I’m 13, on a long extended vacation with my family: mom, dad, and two brothers.  I’m the middle child which means I can usually call a good seat in the family minivan, which is important when you’re on a road trip for 30 days.  We drive everywhere because flying 5 people up and down the east coast is expensive.  We get lost in every major city.  We read hundreds of books and listen to thousands of songs.  We compromise because nobody wants to fight in the car, but there are some long days.  We don’t stop at every historic site but we hit all the historic battlegrounds and rest areas.  We eat one-pot meals made in our hotel rooms, in front of 300 cable tv channels.   Sandwiches out of the car.  Sometimes, we meet some of our relatives for the first time we- the kids- can remember, and turn their homes into our base of operations to see several places over the course of a few days.  For the whole month of October, we make our way from Montana to Vermont to Virginia and back home again.

Midway through this adventure, we hit Boston, a treasure trove of Independence era sites, home of the Freedom trail. We see the liberty bell, Independence Hall, Paul Revere’s house, Betsy Ross’s house, a church who’s history I can’t remember, and an old ship named “Ol’ Ironsides” left over from the War of 1812, and many regular city streets.  It was in one of the modern, non-famous areas where my revelation took place.

Mom said everyone could tell we were tourists by the way we kept looking up at everything.  She noticed that locals kept their eyes front, never looking up, just getting where they’re going.  Montana children are not used to skyscrapers of course, especially a whole bunch of them in one place, and we couldn’t help but stare up to try and see the tops.  Mom said it in a way to get us to move along and pay attention to where we were walking, but not as a means to scold our curiosity.

But then I had to go and say, “I’m going to live in a big city some day.”  My words, exactly.  If I went back to Boston today, I could even find the exact building I was staring up at, if it’s still there.  I loved it.  The energy of people speed-walking to work, the way nobody paid attention to anyone else, and the quickness of transactions.  The infinite height of buildings and amount of people seemed like equally limitess opportunities.   I took the city in with excitement while my mom took it in and converted the energy to anxiety, tension, and stress.  Her response was “Yeah, right.  You’d hate it.”

To be fair, we also took in our first case of road rage witnessed in person that day.  From our vantage point in another lane, we saw a man yelling out his car window (fingers, er finger waving), but by the time we drove away, one man was making motions to get out of his car.  I thought that was all very exciting and new too, so that shows my perspective was perhaps a little skewed.  Over the years, I forgot the road rage and the exchange with my mother.  

10 years later, on an airplane across the pacific with two new friends, almost delirious from lack of sleep caused by 30 hours of traveling, that memory replayed in my mind like a reel of slides.  I laughed out loud.  Our airplane touched down in Seoul and I thought I was about to prove my mother wrong.  But would I prove myself wrong instead?  Would I like it?  

After 4 1/2 years of metropolis life, I will finally have visitors.  You see, my family knows they would hate to live here, but my brother and none other than my supportive mother, are coming.  Perhaps I can look back on that trip long ago- and many others to go camping, visit relatives, and travel to and from college- and lay the blame for my travel bug.  Perhaps it comes from my mom, who is braver than she knows.

I wonder, does she remember that moment in Boston?  On the Freedom Trail?  Maybe she won’t find her freedom while she’s here, but it’s okay.  I’ve found mine.


The Cemetery Guard

“I have 5 hours between the end of my lesson and the start of that office party that I don’t really want to go to, but should.  If I go home, I know I’ll never go to the party.  I guess I’ll go to that new National Hangul Museum!”

I have pretty good ideas when I’m reasoning with myself.  Except I never made it to the Hangul Museum.

“Today is a beautiful day.  Suppose I just get off one subway stop early, and spend a few minutes by the Han River?  What stop is this anyway, National Cemetery?”

By then I was following the signs leading away from the river, towards a brick wall that I couldn’t see anything behind, hoping that it was in fact the cemetery and I wasn’t already lost.  I was encouraged by a traffic sign, posted to tell motorists to be silent, since they were driving by a somber place.  I was grateful for the sign to help me find my way, but struck by the noise of quickly approaching rush-hour traffic.  A taxi satirically laid on his horn right in front of the sign, as if exaggerating his willful disobedience.

I took a picture of the pagoda-covered information at the front, and began using this  cemetery map photo by viewing it on my tiny phone screen.  iPhone 5.  I see why the 6’s got bigger.

I walked slowly, those 5 hours to kill looming over my head.  As there were no cars, I walked in the middle of the road.  I cleared the initial entry drive and got my first good view of anything cemetery-like… and realized my feet had stopped moving… and I had stopped breathing… and I had stopped hearing… Thank goodness for that wall blocking out the taxi horns.


The orderly rows of stones and their shadows, alternated with pink and white flowers, went on for literally as far as I could see.

I suddenly remembered being a very small child, seeing one of the Great Lakes for the first time, and not being able to see the end.  That feeling of awe mixed with a little bit of terror.  In the famous words of David After Dentist- Is this going to be forever?

My feet started moving again.  Maybe it was the car coming and me realizing I was still in the middle of the street that got me going.

I slowly continued down the road.  I began to feel self-concious.  I was dressed pretty professionally, because of my lesson and the upcoming office party.  Black pants, red and black frilly shirt.  I guess no one would think I was dressed disrespectfully.  OH NO.  What if they think I’m here for a funeral!  I began to seek out paths where I was alone.

IMG_3592Eventually, after climbing the mountain of stairs in the center and getting a view of the river, I made it within sight of the far end of the cemetery.  Bathroom!  Yay.  It had been an hour since I left the subway station.

I came out of the bathroom, determined to walk to the very end, instead of just seeing it.  There were a few people walking around, enjoying the silence.  I think a few of them were just there to exercise in a peaceful place that wasn’t crowded.

But a voice broke into the silence.  It was a cemetery guard, saying 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo, hello) to the person in front of me.  We both continued walking, and soon it was time to say 안녕하세요 to me.  Since people are sometimes shy with me, I like to encourage people who I already know to be friendly.  So I said it first.  “안녕하세요,” with a slight head nod that I don’t even think about doing anymore.  He greeted me also, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see him turning around as I passed.  Teacher!  He called me.  Wait a minute!  선생님!  잠시만요!

I knew he was talking to me (foreigner and teacher are my other names) so I paused a second for him to catch up, and he began to ask the usual where are you from how old are you are you a teacher questions.  I fielded all these in Korean, and so he decided to try some harder material.  Follow me, follow me, he said, trying out his first English.  He led me over to a box, and pulled out a brochure.  It was a cemetery guide, with a large map, and information about the famous people buried there.  Namely 3 past presidents and their wives.  Then, he half pulled/ half pushed me to the start of the path up the hill to see my first presidential grave.

At the top, I opened the flier, and made sure to read about this president and first lady, hidden under a giant stone box that had grass growing on top.  I didn’t take a picture because there was another guard there, and I was still a bit self-concious about being respectful.  Park Chung-Hee and Yuk Young-Soo, parents of current president Park Geun-Hye.

I spent what I thought was a respectful amount of time looking at the grass, and as I turned around, I saw my little guard friend hurrying up the path.  I should wait, I thought.  Sure enough, he wanted to tell me all about Korea’s short-term dictator err i mean, 5th to 9th President, as the brochure stated. (He was president from 1963-1979, I guess they counted it as 4 terms.) Politics aside, I think the guard was just proud of his job and the importance of the person he guarded.  He walked me back down the hill, chatting the whole time, putting sentences together with both English and Korean words.  “Are you married?”  He wanted to know.  When he found out that I was dating a Korean, he wanted to know where my boyfriend was!  Come back with your boyfriend in the fall, he said.  The trees are beautiful.

He paused his constant jabber, and I initiated my first sentence since he started my interview.  I said, “Here is the middle of the city, but so quiet.  I like it.”  Low level Korean.  🙂 He looked at me, and said, in English, “I saw you first time, good feeling.  I have gooooood feeling.”  He repeated himself in Korean, to make sure I had understood.  He used the words 눈치 (noon chi) and 분위기(boon ee gi).  눈치 is difficult to translate exactly, but in this situation I think we could call it a 6th sense.  분위기 is feeling from the atmosphere, so he had a good 6th sense from the atmosphere that I was a good person.  All I could do was smile, give a half-bow, and say thank you.  What is the protocol for when the atmosphere is giving out compliments?

At the bottom of the hill, my guide pointed me in the direction of the next president, so I would be sure not to miss it.  I saw him eyeing a group of walkers, and when they paused, gazing up in the direction of the grave, he beelined over to make his sale to the next customers.   How great to be so proud of something, so good at your job!

It was at this point in my adventure that my office party got cancelled, but I wasn’t done yet.  I saw the other two presidents, Rhee Syng-Man, (leader of the independence campaign against Japan and 1st President), his wife, Austrian Franziska Donner, and Kim Dae-Jung (15th President, long time National Assembly seat holder, and Nobel Peace Prize winner).  Their guards were also friendly and made sure I knew where I was going, but not quite as jovial as my first friend.

I was really glad for his care.  I wouldn’t have gotten a map, or information about the presidents buried there.  I knew there were presidential graves, but with my tiny map I was having trouble finding them.  His smile and his insistence to talk with me made me feel less like a face in the crowd. Someone who didn’t give up when my words weren’t in perfect order.  Someone who was generous with his time, his knowledge, and his kind soul.

고맙습니다, 국립서울현충원 경비 아저씨.

To return to the subway station, I had to walk past all the individual graves once more.  As I later researched, the cemetery reached capacity in the early 1970’s.  The cemetery was reserved for veterans, including those who fought the Japanese before the Korean War.  The Korean War, of course, though there is also the United Nations Cemetery in Busan- the only UN maintained cemetery in the world- where there are 2,300 graves, specifically from the Korean War, since Busan was the only city not captured by the North.  In Seoul’s National Cemetery, there are also some graves from conflicts elsewhere, including the Vietnam War.  Monuments also abound, remembering anyone from unidentified and missing soliders to artillerymen and military officers.

As I was walking, I saw some fresh flowers of different colors.  Not the standard white and pink.  These new colors disrupted the pattern, but I was glad to see them.  Chuseok, the major Korean holiday set to give thanks to your ancestors, was a few short months ago.  On this day, traditions include visiting graves, cleaning them, leaving flowers.  I thought about the soldiers who don’t have anybody.  Maybe their families ended up in the North, or maybe their families didn’t make it.

War is always a terrible thing.  If you’re like me and haven’t lived through a major war, visit the past by going to the cemetery and stretching your memory beyond your birth.

I don’t think they see a lot of foreigners at the cemetery, but it’s a great place to hear the quiet in the middle of Seoul.  I think I’ll be returning soon with my boyfriend to check out the fall colors!  And if you go, look up my friend, who is one of two guards next to Park Chung-Hee’s grave, and ask him for some information.  He’s good at it.

Take subway line 9 to DongJak (동작), exit #2 or #4.  It’s free, and open from 6:00-6:00.  Look for special events on Memorial Day, June 6th, or volunteer to do cleanup work in the summer.

Find out more: National Tourism Organization

Taste Test Tuesday – Homemade Kimbap 손 김밥

This last Saturday was a kitchen explosion.  When you’re making something that has 11+ ingredients that need to be kept separate before you roll them together, that happens.

Kimbap (say it like Kim is bopping you on the head- Kim bop) is one of my favorite foods.  Sometimes spelled gimbap, it is Korea’s “California roll”.  When I was in college, our dining service got a young, straight outta graduate school, extremely handsome and in-shape director, who was the brunt of many “he’s yummier than the food” jokes.  But the jokes stopped when the food took a turn for the better.  More vegetarian options- when you’re eating in the college dining room, that just screams healthy.  More of what students liked- my favorite gyro became a weekly instead of a monthly.  And my point of this whole story, the handsome director brought sushi to rural Iowa.  Well, they called it sushi, but it was really just California roll.  Basically avocado rolled up in rice and seaweed.  But I’d never laid eyes on sushi or California rolls before then, so I ate it in order to encourage the food service to continue improving.  They had a long way to go.

Thank God I’ve gotten myself some culture since then, and can tell you the difference between sushi, California rolls, and kimbap.  Minus the fake one (I’m looking at you California) I eat the other two regularly.

In fact, the lady at my apartment complex’s Kimbap Heaven (김밥 천국, a local eat quick for cheap place), knows my usual.  Actually, it’s a Kimbap Country but my first kimbap store was a Kimbap Heaven and now I call them all that.  There must be as many Kimbap stores as fast food chains in the good old USA.  My regular is one roll of tuna Kimbap and one roll of regular, for ₩4500, about $4.50.  I used to stop by the 김밥 나라 every Friday, but now I’ve made it myself.  With a little help.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was surprisingly easy and pretty yummy.

It cost me about ₩9000 to make, but I bought enough ingredients to make about 4x what I usually buy.  After running around in the grocery store for 15 minutes, my boyfriend stumbled upon a kimbap kit- and then we had to run around the store putting other stuff back.  Next time we’ll know.

Here’s what we did:

First, cook rice.  Then beat two eggs well, and fry them completely flat and as thin as you can.  Use oil to help accomplish this.  Then chop the egg, cucumber, carrot, imitation crab, and pressed ham in long, thin strips.  About 8 inches long.  Since we bought the kit, we had our daikon radish and burdock root already prepared for us.  You’ll also need sesame leaves but don’t cut those.  Fry the carrot a touch so it isn’t so crunchy.  If you want my favorite tuna kimbap, premix the tuna with mayo.

By then, the rice should be done.  You can stir in some sesame oil, sesame seeds, and salt until it’s seasoned to your taste.  I like sesame a lot, so I’d put enough oil in to just barely take the white color away from the rice.  My boyfriend has a steadier hand so he did this step.

Then, lay a piece of seaweed wrap specially made for kimbap on a wooden rolling mat, and spread a thin layer of rice over half.  Lay sesame leaves on top, and pile one piece of everything inside the leaves.  I accidentally cut the leaves in my chopping frenzy, but I think this is technically the way to do it.  Especially since you don’t want the mayo from the tuna mixing with the rice.  Then just roll and squeeze, using the mat to help you.  Try to get the rice to surround the goodies inside.  As you can tell, we did a lousy job of that, but we ate it immediately so it didn’t matter too much.  Next week for our picnic, we’ll have to be much better!

Here’s a few pictures from our experience!

You could also put some ground beef seasoned with garlic for sogogi kimbap, or some kimchi, some cheese, or hot peppers.  Now that I know the basics, I’m going to experiment!  But first, let me wash almost every dish in my house that we dirtied (how?) while cooking.

Also, Kimbap Heaven doesn’t need to worry.  Kimbap is a convenience food and I won’t be spending 2 hours shopping for it and cooking it all the time when I could be buying it in 3 minutes.

Prepared Ingredients

Let’s get ready to roollllllllllllll!

Taste Test Tuesday – Apple Drinking Yoghurt (사과 드링킹 요구르트)

I thought it was apple flavored milk.  It was in the milk section of the convenience store, right next to coffee, chocolate, strawberry, and watermelon.  Hey, if they have watermelon milk, why not apple?  I’m still working up the courage to buy the watermelon though, because it comes in a bottle and not a carton.  What if I get stuck with a whole bottle of disgusting milk?  Watermelon is not an easily camouflaged flavor, and neither is the Pepto-Bismol pink color.  But curiosity is not just a killer of cats.

So now I’ve bought the apple milk and on closer inspection at home, I realize it is not, in fact, milk.  It’s yoghurt.  I was looking for something different to try anyway.  Mission over accomplished.  

푸르밀’s Apple drinking yoghurt looks like off-white milk.  At 7% apple juice, it’s sweet, with the sour yoghurt flavor also present.  It’s kind of the consistency of milk, but with a different texture.  Slightly slimier, but not in a terrible way.  Just youghurty sliminess.  

It’s pretty good just drinking it, which was how I intended to drink the milk.  I wish I had a blender because I think it would be delicious in a milkshake or smoothie.  It would probably be good on cereal as well but I haven’t eaten that in years.  Maybe it’s time to buy some Cheerios.  
So basically it’s milk with the health benefits of yoghurt.  Delicious and nutritious.  


The bank that gives

I didn’t have to go to the bank, but everyone was doing it- my friends, I mean.  I could choose to wait outside in the hot and humid Seoul summer, or go inside.  Banks have such good air conditioning that I almost need a jacket inside.  But I ran out of deodorant a few weeks ago, and it’s not really a big item to stock in stores around here.  Meaning I should travel halfway across town and spend $8 for that- and I haven’t been able to bring myself to, since I’m pretty sure I only stink a little.  So I went inside.  

One of the only places I ever see guns in Korea is at the bank.  There is always a security guard in the lobby, but he really acts like a welcomer and assistant to the little old ladies and gents who forget they need to take a number before they sit down.  At my bank, it’s always the same guy, smiling.  His handgun has a decorative handle with what looks like gold and ivory.  I guess it’s probably one of the oldest guns I’ve seen, but then the real gun part is obstructed by his holster so I can’t really tell.  This adds to the charm of the rarity of seeing a gun.  In my mind, I liken guns to business suits- solid black, squarish, sometimes looks good on the wearer but you’re wondering if they only have it to get attention?  But this gun breaks my business suit imagination wide open, and I feel like it matches its owner.  Salt and pepper hair, professional attire (but not business suit), no paunch as if he still rides the range.  I can never seem to get away from his welcome.  Even if I’m in the foyer just stopping by the atm.  I don’t know if he’s ever had to use his security guard skills, but his welcomer skills are on point.  

This particular day, I just wanted to sit down in the cool and wait for my friends to finish their business, but it was prime time after lunch and the only seats were the bar stools by the window counter.  So I took one next to my friend, and we immediately noticed something un-bank-like.  Lining the window sill were old bottles of all shapes- even a tall Budweiser can was there.  I recognized my favorite juice bottle whose glass is shaped like an actual apple, and several other containers still wore their labels proudly.  But the original contents had been swallowed, and in their place, plants were growing everywhere.  Even out of the tiny little pop tab opening that was the Budweiser can.  Some only had water, and some had dirt, but the plants were all varieties of beauty.  

Our jaws dropped at the same time and we started “whoa, look at this one!”  “This one has little flowers!”  “I’ve never seen a plant like this before.”  “This one’s leaves are bright purple!  The whole plant looks like a flower!”  And so on.  

The security guard noticed our exclamations and came over to explain.  In his eyes was the love of a father as he showed us the various merits of each little grower.  I had a favorite that looked like a mouth with teeth- but when you touched it, the “teeth” fell off.   On closer examination, I discovered the teeth were actually baby plants!  The guard went away to welcome a few more people, and returned a few minutes later with some of our favorite plants in little paper cups.  My toothy one, and a few of the bright purple leaves.  He said we could continue to grow them hydroponically, or just plant them directly.  

As we were still waiting on banking, we continued the conversation but the thanking and seriousness was long gone.  He joked about the little birds nests that he hid in two of the bigger pots, and tried to convince us that the giant sewn sunflowers were real.  Of course they were too far away to tell for sure, and when you walked closer to check them out, he just watched with an amused smile.  He suddenly reminded me of my grandpa, who used to hide candy in his pockets to give away when parents weren’t looking, and answered every serious question with a joke.  But the real resemblance was in his eyes.  The twinkling that gave away his joy.  I knew we had gotten past the professional welcoming smile, if only just for a moment.  

I haven’t been back to the bank yet, but I am armed with a picture of my little plant, starting its own big life in a new red pot.  


Sleeping Hierarchy Revolution

He was sleeping standing up.

I was jealous.  How could he find enough peace in this crowded subway to sleep?  Not that it was particularly noisy but all of that mind pollution of 200 people packed into one subway car, all thinking about their work day?  Impossible.  All those advertisements and colorful banners clamoring for visual attention?  Impossible.  All the accidental contact forced upon you by strangers who are trying to get home as soon as possible and willing to cut on comfort?  Impossible!

I would have admired his skills, but I was finding out that he didn’t have admirable skills- he was simply playing on the kindness of others.  I first realized he was sleeping standing up when he slammed into me.  Way beyond the normal bumping and jostling of a crowded train car.

I felt hopelessly unable to do anything.  Yes, I didn’t want the responsibility of waking up a stranger and explaining that he was repeatedly hitting me.  I might have tried this in a polite way in America, but I knew this strategy would never work.  He was way older than me.  In the Korean code of ethics, he deserved my respect and (some might argue) my support in keeping him upright.  He had no obligation toward me- a nobody because of my age.

This system of hierarchy often gets me in trouble.  I understand it, but it is deeply ingrained in me culturally, intellectually, and emotionally to ignore my low position as a young female.  I wouldn’t say I necessarily fight for more power.  But I hate the feeling of being powerless that the hierarchy often presents me with.

I followed protocol.  I turned around and gave him a nasty glare.  His eyes were closed.

I accompanied this glare with a loud impatient and huffy sigh- something I trained olympically for when I was a teenager.  He didn’t have earphones in, but I suppose sleeping prevented his hearing from detecting the not so subtle communication.

So I employed the next step.  Pushing him away with a bit of force when he slammed in again.  This actually brought him back sooner as it seemed the other people he was bouncing off were also employing this tactic.

So I brought out my elbow.  I would push a little harder and hope that in his sleeping subconscious he would associate my position with discomfort.

On my commute, there are two places that I know I need to hold on.  These places are on a short stretch of track that spans three stations.  But this day I was too preoccupied and I missed the first place.  The train took it’s normal sharp corner, and the sleeping man blundered into me with all the relaxed muscles of a sack of potatoes.  Thankfully, it wasn’t only me who was on the receiving end- I shared the force with the man standing beside me.  We both almost fell into the laps of the obliviously comfortable seated passengers.

Enough!  My feeling of inability to solve this amicably turned into being willing to solve it with violence.  An eye for an eye.  Someone slap this guy and wake him up because he’s treating the world’s citizens irresponsibly!  Sleepiness isn’t a license for violence!  Being old isn’t a free pass to abuse!  As I turned, the man who had borne sleepyhead’s weight with me turned also.  We caught ourselves mid-glare and knew that our looks had the same recipient.

I don’t know why, but we paused.  Would he be a gentleman and slap the sleepyhead for me so I wouldn’t get blamed?  I confess to that thought.  With a quick assessment, I guessed us to be about the same age, and his suit showed me that he had probably been dealing with workplace hierarchy all day- taking it like a good employee who wants to keep his job.

When our eyes locked, the anger turned into something else.  An alliance.

I knew I didn’t have to stand and take the punishment any longer.  We would take away his ability to continue the abuse.  It was the absence of continuing to hold him up that we conspired together.

We moved as if we had one brain.  We both inched over and made a few more centimeters of space between us.  We turned sideways so as to offer less surface area.  And we waited for the second sharp turn on our evening commute.


My Own Personal Commentators

I was ordering a green tea latte and they were commentators of my every move.

From the moment I appeared in their field of vision, I was the main topic of their conversation.  Two young men seated by the cashier were not so sneaky about visually studying me, nor were they whispering.

Occasionally people assume I don’t understand them.  Occasionally people assume I must also be blind to their body language as well.

One time I was in the subway.  The girl next to me was taller- which is no hard feat.  She was using her height to take a look at my finger’s activities on my iPhone.  I was aware and had already pointedly looked at her.  I was doing something highly uninteresting anyway, or so I thought.  At that moment, I knew my data requirement was close to my limit for the month, so I was trying to log onto the ever-present public transportation wifi, but wasn’t having luck because of the amount of people.

My stalker turned to her friend and said, why does she need wifi?  she must be an idiot foreign tourist with no cell phone plan.  Stunned, I looked at her.  I expected her to realize that I had understood what she said.  My look was not neutral.  But she returned my gaze with a neutral one as if she had been talking about what the Queen of England eats for breakfast.  And she continued to return my gaze as if daring me.

Now my speaking skills are poor beyond small talk and I didn’t want to give her further cause for ridicule by opening my mouth in reply.  So I found another place to stand and fumed about being called an idiot all the way home.

But these coffee shop guys- they were like commentators for my solo figure skating performance!  I went upstairs to save a chair, even though the cafe wasn’t busy- force of habit.  They wondered aloud, she came here alone?

I returned down to the first floor where the cashier is.  They said, i wonder where she’s from?  probably europe.  do you see how long her hair is?  (Uhhh?)

I went up to the counter after I’d decided.  I confess I took a little longer to make up my mind.  Their response?  I think she has a boyfriend.

I ordered.  I answered the question of what size I wanted.  I followed the cashier’s directions to sign after handing over my card.  And then I requested to be given a receipt.  All in Korean.  I wasn’t even showing off for their benefit.  These are every day survival language skills.

I said thank you and turned around to take my own less than sneaky glance in their direction.  They quickly looked away and did not say anything.  At least they didn’t call me an idiot.

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.

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.