The Privilege of Pretending

It was my first time ever alone in a Korean grocery store.  I have never been nervous to go to a grocery store before that day.  Trembling hands because you’re going shopping?  But having instant noodles two days in a row is a powerful motivator.

I wanted cheese. And eggs.  Bread, meat, peanut butter.  Milk.  Buying milk was as straightforward as picking my favorite color because the names aren’t so easy like 1%, 2%.  Milk has names that I didn’t know how to decipher.  Besides my nervousness made me feel like if I stood in front of the milk too long someone would notice and try to help me and then I would lose the facade of calm that I’d managed to construct.  So I picked green.  Which may or may not be whole milk depending on the brand.

When it came to the fresh produce, I selected the best looking apples and bagged them all by myself!  It was a small victory.  Until I got to the cashier.

Halfway through my haul, she came to the apples.  She looked at me, and back at the apples.  And at me.  I could see her making the decision of how to handle this situation.  And I knew with dread what the situation was.

I should have weighed my fresh produce and gotten a sticker.  I knew this because someone had taken me to a grocery store and taught me how to shop.  I had grocery store lessons and I still couldn’t do it right.

The cashier was speaking to me and pointing back to the produce section and holding out the bag of apples.  My hands and feet were frozen.  It probably looked like I didn’t understand- and that was to my advantage- but I did understand.  I just pretended not to.  I couldn’t force my body to respond.  I was embarrassed for forgetting the sticker.  But even worse, I didn’t know how to get a sticker anyway, so me taking the apples back to the produce section would do no good!  So I tried to communicate that I didn’t want the apples any more and to just put them aside, the sooner to be done and gone from this forsaken food buying place.

It’s the only time I have pretended not to understand what was happening.

I realize this is a privilege I have.  I can use it to my advantage.  But I don’t want to be that foreigner.  I’m already the foreigner that causes cashiers to switch to a different till after I get in line at McDonald’s.  I’m already the foreigner that giddy restaurant boys greet with a “hello” followed by a giggle of nervousness.  I don’t want to be the asshole that takes advantage of their insecurity.

Thankfully, my grocery store cashier wasn’t the insecure type.  She realized that holding the apples out to me and pointing wasn’t causing me to jump into motion.  I’m sure this moment didn’t last as long as it felt, but the cashier ended it by deciding that I was incompetent (she wasn’t wrong) and she would have to do it herself.  She left her till and got the weight sticker herself!  Meanwhile me thinking this would be a good time to run away.

I’m glad my experience with pretending was embarrassing and not empowering.  I’m glad it wasn’t like “oh, you don’t have the money for a bus ride?  That’s okay, ride for free” kind of situation where I came out with a benefit.  I’m glad I realized that I have the privilege of scaring people based on my appearance.  (It’s actually kind of nice, since everywhere else I blend in with the middle school tour group because of my size- but deep down I now they’re only worried about my blonde hair and my height still gives me no street cred)

Being aware of my privilege (or unprivelege as it were) allows me to compensate. I try to make people at ease.  To say hello in their language after they speak mine.  To smile at the McDonald’s cashiers when they see me enter, and there’s a silent watching to see which line I’m gonna pick.

To take my stupid apples and DO something.


New Friends

Last year, I was waiting at the bus stop as I always did on Wednesdays.  I left work right away to go stand at the bus stop, waiting for my bus to go to Seoul.  I was a regular attendee of a weekly card playing club.

So there I was, standing at the bus stop, when two cute, albeit drunk, older gentlemen start to walk by. They were talking to each other, and supporting each other as they walked, so I heard one of them suggest they sit on the bus stop bench. They continued their conversation. Another friend walked up, and suddenly they were more aware of their surroundings. One of them spotted me, just enjoying my caramel popcorn as I waited for my bus. He yells loudly, probably cause he’s drunk, “Hey! Sit down!” I detected what seemed to be some kind of English accent, or maybe it was just the alcohol. Hard to tell. Anyways, after he addressed me with his order, I sat down, and he seemed to forget about me. But his friend that had just walked up did not forget. He asked, “Where are you from?” This question I get a lot, and I don’t mind it. It’s when they assume I’m Russian that it bothers me. That would be a Korean stereotype that Russian girls are for hire.  I answered in Korean, and he lit up the neighborhood with his squeal of glee, announcing to his friends that the foreigner can speak Korean well. Why did I answer in Korean? Because if you got that question as often as I do, you could answer it natively too. But also cause I was already having fun with these guys. That’s when all three of the gentlemen try to practice their English at once, but the only thing I can understand is “Is that popcorn you’re eating?” So I offered it up. Only one guy went for it. The others were too busy interrogating- “How old are you?” “What are you doing in Korea?” “Waaah, you’re a teenager!” “You’re a teacher? Amazing.” With the arrival of their last companion, the four guys set out, but the friend that initially made conversation stopped and hesitated. He stuck out his hand to shake mine, looked me in the eye as a grandfather would, with a slight pause for seriousness, and said “I was a Captain.” Only then, is he ready to catch up to his friends. They helped one another stay upright as the walked away, me smiling and chuckling at the memories they have just made for me.  The only other person at the bus stop, a stylish middle-aged woman, was also smiling.

The Chicken Dance


I need to buy a chicken.  2 chickens.  As in I have 7 people coming for dinner in 3 hours kind of need to buy a chicken.

I’m at the grocery store.  A good place to be, considering my need, but I’m  experiencing an all too often occurrence- playing hide and seek with the item on my list.

I find the meat section, and narrow it down to the poultry.  I see really little birds.  They probably are the culprits responsible for those miniature brown speckled eggs for sale in the dairy section.  Nowhere do they say chicken in any language I can read, so I move on.

Ducks.  At least I think they are.  Whole ducks.  I have even less knowledge about how to cook duck than my scant knowledge of roasting salt and pepper chicken.

The little birds and the ducks were whole, and I’m looking for a whole chicken.  And whole chickens aren’t there.

So in my experience with grocery hide and seek, I know it’s entirely possible that chickens are in a different section.  Hello, peanut butter between the cereal and canned corn.

I take a sweep through the beef, pork, and seafood.  and more seafood.  What is that thing in the tank, exactly?  How can it even swim, it looks like poop!?  Definitely not chicken.

I entered the store on a run, and I’m still feeling that urgency of guests arriving later, so I decide to just ask someone.  The sample lady, she’ll do just fine.  The Korean conversation went like this:

Me: Hello.

Sample Lady: Hello, eat some delicious dumpling!  You can buy it right here, only 13,000.

Me: No thanks, I’m okay.  Excuse me, where’s the chicken?

Sample Lady: *blank stare*

Me: Chicken?

Sample Lady: Oh, you’re so pretty!

Me: *sigh*

Time to finish this.  Game of charades in order.  Put hands in armpits, flap imaginary wings, and *again* say word for chicken.

Sample Lady: *loud laughter* Oh, chicken!  Over here.  *Leads the way to poultry section I originally checked out.  Points at chicken in strange shapes.  How can she tell that even used to be a bird?*

Me: Thank you!

Sample Lady: *Loud laughter and muttering chicken to herself as she half flaps her own imaginary wings on her way back to the sample cart.*

I admit, the spelling of the words for chicken and rice cake are only one letter different- a letter which I often mispronounce.  But I’ve been practicing lately, saying chicken and rice cake to myself in the shower.  I can’t be sure it’s my pronunciation at fault or the fact that I scare service workers with questions.  That is, until I start doing the chicken dance.

Next time I’m in the grocery store, please don’t remember me, Sample Lady.  But if you do, please say hi and allow me to do the chicken dance with you as we laugh together.  Who knows?  Now that we’ve broken the ice, you may become my go-to secret weapon for questions.


The Bus Man

I have an hour and a half commute from my home to work.  I often entertain myself with fiction novels, studying, smartphone games, etc.  And sometimes, my commute entertains me in return.

I’m on my way home from work- taking a local bus to the subway station.  There are no seats left on the bus, so I stand.  We pull up to a stop when an old man stands up and starts asking the person next to him: Is this Yonsei University?  People hardly ever talk on the bus at rush hour now that there are smart phones and headphones, so it’s silent- this means I can understand him clearly even though he’s speaking Korean.  In return, the person stares at him blankly.  By this time, the bus has stopped and others are getting off.  The old man begins to ask others around him.  Is this Yonsei University?  No one is answering, but people are beginning to stare.  What is wrong with my fellow commuters?  The old man is moving toward the door to get off, but the bus driver is about to close the door.

I’m standing right next to the door and I make my move.  I touch him on the arm to stop his progress out the door.  This isn’t Yonsei, I tell the man.  In perfect Korean.  Granted, this sentence structure is easy.  He looks at me blankly at first and I’m afraid he sees only my blonde hair instead of hearing my words.  But after a pause he repeats them.  It’s not Yonsei?  Yes, I say.  Because in Korean you agree with negative statements that are true.  Backward from English, but I’m nailing this public Korean conversation.

Now in the office, we often make plans for next week.  What time is class next week? What day next week?  What’s your plan next week?  And because we say next week so often, we’ve fallen into the habit of saying it in Korean.  다음 주에 뭐할거예요?  다음 주, 다음 주, 다음 주.  Next week next week next week.

So after the old man confirms that it’s not, in fact, Yonsei, and since I’m winning at this game so far, I continue.  다음… 다음 주에 연세 입니다.  I didn’t even recognize my mistake.  All I knew is that I had gotten through to him because he nodded, albeit with a little smile on his face.  My first thought was my accent is off, or he’s finding it funny that the foreigner answered him after asking all his fellow Koreans for directions.  The bus was hurrying on to it’s next stop, Yonsei University, where the man once again turned to me with that cute little smile, and said thank you before leaving.

It wasn’t until I was on the subway that I realized my mistake.  Yonsei is next week.  Next week is Yonsei.  Yonsei is in next week.  Yes, I stuttered on the word next, and that’s why my tongue went with what was comfortable.  Next week.  Instead of the next stop.  But because I stuttered on the word next, I think that’s why he understood me.

Hey.  At least I know he’s the only one laughing at my mistake, because no one else was listening.  At least I stopped him getting off the bus at the wrong place.

The Great Tweezer Adventure

A few months ago, I lost my tweezers. Now if I just used tweezers for first aid like pulling splinters out of my flesh, I would have continued on with life. Thankfully, many Korean women think full eyebrows are better, and I’ve often seen them drawing them on thicker. But alas, losing my tweezers meant losing control over my sporadic chin hairs. I searched my tiny apartment for awhile. After all, I knew I hadn’t taken them outside! They were there somewhere, which somehow made the situation even more desperate.
I went to the local emart prepared to buy tweezers, but totally unprepared for finding them. I began wandering around the toiletries area. Next to the razors? Toothbrushes? Lotion? What is the baby shampoo doing next to the family planning stuff? Ooohhh…
I tried not to make eye contact with any of the employees. I’d experienced aggressive saleswomen at this store before, and my mission to pull hairs out of places where some Asian men don’t even grow hair was something I didn’t really want help with. But as I was turning the corner from Shampoo to see what was on the other side, I ran smack into a smiling woman with the yellow and gray emart vest on. Her eye level was also my eye level, so naturally our gaze connected and I knew I was in trouble. She offered me help. And she never stopped smiling.
At first, I tried to think if I knew the Korean word for tweezers. I didn’t. And I stood there opening and closing my mouth like a fish as I explored the literary possibilities floating through my brain. Banishing the idea of using her native language, I began to act out what I needed to communicate to the saleswoman. Blessed with long arm hairs, I used them as an example. I took my first finger and thumb, and put them together to look like tweezers. Then I mimed pulling those blessings out of my arm. Her smiling face showed no recognition. So I moved to my chin. In my desperation to get my point across, my brain had thrown all possibilities of embarrassment out of the equation. The saleswoman’s smile was starting to slide off like a cartoon transition moment, and I began to panic. Since she was so nice and friendly I really didn’t want her to feel like she’d failed. And I didn’t want her to involve any more salesfriends to try to understand me. So I moved my tweezer hand to my eyebrows. Finally, a little light came on in the back of her eyes, and she began excitedly speaking words I wasn’t sure of, but assumed she was asking me if I was looking for tweezers? Yes, I said blindly, as I often do when I only understand a few words. She started off faster than any person my height should be able to walk, and I ran after her. I never would have found tweezers on my own since she led me to a countertop turntable at one of the specialized makeup counters. Definitely not my comfortable shopping area. But there they were, $4 tweezers. I snatched them from her hand, made a little head nod and said thank you, and headed for the checkout, even though I hadn’t yet visited the grocery department. I consoled myself with my empty fridge but forgave myself since I’d seen enough shopping stress already that day. A week later my old tweezers resurfaced exactly where they should have been all along.