Sometimes, when I’m staring down the laundry pile or scrubbing the wet room, this whole "living abroad" thing seems a bit of a farce. I hauled my keister to the far side of the world, after all. This is my great adventure. By what mad logic should I have to wash the dishes? (That dishes and laundry are a constant in this world for people who don’t want to starve naked is not a satisfactory answer.)
Living and working in Korea entails many of the same boring necessities as home: cooking, cleaning, the snooze button, a weekday schedule. Much of it is sadly familiar. Korea is, in technology and general lifestyle, very similar to the US. Laundry might be exotic if I got to scrub our clothes by hand under an African acacia tree. It’s less interesting to load up the washer and struggle with a drying rack. Faster and more convenient, of course, but way less interesting.
So my challenge here is much the same as in the US—to avoid zombie-routine-mode and focus on all the other amazing things around me. Like the mountains. Or the silvery mirrors of frozen rice fields. Or the zaniness of teaching in mittens. Or sitting on our heated floor with a mug of coffee and a bowl of cinnamony persimmon slices. Like I’m doing right now.
(Yes, you should be jealous. That’s payback for all the cheeseburgers you’ve eaten without me.)
What really perks me up are random conversations on the street. As Sam already mentioned, we look seriously abnormal around here. Aside from middle school students—who travel in packs and dare each other to come talk to us—most people let us be. It’s a strange feeling to be constantly surrounded by people yet more or less isolated. So getting stopped by a Korean to chat totally makes my day.
This week it happened twice. The first encounter was with a stylish young woman in high-heeled boots who flung her tiny car at the curb in her excitement to talk to me. In Korea, every car is silver unless it’s white. Hers was a high-gloss cherry red. It heralded an unusual conversation.
In English as impeccable as her grooming, she welcomed me to Korea and congratulated me on my intelligence for having been born in the US. Did I have a religion? Would I like one? As a Jehovah’s Witness, she would be delighted to share hers. Also, would I wait one moment while she got some magazines from her car? I could choose one for free—it was, she assured me, a prestigious, international publication. There were two choices, both printed on cheap, flimsy paper. Did I want to read about the end of the world or immigration? I took immigration, declined to give my phone number, and moved on.
Walking down the same road the next day, I had another encounter. This one came in the form of a middle-aged couple walking arm-in-arm. This is unusual in Korea, especially among the older generation. Generally, it’s only appropriate to hold hands with people of your own gender. As we passed, the woman realized I was a foreigner and dragged the man to a halt. She wanted to talk, and though her English was far less polished than my other acquaintance it was far more energetic. “What is your name? Are you English teacher? Where are you from? Hello. It’s nice to meet you. Where in America live? Have a nice day. Halleluiah! You like apples? You like Korea? I like English!”
Every time we exchanged goodbyes, she suddenly remembered another question she wanted to ask. I went through every Korean sentence in my repertoire, and soon was deep in my English/mime routine. The man just stood silently to one side as though frozen in place. He was blind, the woman explained. They had been out walking together since eight that morning.
“That’s six hours!” I exclaimed, more or less in Korean. “Why are you walking so much?”
“Because we like it!” she exclaimed in English. She then dug into her backpack and pulled two apples and a red bean cake from her stock of provisions. Pressing them into my mittened hands, she wished me a nice day once again. Then she took her companion firmly by the arm and led him off along the narrow sidewalk. She turned back twice to waive.