Food, stickers, and an interesting taxi ride.
The English department and the administrators sat around the table at the Chinese restaurant. In the same way I eat “Americanized” Chinese take-out at home, we were eating “Koreanized” Chinese food after final exams that day. As the waitress brought the mostly-seafood dishes one by one, I yearned for my familiar pork fried rice, General Tso’s, and chicken lo mein.
The principal sat next to me, scrutinizing my eating habits. While in America, I would pick out anything I didn’t like, in Korea I had to deal with it whether I liked it or not. I looked into my bowl, my chopsticks poised over the last piece of chewy octopus. Just one more bite, I thought with relief as I put it in my mouth.
Suddenly, the principal laughed boisterously and said something in Korean. The rest of the teachers at the table laughed, and I looked to Mr. Hong for help.
Mr. Hong laughed and translated, “He said he likes you because you are not a picky eater!”
Then, much to my horror, the principal picked up another ladleful of the octopus soup and dropped it into my bowl.
“Eat more!” he said in English.
I nodded my head and stared into my full bowl wistfully as I struggled to swallow the rubbery tentacle. If only they knew.
“Bongju Elementary School,” I said to the taxi driver, reading the address from my phone.
He sped down the streets of Gwangju, where I was visiting with my Fulbright orientation roommate for the weekend. With a strong Jeollanamdo accent, the driver asked where I was from. He nearly jumped out of his seat when I said, “New York.”
“New York!!! Watchtower!”
“Watchtower?” I repeated. Jimi Hendrix?
He pointed to himself rigorously. “Watchtower…Book-leen…Gerrorah!”
He rapidly typed something into his cell phone on the front console, pulling up an English webpage. He passed the cell phone back to me, pointed to himself again, and said, “Gerrorah!”
I was in a taxi with a Jehovah’s Witness.
My friend Ted and I sat down as the subway pulled away from the station in Busan. It was our last day volunteering with the refugees this semester, and we were exhausted from the day’s lesson.
As we settled into our seats, a little girl, no more than three or four years old, sat across from us in the subway car. Her hair was pulled back into a pigtail with a bright pink bow, and her face was illuminated with a smile. She was like a Korean Cindy Lou Who.
“She’s looking at us,” I said, nudging Ted and smiling at the little girl, who beamed even more when she saw she had our attention.
During the half-hour subway ride, she cuddled with her parents and amused herself by putting small heart-shaped stickers all over her face. Even time she put a new one on, she would look over at Ted and me and smile, as if to say, “Look what I did!”
When the subway neared our stop, the little girl stood up, walked over to us with her mother, and put one of her heart-shaped stickers on each of our hands.
“Kamsahamnida!” Ted and I said in unison, as the little girl giggled and left the subway car with her family.