Busan’s ice rink certainly took me by surprise.
For once in my life I was 15 minutes early and for once in my life this did not help.
The woman at the door explained in Korean what I assume was something like they needed to disinfect the area and resurface the ice so I should come back in 15 minutes.
I thought of the conversation I had when I went thrift shopping with some other expat women yesterday. The thrift shop ladies were amused by four foreign women squatting on provided baby stools thoroughly rifling through the 1,000 won piles but those ladies didn’t avoid us or make us feel awkward.
Plus, I’m always happy to provide entertainment.
The four of us later concluded our shopping adventure at a “blue ribbon” rated café which didn’t really deserve the ribbon. We all talked (badly) of Seoul and how because Busan is looked down upon for being country (lol) Busan people tend to be friendlier to outsiders than Seoul people.
I mentioned the awkward office staff lunch where they left the table when I was mid bite to which the 13 year Busan veteran commented, “That is so rude. There’s a rule here where you don’t get up until everyone is finished.” The kicker was that the office staff later told everyone I must not like Korean food since I never joined them for lunch again.
I was reminded of that again when the woman manning the ice rink doors gently guided me outside and explained in Korean as if I was not a fearful foreigner.
That same woman helped me buy a ticket from the computerized ordering machine without batting an eye.
Of course, the young man who was manning the clipboard where everyone wrote their phone numbers as a record for COVID precautions, didn’t take pity on this illiterate foreigner as he quickly told me the time to write down in the first box.
I was baffled because as usual, numbers. I asked him to repeat it and he implied that I could give up and he would write it for me.
I realized about five minutes later that he was telling me military time. Normally, people use Korean number plus 시 for hour and Chinese number plus 분 for minutes.
This man, however, gave me two Chinese number without using 시 or 분.
Curse you, ever changing Korean number system!
After the ordeal I finally put my skates in then became nervous. It had been over a year, would I embarrass myself? Would I be able to do anything but awkward gliding? Would I stick out even more as not only the sole foreigner but also the worst skater?
It turns out skating is like riding a bike. I can do everything I once did and at the same time did not miraculously overcome by three-point turn handicap.
I hopped off for the ice for a moment to retie my laces and pretend that I wasn’t tired. A small boy, probably five, appeared in the doorway and waved to me. I said “annyeong” and waved back.
I couldn’t help but smile like a maniac behind my mask and laugh a little too. It was sweet.
Later, that same boy glided passed me and threw me a thumbs up which I happily returned. He probably witnessed the retraining of my appalling crossovers and figured I needed some encouragement.
Another girl probably more elementary school-aged I had caught staring a few times got a wave from me. She waved back brightly with no hesitation towards the obvious foreign adult. When my knees and feet protested, I finally gathered my things to leave.
She was looking at me once more through two sets of windows. I waved again and she waved back like we were old friends.
Kids are the best.
Adult Koreans are not the type to initiate small talk with strangers that are not their customers, which obviously makes meet-cutes nearly impossible.
That cute boy at the cafe is never going to strike up a conversation because that’s not his culture and he doesn’t want to use English if he doesn’t have to.
It’s no wonder foreign women don’t date here much (aside from the language barrier, more conservative norms, and intense date-to-marry culture that arises the day after college graduation).
Can you imagine the surprise if I tried to start a conversation in broken Korean with a stranger under the age of sixty? The shock might kill him.
But now I’m curious. Experiment pending…
That’s all to say that I love and appreciate kids so much. There’s no getting around the fact that I am an obvious foreigner but it has its perks in a way as well. Being different all the time is unavoidable but the local kids find me curious rather than scary, unlike, say, their adult parents.
A beautiful mountain sunset guided me on the long bus ride home and I found further connection in our newest roommate.
House Owner’s “Japan aunt” is a Korean family friend who recently returned from living in Japan for the last 25 years. She has a son about my age who lives in Osaka.
Even though I finished the burger I had ordered as a reward for my hard work at the rink, she set down a plate full of food in front of me and said I should eat. How could I say no?
I ignored my stomach’s protests. Her cooking in the kitchen smelled like home.
It reminded me of a meme I saw recently:
Japan Aunt and I ate and talked in Korean for an hour or two. She often switches to Japanese in the middle of talking while I forget how to say things in both Korean and English so we make quite a pair.
She asked if I had a boyfriend and I gave her a rundown of the Busan Boy situation to which she said, “there are a lot of people in the world”. Wisdom!
She told me now that her son is grown she wants to live in Taiwan or elsewhere as a Japanese teacher. I told her I, too, want to see the world and she nodded in approval.
The following morning brought the telltale sounds that the Brazilian had not avoided the fate of being fed. Busan moms are inescapable like that. Busan, too, has a way of slowly encasing you in amber until you’re too embedded to be comfortable anywhere else.