Slippers, sickness, and Sherlock.
I punched in the keycode and walked into the apartment, my hiking backpack laden with the souvenirs from my southeast Asia trip. I had been traveling for 25 hours straight to get from Koh Tao to Gimhae, and I was still ill from my bout of food poisoning. So I wasn’t walking so much as dragging myself into the kitchen to say annyeonghaseyo to Host Mom and Su Bin.
After asking if I had fun on my trip, Host Mom picked up her phone and asked if I wanted pizza for dinner. I shook my head and said, “Apayo.” I’m sick. I typed “food poisoning” into my online translator and received a look of shock from Host Mom and Su Bin when I read the Korean word.
“Go to bed,” Su Bin commanded as Host Mom pulled a pot out of the cabinet. “Mom make juk.”
Juk, or rice porridge, is the Korean equivalent of chicken noodle soup. I rested for a few minutes while I heard Host Mom rattling around in the kitchen. Su Bin knocked on my door after a little while, and I went to the table to eat my dinner.
Host Mom asked me a few questions in Korean. What did you eat? Do you have medicine? Do you want to drink juice? What food can you eat now?
I’m okay, I said. I’ll be better tomorrow.
Host Mom shooed me off to my room again, taking my bowl to the sink. I heard her turn down the TV in the living room as I turned off the lights in my room and shut the door.
As I settled in for some much-needed sleep, I realized that it didn’t matter that I am an “adult,” I had just spent a month traveling by myself, and I was thousands of miles away from home. It was still nice to have a mom take care of me when I was sick.
When I walked into the office on the first day after winter vacation, I looked at my desk and saw a pair of white shoes. They looked like plastic clogs with a fuzzy lining inside.
Mr. Hong gestured toward the shoes and said, “I brought these new shoes for you! You can wear them in school and they will keep your feet warm until April!”
In Korea, I am not allowed to wear regular shoes at school and I must change into “slippers,” or designated indoor shoes, before I can go inside. At Mr. Hong’s insistence, I tried on the clogs. They were a little snug, but to be polite, I thought I could wear them for the few remaining days of the semester and then switch back to my other pair of slippers the following month.
The next day, I was walking back from the cafeteria with one of my co-workers and Mrs. Jung, the dean of the English department. Mrs. Jung was looking at my feet as we passed into the teachers’ office.
“My daughter has shoes like those,” Mrs. Jung said.
“She’s in elementary school. Those are shoes for children–not for teachers.”
She said it matter-of-factly, not as a scolding. Embarrassed, I said, “They were a gift to wear for the rest of the winter. I will have different shoes next semester.”
She raised her eyebrows in surprise, then shrugged as we sat down at our desks. Who knew shoes could be so complicated?
“Let’s watch Sherlock!”
Su Bin plopped down next to me on the couch, pulling up the video-on-demand on the TV. For the first time since I’ve been in Gimhae, I’ve been in the same room as Su Bin for more than half an hour at a time.
Su Bin graduated from high school earlier this month. Though many of her peers will head to university in March, Su Bin will take a gap year to work and go to hagwon to prepare for university classes next year. But for the rest of the winter vacation–two weeks–she is at home, and we have been able to talk, cook meals, and watch movies together. I am so glad to finally have the chance to bond with my host sister.
Even if most of that bonding involves looking at Benedict Cumberbatch’s oddly-shaped face.