~~grooming the waygook on the escalator~~

December 20, 2010: I’m in the midst of a crowd going down the escalator on metro, holding my down-stuffed winter coat in my arms and staring off into space when suddenly, I feel fingers picking at my back.  I turn around and two old ladies are busily pulling the down feathers off the back of my sweater.

They’re like mother monkeys picking fleas off their babies.  I smile at them and they are not deterred; they pick, pick, pick.  I show them the inside of my coat, where feathers are always escaping through the soft cotton lining and sticking to my clothes.  The monkey-ladies yap and yammer, saying something about the feathers and the mess they have made all over me.  Another older woman is watching; she too throws in a few comments.  Life in Korea.   One place where people have no concept of personal space and no qualms about grooming complete strangers.

A waygookin (외국인) is any person not of Korean ancestry. Waygook (외국) simply means “foreign”. Koreans call people of non Korean ancestry “waygooks”.

~~you are my sunshine: a rendition on the bus with a stuttering korean guy ♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸♥ ¸¸.•*¨*•♫♪ ~~

December 8: Kim Dong Hee and I are riding the bus home from Seongju Wednesday evening when a Korean guy sees me, stops in the aisle, leans over Kim’s shoulder, and starts speaking to me in English:  Oh!  Where are you from?  I’m Jun …… What is your name?  Cathy, I say. Oh Cashie?  I say, no CaTHy.  He says oh, Cashie, okay. Pleased to meet you.  What are you doing here in Korea?  Me: I teach English in Seongju.  At Chojeon and Byeokjin Elementary Schools. He: Oh, how long have you been here? Me: Nine months.  He: When will you leave?  I say in three more months.

His English is not bad, but he has a bit of a stutter.  When someone doesn’t speak English very well, sometimes I have difficulties telling if they are mentally challenged or if they’re really smart but they just don’t know English.  Because he has a stutter as well, I can’t help but question his mental capacity. I  DO KNOW a stutter is not a sign of low intelligence.  But.  I’m confused nonetheless.  Because lately I have a lot of mentally challenged people, adults and children alike, who have taken a great inexplicable liking to me.  On this Wednesday night, Jun goes on his merry way to the back of the bus.

December 13: The following Monday, he boards the bus and spots me sitting alone.  He plops down on the seat beside me and starts talking, asking me again some of the same questions he asked in our first meeting.  He asks my age and for some reason I tell him outright.  Usually I refuse to tell Koreans my age just because age is so important to them. It determines all the interactions people have with one another.  He tells me he is 40 years old and a businessman.  He has boarded the bus at some godforsaken bus stop, so I am curious about just what kind of businessman he is.

He has an MP3 player with earphones and he hands me one, keeping the other earphone in his ear.  Immediately, blasting in my ear is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”  He starts singing and I can’t help but sing along with him!  We are both singing away on the bus, singing and singing, oblivious to the other passengers:

You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine.
You make me happy
When skies are grey.
You’ll never know, dear,
How much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.

The song ends and then another English song comes on that I’ve never heard in my life.  He’s shocked I don’t know it but I assure him it’s new to me:  “Handsome.”  I don’t think he has the title right because later, I can’t even find it on Google.  He knows all the lyrics though and sings along as I listen to both him and to the song through the earphones.  After our singing encounter, and before he gets off the bus, he tells me I am very beautiful and I have a nice smile.

December 15: Two nights later, he is back.  He gets on this time wearing white fluffy ear muffs and a royal blue shiny puffy jacket.  He plops down beside me, immediately reaching into his backpack for a notebook and a pen.  He starts writing: My name is Jun Young but you can call me Jun. After writing this, he reads it to me.  He asks me the spelling of my name and writes it on the page: CATHY.  He writes, How long will you be in Korea? He reads the question to me.  I say 3 more months.  He says, Oh no.  That’s too bad. The he writes:  Cathy is a very smile face and beautiful girl.  He reads this aloud to me, pointing to each word in turn.  Oh, happy days. 🙂

~~the light saber guy and his identity crisis~~

November 30: I’m standing on the curb in Chojeon, next to a cardboard box filled with trash, waiting for the 5:00 bus.  It’s a lovely spot, a dream spot really.  Directly across the street is a market with grimy windows, stuffed to the ceiling with foodstuffs, canned drinks and household paraphernalia.   In front of the store, several old ladies with canes sit on overturned primary-colored plastic crates, plaid scarves wrapped jauntily around their withered necks.  Bags of garbage keep them company.  The butcher shop next door displays meat carcasses in the window; giant radishes and roots lie on the concrete sidewalk in front.  On the opposite corner is a ubiquitous SK Telecom store, one of probably trillions of mobile phone stores in Korea.

Across the street, the most regular of the town drunks is talking in a deep raspy voice; he has apparently taken a chain saw to his hair.  Some parts of his head are shaved, other parts are sticking up like a confused bed of nails.  Other parts are shaped like jumping fish.  He’s stumbling about, rasping and coughing and hacking, gesticulating with everything he’s got.  Bits of white spittle cling to his rough face and after some of his rants, threads of drool drip from his mouth.  I think he lives at this spot, possibly even sleeps here.  Though he never speaks directly to me, he does do a lot of rude staring.

As I do many times while waiting for this infernal and untimely bus, I step off the curb and walk into the street so I can see if the bus is approaching from the distance.  Suddenly, a second town drunk appears in front of me. On his sweatshirt is a big A, sort of like the big S on Superman’s chest.  He is slashing the air with a pink toy light saber and as I step into the street, he sticks out the light saber horizontally across my stomach, stopping me from stepping into the street.  I say, Excuse me!   Who appointed you policeman?  Of course he can’t understand me.  I love to say ridiculous and outrageous things to Koreans because I know they can’t understand a word I say.  I step back on the curb, amused by this guy’s antics, but in a few minutes I am again curious to see if the bus is coming, so I step off the curb.  Even though light saber man has moved a distance from me, he rushes over and again juts the light saber across my belly.   I say, What are you doing?  If I want to step into the street, I will!  He snarls and mutters something mean in Korean.

I step back up on the curb and walk alongside a blue Hyundai Porter parked next to the sidewalk.  From the rear of the truck, I walk to the front, and again step out from the curb into the street.  Light saber man sees me and rushes up on the street side from the rear of the truck to where I am.  I immediately turn, step back up on the curb, and walk to the back of the truck, where I step back into the street to see if the bus is coming.  He catches on that I’m playing cat and mouse with him and he starts growling and yapping in Korean, waving around his light saber.  He comes toward me again, and I reverse direction, going back to the front of the truck and stepping back into the street.

Fun times.  This is the way I once decided I would escape if a bear ever tried to attack me.  I’d just put a tree between me and the bear and keep going back and forth, around and around.  This is the first time I’ve tried this maneuver with a man and I’m proud to say it works quite nicely.

~~the curious incident of the pakistani on the motorbike~~

Sometime in October: One night I walk out of my apartment and come face to face with a helmeted Pakistani guy on a motorbike.  He smiles hugely and says a very friendly hello; he has such an air of confidence and familiarity with me that I’m taken aback.  I ask, “Do I know you?” He says something that I can’t understand and then asks me if I wanna meeta.  Do you hava tima? I say, uh, I don’t know. Where?  He says, I donna know, somewhere.  I say, well, hmmm.  I guess so.  He motions for me to get on the back of his motorbike and I say, I can’t ride on this!  What about a helmet?  He assures me it will be okay. I hesitate but in the end hop on the back; he zips down my alley of a street to the 7-11, where he motions for me to get off.   I’m surprised as this is only about a half-block ride.  He says he needs to go to the bank to get money.  Will I wait for him here?

He returns within 5 minutes and brings me a can of cold coffee, which I guzzle down.  He then tells me once again to hop on the back of his motorbike.  In the meantime, he says a lot of other things, none of which I understand except the repeated “wanna meeta.”   He removes his helmet to reveal a balding head, which he is embarrassed about, and hands the helmet to me.  I put it on and he zips off once again, this time on the main road, weaving along between Hyundais, Kias, city buses and taxis.

I don’t ride motorbikes often, so I enjoy the wind whipping my hair about and going up my nostrils.  I have no idea where this guy is taking me.  I’m not afraid as it’s very populated and I know I can hop off if I want at any stoplight.  The motorbike is small, but it has a tough roar.  We ride and ride, approaching eMart, when suddenly he veers off into a fringe-curtained parking lot.  I recognize right away the typical Korean “love motel” parking lot.  He parks the bike and I say, Why are you stopping here?  What are you doing?  He says, go uppa and talka.  I say, No!  This is a motel!  I’m not going to talk with you in a motel.  We can go talk in a public place.  He is baffled and I am stunned, but I hop back on the bike and tell him to head back in the direction where he picked me up.  We cruise along and he points to a small park, dark and deserted.  He says, Here?  I say, NO!  We can go to a restaurant or a coffee shop.  That’s it.  I don’t know you!

Disgruntled, he takes me back to a restaurant I point out in my neighborhood and he motions me off the bike.  He says, I have to go to the bank for some money.  I say, I thought you already went to the bank!  He says, I’ll be back in a minute.  Wait me here.  As soon as he zooms away, I speed-walk down an alternate back street directly to my apartment.  Close the door, lock it.  Whew!