Written by Alexis Stratton ETA’06-08
It was the first Korean word I learned without the help of my Korean teacher — honja.
My vocabulary lesson came on a hot July day, the noontime air thick with the humidity of rainy season. My Fulbright Korea t-shirt was soaked through with sweat, my water bottles were empty, my stomach was growling and my fresh-from-America, brand new hiking boots were rubbing my heels raw. I’d been hiking in Songnisan National Park for about four hours. Venturing up the steep mountainside had been a chore, but I was grateful it had been a solitary one-a solo hike that had given me just the peace I needed my third week in Korea, three weeks into the six-week orientation that would prepare 63 Fulbright English Teaching Assistants to live and work in South Korea. My plan was to take the steep route up to the first peak, then take a slightly easier ridge walk to the second peak (where I’d finally eat lunch), and then make my way back down to the base — about a ten-hour hike in total. It was midday by the time I started the ridge walk, and it was then that my solitude was interrupted.
I passed pairs and groups of Koreans, who were usually decked out in coordinated hiking gear (quite the thing to do in Korea to be a fashionable hiker) — and fortunately, by this time, I’d mastered the basic greetings, which I spun off as we crossed paths. Unfortunately, for many to whom I bowed my hellos, a simple “Annyeong-hashimnikka?” (“Hello, how are you?”) wasn’t enough.
“Honja?” they’d ask with a gasp, looking behind and around me with fervor.
At first I didn’t understand what honja meant, but by the time I reached the base of the mountain, after I repeated this process again and again, the meaning was cemented in my head, as permanent as Songnisan itself.
I would nod as their eyes widened, “Yes, yes. Honja — alone.”
In Kimbap Nara, a sort of Korean fast food chain, it’s okay to eat alone. Most places, eating alone means you’re wang-tta, a term meaning “friendless” and perhaps the most insulting name you can call a Korean.
In fact, Korea makes it especially difficult to eat alone. As a culture where the base unit is not the individual but the family, food is usually served in a sort of “family style” with everything in the middle and in portions for at least two people. But, not so in Kimbap Nara.
So, I often see foreigners eating alone at these and other fast-food-type places — at Pizza Hut or the Lotte Mart food court. There they’ll sit, heads bent over their food, their skin tone or hair color an obvious reminder they’re not from around here. Sometimes they’re shoveling the food in, sometimes staring absently at the menu on the wall. I imagine what the Koreans think — “Ah, poor foreigner, all alone.” or “These foreigners must be wang-tta — why else would they come to Korea by themselves?”
Sometimes, I want to sit with those foreigners. They’re probably not actually friendless, but no one really likes eating alone — that’s why we read books or hurry through the food or watch TV or send text messages on our cell phones. Perhaps food is meant to be shared.
I’m in the Lotte Mart food court in Seoul, and I see a foreign girl who reminds me of a friend at home. I wonder why she’s here and how long she’s staying and if she likes it. I pick up my food after her (dolsot bibimbap — a rice and vegetables dish that is served with a dollop of red pepper paste in a hot pot that crisps the bottom layer of rice to perfection), go to my own table, and mix my rice and vegetables. I scoop a bite of bibimbap into my mouth, my tongue tingling from spicy red pepper paste. I take a drink of water. At the table across from me, a Korean couple works to feed an unruly toddler.
I finish my meal quickly and take my tray back to the counter. As I’m leaving, I see that the other foreigner is still there, slowly munching on her own bibimbap. My eyes stay on her as I leave, and I wonder if she saw me, too — if in our eating alone at the same time in a foreign place we were really eating together.
It was three days before Christmas, and I’d just given my presents to my homestay family. The next day, I would go to America for two weeks to spend Christmas at home. We’d eaten Christmas cake (a Korean tradition), which was followed by a plateful of browned, dried squid — squid jerky, per se, and surprisingly one of my favorite snacks in Korea. My 16-year-old host sister was reading through the London guidebook I bought her for her upcoming trip. We were both on the floor, which was quite toasty (Korean houses are often heated from the ground up by hot water that is pumped through pipes that run beneath the floors). My eyelids were heavy and my stomach full. I’d been in Korea for about six months, and I rested my head on my host sister’s shoulder as she flipped through the pages.
“St. Paul’s Cathedral?” she said in a near-perfect accent, product of an eight month stint in New Zealand.
I nodded, eyes closed. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Great view at the top.”
Her body shifted as she turned some pages. “Westminster Abbey?”
“Worth seeing, but I didn’t go inside. The line was too long.”
She continued flipping pages. I nodded off slowly. When I woke up a few hours later, the lights in the house were off, but my host sister and I were covered in a blanket, the floor still warm as a summer’s day.
“What do you think when you see a Korean?” Kevin asked.
Kevin, who’s Korean but has adopted an American name after a visit to the U.S., is a college student who met with me to practice his English. A group of suave-looking Koreans had just entered the cafe where we were sipping our cappuccinos and munching on the provisional cookies. Kevin nodded in their direction. “Like them,” he said.
I wasn’t sure what he was going for. Stylish-Trendy — my brow furrowed.
He continued. “For example, when I see a foreigner, I automatically think ‘stranger.'” Stranger? I laughed. “Kevin, I think everyone I don’t know is a stranger.”
Sitting around the dinner table, my homestay family and I pick at the meal before us. I’ve finally mastered taking the fish off the bone (there is a whole fish on the table, its eye staring up accusingly at the ceiling light). We eat from a communal bowl of stew and pick at plates of kimchi, bean sprouts, anchovies, tofu and other foods. Only our rice is our own.
My homestay mom calls me “eldest daughter” even in front of strangers (it’s always fun to watch their looks when they ask her, “Who’s this?” and she replies, “My daughter.”) and tells me “I love you” when I’m gone and when she’s sending me text messages. I call my host sister “younger sister” and pick on her just as an older sister would, though I also tell her she doesn’t need boys and that she’s too smart for her own good.
But I am not my homestay mom’s daughter, nor my host sister’s sister. I am a brown-headed American, blue-eyed-eyes like my grandmother, smile like my mom. I pour soju like a Korean, but I prefer a vodka tonic. I give directions to the taxi driver with the proper accent, but I sometimes wish for my Toyota Corolla and the winding roads of North Carolina. I eat kimchi and raw fish and dried squid, but I could be just as happy with a grilled cheese sandwich and salad with ranch dressing.
I pinch a few stringy bean sprouts between my thin, metal chopsticks and think that maybe I’ll always be a stranger. No matter how much Korean I speak or cultural habits I learn. I’ll still step on to the subway in Seoul and be the stranger.
On the subway in Seoul, I glance at two Korean middle-aged ladies who are looking my way, watch as they look at my face, eyes, dress, say a comment to one another, and then look again.
I usually ignore the “being-looked-at” feeling, but today, in a subway car full of Asian faces, I feel like an island.
A few stops pass. I look up to find the women looking at me again. But, this time, the women smile and then turn their gazes aside. I follow their eyes and almost laugh.
Across from me sits my mirror image — auburn, curly hair, wool cap, light eyes, pale skin, a bag on her lap. We exchange smiles instantly and then glance away, I look at her one more time, and my smile stays with me for many more stops.
“Mirror Image” was previously published in Lambeth Magazine.