Today is Liberation day and what with the rain and spike in cases I didn’t make many plans besides an eyelash perm appointment and promise to drop off housewares to an interested party to help lighten my moving load.
Before noon I made my way to the beauty shop only to find it dark and locked. I sat on the basement stairs and waited until the owner arrived with her disabled dog and exclaimed “oh my”.
Another young woman joined and the two of us lay down in silence while the lash lady prepared everything. I had a moment lamenting the lack of small talk in Korea until the owner started asking me in Korean where I was from.
When I said Florida, the young woman next to me, whose face I hadn’t seen as we both had our eyelids taped shut, made a noise of surprise.
She had studied English at UNF at its English Language Program.
“How funny, I was a teacher at UF’s English Language Program.”
“How can your pronunciation be so good if you’ve only been here a year?” The owner wondered aloud and my first thought was, how can I still be so far from fluent after a year, but second was to make a mental note to thank Hong Kong tutor for her clearly helpful teaching.
Our conversation went quiet as the owner moved on to other customers’ lashes and I ended up falling asleep like an old man.
When the owner finally wiped the solution from my eyelashes I sat up, bare feet pulled onto the bed like a kid, and chatted with her and UNF while she dyed UNFs lashes.
“Your eyes have a sparkle…” the owner told me.
“That’s probably the tears from the chemicals.”
The owner conspired with UNF and said I really seem Korean. And that I should be on Korean TV.
I agree! But how?
“Should I just go knock on the studio door of JTBC and introduce myself?”
(My wildest dream would be to guest star on the variety show 아는 형님.)
The owner didn’t have a good suggestion for how I should start my Korean TV career but I appreciate her support nonetheless.
They asked what my parents thought of Korea and Korean food and the only thing that came to mind was how they didn’t like the fish crackers I mailed them.
“Uh they don’t like fish” is what came out of my mouth.
The two women mentioned something about dog meat and that really people don’t eat it anymore and it’s a shame that perception still exists.
I said that I’d seen dog meat being sold at one of the markets in Seoul only once (like, the whole dog) but understood that in hard times people ate what they had to. And that it makes sense that the generation that survived those times may keep eating the same meat. It’s really only culture that dictates what is “acceptable” to eat.
“Back in the day Americans ate all kinds of meat like squirrel and snake. But these days they forget.”
UNF shot me a thumbs up while the owner side eyed me in wonder and said I really think like a Korean.
(Later I would wonder: do I seem Korean? Or am I just doing well at connecting with others outside of cultural boundaries? Is empathy and language ability the secret to assimilation? Or have I been Korean all along?)
The three of us continued to talk in Korean about cultural differences, or rather, similarities as I explained that the American South is not so different from traditional and conservative Korea. Something I said made the owner lean over and hug me, like really hug me, American style. She squeezed some of my odd jostled feelings from these final days back into place.
She’s like the cool aunt. I love her.
With my arms wrapped around my knees I looked at UNF’s one untaped eye and shyly asked if she had time, would she like to have coffee with me after this? It’s not every day I meet a Florida person.
She agreed and the owner who UNF started calling unnie* at some point nodded in approval like a proud mom.
Two other women had come in at some point and I can only imagine their entertainment, or confusion, at hearing the back end of our exchange.
We got up to leave and the owner grabbed my arm. “Wait, this came out so well. I need to take a picture.”
Will I end up on her Naver blog? One can only hope.
UNF and I left and I guided her to my near and favorite local cafe.
She studied at UNF in 2010, which was the same year I had taken a road trip with my roommates to visit our friends on campus. It’s possible we crossed paths and didn’t even know it.
Life is amazing like that.
She told me that she met her boyfriend there, only for him to leave her for their Korean-American friend.
“They got married.”
“Oh my god. Did you go?”
“My brother went to the wedding but I didn’t. I was so angry with him.”
She also told me in addition to getting a graduate degree and working at a hotel, she’s studying for her Korean language teaching license. I’m sure it’s why she spoke so clearly and patiently with me.
As it had been ten years since she studied English, we spoke in Korean. I marveled in a quiet moment how far I’d come in Korean, and then promptly hit my head on an electrical outlet above my chair. Why it’s placed there I can’t say but I jabbed my head on that exact outlet when I brought my Thai friend to this cafe before COVID so it’s really my fault.
She told me she also lives in the area in an apartment that’s too expensive.
“And the quality is not good,” I added, thinking of the five flies I kill every morning as a part of my daily routine.
She nodded vigorously.
“After I graduate I’ll either stay here or move back in with my parents or… get married and get an apartment. What am I saying, I don’t even have a boyfriend.”
“Eh, you don’t need one.”
She had to leave for work so we headed out. Before we parted ways she suddenly grabbed my hand and pulled me over a puddle and out of the way of a moving car.
Our “romance” was not over— after we parted ways at the intersection I heard her voice call me. She ran towards me with her phone in hand and asked:
“Do you have Instagram?”
Well, okay, not what I was expecting.
It’s like your summer fling finally finding you at the end of the move only to ask what your twitter handle is.
Ah well, such is life. We exchanged social media info though I warned her I don’t use it much and then we parted ways for real.
I couldn’t help but think that sometimes life gives you what you need but only when you don’t ask. And I can’t help but feel grateful for my life because even in dull or hard times I can still have moments like these, moments of connection and moments of surprise, and life can continue to amaze in the strangest of circumstances.
*Koreans use special words to address people close to them. 언니 (Unnie) literally means big sister and is what younger girls call their older female siblings. It is also used by women towards their older female friends to whom they feel close. Changing from names to these terms shows a change in one’s relationship. For example, S has told me to call her 언니.
There are also terms of endearment like this for younger women to older men, younger men to older men, and younger men to older women. If you watch Korean dramas you’ll likely hear these words often:
형 hyung [lit: older brother] younger man to older man. For example, the office manager called the older makgeolli man this which blew my mind.
오빠 oppa [lit: older brother] younger woman to older man. These days it has taken on a very romantic context so I don’t call my male Korean friends this even though we’re close. I’ve heard some Korean women have started to call their older male friends hyung to remove any romantic context (love it). I actually got confused because UNF friend called both her brother and her ex boyfriend oppa in conversation.
누나 noona [lit: older sister] younger man to older woman. There is a category of romance dramas called noona dramas. I love them. They are my life’s blueprint.
언니 unnie [lit: older sister] younger woman to older woman