March 1, Clue

We are here and officially in “Spring Semester 2021”. The Busan interlude has concluded.

The ride to Changwon for training was the easiest travel I’ve had by far. I took the subway for forty minutes to the Busan bus terminal and then rode an intercity bus for forty minutes. I snagged a taxi at the bus stop.

“Please go here,” I said and handed the old cabbie a slip of paper where I had written the hotel address in lopsided hangul.

“Who wrote this?” He demanded.

“….I did.” I admitted.

“It’s so small…”

Note to self: taxi drivers are usually older men, write address in bigger font.

We chatted for a few minutes (“Your Korean’s not bad!” That’s a new one.) and after a period of silence he put on headphones to call his relative to make plans about going to his brother’s house.

We jerked to stop on the main tree-lined road in front of a long line of building plastered with neon signs.

“Bye,” he said before I had opened the door.

I thanked my luck for this building having an elevator and when the doors opened on the reception floor, I was taken aback.

I have never seen a hotel more pyshically embrace the Clue aesthetic. If I didn’t know nearly everything in Korea had been built after 1960, I would have easily assumed paranormal investigators had been here.

Not a single light in this wood paneled hotel with red light sconces was set above the lowest dimmer setting.

This is definitely a place where a businessman came to secretly meet an escort but instead met his demise. If American horror story hotel needs an Asian filming location, I found it.

House Owner’s sister lives in the same city and kindly dropped off my luggage on her way back from Busan. The man at reception wheeled out my suitcase without me saying my name or showing ID and simply handed me a set of keys, no questions asked.

I suppose foreigners never stay here and my face was sufficient enough as ID.

I texted House Owner to thank her sister for me and also describe the murder mystery theme of the hotel.

“Yeah actually my sister said the same but I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to make you scared.” I found it all morbidly delightful.

I struggled opening the door with a metal key until a random man in the hallway assisted, and then once inside for the life of me I could not figure out how to turn on the lights. There was no light switch, no automatic sensors. I wandered with my phone flash light then gave up and headed back down to reception.

I garbled a half sentence out and then gave up again to simply say “lights” and the manager immediately understood. An older woman behind him shooed him off then led me back to my room where she demonstrated that the seemingly innocuous plastic hotel keychain had to be slotted into a sleeve on the wall. From there I could use the remote to turn on the lights.

A remote for lights? I thought again about a sleazy businessman.

She explained that because of COVID there was no breakfast but if I told her now, she could make me some toast in the morning.

“Uh, no thanks.” Everything had been such a quintessential Korean experience that I choked back a laugh.

Hunger called in the evening and I braved ferocious wind and rain to get some pork soup.

This entire area was near a convention center so restaurants seemed to be centered in the ground floors of various hotels. After a few blocks I came to the store front and walked passed a sad looking old man smoking a cigarette.

I wouldn’t call the restaurant uninviting necessarily, but the contrast to the soup restaurant in Busan was stark.

A table of men left and soon it was only me and the woman working. The soup was just alright and even the rice seemed to deflate in misery. I ate quickly but not quickly enough before the sad man came back inside and returned to the kitchen. He soon started to cough a death rattle cough, the same one my Busan neighbor polluted the street with at night. It’s the kind of cough that makes you ask how soon they’ll pass from this earth. It’s the kind of cough they could record and use for wounded soldiers in war movies.

That was not enough to make me leave, he didn’t make my food so why rush, but I certainly didn’t linger.

On my way back I stopped at a coffee shop, or more accurately, was stopped by a coffee shop. I can’t read so I didn’t know the sign on the right glass door meant fixed and after a few moment of pushing and pulling I switched to the left door. A trio of middle aged men watched the whole debacle and then again when I struggled to grab my dripping umbrella and open the door without dropping my coffee or takeout tiramisu. I wanted to say, hey why don’t you help me instead of staring, but had already pushed the door open.

Again, a very strange and uninviting atmosphere. I thought once more about what Japan Aunt said not too long ago— don’t go to deep into the countryside because the people view foreigners with suspicion. Not that Changwon is country, so it has no excuse. I also thought of the implications of looking like a Russian woman in a convention district.

When I finally got back to the hotel the manager stopped to inform me that the other teachers had arrived. I asked him when they got here and what rooms they were in which he divested easily. Ah, Korea. Well, the benefits of speaking the local language strike again!

I played with the light dimmers in my room then watched Romanian drama and a talk show about Chinese media. A fitting end for such a day.

February 28, Byelingual

Bilingual (Byelingual) Dictionary Definition" Poster by isstgeschichte |  Redbubble

Yesterday after a day of packing, I asked Freshman to accompany me to the burger joint that I had watched come to life. There used to be a cafe in its place a few months ago that I vowed to try but Korea time runs faster than my Western clock and before I knew it three young men had gutted the place and established a hamburger restaurant. Well, the spirit’s the same?

The napkin holders were shaped like old Coke vending machines and the young man in front of the open kitchen pointed us to a table then came by a moment later.

“Here is our menu, and here is an English menu.” Freshman giggled and once he left she slid the English menu under the Korean one.

“You don’t need that one.”

She wished me luck once we had decided and I approached the register to order. I’m sure the guy didn’t expect me to order in Korean but he took it in stride, even when I realized I didn’t know Freshman’s drink order and had to shout across the restaurant to confirm. I can’t help being American sometimes.

The burgers were great and the young man didn’t blink twice when I asked for a side of mayonaisse. Koreans love mayo just as much as I do and Freshman was delighted by the dipping sauce for the fries. (Mayo is my condiment for chips, fries, hamburgers, hot dogs…)

Tables filled up with young men. Freshman commented that this seemed like a hot restaurant, and I said it must be a man restaurant. She laughed in shock and advised I don’t say that loudly since it sounds crude in Korean.

We finished our burgers and Dr. Pepper and as I stood up to leave, I made eye contact with one of the guys at the adjacent table. He had taken his mask off to start eating and had seen me earlier without my mask while eating. Wow, such intimacy!

I put on my jacket and then looked back, to find him making curious eye contact again. It’s not every day that a foreign woman and Korean college kid hang out and chat in Korean. Some recognition is nice, I suppose!

Especially since today, a new man joined our ranks. Is he weird? I don’t know, but the curse says probably.

House Owner’s father had his birthday today and at first I thought the distant male Korean voice was him. It wasn’t. The new American guy upstairs was apparently fluent enough in Korean that I mistook his distant echoes as a native speaker. I snuck partway out of my room to eavesdrop on House Owner telling the story of Korean Male Roommate (the one who kept feeding the corgi chocolate) in Korean and English to this new guy.

He answered her in casual language and I felt my skin crawl. The curse! I saw his face earlier and I don’t think he’s older than House Owner. However, his Korean level is high enough that he should know better.

It’s so rude.

Resurrecting this meme to make a point.

Luckily, House Owner explained later that he had asked if he could speak casually to practice. I still think that’s a bit odd because if he’s planning to attend grad school here or work for a Korean engineering firm, as I heard from House Owner, then shouldn’t he instead be practicing polite and even deferential speech instead…?

Aside from a slightly questionable man, a new woman also joined our ranks. I think she’s German so she’s acceptably polite but not necessarily friendly. I heard her asking Freshman about towels and paying for the washing machine and listened carefully to Freshman speaking English.

After the encounter, Freshman retreated to her room exclaiming in Korean, “ugh, English, ahhhhhh”. I heard a knock a few minutes later and she came to report her English conversation and ask if it was right to say “Take your time” to the woman.

“Umm… no.” I don’t think I explained myself well but “take your time” is said to someone who is doing another a favor or working busily. It is not used in place of “goodbye”.

We as language learners tend to simply replace an accepted phrase with something equivalent in the other language, without recognizing that the social expectations and dialogues are different. I cannot emphasize enough that languages are not simply swappable entities with slightly different words.

For example, before eating with others, Koreans say a set phrase that means “I promise to eat well.” Outside of prayers, Americans don’t usually have any set phrase we know to say before eating.

However, Koreans are culturally primed to say something before eating and often find a similar meaning phrase to substitute in English. It’s why I often hear “please help yourself” when I sit down to eat with coworkers in the cafeteria. Help myself to what? The food already on my tray…?

Remember this commercial? No? I don’t care, I will never stop quoting it.

“Okay next time I’ll just say bye-bye.” She said. I decided not to mention that bye is used when someone is leaving, not simply going upstairs, in favor of lecturing her in Korean: you say you want to study abroad so you need to practice English! No improvement without practice!

“I know~~~” She trounced away with the kind of lightness one feels after completing a great trial.

“You did well, though!” I called after her. A few moments later I heard another whisper-scream of “English”!

The other day I was thinking, speaking is really intimidating, especially in a classroom setting. At least one semester of immersion is the perfect way to break that fear, but when is the ideal time? If one could choose anytime to study language abroad, should that student go in as a beginner so all the fear is flushed out at once? Or after some study, but with the danger that fear may have crystallized and become insurmountable in students with brittle perfectionist tendencies?

I came to Korea with self study and a few months of Saturday church class under my belt. I laugh thinking I knew Korean at all back then.

Every day I have to speak Korean to be understood and to get by and my fear is essentially zero. I make mistakes all the time.

Just yesterday I couldn’t think of the word for “full moon” and instead just said “two halves moon” because two halves make a whole, right? Freshman thought it was funny. My dad humor wins again!

To celebrate my last night in Busan, House Owner, Freshman, and I went for pizza at an Abs Approved tap house. We found out after round 1 that curfew had been extended from 10pm to midnight and celebrated with another round.

The restaurant was busy even at 10pm so we had a third round and sipped each other’s beers. Surely whatever illness any of us had the rest will have soon.

Freshman commented excitedly that there were so many foreigners here. Out of twenty people there were maybe three non-Asian patrons.

“This is a lot to you?” I laughed. In her defense, I do see more foreigners here than I ever saw when I lived in east Seoul.

We spent several hours there then while walking home Freshman pulled us into a self photo studio. It’s not a photo booth but a whole shop.

We giggled and stared dead eyed into the camera. 3-2-1 and that was a wrap for my last night in Busan.

February 26, Cursed

I woke up on the wrong side of the bed in the sense that I turned my head to look at the clock, heard a loud crack, and essentially incapicated myself with a neck tweak.

Regardless of mangled necks, I had various appointments to attend to starting with my usual eyelash perm so the pain had to be ignored.

I experienced a “no glue” eyelash perm which had minimal poking and prodding and exchanged glue for delicate medical tape, the kind I imagine a plastic surgeon uses.

The technician mentioned the price would be 40,000 won but 32,000 with their season discount. I was confused since the website listed eyelash perms at 30,000 won.

Helplessly I felt the spirit of my mother overtake me and I pointed to the posted sign that said 30,000. She delicately explained that a traditional perm, the acidic poking and prodding kind I’m used to, is the one in reference but a no-glue perm costs more. She gestured to a placard with the event. I asked for a receipt, too, so I could check and the poor woman and another technician spent several minutes firing up the receipt printer which was clearly not in demand for the average customer.

I felt like a bit of a jerk and made sure to leave a glowing review. It was a good experience, I just happen to be overly aware of potential rip off schemes because I’m obviously not a local.

En route to Korean class on the other side of Busan, my bad luck continued. I was in the process of scribbling an essay about misuse of English idioms by Koreans when the bus jerked to a stop, more abruptly than usual. One woman hit her head on a pole, another fell out of her chair into the aisle, and a few elderly were tossed to the ground.

The bus driver stayed stopped in the turn lane, opened the door, and joined the driver of the sideswiping car in the road to yell at each other. Korea…? No information seemed to be exchanged after their argument which appeared to mostly be done out of habit rather than necessity.

It was really only a matter of time. I saw this same accident from the outside just a few weeks ago, and the same posturing happened. My teacher later explained that insurance doesn’t need to be exchanged in the case of fender benders which shocked me: the first and only accident I got into was a fender bender at 10mph in rush hour traffic and even then I had to pull off into an abandoned parking lot where the bald mid-life crisis man yelled at me to call the police. He later billed his insurance 700 dollars to repaint the scratch I had so horribly bestowed upon his precious baby.

The driver did pull over again a block later to get the statements of people who were hurt. I have no idea who they call or what they do, it seemed to be very quick and casual.

I relayed all this to my teacher before we jumped into grammar review.

Since I’m learning various ways to say “seems like, looks like” she prompted me about plastic surgery and if I can tell who has had it (I can). She followed up with an anecdote of yet another terrible male student:

“He said, ‘teacher, I don’t think you’ve had plastic surgery, right?’ I thought it was a compliment so I said ‘You’re right, I haven’t. Thank you.’ But then he started snickering all of a sudden! ‘That wasn’t a compliment.’ He said.”

I was aghast. An adult man actually made fun of his female teacher for not having plastic surgery and also implied she should get plastic surgery to be more appealing (to him)?

If she says I’m a freak magnet, then so must she be. I simply cannot comprehend the level of immaturity for a foreign man to say this 1. to a real woman 2. who is his teacher. This is something my fifth grade male students might tell me in jest, and then I would pretend to beat them up.

The bus ride back miraculously did not have an accident but the day of mischief was not over. Yesterday, I found out I need to get a COVID test before I start my job next week. Uh, no problem except that the centers are closed on the weekend and Monday is a holiday.

I raced to my local health center but the man and woman there explained I would actually have to go to city hall since I didn’t have symptoms. At least, I think that’s what she meant; I always ask for clarification and then forget that I actually don’t know enough Korean to understand the answer.

The man handed me a paper with the address and the woman started to explain in English, “take subway line, what line is it, 3? And then… um…” I told her in Korean that I would search for directions online and she sagged in relief. “Sorry,” she said in Korean. They waved me off and I felt a little happy since even thought they essentially denied me, they remained kind and helpful.

I can’t say that was the case at city hall.

After a hurried Naver map search, I found a perfect bus route to take me straight there but I had to cross the street. There was no cross walk and the bus was due in two minutes so I made a snap decision to use the underground metro station. I ran down four flights of stairs then up four to get to the other side and made it just in time. I could see the bus coming.

Except the bus stopped fifty feet early. Huh? I stood there stupidly watching people get on and off bus 131. Maybe the driver was lenient? I continued to think that until the bus pulled away and back into traffic, right past my shocked face.

I was at the wrong bus stop. The people around me probably heard my cries of frustration as I looked helplessly at the bus stop not even a block away. Why??

No matter, deeds had to be done. I ran down the subway steps again, past the same cleaning lady from two minutes ago, realizing too late that the doctor told me not to get sweaty for a week lest I deactivate my new underarm Botox. I managed to wedge myself onto a train at last.

The fifteen story city hall building loomed in front of me and I wandered around like a lost grandma until I made confused eye contact with a woman behind a desk.

“Follow… yellow” she told me in English. Yellow? What yellow?

She gestured to wait a moment and came out from behind the desk to guide me to a series of yellow arrows on the floor, not unlike the yellow brick road in spirit. I followed the yellow arrow road out of the building, around a parking lot, and into a park. The sign pointed me to turn right at the roundabout and several booths were laid around the circle with various people in masks and hazmat suits.

At the first, a woman who definitely needed a snack had me fill out a paper. She asked if I could read Korean, I said a little, and she snipped at me in single word English.

“Birthdate!” Okay.

“Relation!” What?

“Nation, your nation!!” She said in a huff. I almost told her in Korean not to be angry but couldn’t think of a polite way to do so. You have to understand that Korean forms usually use polite or academic or convoluted terms for “address, country of origin, birth date” so I’m perpetually unprepared.

She then said something about two days or three days. I get to choose which test and therefore how speedy the results will be? Okay, then two days. She repeated again “two days three days” and looked close to tears so I just said okay.

She shooed me on to the next station where I exchanged my paper for a q-tip and tube. At the final station a grumpy young man swabbed my mouth and then nose, and not once was he wowed by my face– the face that few people have the opportunity to see thanks to COVID.

Suddenly, I was done and he gestured that I should throw away the plastic gloves given to me at station zero in a large cardboard box. When I think about it now, the box was full. Everyone must be very diligent about getting tested.

In all it took less than three minutes and even with grumpy staff, I’m very lucky to be in a place with rigorous and accessible testing. I should mention that it was free, and I didn’t have to even show my ID. They will text results in two to three days.

After that, I was finally free of obligations!

Well, not really. Now I have to pack because life begins again starting next week!

February 25, Botox

I greeted the receptionist at the skin clinic in Korean and she went through the forms slowly with me. She asked if I can speak Korean.

“A little.”

This was a mistake. If you give a mouse a cookie, or a Korean “한국어를 좀 할 수 있어요”…

After waiting on a lime green couch, I was called into an office to review the procedures and prices. The woman did not speak English to me at all and I wondered if I had gotten myself into another eye doctor situation.

The main issue was the price I found online for underarm Botox was 90,000 won, the price quoted to me from the internet chat was 70,000, and the woman in front of me said it would cost 90,000 won after all. The 70,000 was for calf Botox.

90,000 for each armpit was what I paid before in Seoul so at least I figured it was a fair price, and aligned to their website.

She proceeded to explain the procedure. I had no idea what she was saying but nodded along. If I asked in English she answered Korean so I relied on my previous experience to glean her meaning from the conversation. Fluency is absolutely environment-dependent: I don’t know medical terms.

“Do you have any more questions?” She asked as I was getting up.

I almost laughed in her face. What would it matter if I couldn’t understand the answer?

It all worked out though: I got a nice facial then the tech applied numbing cream to my armpits.

Weirdly though, the doctors that do the injections are not on the seventh floor but the 15th so I had to put my sweater on over the crinkly saran wrap and walk stiffly up to the 15th floor. I pretended the blatant misspellings on the trendy desk were not indicative of the service.

Given enough infomation today is the day to chance.

I didn’t wait for long before having my under arms jabbed at least 40 times but the results will be worth it.

This sweaty foreigner will be… a slightly less sweaty foreigner. Be ready, world!

February 23, Late Valentine’s Day

My mom sent me a lovely Valentine’s package with chocolate for me and the roommates as well.

Freshman was delighted and touched to see her name written in English on her goody bag. The three of us also ate Twinkie’s to commemorate my long running gag that the corgi and the hostess cake look exactly the same.

My mom had also included some of the 50+ prints she had made for New Year’s cards (Costco Photo Center has good and bad points) and I reached out to my previous co-teachers for their addresses.

C was first to respond, followed by S and then G. H texted me back a bit later and we ended up chatting back and forth for a few hours. You may be wondering, who’s H? And not without good reason.

H was the pregnant coworker I had for the beginning and end of fall semester for grades 3 and 5. You may recall G was her substitute for the majority of her maternity leave, with a brief appearance by Toupee Sub whose most memorable scene was a short moment away from class in which all the students asked me if he was pooping since he had been gone for awhile.

I haven’t seen H since January 2020 but she texted me during the spring semester to tell me she came into the office to submit taxes and also tell the VP I shouldn’t have to desk warm (apparently G and S commented this to him to which makes me laugh) and then late last year to tell me she wasn’t coming back to school due to her second pregnancy (!).

“I asked the VP where you were but he said you didn’t renew. I won’t be back because I’m pregnant again so we’ll miss each other!”

Our time together was brief but I really enjoyed it and thus she made it to “Abigail’s VIP New Year Card” list. She told me to stop by her house next time I’m in Seoul so I can meet her baby(ies) and she’ll make me some delicious food.

It got me thinking though. Even though I’m an immigrant and a non-native speaker, I have a community. Completely of my own doing.

My community in Atlanta was my relatives and ice skating friends; Florida is my hometown so my community is rooted in it being the place I grew up.

Once again I marvel at and am thankful for the surprisingly large community I’ve been able to amass here. Some days life is so easy I almost can’t believe I’m in a foreign country.

Shall I confess a small secret? When I make a wish, I usually wish for a happy life. I have it and seems so simple once in hand. And yet, the journey there is perilous.

I’ve had many highs and lows, and certainly there are many more to come, but to be happy is such a precious thing. Light and delicate like a fresh macaron.

There has been a time in my past where I felt like I was at the bottom of a giant well, a huge column of water pressing me down and the pin point of light far above me continuously growing smaller.

To now be in the field, under the sun and pulling buckets of water from the same well that previously trapped me to nourish my garden, is a wonderful thing.

I’m just grateful. For the good and the bad. For the promise of the future and the perilousness of the past. For dreams and plans and everything in between.

February 18, Health Checkup

Unsurprisingly, I got a last minute message asking if I could get a medical check before my contract starts. Health checks are usually required not by immigration but by individual offices of education so I calmly called a local hospital and set up an appointment with the international center. If you think I have enough command of Korean to navigate a hospital on my own, you are wrong. Although, I appreciate your confidence in me.

I asked the nervous woman who had taken my temperature by the hospital doors where the international center was. She looked at me in confusion so I switched it to “foreigner center”. She answered hesitantly that it was on the third floor. I thought the receptionist who answered the phone before said first floor but I couldn’t find the center at all, and the hospital is not big, so I resigned myself to confusion.

Above a small exam room was “International Center” and yet the panel next to it said “OBGYN”. There was a single patient on a bed so I figured that was wrong. I called the center and she said they were located on the fourth floor.

The fourth floor was the sport rehab center and the kidney center so I called again.

“Uh… I’m lost. I’m by the kidney center.”

“Oh, stay right there. I’ll come get you.”

Wow, what customer service! I can guarantee you this would never happen at the massive 8 building hospital campus I went to in Seoul. It helps that this hospital is small.

A young woman in a cropped black sweater, black wool miniskirt and black tights came to rescue me. She directed me to join her in the elevator back to the first floor. With a slight Korean accent, “first” and “fourth” sound very similar.

“Our office moved. We made temporary signs but I don’t they’re big enough.” She gestured to a paper I had seen but not bothered to read.

An older woman with a felt flower pinned to her jacket looked between us and then commented to the attendant who in turn told me, “she says you’re pretty”. I bowed thank you to the woman as we got off the elevator.

Of course, I was wearing a mask and a giant knee-length padded jacket, so only my eyes were visible. Ever since my online course last year, I’ve had low self esteem in regards to my face; 20 hours a week of looking at yourself in the worst possible lighting will do that to you.

Plus, I’m so used to seeing only my eyes that I often feel the rest of my face doesn’t do them justice in the moments I can finally peel my mask off. My eyes never garnered attention in the US so the compliments sometimes feel particularly weird. Everyone thinks Phantom of the Opera’s half face is super handsome until he takes off the mask.

Am I alone in feeling uncomfortable showing my face now? I suppose this is just one of the many various COVID traumas we can all expect to face, including discomfort in crowds and having hand sanitizer on one’s person at all times.

The attendant asked about my new job, since it was required for the paperwork, and we chatted for a moment about the city. I told her I heard there are a lot of navy guys there but I shouldn’t date them because they drink a lot. She giggled and asked, “do you want to date a Korean guy?”

I spluttered, unsuspecting of the turn. Why does this seem to be the theme of the month?

“Uh, no, I just mean… my friend’s husband is in the air force so he told me navy guys are bad and air force guys are good.”

The attendant let me leave my puffer jacket in the international office and led me back into the elevator then a locker room where I changed into the shirt robe without batting an eye at the other women around. The gym showers prepared me for this moment!

But I thought the shirt was a bit strange. Like a bathrobe, I had to tie the waist straps then readjust the lapels lest my entire chest be exposed. I walked around the third floor of the thankfully small hospital braless and with more clavicle on display than I’ve ever shown in Korea.

I shrugged it off until I saw another woman waiting in the radiology area. She had tied the robe in the back which means I had put the shirt on backwards.

Well, too late to fix now!

There was no running back to the changing area so I sauntered into the radiation room and figured I’d just grace everyone with my scandalous sliver of upper chest (that mind you is a regular cut for casual American shirts). You’re welcome!

When I returned to the dressing room after my series of quick examinations were complete, I was alone and got a good look at just how potentially scandalous my robe could have become. Let’s just say it’s thankful I didn’t have to bend over.

I looked at the triangle of my bony chest in shadowy relief (I blame this on lack of access to a bench press) and realized that in the soft light of the mirror I was a lot smaller than I thought. I mean– I’m not small by any means but rather I was not the large foreigner I usually imagined in my mind. My female roommates are short and petite and in addition, our house lacks a full length mirror so I never have a good idea of what I look like in a neutral setting. It always come as a surprise to see more than half of my body at a time.

This seems to be a winter symptom, too. Growing up in Florida I saw my limbs fully exposed every month of the year.

It brought back a conversation I had with my teacher recently. I told her that I wanted to make a better butt and reduce cellulite and she looked at me incredulously. “Everyone has cellulite,” she dismissed. “You’re already thin,” she said (let me point out, this is not true; I’m quite average for a Westerner, or large for a Korean but then, maybe this is the point). “If you said you wanted to eat a certain way for your health I could support you 100 percent. But not if you’re doing it for looks alone!” My teacher is a pretty cool lady.

As we wrapped up and I paid 90 dollars for this exam as it’s visa related and thus sadly not covered by national health insurance, the attendant asked for clarification.

“Can I ask you a question?” She said. Uh oh was my first thought but she continued.

“At the dentist station, I say ‘do you have any toothache or loose teeth?’ but my clients often seem confused. Do you know why?”

I told her that loose teeth and lose teeth sound very similar though the meaning is quite different.

“Then how should I say it?”

I pondered and didn’t have a great answer, except for the immediate but unsaid clearer pronunciation, until I left the hospital. Ask instead, “do any teeth feel loose?” Or maybe switch the two clauses and buff up the phrase to “Do you have any loose teeth or toothaches?”

I didn’t want to give her a huge long sentence to say instead of her go-to phrase, so I don’t think I was much help at all.

We passed by a girl coming out of the office in a white puffer jacket and at the same time we noticed that my jacket was no longer on the waiting sofa.

“Hey, wait—“

Another nurse caught our confusion, laughed, and pointed to where my jacket had been folded up neatly on an office chair out of site. I think, only in Korea. How lovely!

I had to fast before that appointment so I found a nice little bakery cafe across the street. All the workers were kind and weirdly, I understood all the Korean of our interaction. And no one complimented my language skills which means I’m slowly morphing into one of them.

There was a cute section of the cafe that was completely empty. A young man behind the counter saw my confusion and we made eye contact. He didn’t look away and answered that of course I could sit over there. Proactive customer service is not a thing in Korea so what a nice treat.

After a few hours slowly eating my “American Brunch” I packed up and returned my tray. The cashier from earlier was sitting nearly out of site, eating something out of a takeout container. We locked eyes awkwardly, noodles halfway to his mouth and I turned around to let him take his lunch break in peace. The little window into the bakery area also showed a girl and two boys in white aprons, crowded together in a corner eating out of to-go cups. I bet they were all watching something on one person’s phone but it reminded me a little of a puppy pile.

While winter storms, the pandemic, and government negligence rage on in nearly apocalyptic levels of decimation in the US, Korea has let me stay and build a safe and happy life given the unprecedented circumstances.

I looked out the cafe window and thought, not for the first time, living here is almost too easy.

February 17, Blood Type

I’m writing this from a cafe where I had another Korean-English misunderstanding.

“Do you want me to put on pipping cream?” The barista asked, more than once.

When in doubt, I simply say “yes”. A few moments later I realized he asked if I wanted whipped cream. I confirmed with him then told him I couldn’t hear well so my bad.

I’ve had the same hearing problem with other Korean English words at a cafe like “cinnamon” and I can’t be mad at either of us.

In class today, my teacher reviewed five grammar points that all translate to “look like” in English. I’ve learned some of these albeit extremely quickly and without much detail in my university course.

“Do you mind if I brag a little?” She asked.

Please do, I gestured.

“You know that I work near the other university on odd days. I have many students who attend that university’s Korean language program but come to me for help. Once I explain it, then they understand. Those teachers don’t have much time or patience for explanations.”

That’s certainly how I felt at my old Korean hagwon back in Seoul. As you know, I annoyed the teacher a few times and then didn’t sign up for the next month.

“So I love it when you ask questions. Whenever you have a question, please go right ahead.” As a teacher myself I deeply vibe with this sentiment.

She asked me if I knew about blood types. It’s similar to zodiac signs in the US. They are explained as such:

  • A blood types are introverted and meticulous.
  • B blood types are creative and independent.
  • O blood types are social and outgoing.
  • AB blood types are calm and adaptable.

“Let me guess. You are a… B.”

That is actually my real blood type so I was surprised. B types are also apparently “4D”: we live in our own world. That fact hit a little too close to home.

“Can you guess mine? Use our grammar.” I wanted to say B but guessed O.

“Wrong. The opposite.” Well, it must be A then.

“Wrong. I’m a B, too! So I can recognize other Bs.” Apparently she has been right about all her students and asked me to guess why.

“Uh, because there are only four options?”

“Then why am I always right?”

I was stumped, unless she moonlights as a phlebotomist and has access to all our records. She challenged me to use the “looks like/seems like” grammar to describe her.

“Hmm. Teacher, it seems like there was someone you loved a lot in the past.”

The particular but brief look in her eyes told me I was right, and she herself confirmed a moment later. She seems very positive about marriage even though she herself hasn’t mentioned a husband and is predicting that I too will settle down with a Korean man since I know the language and culture well. My own family culture is also similar to Korean culture so I suppose my social errors would be slightly less.

But I couldn’t help but think that her prediction sounded more like a curse.

When I was a kid I loved Belle from Beauty and the Beast— her spunk and independence, her unapologetic love of reading, her rejection of Gaston. She ran to the fields and sang “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” and then at the end moved in with the prince down the street.

As a kid I always found that to be disappointing in a way I couldn’t articulate.

Adventure in the great wide somewhere is vastly different than settling down in the great wide somewhere. It’s simply home twice removed.

But of course, never say never.

I took another guess about her life using the learned grammar. “As for your mom, I think you really…” She started to shake her head in disagreement until I finished, “take care of her well.”

“Ah,  I think my sister does a better job of that.”

She has always remained professional and keeps me talking and pokes my brain with Korean sparklers so I really don’t know much about her. It doesn’t stop me from being curious: what brought her to Busan, why she doesn’t get along with her mother, who is this long lost love…

People really are filled with secrets and peeling back the layers is both an art and a fundamental challenge of the human experience.

February 15

Happy late Valentine’s Day!

I spent Galentine’s Day with an expat friend I’ve met a few other times these last two weeks. The other two ladies who originally planned to come to the museum with us dropped out so the two of us wandered the near empty Busan Museum. I learned a bit more about Busan– did you know it became the temporary capital when Seoul was overtaken during the Korean War? People have also lived on this part of the peninsula since the Neolithic Age, which is where the idea of Korean people originates from.

There was a line about the Bronze Age that went something like, “During the Bronze Age, people discovered metal and learned how to make tools which they then used to create weapons and concentrate power” and I immediately thought, wow. People will never same. We invented power and fought for power since the dawn of time. To quote Aesop, “how often we give our enemies the means of our own destruction”.

We two gals closed out the surprisingly long day with egg tarts and conversation about mental health and how moving abroad to follow our hearts changed our lives for the better.

Today I continued on a goal I just recently recognized this year and skipped off to Korean class. The path to fluency is full of shoots and ladders but every day little interactions become a little easier, a little more understandable.

I must again post this comic from Itchy Feet:

the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know
Itchy Feet comic by Malachi Rempen.

I love the puzzle that is language learning. It’s strange to think how many gears go into learning and using a language; gears that maybe monolingual friends haven’t lifted the hood to see.

Languages are not simply one to one alignments with differently spelled words. Languages are full of idiosyncrasies, a reflection of a nation’s history, an intricate interlocking mechanism. Besides using a different alphabet (Hangul is a 24 character alphabet, not a character writing system like Chinese), Korean has an endless number of delicate petals that have no direct correlation to English, and vice versa.

I have a brother.

Yo tengo un hermano. [lit: I have a brother.]

나는 남동생이 하나 있어요. [lit: I younger male sibling one exist]
There is nuance for “I”: I used the informal version here; when talking about siblings, Korean has separate words for younger/older brother/sister which also depend on your own gender. Additionally, the word for “have” in Korean is actually intransitive so there is no direct object; you simply exist alongside one another.

To quote Marge Simpson (again), I just think that’s neat. 

Now that Mt. Fluency is within view, so too are my abilities and aspirations. I joked that pizza was my one true love this Valentine’s (and forever, really) but that would be a lie; my heart lies in linguistics and it’s a magical feeling to reconnect with my first true love.

Still love my pizza though ❤️

My teacher today said, “I bragged about your ability to my friend”.

“You’re joking,” I responded mock suspiciously.

“I did! I also told her about your ‘diamond’ pronunciation.” We both laughed; I am truly terrible at loan words.

I think back to my days at the university intensive Korean program in 2019: how hard it was, how difficult it was, and how I somehow managed to become valedictorian. It came right after the many lows of the Atlanta job and I had never commiserated more with The Office’s Kevin in that moment:

Even when parts of my Abs Abroad life feel challenging, ultimately they have also felt right.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’m sitting in a bedroom in an Airbnb in Korea and feel more at home and more at peace than I did at my fancy apartments I rented when I worked in corporate.

My imagination has been a lot less active lately and I wonder if it’s because I’m simply old and boring or rather that I’m living my own dream and thus my imagination is satisfied.

I’ve always had a huge dearth of interests and maybe the underlying thread is I feel most alive when I’m consuming experiences. I want to take a bite out of the whole world.

Life has really only improved since I made the decision to move abroad. While Valentine’s Day is not a day of thanks, I’m still incredibly grateful for boarding that plane.

Balancing Act

I was walking back from a quick grocery run in the evening when I saw a young girl balancing one soccer ball atop another.

I was mesmerized, how was she doing that? The street wasn’t flat or forgiving either so what magic was this?

The top ball turned out to be slightly deflated and as we passed each other on the street, I looked at her. She looked at me looking at her. The top ball started to slip sideways without her noticing and I couldn’t look away.

She dropped both balls in the road and only then broke eye contact, almost confused about how they fell.

I’m thankful my mask hid my laughter.

February 13

The Not Rock roommate may join the ranks of strange male roommates after all. In hushed urgency House Owner called me into the hallway with Japan Aunt who reported to us that even though she told The Not Rock good morning in English and Korean, he hadn’t even made eye contact with her.

“Maybe he had in earphones?” I suggested but Japan Aunt shook her head. House Owner looked forlorn and asked me to keep an eye on things while she’s gone since Freshman is out of town and therefore she’s down one confidant.

House Owner added he seems serious and I noted he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. She agreed which means my intuition was right.

For at least two days I didn’t see or hear from him and started to wonder if we should investigate his room.

But that would be unnecessary because as House Owner later informed me, he had suddenly checked out early from his ten day stay. He didn’t tell her in person but instead sent her a text and saw himself out. None of us saw him leave.

“He complained that we weren’t wearing masks in the common area.” She started.

“We all live here, why would we wear masks inside,” I spluttered. All of us are long term stays.

“And he said the trash had a strong smell.” Fair, food waste has gotten rank up there from time to time.

“And he complained that the fridge smelled like Korean food when he opened it.”

I was shocked that this guy moved to Korea and complained about a Korean house smelling like Korean food.

“Honestly I’m a little relieved,” she added. House Owner did seem to be more wary of him than any other man in our house so far which is concerning.

“I think he’s a little bit sensitive so…”

“It’s best for everyone that he moved out to his own single bedroom place.”

She nodded.

Another day, another weird roommate.