to give the siblings time to digest their lunch before they had to tackle dinner. Ultimately, I think this was a wise choice.
So we watched "Chronicle" on my Mac, which I brought out into the living room, as I often do when Dr. Steve comes over. I had hoped the kids would get into the movie, despite the lack of subtitles. Their spoken English skills are good enough that they're able to catch about 60-70% of the dialogue, although I'm sure they miss all the subtle jokes, the difficult slang, and the not-so-obvious cultural references. "Chronicle" is one of several quirky superhero movies that I really enjoy, and since it's about teens who gain special powers, I thought that my kids might catch, on some level, the film's metaphorical import.
I had promised the kids dinner by 7PM but, as happened when David and Patricia came over on July 4th, I enlisted Sam and Amy's aid in helping me prep the food. Below, you see I've put the kids on salad duty:
Both siblings were timid about slicing things. I had given Amy my mandolin, which she was supposed to use to slice some onions for the salad. She did so, but worked painfully slowly, perhaps worried (wisely) about cutting her fingers on the mandolin's sharp blade. I got Sam to cut up the crispy bacon and green onions; once Amy finished with her onion-slicing, I put her on cheese-shredding duty, and she did a beautiful job of ripping apart a block of Kirkland Bleu with two forks.
I, meanwhile, worked on prepping the warm elements: salmon steak with honey-mustard glaze, and my rather ambitious "Bleufredo" pasta, which contained fettuccine, "Bleufredo" cream sauce, bacon, portobello mushrooms, chicken, shrimp, baby spinach, and green onions. I regret not having prepped any garlic bread, but the kids didn't notice and didn't care. They stared, fascinated, while I made the cream sauce the traditional Italian way, i.e., by putting the sauce ingredients in separately (butter, heavy cream, and bleu cheese), then stirring everything together until the sauce just magically... appeared.*
Once everything was ready and the table was set, I plated the salmon and pasta and served it. As before, the kids were in heaven. The following images speak for themselves:
Amy slaughtered her dish, except for the mushrooms, because as she told me, she hates mushrooms. Sam did his best to master his meal, but in the end he had to stop before he became too overstuffed. I doggy-bagged his portion along with some extra pasta and salmon, and made another doggy-bag for Amy to take home as well. Both kids were full at that point, but I told them to wait a little while and we'd have dessert—my final gift before I'd have to take them back home.
We farted around on my computer a bit. I showed the kids images of tigers swimming underwater, of Batman using a lightsaber to stab a shark, and of a nun punching a shark while a robot looked on. After about thirty minutes had passed, I lumbered back into the kitchen and prepped dessert: Round One was to be Dr. Oetker's chocolate mousse with homemade whipped cream and raspberry sauce on top; Round Two was to be my version of a strawberry shortcake: French-vanilla cake with fresh Costco blackberries, raspberry sauce, and my whipped cream. Behold:
As happened with lunch and dinner, the kids fell silent while they concentrated on their food. Their focus was almost laughably intense, and I had to suppress the urge to giggle girlishly. I've never had such an appreciative audience for my food before—no other guest has ever paid me the high compliment of saying that my cooking almost made them cry. Watching my kids eat with such gusto was truly touching.
All too soon, it was time to drive the teens home. The ride back to Fairfax was largely quiet as the kids absorbed and processed the jjong-party while their stomachs were hard at work digesting. They told me that, come morning, they were off to Niagara Falls—the American side—for a few days. It promised to be a long trip. "After all that you ate today," I joked, "you'll probably have to hit the restrooms about once an hour while you're on the road tomorrow!" Sam and Amy laughed, then thought a bit... then one of them said in an awed voice, "Hey, you're right!"
Sam did something interesting before we left Front Royal for the final drive back to Fairfax: while we were in the third-floor corridor of my building, Sam gently placed his palms on the hallway wall of my apartment and bowed his head as if offering a reverent goodbye. I understood his gesture as a promise that he would return to Front Royal; he had told me that he hoped to move here when he was older. Front Royal has much to offer an athletic kid like Sam: hiking, biking, gyms, tennis courts, canoeing—this region has it all. And both kids enjoyed the relative peace and quiet of my town; I think Front Royal, with all of its quaint Hobbiton charm, has imprinted itself quite firmly in their consciousness.
We rolled into the parking lot of my kids' apartment building. Sam and Amy had very kindly given me a parting gift when I had first met up with them on Sunday morning: a bottle of wine and a $10 Starbucks gift card. Now, on the sidewalk in front of their place, we hugged and said our goodbyes. Amy promised to email me after her family came back from Niagara Falls. We told each other "I'll miss you." And that was it. My drive home was long and silent, but I was happy the day had gone so well, and had furnished me with so many wonderful memories. Amy and Sam are good kids; if I ever become a parent, I hope to have kids who are just as studious, well-behaved, good-humored, and curious about the world as they are.
*Iron Chef Mario Batali, that culinary wizard, did a masterful version of this during one competition. That moment has now been enshrined as one of the "Ten Greatest Moments" in Iron Chef history. In that contest, Batali made a cream sauce by setting some grappa on fire inside a crater dug into a giant wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano.