Before I enrolled in this college Korean course, I took private lessons online. One of my tutors was from Busan and after I shared the news of my move, she invited me to her hometown which is an hour west of my house.
We visited the tomb of Korea’s first international power couple (the Queen was from India). I like to think they had a good time.
As this dynasty is not very well known the grounds weren’t busy.
I didn’t know this was the start of a ten hour day but was a great kickoff.
She then drove us to a series of cafes in a valley that was very reminiscent to the area I became S’s fourth family member.
We settled in a tea shop where I ate too much sugar and enjoyed a mountain view — a site still surprising to these Florida eyes.
By then it was three and I assumed she was just going to drop me off at the station. Instead she asked, how about we eat dinner at my parent’s house?
Y’all know that is my favorite thing to do. Cue adoption 2.0!
We stopped at her place which she shares with her sister and her sister’s two children.
I had met her sister briefly on camera during our online session when a woman in what appeared to be a tutu jumped on my tutor’s bed in the middle of class causing my tutor to pinch her nose in annoyance and profusely apologize.
I just thought it was funny.
My tutor had mentioned her niece and nephew before and somehow my brain never made the connection between tutu and children.
The tired looking woman in an apron telling her kids to clean up is not what I expected.
My tutor told me she doesn’t want to get married to the wrong person because her sister, tutu, was actually 29 and divorced. The the tough times she went through had also upset her parents.
So as I looked at the woman with big eyes and a strong but heart shaped face I wondered about her story. And I thought it can’t be easy being a divorcee or single mother in conservative Korea.
I knew it wasn’t the right time to ask but I know I’ll find out. I tend to collect secrets after all.
Instead, I played with the kids who are seven and nine. The boy and girl are very similar in personalities except that the girl is quick to cry. I pretended the mop on the roof was my long lost boyfriend and they laughed. They accepted me without a second thought and started calling me 이모, auntie, from minute two.
When we met again at my tutor’s parents’ house, the girl gifted me a handmade necklace which I first stretched across my forehead and asked if that was right.
I wore it for the rest of the night, on the subway, and home to show my female roommates who offered me cake and asked about my adventures when I dragged myself though the door many hours later.
Seoul people have warned me time and again that I wouldn’t understand the Busan or Gyeongsang accent. Joke’s on them, I already don’t understand Korean!
I was well and truly exposed to the full force of the Gyeongsang accent today. Seoul people say it sounds like fighting, and it does. I think that’s because they were in fact fighting. Well, ribbing each other in the way close families do.
The strongest peculiarity of this regional accent is the inflection and final syllable: in casual language here, every sentence ends with a down-turned “na”, like the blunt swipe of a club.
왜 (weh) “why” also changes into a pronunciation I can only describe as Chinese.
I watched 50 episodes of a Chinese drama and if there’s one word I know, it’s “why” in Chongqing dialect.
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The accent was spectacular and I can’t wait to absorb the slang.
In spite of the many warning from Seoullites, I still managed to catch the drift of conversations and also talked briefly with a very old granny from next door who had the smallest head I’ve ever seen on someone that age, like the head of a child.
Her legs were so thin I wondered how she had wandered into the house without crumpling under her own weight but she pat my leg with a surprisingly warm and strong hand. Not to mention she had her own touch screen flip phone which was very impressive.
My tutor and I walked along the country roads where one old man driving a truck smiled at me and she introduced me to a surprisingly hip and busy cafe.
She knows the owner who these days really struggles with the rude customers who leave trash by the river and don’t stop their children from pelting rocks at local wildlife.
Her mother called us to dinner and we made our way back but were interrupted by three abandoned yipping puppies. One was brave and approached my tutor, only to back away when she put out her hand. The puppy that looked just like the breed I imagine raising one day watched over its youngest and most scared sibling underneath the car.
She and I were at a complete loss: if we called animal control and no owner was identified, all three would be put down within two weeks. Neither did we have a place to put them: I live in a sharehouse and she already has five dogs, three of which are tied up in her parent’s minuscule backyard in the traditional Korean way (it’s not a very pet centric culture in the country).
I felt helpless and hated that even as an adult there were problems that didn’t always have a solution.
When we got back to the house, dinner had already started.
Her father is a strikingly featured man who I’d dare say is handsome, in a way fitting of an American Western. The comparison of course ends there as he spent most of his time napping or simply disappeared.
Sometime between my third and tenth bite of kimchi he disappeared again.
I talked to the kids and the boy said when he first saw me he thought I was Thai.
“Have you ever seen a Thai person before?”
My tutor quizzed her niece on English:
“How do you say America in English?”
Her mom stage whispered, “S-U— oh wait…”
“What are you spelling??” I asked her to everyone’s laughter including hers.
My friend swatted at her ankles and asked me why I wasn’t getting bitten by mosquitoes. I just shrugged but my complacency would be punished by my later discovery of a slew of red spots when preparing for bed.
To my friend, her mother said “because you’re fat,” in the direct but not mean-spirited way of Korean mothers.
My tutor just hit her mom on the arm.
It was so iconically Korean that the nephew and I burst into laughter, though I tried to hold it in.
Later I played monkey in the middle with the kids. In the dirt I spotted a mop:
“Oh boyfriend, why are you here? You’ve gotten so thin!” I said to my poor lover, to the laughs of the kids and my tutor from our sustained inside joke.
Their neighborhood is the type of neighborhood where neighbors somehow gather like a rolling snowball. A middle-aged man with a fishing vest and apparently nowhere better to be somehow joined up with the father who reappeared and they watched us play for a few minutes.
The father smiled and I couldn’t help but be struck again by his uniquely strong face (and feel immediately pervy that I might call my friend’s sixty year old father good-looking).
My friend eventually extracted me from the kids to get a move on home. Like any Southern American woman, her mom insisted on giving me a big jar of kimchi, then a pear, then threw in a few K94 face masks, and was about to add seaweed when I stopped her.
“I have that at home, it’s okay.”
“Do you have rice at home?”
“I don’t eat rice very often.”
“You need to eat rice, it’s healthy for you.”
This must be what my tutor meant with her warnings of “my family nags” but it was too reminiscent of my Southern family to be anything but welcome. My tutor also mentioned that some American men come fishing on the bridge and the first time, her mother asked where they were from and if they liked sandwiches.
(Their answer didn’t matter, she brought them sandwiches.)
Sun was setting on the river, clear for now but the land has been scheduled for apartment construction.
Even though I got bit a few more times by swamp bugs, the view was absolutely worth it.
With the little power left in my brain after a full day of trying to speak Korean, I thought again about city life.
Times in Busan have been tough (four hour online class every day is more tiring than I imagined) but good, and I considered simply staying and scrounging for a job here.
But a recent meetup with foreigners and the view of the countryside, still wholly accessible by public transportation, confirmed my decision to eventually move out next year.
I don’t particularly seek Western friends because they often know very little Korean, have little interest in Korean culture, and also like to party. To each their own of course, but I really have come to know that I personally prefer cultivating relationships in average, everyday moments over a night out. And that there’s nothing wrong with that.
If my options were go to the hottest club in Seoul with VVIP or spend a day with a Korean granny and grandpa on a farm, you absolutely know I’d choose the latter. Nobody “vibe checks” every ten minutes while farming.
So I have to take every foreigner’s warnings about the countryside with a grain of salt because what I value is different from them and also from a lot of other people my age.
After all, I’m 28 and still trying to be adopted by every Korean family I meet.