Korean Quickie – My Home Until I’m Home
I live in South Korea. It’s my home, but it’s not my home. This is a fictionalized true story of me coming to some resolution about the contradiction. It happened about two weeks ago and I hope it’s as fun to read as it was to write. If it is please use the networking tools below. Thank you.
My summer vacation was fun enough. I went to a beach; I drank apple martinis; I spent time writing; I slept late; I got really physical with a Korean woman in a damn sauna of a place called Club Maktum down in Busan on a night where I was a good wing man to a sexually frustrated friend, but slept alone. It was fun enough, but it wasn’t what I planned.
I was supposed to go to New York City where I would kiss my mommy, and hopefully get really physical with a Jamaican woman.
The summer vacation I planned was a trip back to a country that I dislike, but feel at home in nonetheless. That didn’t happen, and at the end of my two weeks off I had to work – like almost everyone else in the world.
To kick off a new semester my department goes out for a group dinner. The discussion on where to go, as well as what the curriculum for the next semester will be, happens in the English department office at the beginning of each term. During this meeting no English is spoken, though I’m required to come.
For the meeting this semester I stood to the right of our department head, leaned against a desk, and daydreamed. To my right was Joy, my crush. She’s beautiful, speaks close to fluent English, and I’m almost sure she likes me. From the casual conversations we’ve had, however, I can tell that if we dated I wouldn’t be comfortable being myself, so I leave it alone and keep to stealing glances and finding excuses to start a conversation so I can look into her eyes.
“I was supposed to go to New York City where I would kiss my mommy, and hopefully get really physical with a Jamaican woman.”
Joy, the Korean words that I didn’t understand, and the summer that I didn’t plan all began to weigh down on me like an invisible steel sweater while I looked down at my shoes, imagining myself somewhere else. As the department head, Mr. Seo, conducted the meeting I asked Joy, “What are they talking about now?”
“They are deciding where to go. I think we’ll be going to a seafood buffet.”
We drove in groups and within fifteen minutes fifteen English teachers were in the waiting room of a restaurant named “C food.” I had missed breakfast, and the grumbles from my stomach were audible. The sight of the buffet display began to make my guts cry and I looked side to side to see if anybody noticed. After making sure I hadn’t embarrassed myself, I grabbed a plate and piled some salmon slices on it.
For the next two hours we talked and joked about nothing important. They showered me with smiles and comments concerning my eating habits. “You like Korean food? Most foreigners don’t like it. It doesn’t sit well in their stomach.” “I have no problems with it. I eat all foods.” They seemed to like that response.
I found out that Mr. Yang has a first name that is an M sound away from being the Korean word for animal. He said, “I kind of hate my name.” I laughed. “When I was in school the kids would sometimes make fun of me and call me animal or beast or something like that.” I laughed even harder. “Yeah! Also, my family name means sheep, so in both ways my name means animal. Some of the students, when they want to joke with me call me animal or something.” After laughing some more I told him I would put that in a story. Then I told him about the story I already wrote that has a main character named after him.
I found out that another teacher, a Mr. Kim, has the nickname penguin. A nearby teacher tells me this and Mr. Kim stood still to allow us both to look at him. My eyes opened wide as I saw what I hadn’t before. I said, “Yes! He does look like a penguin!” We all laugh. “You look like a penguin Mr. Kim.” Used to it, he said, “I know.”
“Penguin teacher” showed us a picture of his daughter. She’s a round ball of cuteness that looks like her father. Those who looked at the photo ohhhed and awwwed, then laughed at the resemblance.
I tell Joy I want an animal nickname. What animal do I look like? She looks at me with a slight smile for a silent second or two and says she can’t think of anything. Says she’ll get back to me. She asks what animal she is. I look at her face and smile with restrained awe. I use the opportunity to take in all her features. I look at her large, almond shaped eyes, her full lips, her wide un-Korean nose. I had an excuse to stare, and I took it. After a few moments I tell her she looks like a cat. She doesn’t seem to like that too much, so I tell her that cats are beautiful, just like her.
On my fifth plate I started feeling a lot better than I did earlier that day. I stopped eating and sat in the moment. Blaming the endorphins being released by my food filled body I went back to stuffing my face with sliced pineapples until I noticed another group coming in. As is typical with many Koreans, some of them sported t-shirts with strange and/or nonsensical English phrases. I laughed at two of them and noticed a third – a little boy with a plate full of kimchi and beef. His shirt read, “We are all connected.”
Not a big believer in coincidence I took no small notice of it. I looked around the table, and realized (or rather remembered) it was right. Mr. Seo asked, “Alex, are you full?”
“Not yet. I’ve still got room for more.”
*Image Courtesy Raoul Dyssell