By Katherine Moncure ETA ’16-’17
Each morning is the same routine, but after five months there are still days I wake up forgetting which country I’m in. My host mother yells to wake up my host sisters, and they cry back in resistance. Some mornings their screams fill up the entire apartment, funneling out more energy than it would take for them stand up and eat breakfast. As I pull a dress over my head, I wonder what would happen if my host mother just left them, if they slept and missed school. Would they be angry at her? Would they blame her for that too? I picture my own mom sticking her cold hands down my warm, sleepy neck when I was younger. She would giggle and pick up an arm, flopping my limp hand against my face before saying goodbye for the day. Mom let me go back to sleep and get up on my own. She left for work at 6am, an hour before I walked out the door.
At breakfast, I tread lightly and smile. I say good morning to my host father and he gives a deadpan reply as his wife pours coffee for him. He puts a hand up in the air, “Okay okay, stop stop stop.” He takes a sip and says something to his wife that I do not understand. She pours some hot water in his drink – the coffee is too strong. Neither of them are pleased.
The overeager warmth my host parents used to show evaporated with the summer, and my small attempts at conversation are met with thinly veiled indifference. This morning, like many others, we are running late. And yet, my host sister sits calmly at the table, slowly chewing as I rush in one direction to grab my coat, and another to get my bag. I’m not sure why, but my host father always seems frustrated that I am ready before anyone else, and I wait for my host sister before we sprint to the bus together.
He spits out the word as I pick up my scarf near his seat.
“What are you doing.” It is not a question.
“Nothing,” I gently perform the response.
The walls in the apartment feel hollow and thin, as if leaning my body against them would make them crumple. After five months here, I don’t know what they’re made of any more than I know the people who live within them.
I’m inside a regal school bus. Purple, embroidered tassels and rainbow lights line the edges of the ceiling, and a television at the front plays an advertisement for kimchi refrigerators. Teenage girls in uniform jackets fill the seats silently – the one next to me slumps forward with her eyes closed. Through a damp window haze, the cars outside glow as they weave between traffic. In a few hours, this will all be covered in rain.
My students do not talk on the bus and neither do I. Instead, I stare at box-shaped high-rises and giant, hangul signs that overtake storefronts. Yellow leaves from small gingko trees are scattered on the sidewalks, and a two-story portrait of a bride covers the façade of a wedding hall. As we pass more buildings, I sound out Korean letters in my head: tah-ee… tah-ee-uh puh-ro. Oh. Tire Pro.
When I arrive at school, the desks in my classroom have been rearranged. Teachers cleared the room for a test while I was gone, and it is remarkably tidier now. I spend twenty minutes pushing desks back into groups, sighing as loose wheels and entire legs fall off. I have just enough time to roll up the window shades before students stream in shouting, “Hello teacher!” I am already exhausted, but I smile and shout hello back.
At the end of the day, it is pouring outside. I search for the umbrella I keep between my desk and the wall. It’s gone.
I tiptoe to a coffee shop a few blocks away. My feet still get wet. In a country crowded with chains and franchises, this café is small and unassuming, tucked into a corner behind an apartment complex. It seems to be run entirely by one young woman, who says hello as I push open the door. Today she drinks coffee with a friend. This is the third time I’ve been here since I discovered the place last week.
Our communication is a lot of guesswork, stilted phrases, and hand gestures, but she always gives me a plate of tiny cookies with my drink. Even though I don’t know her name, she looks at me and smiles as though I am an old friend. My preferred spot is next to the window, and today the cold, wet air lingers beside me. After an hour of working on my computer, she brings me a mug of hot water with herbal tea leaves. I hold it close to my face and lean back into the chair, letting sweet steam rise onto my skin. It reminds me of my mom’s mug collection – she has one cup with no handle, and in winter she wraps her fingers around it to keep them warm.
When I explained to my students that my hometown has twenty thousand people, fifteen times smaller than Iksan, their mouths hung open in shock. “Teacher! How?” some of them asked. I think about the carefully planned, colonial style buildings and lamp posts at home, the maple leaves that hang in the fall air. These days, I find myself aching for things in the United States that I never even thought I liked. The garish, red Sheetz gas stations that dot the drive between Oberlin and Connecticut. The purple-faced Phantom Fireworks signs that loom on billboards near state borders. A sky outlined by thousands of black branches that spread out like veins in the winter. English.
I think about driving, having a whole car to myself. I imagine the buttery smell of Wetzel’s Pretzels, arriving in a warm blast of air as I would enter the mall for Christmas shopping. My host sisters do not distinguish between their Santa mug and glasses – they drink cold barley water out of both, all year round.
There is a small Christmas tree in the corner of this coffee shop. The lights blink on and off and as I stare at it, my eyes unfocus and they turn blurry. It reminds me of when I was little and my neighbor had a small tree in his backyard that he lit up in December. He considered taking the lights down one year, but he kept them up just for me. I could see them from my bedroom window, and I used to press my face against the glass to look at them, after the house became quiet with sleep.
In Korea, sometimes I feel like a snob. The giant apartment buildings outside the coffee shop remind me of something I would see in a dystopian film – tall, colorless, and built for function, not form. The lights shining inside are fluorescent, and the buildings’ only distinguishing features are giant numbers on the side: 102, 103, and 104. An entire country is filled with these carbon copy apartments, and some are quite expensive, but I know I would still be disappointed if I had to live in one permanently. The inside of the coffee shop isn’t remarkable, but it’s soft. The lights are a warm yellow, and little candles are placed at each table. I can picture the owner arranging the couch and the chairs, watering the plants near the window, and setting doilies out on the counter. Someone cares about this space.
Around 8pm, I finally close my computer. My wet socks demand to be changed. A pool of water is forming under a yellow streetlight outside, and the rain is coming down heavier now. I pull up the hood of my pea coat and hope that my backpack doesn’t get soaked.
As I walk out the door, the woman gets up from her table and stops me. “Ajigdo binaeli go isseoyo. Usan pilyohaeyo?”1 I have no clue what she just said, and my mind snaps back to where I am. I remind myself to study more Korean. She picks up an umbrella next to the door and offers it to me.
“Wow, yes!” I am so filled with gratitude that for a second, I forget how to say yes in Korean.
“Yes. Ne. Gomabseubnida. Hangugmallo umbrella etteohge malhaeyo?”2
“Usan,” she replies.
“Usan,” I repeat. My face relaxes into a huge smile, and she smiles too. The Christmas lights continue to blink on, off, on, off. I reach my hand out to the side and gesture in toward my body.
“I will bring it back.” The room I leave is comfortable, almost as if it’s mine.