Most people live not for the routine itself, but for the small interruptions that break the monotony of the routine. The coffee corner hidden between a cheap partition and an antiquated workhorse copy machine serves as a morning beacon of hope for our company’s foreign staff, a sort of refuge. We congregate and exchange fragmented bits of information as the hydraulic pump inside the Italian espresso machine wakes up and pumps water through the heater coils in a loop until it reaches the correct espresso temperature. Nobody is truly awake yet. We need stimulation. It is during this time that the foreign staff talk serious business.
“English muffin with butter, yogurt” says one waegook colleague. “Not bad” mutters someone else. “Scrambled eggs, one slice of toast, and a black coffee” I say. More nods of approval. “Seaweed soup, leftover fish cake, rice, something red, and something green that looked like grass.” says editor Mike, newly married to a Korean wife with whom he communicates solely in Korean. Looks of sympathy from the group, but Mike grins. He’s satisfied with living an entirely local lifestyle, eating and drinking as the locals do. Good for him. The steel Italian giant produces it’s first shot of espresso. “A cold croissant and a carton of milk” says the company Frenchman. Lee, the gyopo from the Sales Department downs the espresso shot. “C’mon Smith, spit it out. What did you have for breakfast today?” Smith, also an editor, also married to a Korean, hesitates before answering. I see two other waegook colleagues literally rubbing their hands together and licking their chops with anticipation. “Two eggs Benedict with smoked ham. A side of Canadian bacon. One home-made waffle with Crown maple syrup, powdered sugar and blue berries. Small dish of Greek yogurt with diced nuts and slices of banana and strawberry. One circular hashbrown, handmade. A glass of Thai orange juice, and a milk.”
“Fuck off Smith!” Lee from sales crushes his paper coffee cup and slams it into the trash can. Cries of jealousy and injustice erupt from the circle as the machine continues to whir, sputter and grind. Smith’s Korean wife is a professional chef, previously employed with some of the best hotels in Europe and Singapore and now five months pregnant with nobody to cook for but Smith. His morning breakfast stories are almost pornographic fantasies to those of us who have been on the peninsula for years, and are the primary reason we all gather around the espresso machine at the same time each morning while the Korean staff stare with suspicion. Are they plotting against us? Engaging in vulgar, sexist western male gossip? Plotting to undermine the big boss?
As Smith describes a breakfast dish, desperate long-term expat colleagues will prod him for details. “What did she do next, Smith? Did she use cheese? Like, real cheese?” Or “What did the omelet look like Smith? Give me details, I want details!“, all while licking their chops and rubbing their hands together like the hungry wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon. I have to wonder about some of these guys’ lives. Has it really been that long since they saw a proper omelet or a home-made waffle? I’ll admit that sometimes as I am driving to work or taking the subway, I actually wonder what Smith’s wife cooked for breakfast that day. Was it something spectacular? How does it compare to what I ate? How was the dish laid out and where did she get all of the ingredients? Though I have never met Smith’s wife, I sometimes actually dream of Smith’s wife’s cooking as I commute to work. A man’s breakfast can largely determine how the pre-lunch bit of his day will unfold. People who eat what Smith eats for breakfast can’t possibly feel depressed on Monday mornings. If Smith were flat broke, he’d probably still be happy. Even Lee, the Korean-American married to an American girl does not eat this well, Cornflakes being his primary morning staple.
I used to ask my Korean colleagues what they ate for breakfast. They’d always look at me like I was a moron for asking such a stupid question. I later came to realize that their answer would either be (A) seaweed soup and rice, or (B) nothing. Indeed, it was stupid to ask them the same question every day and expect to get a different answer. Perhaps I want hoping they’d surprise me. I get the feeling that some men have been eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch for years or possibly decades. There is no breakfast culture in Korea, as you might expect from a place where people prefer to photograph food to actually sitting down and savoring it. For the unemployed, there is a kind of faux-brunch Itaewon ‘culture’, but it’s just not the same. The typical Korean breakfast is cheap, plain and simple, mostly consisting of whatever side dishes the family didn’t eat the previous night. A man could potentially eat for breakfast exactly what he ate for dinner the previous night. Excellent for cost-cutting, but painfully boring to think about.
The espresso machine reaches steady operating temperature and the smell of coffee permeates the office. I think the espresso machine cost more than the copy machine sitting next to it, but good coffee, like a good breakfast, is essential. Once you start skipping breakfast and drinking Maxim instant coffee, there’s no turning back. There are those who refuse to compromise when it comes to certain things, and there are those who drink Maxim coffee and smoke the cheapest cigarettes. Then there are those like Smith, who smile because they know they’ve got a good thing and won’t ever let it go.