November 7, Small Talk

Saturday carried me once again to the center of the city and bustling night market. If you’ve ever been, it’s reminiscent of Namdaemun.

I scared a poor hot cake seller and a different barista with the threat of speaking English when they looked upon my foreign face.

The young hot cake promoter spoke English to me even though I answered him in Korean to put him at ease; his shaking hands didn’t escape my notice, though.

호떡.

I scared him once more once I reappeared at his side a few minutes later and mid-sentence to return my empty paper cup as Korea has no public garbage cans.

“And then I— oh my god,” he clutched at his heart and I didn’t mean to recreate that Office scene.

Later I went to a cafe so long that I could watch the fear building in the barista’s eyes as I covered the near-infinite distance to the register. When I finally stood in front of her, she was clutching the counter with a white knuckle grip and her eyes were so big I could see my own reflection.

The moment I spoke Korean, her whole body deflated like a relieved balloon.

These two were clearly not going to provide the small talk I wanted, and neither was the granny in the first souvenir shop I visited who followed me around and chastised me for trying to put things backs.

The second souvenir shop is where I struck gold.

The shopkeeper saw I was finished perusing the many cheesy trinkets and I asked if I could pay by card.

“Oh, your Korean is good!” She said, along with the haunting specter of every other Korean whose bar for me is too low.

I now remember we learned grammar specifically for turning down compliments but it was not in any part of my brain at that moment.

In an exchange I didn’t catch she asked where I was from.

“Russia?”

I laughed to myself. Vindication!

I told her I have to go back to America for a trip and need to buy gifts. I wanted to emphasize that I’m not that stereotypical Korean-lacking expat, that I have a Korean life, and she asked what I’m up to.

“I’m between contracts and studying now since corona made teaching difficult.” I explained, but in much more broken-sounding Korean.

Was I married? Single? She asked in curiosity.

“Single,” I confirmed. “Do you have any sons?” I asked, nudging her arm.

After a second she nudged me back and then we both threw our heads back in laughter in what I can only describe as classic sitcom imagery.

I asked if it’s been busy and she said no, no foreigners have come.

Alexa, play “Feel Special” by TWICE.

The dust collected on the souvenir pens confirmed the market is suffering for souvenir-loving tourists.

She also asked about the election and if Trump had lost but it took several tries for me to understand. And on top of that, I had no idea how to say “still counting ballots” in Korean and just said so in English which I’m sure meant nothing to her.

She moved on to important business: “Tell me, what should my kids do not to be embarrassed when speaking English? I don’t care much but they get so shy.”

Ah yes, the classic question.

“They should use English subtitles when watching movies. And talk to foreigners.”

I added in more broken, mistake ridden Korean that it’s okay to mess up and we have to make mistakes to get better.

Bless this shopkeeper: she patiently listened to me as I stumbled through my deteriorated, halting speech. As suspected, four hours of zoom class a day have improved my listening but tanked my conversation skills.

Most importantly, I sought small talk and was not denied. My endless gratitude goes to older Busan ladies for filling my Southern-bred need for conversation.

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