Written by Charles Nelson IV ETA’11-12
His office, unlike others in the Sogang Business School, has a sink and mirror next to the door. These are, perhaps, vestiges of the room’s former purpose. Equidistant, roughly repaired patches mark where urinal and toilet pipes once protruded from the walls. The sink, left behind, nevertheless continues to get regular usage.
Every day, usually twice a day, Professor Kim Lee Gwon will rise from his chair and walk past me holding his empty coffee mug. At the sink, he will fill the mug with water and return to his workspace. From the sound of it, he doesn’t even wash out the remains of his morning coffee. He gets a straight fill of slightly brownish coffee water and deliberately, well, “puddles” his floor, pouring the water onto the floor beneath his desk. In the few weeks we have shared the same office, I find it increasingly difficult not to ask him what he is doing, feigning disinterest as best I can. As with most things I don’t understand in this country, I chalk it up to cultural difference.
I have only just settled in for the day when Professor Kim walks over to complete his circadian ritual. As he crosses the room, he asks me, as nearly every Korean person has, “Charlie, do you enjoy Korean food?”
“Yes, Professor, I enjoy all types of Korean foods, especially samgyeopsal and kimchi.”
He returns to his desk area and shakes the water from the cup, using his slippered foot to spread it around the vinyl flooring. As soon as it’s empty, he returns to the sink for a second filling.
“I recall when I was in Missouri,” he speaks over the sound of the running spout, mostly ignoring my answer, “that my favorite food, during the breakfast time, was a sweetly ripened grapefruit. Also, my mouth waters still when I think of pancake, and McDonald’s coffee, with a little butter — oof.”
I cannot contain a smile, nor can he. His inflection is singsong and clear, emphasizing certain words by slightly elongating their delivery. He voices his English with the subtle sinusoidal tonality inherent in the Korean language. He looks over to me through his thick-rimmed glasses, which always rest on his nose slightly off level, like a framed picture hung by an overeager child excited to help his mother decorate the house. Standing next to his desk, he points his long, straight index finger at me, and then proceeds to bend over to baptize the floor again: “I can see, you also enjoy these things!”
“Yes, Professor. There truly is nothing like a grapefruit in the morning. Can you find good grapefruits in Korea?”
He throws me a look of indignation. “Come on,” he spits out, stretching the “ah” sound of the “o” in “on” and clenching his eyes shut for dramatic effect. “When I returned to Korea, I had only just completed my Ph.D., and I began to yearn for many things from the United States. I asked markets and shops, ‘Do you have a grapefruit?’ But when I finally found grapefruit, it was so old, so um, so stale. It was very sad to me.”
I offer my condolences and think to myself how I, too, miss a good grapefruit. I observe him as he silently continues to reflect. After a minute or so, he reaches across the desk for a weighty-looking Korean-English dictionary. His ruminative state suggests he has a need to find a word. However, he does not immediately begin his search.
Instead, he lifts the dictionary above his head with his right hand, and with his left hand he cups his right shoulder. I recall him telling me that he had recently strained his rotator cuff during his early morning tennis matches. This is a man who rises at five in the morning in the dead of winter to hit on the backboard before playing a 6 a.m. match. He works the injured shoulder in a circular motion, grimacing slightly. As he continues his impromptu physical therapy, it becomes apparent that the dictionary is already serving its purpose. He has no need for a word after all.
He resumes our conversation, slowly easing into his thought rather than simply blurting it out — selecting his phrasing when the interaction warrants or allows — but without the visible frustration that speaking another language can generate in some people (e.g., the writer). A few missed articles can be forgiven, for this is a man who, despite working in his second language, employs words like “phlegmatic” in daily dialogue. He chooses deliberately. He chooses with a mind for exactly what he would like to say. Despite his tendency to heighten the level of conversation with his diction, he has a keen sense for the rhythm of American dialogue.
“There is a song — many Koreans have a familiarity with this song,” and immediately I know where this is going, as he clears his voice to sing, “I was dancing, with my baby, to the Tennessee Waltz. I surmise you know this song?”
“Of course. It is my state’s song.”
“Very beautiful. Sung by an Englishman.”
“Welsh. Tom Jones is from Wales.”
“So he is from Wales, so he is Walsh?”
He turns his chair toward the computer and does a few more dictionary windmills for his shoulder. After a time, he tosses the dictionary to the ground next to a bookshelf, the book landing with a subtle splash rather than a slap or thud. He then pauses a moment to collect his thoughts, and I await his next meditation.
“You know, Charlie,” he begins, sighing. “I also miss su-da-fed, one of the commoner allergy drugs in U.S.A.”
At 11:30 a.m., Professor Kim is asleep at his desk. He is having one of those hang-your-head, arms-crossed, chin-on-the-chest naps, his fatigue undoubtedly the result of the early morning match. A brief snooze and at noon, he wakes.
“Oh, Charlie, I will not be able to eat lunch with you today. I will be eating with the Dean of Sogang Business School.”
“No problem, Professor,” I reply. “I will see you after lunch.” We exit the room together, stroll down the four flights of stairs, walk out the door, and go our separate ways.
After lunch, I run into him as we enter the building. Walking past the elevators in the foyer to the stairwell, I ask how his meeting went. “Charlie, I would perhaps use the English expression, ‘awkward,’ to describe my lunch. But, ah! Charlie! Did you see they had peanuts at the school restaurant today?” he asks, grasping my elbow. “Do you know the significance of the peanut’s presence on this day?”
“No Professor, I’m afraid I do not.”
“Ah, okay. Let me tell you,” he replies. He closes his mouth and makes a sound to himself, breaking before he continues. “So, you are aware that it is the New Year in Korea. In Korea, we eat peanuts or maybe,” he pauses. He turns to me as we round the railing, tilting his head and squinting as though attempting to recall the name of a distant relative he has not seen since his childhood.
“Chestnuts? Walnuts? We do this on first full moon after the new year because when you eat the nut, you will be guaranteed no tumors for the coming year!”
“Well, better get crackin’,” I reply.
He immediately grabs my elbow again and stops me. He is holding my arm tightly. At first, I think that I either have said something to offend him, or that he is having a medical emergency. But, as I look down, I see that he is doubled over in a fit of laughter.
“Get cracking, ah! It means we need to start — eating the nuts — as soon as possible! And — 잠간만요.” (“Wait a moment.”)
“Sure,” I reply. He collects himself, but I am at a loss. I wasn’t under the impression that a platitudinal idiom could elicit such a reaction in a person.
“Oh Charlie, I am understanding what you said! We must ‘get cracking,’ and eat many nuts immediately, and we will also have a need to ‘crack’ the peanuts! This is a clever thing you did!”
I begin to notice how, in our conversations, he insists we pick apart his American experience so he might wax lovingly. He reminisces as a way of reconciling the complexity of his fondness for something he could not fully comprehend. He tells me three separate times about driving across the country to Yellowstone to see Old Faithful, and about the derogatory chants of University of Missouri students at the end of a lost football game. He finds crude American colloquialisms to be particularly hilarious.
Now sufficiently distracted from our tasks, I sitting across the room at my workspace, Professor Kim sitting behind his desk, I ask him about the first time he learned such words.
“What is it when you toss the ball underhand and hit it?”
“Yes! Softball. We had just played softball, and we were sitting down on the grass, late at night, drinking one, two, maybe three beer,” he pauses, “maybe four. Ha! The next morning, we awake and there is a lot of itching, around this area,” he points to his armpits, “and the legs. You know these things, they are called ‘chee-gars’?”
“Yes! They are small and they are red. No one said to us, ‘Be aware of chee-gars!’ No one!” Without pausing he continues, “But you know, I also like the tradition of making marshmallow. It’s very nice. And hot dog. With the mustard? It’s very nice.”
I am still laughing.
“So that is the time I learned these words.”
While I’m laughing, it occurs to me that I have these stories too. I have my Old Faithful. I have my marshmallows, hotdogs and mustard, my grapefruits and McDonald’s coffee. I am not yet finished transplanting those Korean roots into myself. But in my laughter, I can see that I have my chiggers. I definitely have my chiggers.
It is our last day together. An hour before my departure, Professor Kim rises to complete the floor-watering. As has been the case for many of my thoughts regarding his eccentricities, he gives an answer without an explicit question.
“As you can see,” he said, “I grew a strange habit. I spread water on the floor. I do this because I feel it is a bit dry in the room and I do not like the dryness of the room.”
“Desiccation,” I offer.
“No no, desiccation. Not desecration. It means being dry.”
“Ah yes, yes, yes! I know, I knew this! Ha! Great word, Charlie,” he declares. “The office manager lady, you know?”
He begins to smile, his eyes narrowing as his cheeks rise. A line forms at the end of either eye. No crow’s feet appear, only two individual lines that lengthen toward the tops of his ears in proportion to the expanding crescent of his smile.
“She walked over here one time, to give me a paper or other document of some kind. And, when she came over to my desk, not having sight of the water, she almost slept!”
He tilts his head back, closes his eyes, and clutches the armrests of his chair with one hand as he swivels back and forth, the water splashing under his feet, laughing hysterically — laughing so hard that it comes from him as a silence, pointing his extended index finger in my direction.
“She almost slipped?”
“Slept? Yes, she almost slept onto me!”
Most of us would say that you are less likely to slip on a desiccated floor. Or sleep on a desecrated floor. Either way, Professor, I think I am understanding what you said.
Charles Nelson IV is a 2011 ETA at Jeonju Youngsaeng High School in Jeonju.