It’s 11/11 so you know what that means… Lotte’s commercial holiday is here! Peppero is a chocolate-dipped pretzel that is long and thin like a pencil. I pretend that means I can eat the whole package as one serving.
In China, this is actually called “Singles Day” due to the many “1s” in the date and everything goes on sale.
Here, rather than singles celebrating it was a corporate festival and all day I saw businessmen carrying around stacks of Peppero boxes I assume were meant for coworkers and bosses.
As it was our last in-person class, our first period teacher had gone through the effort of cutely bagging up two almond Pepperos for each of us.
I know it’s a successful ploy by Lotte to have more people buy their product but I don’t hate it. Snacks deserve celebrations, too.
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.
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.
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.
Luckily, our textbook has a whole chapter on apologies.
I’ve spent over a year in Korea hearing that I look tired, don’t try on that dress because it’s too small for you, why is your butt so big, do all Americans have hairy arms, you have a nose like Pinocchio, your face got smaller, you look tired.
None of these were ever made with ill intent and as a large foreign woman in Korea, I have to accept these comments for what they are.
I want to tell you that Korean culture rubbed off on me, or that I’m just carrying that straightforward American confidence, but the truth is I’m just blunt. I have difficulty curbing it, of setting boundaries without hurting feelings.
When I remarked to my teacher in our first live class that she was shorter than I thought, it was my lack of filter.
I had become just like my own students, unthinking in our vocal observations.
S also was very sensitive about her height, even though I very clearly towered over her; she came up to my chin in heels. To me, it was obvious– look, you’re short. Literally, I’m almost a foot taller than you.
But just because Korean women are accustomed to making commentary about appearance doesn’t mean they enjoy receiving it. I’m starting to think like all other women in the world, they actually don’t want to hear the blunt observations that are pervasive in Asian culture.
I felt bad that I had potentially hurt my teacher’s feelings and felt like the thoughtless, selfish being that I am in my worst moments.
After all, people’s spoken observations about my paleness, dark circles, big nose may be true but that doesn’t make them more pleasant to hear.
So with my previous obtained knowledge, I carefully crafted an apology text message.
I waited a bit nervously but in the end the teacher told me there was no need as that her feelings weren’t hurt.
All was forgiven and my soul was at ease.
I only hope I can carry this lesson forward in the tangled ball of yarn that is my 2020 brain.
Today was my first… and second to last day of in person classes on campus. It was a taste of all the things that could’ve been but weren’t and I don’t know how I feel about it all.
It was a cold morning and campus was empty at 8AM save for our four level three classes.
My teachers were both somehow much much shorter than I anticipated, and upon remarking this one Chinese student hit me in the arm as if this was inappropriate. Ironic considering the amount of commentary made on face, beauty, and weight every day by the average Chinese or Korean. If it was wrong, just chalk it up to my bold American charm.
I don’t think either the first or second period teacher came above my shoulder. Despite their size, I was able to concentrate so much more than I ever have in any of our zoom classes. (I usually lose all concentration by the third hour).
Unsurprisingly, I was the student who participated the most. Somehow the English girl and German guy ended up sitting next to me in our little English speaker section where we goofed off and laughed at the behavior of some of the kids.
The German looked back at me often to share conspiratorial glances and winked as much as usual.
The two Chinese boys who never turn on their camera in zoom class and/or are very clearly playing video games during class showed up late, sat in the back corner, ate snacks, and played phone games under the desk the entire time.
At least they’re consistent?
Another one came in late and upon the teacher asking for his name, we are all somewhat unidentifiable by masks required of in person classes, to which he responded “yes”. She asked him his name again and again his response was “yes”.
How did they make it into this level? And why would they stay if it’s clearly so challenging for them?
During one of the breaks two office staff members came in to give each of us black facemask in a little box of goodies. It was a nice reminder, or a somewhat sad reminder, that this was our first time and almost last time on campus. While they came around handing out goodies and testing our temperature, one woman looked at me and asked in Korean if she could take my photograph while I study.
I thought to myself, “this is because I’m a model”.
I quickly flipped open my book and pretended to write on what I now realize it was a completely empty page so I hope they crop creatively.
The woman also asked my Chinese classmate and my German classmate for a photograph, but part of me thinks that’s because she wanted to seem diverse even though I’m sure the ulterior motive was to prove that their campus does in fact have Western students.
As soon as class was over, there was a stampede and all the students but the English speakers were suddenly gone. The three of us remaining made lunch plans while our teacher chatted with us briefly. I imagine she’s happy to have some adults in her class.
The German led us to a rice cup restaurant that was actually cheap and very good and makes me wish we had those kinds of shops on the side of town. I also found out before he started college late, he was a postman among other things.
While it was enjoyable to speak English, the culture shock was a bit strange. Or maybe it’s the age shock.
Both the Brit and the German seemed interested in partying which I would never fault them for. Perhaps it’s because they’re both full-time students at the university and they’re both younger than me. Perhaps it’s because they are happily living the college life and I’m horribly jealous.
It did make me miss my Hankuk friends: eating lunch in the dining hall and complaining about it, studying together, having potlucks at each other’s houses, shopping for dresses, laughing at obscene amounts of milk ice and the reaction to us by the cashier upon seeing such a diverse group of people speaking baby Korean to each other. I miss the relationships we were able to build in live class.
Anyway, it was fun pretending I was a real student again since being a zoom student doesn’t hit the same.
After lunch I wanted to experience as much as campus as possible so I tried to enter the library, not so much to study as to just to do a bit of sightseeing, but my student card was denied.
So I sat in front of a fountain and felt in my feelings. Luckily, one of my young Chinese classmates came to the rescue and helped me register and update my student card with the library desk.
I toured the building but it was so quiet I can’t imagine ever studying there for real: every time I turn a page would be like ripping a phone book in half to the silent students around me.
I abandoned any thoughts of studying there in favor of going to a nearby café where I drank an iced latte, wrote an essay, and kept an eye on election results. The sun was just starting to move downward in the sky and slanted in such a way to be movie magic lighting.
I thought, if I ever want someone to fall in love with me, I should take them to this café at this hour and look at them with this beam of light on my face. 10 out of 10 would date immediately.
Beams of light aside, the day left me in a strange lurch and I found myself as usual when I am in this mood: shopping.
These feelings are not new; I may as well dub them “the emotion of 2020” or the grief for a year that both was and wasn’t. A yearning for all the experiences desired but denied by COVID.
I bought two cute headbands with wire bows that are movable and poseable along with some dangly red earrings that made me feel like a Russian princess. If people back home and people in Korea too are going to ask me if I’m Russian, I might as well start looking the part.
(Two days later a shopkeeper would ask if I’m Russian and I would feel vindicated for the time I told my teacher how often I get asked this and she looked between me and the Russian student and said “you don’t look alike”.)
In spite of it all, I’m glad I was able to get a taste even if it’s a taste that will linger without satisfaction for a long time.
I really wanted to have an experience like I did at the uni in Seoul l down here in Busan. I wanted to attend in person classes and I wanted to make friends with my classmates. I wanted to annoy my teachers into helpless laughter and I wanted to run for a coffee between periods. I wanted to be a student again.
Maybe it was that today made me realize my purpose in taking Korean class was not only to learn Korean but to re-create those great campus experiences from a year ago.
It doesn’t help at this campus is particularly sprawling and beautiful, much more than the university in Seoul.
Of course I’m grateful for my teachers, my progress in Korean, and the opportunity to at least attend in person once. I can’t make COVID go away and I can’t be angry with Korea for doing their best to contain it.
The night before Halloween, House Owner and I experimented with several Halloween recipes that ended with chocolate all over the kitchen.
The morning of Halloween, House Owner was working so I invited Freshman to come make and decorate marshmallows with me.
On Halloween night I found myself running through the streets of Busan in a green jumpsuit while House Owner filmed me. (An ode to 원류환).
Our Halloween party had finally came to fruition after the fateful discovery of wigs in storage. The four roommates plus Brazilian’s girlfriend and House Owner’s mother and sister came to our festively decorated café. Corgi also made an appearance and ran circles around the table, happily eating leftover pig feet.
House Owner asked if any of my classmates or friends would be coming. I told her it might be difficult for them since the dorms have an 11 PM curfew. She amended and asked if I had invited them anyway to which I had to glumly responded “no “.
She asked if I wanted to invite any friends to which I said I don’t have any friends. Freshman agreed. We told her that since our classes are online it has been impossible to meet new people. I suppose I could’ve said that she and Freshman are my friends but is that like saying your mom is your friend?
I had gone to some great lengths to put cookie dough together since there is a small toaster oven at House Owner’s café. She wanted to help and so I instructed her to make small balls and place them 4 cm apart. The Freshman and I were hanging garlands but when I turned around the dough balls had been smashed into discs.
I asked her why and she said “my mom used to work in a bakery and said this is how we should do it”.
Suddenly I was angry. I don’t tell her mother how to make kimchi. This is my country, my holiday, my recipe. But I shoved it all down and just said “OK“ with enough of a pause that it wasn’t entirely emotionless.
Perhaps sensing my strife with tingling mom powers, House Owner’s mother insisted I eat ice cream to which I would not say no. I sat down with Freshman and House Owner’s sister whose lack of networking skills signaled to me that she must’ve been young.
I tried not to be irritated with her as well but I found myself irrationally annoyed. I wanted to say that it was because I was homesick since that is a much more noble reason but really I was just offended.
Vindication was shortly achieved when after just a few minutes in the toaster oven the cookies has spread. Upon making the second batch I noticed the dough had become balls once again. Ha!
Eventually our delivery fried chicken and jokbal, pig’s feet, showed up and we feasted. The Brazilian ate probably 10 cookies and all of us were over-stuffed to the breaking point.
The Brazilian and his girlfriend decided to rental bike back to the house and the rest of us took down decorations.
Earlier in the evening I had set out small plastic pumpkins filled with candy and when I turned back, all of them were gone. Apparently everyone had excitedly grabbed one and I was happy for that.
The mother drove us all home and deposited tangerines in our hands and all was forgiven.
House Owner, who is “in the middle of breaking up with her boyfriend “, mentioned once or twice going out to a bar. But I was too sickly full and too tired from the day of preparation and too cognizant of the multiple warnings from the government and my school for foreigners not to go out and spread COVID that I simply said good night and fell asleep in the green tracksuit.
Last year during Halloween I was dressed as Minnie Mouse, drinking in a park, and ended up sharing a 20 pack of nuggets with a guy in a dinosaur costume at 3 AM.
COVID life certainly has changed so many things but I’m glad at least for this little family. Even if it wasn’t the Halloween I’m used to, at least it was a good experience for them.
My Saturday was going well, treating myself to noodles in a window cafe where everyone stared at me and then egg tarts by the beach, until I recieved a text from House Owner.
Freshman had caught the male Korean roommate feeding the corgi chocolate even though he had been warned against doing so several times.
This was the last straw for House Owner and she gave him twenty four hours to move out.
The corgi is in fact a rescue: someone had found her north of Seoul trotting along the side of the road, chain dragging behind her. She’s afraid of cats though she behaves like one: she doesn’t like to be pet and only has eyes for her mama.
Freshman and I sat in House Owner’s room eating tangerines and listening to him open and close drawers upstairs.
We urged House Owner to invite more people to the house, and if she could get a man to come too, even better. He didn’t seem likely to retaliate but better safe than sorry. And historically we know men have less qualms about hurting a woman if another man is absent.
This morning I awoke to a full house: House Owner’s sister, sister’s boyfriend, and her mom.
Modern American culture places emphasis on the separation of family, friends, and romantic partner, with the latter being most idolized.
Korean culture certainly places high emphasis on marriage but not at the expense of family. Freshman can’t come to our Halloween party because she’ll be in her hometown paying respects to her grandfather that passed away.
It warmed my heart to see a house full of people show up, without question, in a time of crisis.
As someone told me, when you have one Asian you have a family.
When the man of the hour had finally and pitifully pulled Brazilian’s suitcase and a trash bag of clothes to the end of the street and out of sight, hours past the due date, the mother placed salt in the corners of the house and threw it down the stairs and across the courtyard.
I’ve watched Supernatural enough to have some idea what this might be for and House Ownee confirmed: salt is good and keeps the evil away.
It was in fact comforting and I love how rituals bring us peace in turbulent times.
House Owner then cracked open a bottle of rice wine: “because we went through a hard time”. We sat on the stairs and caught up about the events.
Freshman said when he left he said “thank you for the experience” with a stone cold face.
“He’s a psychopath!” She shivered.
House Owner disagreed.
“I though he was dumb but he’s dumber than dumb. Even the corgi knows after being told something twice.”
I’m inclined to agree with her. He’s not a bad guy but there are bats in the attic.
“He sent another long message to me saying he was sorry and he really enjoyed living here and grew up so much. I told him he needs to listen to people. I showed he text to my sister’s boyfriend and he said that guy sounds like a teenager.”
That evening it came back down to the three of us, and I ordered us Italian style pizza. (This foreigner approves.)
House Owner told me, “if you move out of Busan, you can’t get this type of food you know.”
I knew then we had officially become friends. Her potential missing me does give me some pause about moving, but at the very least I know I have a little family in Busan to count on.
We made some Halloween plans, likelier a cookout, and I’ll visit Costco this week to get spooky candy.
There are a lot of ways to have a family and this is one of them.
There are days that are just plain good. This week has been full of them.
Once I decided not to enroll in the next semester of Korean, my stress levels dropped significantly. This also means I can take a longer vacation in the US without having to worry about school deadlines.
A call to Delta got me a changed flight and a hundred dollar credit; my teaching exams were easily rescheduled; with some panicking I finally found a rental in Seoul for quarantine upon my return since the presence of roommates means I can’t quarantine here, and special city rules say I can’t use a Busan Airbnb to quarantine.
House Owner is asking around to see if any Seoul friends would be willing to give up their apartment for a week and she also promised to cut my rent for the six weeks I’m gone which is a huge burden lifted. I’m basically just paying for storage.
After a test that seemed too easy, I was finally free this afternoon to work on some writing and go souvenir shopping for my inevitable return.
My hometown friends and family have little interest in Korean cultural gifts which makes me sad. There’s a whole world of things to buy! Luckily I have plans to meet two friends that happen to live in Florida from a chat group about… a Chinese drama.
I’m planning to shower them in all the Asian gifts I can’t buy for others.
After an afternoon in a breezy, open coffee shop with slowly dropping temperatures I was brought in by the glow of a local gift shop I’ve passed a number of times but never entered.
The owner was surprised I spoke Korean and we made small talk about gifts, my travel plans, quarantine, and the regret that new age refrigerators are not magnetized and thus all the magnets I want to buy for people might be rendered useless.
“You speak Korean well.”
“I really don’t. I’ve been studying this semester and while my reading and listening have gotten better my speaking has really worsened…”
This is definitely an ill effect from online classes with large student numbers and little time to practice.
It’s a far cry from the course I took in Seoul for a number of reasons, and not just COVID accommodations. I have not once stepped foot in a classroom on campus and there are less than three weeks left in the semester.
Only three of my classmates seem to need Korean for their studies; the rest I have to assume were shipped here by their parents. Having 17 nineteen year old students who don’t participate in our zoom class is frustrating and also slows my learning down.
So I quit the idea of enrolling next semester and will simply go back to online tutoring a few times a week with self study in between. It also means more time for sightseeing and Korean experiences, like small talk with friendly shop owners.
After checking out, the owner handed me a sticker.
“A gift,” she said.
It’s possibly the best gift I’ve ever received.
No school next semester also means more time for job preparation.
The recruiter finally took pity on me and we had a call this week about what documents I need.
He wanted to know why I left Seoul.
“Nobody does that. Nobody moves from Seoul to Gyeongnam.”
As another expat friend said, Seoul is another world. The quality of life outside it is so much better.
I think of the small talk I shared with the souvenir shop owner and every affectionate interaction gives me back a day I lost in Seoul.
It also appears as though I’m well qualified for the teaching position and that most other applicants don’t have experience, which was a surprise to me. Gyeongnam is a rather strict county and intro videos from other applicants in the past seem to imply a large breadth of teaching experience.
It did make me wonder if I should be aiming higher then but, I have plenty of time to see what other options there are.
Later I met up with House Owner and Freshman at the cafe and then we were off to barbecue.
As we stuffed our faces with different fatty cuts of pork, I noticed the warm atmosphere and that the other Korean diners didn’t take any extra notice of me. It reminded me of something an expat friend who’s lived in both Seoul and Busan said earlier this week.
“In Busan I don’t feel like a foreigner, I just feel like a person.”
That about sums about the difference in feeling between the two cities.
A friend texted me earlier this week asking if I wanted to… model.
In the attic of my heart there has always been a desire to be a model. I imagined being “spotted” at the mall, at Disney, on the beach. I wanted to submit my photos to the Ford Agency self application page. I browsed Craigslist ads. People always told me I was pretty so wasn’t that the ultimate conclusion? To be professionally recognized for my appearance?
The reality was that I was chubby, tall but awkwardly long limbed, unaware of how to dress myself, averse to makeup, and had a face too long to campaign for anything.
And yet in the shadows of my secret desires it still lives there. Even though my face and body are too big for Asian commercialization, even though I’ve certainly aged out of, even though my looks aren’t particularly unique, the dream lives on.
I’d give it all up to live that kind of lifestyle— beautiful clothes, TV appearances, access to stars, makeup artists, a presence that means something.
Maybe it’s about being seen, or about being in an equal playing field with people I admire. Maybe it’s about access to all the secret gardens of which I can only dream.
The night before the shoot, I got a message that there would not be a stylist and I found myself sending a picture of every dress and skirt I owned. Ultimately the crew found a yellow maxi dress in storage.
After copious skin care and doing my own hair and makeup, I headed to the location: a mall so expansive and shiny I felt too poor to even use the bathroom. Hermès, Tom Ford, and Chanel reflected off the buffed marble floors. I watched the janitors and sellers and thought that the people working here probably couldn’t afford the items either.
Two women helped me change into the dress in the bathroom and touched up my hair. One gently twisted a few curls by my face and I reveled in the special intimacy of personal attention.
My friend showed up and chatted with her friend who I think is a makeup artist, if I were to guess by his crate of lipstick. He had a beautiful and incredibly detailed baroque tattoo of Jesus on his forearm.
The mall ended up rescinding their permission so after waiting and waiting, my friend and I hopped into another man’s car and drove one block to the movie theater with equally impressive architecture.
A young man who introduced himself as “Sunny from Korea” showed us where to stand and walk.
There was an actual crew, just like the ones I had seen in dramas. The director was an outgoing woman who told us to smile! And Walk With Confidence!
A man on a gyroscopic longboard had a complicated contraption strapped over his shoulders with a camera to film us as we walked (with confidence).
We did four takes and then the day was done.
I bowed to the crew and thanked them, realizing later that I could’ve used a phrase I had learned in class earlier that week. Then I changed back into my street clothes in the illegally parked car while a woman from earlier helped me shimmy out of the borrowed clothes.
I told our local little crew thank you and then that was it. The footage will be used to promote Busan tourism.
My friends and I headed back to the food court of the fancy mall and split a barbecue meal.
She’s done a lot of online dating but updated me on an old friend from uni who’s about to become her boyfriend. That certainly seems to be how it happens. Date after date but it’s still the people we are familiar with, the people who are fixtures of our lives, that become our lovers.
I was happy for her and wished her luck in her upcoming long term visa exam.
We parted ways: she brought me to the subway then left to get a taxi in a surprisingly small but heartwarming gesture.
I wanted to share the photos the makeup artist had considerately taken when he was standing behind the scenes with the crew so I texted House Owner to ask the location of her cafe and realized that I supposed she might be my friend after all.
I got to the cafe and Freshman was there studying,
“Oh!” She exclaimed.
I showed them the photos to their cheers and then House Owner brought me a coffee on the house.
I sat there drinking coffee and catching up in a slow hour while a few other patrons sipped their drinks.
I thought again how grateful I am for this little family with whom I can share my joys and accomplishments.
But even after coffee, the taste of the whole experience lingered on my palate.
I’m so thankful but I’m also so, so greedy. I want to do it all again.
It is fall and persimmon season has begun. Until this year, I have never had a ripe persimmon and now… Well now I can understand every poetic reference to the fruit.
Without my subconscious knowledge, Korea has won me over with fruits I’ll be sure to miss in every season: mild yellow melon, sweet tangerines and tangy hallabong from Jeju, dusky orange persimmons, fibrous jujube, bitter yellow apricots, violet-hearted figs.
Local fruits are only sold in season and what a difference it makes.