Vignettes from November

This month’s vignettes feature transportation, state group updates, and some more about foreignness.

Subways in Seoul

My American friends and I hopped on the subway in Seoul, on the way to Thanksgiving dinner at the army base. As a group of foreigners, we attracted some attention as we squeezed into a corner of the crowded subway car.

“How are you?” a voice next to us asked in English.

Five heads turned at once to see a middle-aged Korean man with a smile on his face.

“Where are you from?” he asked. “Are you American?”

“Yes!” one of my friends said at once, as the rest of us said in Korean, “Miguk-saram ieyo!

He went on to tell us, in English, that his daughter was going to business school at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and that he had always wanted to visit America. He asked why we were in Korea, if we liked it, how long we were staying. Our conversation was brief, as we only traveled for a few stops. As he said goodbye, he looked a little sad to see us go. I think seeing us reminded him of his daughter and, in a strange way, made him feel like she was there on the subway with him.


A Taxi Ride

I climbed into the backseat of the taxi and gave my address. The ride was only going to be a few minutes, but I didn’t want to walk home in the dark and the rain.

The driver spun the car around and headed out of the city center toward the mountain where my homestay is. I settled into the seat and opened my wallet to take out some change when I heard the driver ask, “Oneu nara?”

I looked up and saw the driver looking at me through the rearview mirror. He repeated his question when he saw he had my attention.

“I am American,” I said in Korean. “I am from New York.”

“Ah!” He was interested. Usually when I take a taxi, the drivers barely grunt an 안녕하세요.

He asked me what I was doing in Korea, though he assumed I was a teacher. Where do you teach? Do you like your students? Do they say you are pretty? When did you come to Korea? How long will you be here? Are you studying Korean? Is New York dangerous?

I fumbled through basic Korean and some Konglish, though I’m not sure that all of my answers matched the questions he asked. The driver didn’t seem to mind; I think speaking with a foreigner at all broke the monotony of his workday.

As he pulled up to the apartment gate, he asked in English, “What is your name?”

“Janine-ieyo. Ireumi mwo yeyo?”

이찬영. In English, Chan Young Lee! Nice to meet you.”

“Thank you, Chan Young Lee. Mannaseo bangapseumnida.”

“Bye, Janine. See you again!”


State group updates

After ten lessons and a wild Jeopardy review game, the results are in. Alabama, Arkansas and Arizona have won the pizza party! All of the winners were from a boys class, so the girls were a little upset. I decided to bring in some chocolate for the top winners in each class.

I will hold the long-awaited pizza party after finals. Pictures to follow!


Exchanging smiles

10:54 PM. My bus to Seoul was nearly two hours late and my hostel was still forty minutes away by subway.

As I settled into the subway at the bus terminal, I saw a white, bald head bowed forward as another man climbed onto the subway. Another waygukin! It was the first time I had seen a foreigner, other than my Fulbright friends, since I came to Korea. When the man lifted his head, his eyes met mine and his mouth broke into a brilliant smile.

A few days later, I walked to Homeplus to look for a new camera for my upcoming winter travels. As I walked toward the entrance, I saw two dark-skinned men standing in front of the door. They were speaking to each other in a language I did not recognize, and I remembered that Korea also has a small population of south and southeast Asian immigrants. One of the men’s eyes drifted toward me, and I found myself smiling as broadly as the bald man smiled when he saw me on the subway. The man stopped talking, and his friend glanced over his shoulder. They both smiled and nodded in greeting.

It’s funny how foreignness creates an immediate bond, or at least a mutual understanding and appreciation for each other.


Her First Foreigner

“She’s so cute!” said Mr. Hong as the teacher settled into the chair with her baby.

The baby looked at me with confusion, then interest. Babies never look at me for more than a few seconds, so I was surprised to see this one watching me so intently.

“I think you are her first foreigner!” laughed the baby’s mother.

My infant milestones were my first words and my first steps. I could also make an argument that my first chocolate brownie was a significant event in my life. But a first foreigner? A first time seeing someone different than you? Sometimes I forget just how homogeneous Korea is.


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