14 February 2011

I used to go out to parties and stand around 'cause I was too nervous to really get down...

True-Life Korea Story Number 1:

Last November, I somehow acquired two kittens. I’m pretty sure that this happened because I am a sucker, particularly for things that are soft and furry and that occasionally make a pleasant rumble-y noise.
[1] As cats require things such as food to eat and litter to poop on, I needed to go shopping. I went to LotteMart, not because I have a deep love of big-box stores, but because it’s right across the street from my officetel and I am nothing if not profoundly lazy. I selected approximately fifteen cans of cat food, two bags of litter, and a large bag of food.[2] Then I went to check out.

When I stand in line to check out at stores, I tend to spend the time looking at the things that are located by the register. In the US, this prime real estate is usually taken up with tabloid magazines. Since moving here I no longer see images of Kate Gosselin’s new make-over on the cover of Star, or read about John Edwards’s love-child in the National Enquirer, or get to learn about how much weight Kim Kardashian lost from headlines on People magazine.
[3] Instead, I get to see a wide array of jerky and pemmican. It never ceases to fascinate me, the things that people are willing to kill, then cure and dry, and then consume and call delicious. As I was standing in line, studying the jerky, an employee came over to me and started gesturing wildly at me. Evidently, I was in the “five items or less” lane. I should have known this because there was a giant sign over the checkout that had a lot of Korean writing on it and an enormous number five. But sometimes I’m not good at drawing conclusions, and when I saw it I just thought it was, you know, decorative. Apparently not.

So I lugged all my junk over to a more appropriate checkout line, and stood behind a woman who had witnessed the whole scene. She turned around and smiled at me. Then she said the thing that nearly all Korean strangers say upon meeting me:

“Where are you from?”

So we chatted, or did the best as we could, given my near non-existent Korean language ability and her only slightly better English. At one point, she asked to see my cell phone, so I gave it to her. She punched in her phone number, and then called it. Then she insisted that I save her number. She said that her name was Biolet.

“Violet?” I said.

“No,” she said, “Biolet.”

And that, boys and girls, is how I met my ajumma girlfriend.

See, since I’ve been here I’ve tried really hard to be relatively nice to people if they talk to me.
[6] I figure that kindness isn’t exactly a rarity, but there’s no reason to shun it when it is offered. Besides, people talking to me and being kind to me here has worked out fairly well for me.[7] So normally, in the States, if a woman talked to me in the supermarket I would nod politely, avert my eyes, and try to find the quickest way to escape.[8] Here, I just give her my phone number and hope she’s not an ax murderer.

Approximately a week after meeting Biolet, she sent me a text message that invited me over for dinner. I agreed to come, because it wasn’t like I had anything else to do. Since I didn’t know where her home was, she met me across from the LotteMart and walked me to her home. As we walked, she looped her arm through mine.

“In Korea,” she said, “this does not mean we are lesbian.”

We arrived at her home where her two daughters, aged 11 and 14, were waiting with all the eagerness one would expect of children whose parent promised to bring them home a special treat. They stared at me, agog. A real live foreigner, in their own home! Photographs were taken of the two girls standing with me, so that they could show all their friends at school.
[10] Biolet instructed me to sit in a chair in the family’s living room, while her daughters sat on the couch that faced me. Biolet then busied herself with dinner preparations. In the meantime, her daughters practiced their English with me.

“Where are you from?”
“What is your favorite color?”

Ah, well. At least they didn’t ask if I was married.

[1] This isn’t the worst mistake of my life, for sure, but it does violate a long-held principle I have of not allowing the quantity of animals in a household outnumber the quantity of people. This is in case of the event of an animal uprising, which, if the animals have any sense at all, could happen at any moment.
[2] I tend to forget that I have to carry everything home and I don’t have one of those little granny carts that I used to see old ladies push around Brooklyn. So it’s a pain in the ass when I overshop, but again, LotteMart is just across the street so I should suck it up and stop being such a pussy.
[3] It’s fucking fantastic, not knowing this stuff.
[4] I’m terrible at small chat, and terrible at meeting people. However, since my arrival here, I’ve noticed that almost all the conversations I have with Koreans I’ve just met follow a regular pattern: 1. “Where are you from?” 2. “What are you doing here?” 3. “How old are you”? 4. “Are you married?” 5. “Why not?” If the person I’m speaking to is not Korean, the conversation is pretty much the same, minus the last two questions. I thought about making a flowchart about the whole conversation-thing, but, as I said, I’m lazy.
[5] It isn’t her real name, but then, neither is the name she gave me. The name she gave was a name that would normally start with a “V”, though.
[6] I’m not naturally nice. I’m naturally… taciturn.
[7] With some notable exceptions.
[8] Actually, I pretty much behave this way at any large gathering of people, not just strangers I encounter while shopping. Work meetings, family gatherings, you name it.
[9] I already knew this, but I find it funny that she knew the word lesbian when she didn’t know words like “bicycle”.
[10] You know, like how when you go to Disneyland, you have to get a picture of yourself standing next to some poor schlub in a furry costume? I guess you have to do the same thing if a foreigner visits your house.
[11] Since then, Biolet has taken me to Myeongdong, taught me how to play gonggi and how to make kimbap, and invites me over for dinner at least once every couple of weeks. Learning to make kimbap was fun, because easily half of her instructions were in Korean. Fortunately, she was also showing me what to do in addition to explaining what she was doing, so I was able to complete the tasks required.
The only problem with the kimbap-making experience was that as we were making the rolls, we included this strip of fish stuff (I’m not really sure what it is. I suspect it’s like the McNugget of fish-products) and a strip of crab meat. I have not eaten any meat since 1999. I had explained to Biolet before that I did not eat meat or fish, but she either didn’t remember or didn’t understand. So, rather than attempt to explain to her, through tricky language barriers, that I didn’t eat meat of any kind (mostly because I was sure I’d just end up feeling like a rude asshole if I tried), I just ate it.
Then I spent half the night worrying that I was going to die because I’d never eaten crab before and oh-my-god-what-if-I-am-allergic?
Eh. I survived, and now I make kimbap pretty regularly. Only I use tofu.

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