Niceness

By Sarah Muscutt, ETA ’16-’17

I stared at my 자몽에이드, which was sweating drops of water all over my clammy fingers. My thoughts did laps around my head, making me dizzy. How did I end up here, in this chair, drinking juice that’s too sweet and peeling a grapefruit with two girls I’ve only spoken to a handful of times? Why did I even have a grapefruit in my purse to begin with? That was perhaps the most pressing question. The absurd urge to laugh out loud bubbled up within me from some confused place, as the eyebrows of the two 언니s occupying the same cafe table moved just a little closer together on their faces. I could imagine what they were thinking. Why is this girl peeling a grapefruit? I didn’t have an answer, but I gave it my best shot.

“The 자몽에이드1 is too sweet, so maybe if I eat it together with my grapefruit it will balance the flavor better.” The explanation sounded dumb even as it was coming out of my mouth, but one of the girls had bought me the drink, so I couldn’t just take one sip and then be done with it. I was just trying to be nice.

“Would you like a piece?” The tone of my voice ended on a note that was just a little bit too high to come out sounding like a normal question. The two girls looked at each other, then at the grapefruit in my sticky fingers.

Their eyes found my face again quickly, nodding. “Yes, thank you.” I smiled sheepishly and gave each of them a section. The sweat that had been dampening my lower back began to dry a little.

I continued to alternate between sips of the sickly drink and bites of the tart, juicy fruit as one 언니2 began to describe her recent trip to New York. She was speaking in Korean the whole time, so I only understood maybe 40 percent of what she was saying, but I nodded and tried my best to focus on the meaning as her monologue continued. She must know that I can’t understand most of this, right? I vaguely caught references to her friend’s boyfriend’s friend and her various interactions with him in New York. She added morals about life and relationships to the story that seemed to fall at random intervals because of the gaps in my understanding.

“I’m telling you, I don’t think it’s wrong to date people of other cultures, but you know, some differences just really can’t be overcome in the end…”

My mind flashed back to a note I had written a few weeks ago—something I thought had been forgotten, until now. This is definitely about me.

*

My first week in my placement, I went to church with my host mom, but by the second week I had found my own church to call home, and from then on I went every week. At first it was just something to do, but the church members welcomed me with open arms and many of my 집사님3 spoke fluent English. At church I found a piece of my identity from home, preserved, and I began to count on that little bit of familiarity to carry me through those first months of my exciting but draining new life. Every Saturday I sighed with relief as I slipped into my sanctuary, shrugging off my teacher persona which often felt so heavy and stained with mistakes by the time each Friday arrived.

I latched onto the comfort of singing familiar hymns in Korean and felt the joy of becoming part of a community spreading through me like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day. My Korean vocabulary of religious and spiritual terms quickly expanded. After a year I still can’t communicate with my bank in Korean, but just get me started and I can talk about the Holy Spirit all day long. I joined the choir, as well as the Korean Young Adult group, strangely abbreviated as “KAY.” It wasn’t long before I was spending all my Saturday afternoons in the KAY loft after service and lunch chatting, eating snacks, playing games, singing and praying with my new friends. The days with my small group members began to stretch longer and longer, as we shared dinners, birthdays and evening bowling outings.

One week in March I confided in one of my 언니s in the KAY group. 은비[Eunbi, a woman’s name] 언니 and I sat with heads close together whispering about my crush on one of the guys, thoroughly enjoying the chance to act like middle school girls again.

“I wrote a note to him in Korean confessing my feelings, but I was too scared to give it to him on Valentine’s Day,” I told her.

Her face was serious when she said, “You should try anyway.”

“Really?” I scrunched my face in skepticism.

“Yeah, I would definitely want to know if someone liked me, no matter what.”

“Oh, okay, fine If you think so, then you give it to him.” I was taken by surprise when she agreed without hesitation. I pretended seriousness as I ceremoniously handed the note to her.

She carefully unfolded it. Do you like me? Check “yes” or “no.” We both couldn’t help but erupt into giggles. Meanwhile, my crush was stuffing his face with snacks on the other side of the loft. Startled by the outburst, he looked up, always wanting to be part of the fun. Butterflies tickled my stomach as 은비 언니 carefully tucked the note into her purse.

After the delivery of the note, I waited, feeling a bit foolish. I knew it didn’t mean anything and cared little about the outcome, but the suspense was entertaining nevertheless. I was prepared to dismiss the note and the boy, but I held 은비 언니’s kindness of serving as my messenger in my heart like the feeling of five o’clock sun on a summer day.

*

I sat captive, nodding and humming agreeably as their conversation unfolded. Eyes brimming with sympathy, their soft palms conveyed the weight of what they did not say, pressing me more and more heavily in my chair. I found it increasingly difficult to put together the words in either English or Korean and ask for the clarification that would make my head stop spinning. Even the confused little voice in my head thought it would be the wrong move to ask directly about the boy or the note.

I had thought of church as a sanctuary, an escape from fake niceness. And while the invitation to coffee had taken me by surprise, it had fleetingly felt like I was connecting deeper with my 언니s in KAY, but now here I sat in a hard plastic chair feeling isolated, handled, put in my place. Is it because I’m foreign, or because I’ll leave soon that the guy rejected me? Is it my Americanness preventing me from appreciating these 언니s’ gesture as genuine attempt at kindness? How did these girls even become involved?

The mismatch of norms between our two cultures blurred my perception just enough in that moment that I couldn’t tell the difference between the inauthentic niceness of playing a role—drinking a too-sweet 자몽에이드 because someone kindly bought it for me—and authentic kindness displayed by 은비 언니 in delivering my note.

I realized I had zoned out as the story began to wind down. My eyes slid to the table and I saw peels, little white fibers and splatters of grapefruit juice. I couldn’t finish the syrupy 자몽에이드.

Do you really like me? Check “yes” or “no.”

*

I ran into my crush before the service two weeks after 은비 언니 delivered the note and my eyes darted quickly around his face, looking for a sign. He was tall with mischievous, twinkling eyes. His habit of getting distracted playing with any small child that crossed his path, his open, friendly face and a laugh that infected his surroundings with mirth often made him the center of attention in our KAY group. Strolling toward me, he smiled brightly, looked me in the eye and chatted easily about his week in his expressive Busan accent. Huh?

If he had dodged eye contact and made obvious attempts to avoid me from the time he received the note onward I would have read rejection between the lines easily, but this niceness was something new, and it utterly perplexed me. I went to my seat wondering if everyone could see how bewildered I felt and feeling silly about the whole situation. Who did I think I was, anyway? A foreigner, trying to flirt like a middle school girl, with a guy who doesn’t even speak English fluently, in church no less?

“Let’s go get coffee,” one of my KAY 언니s said that afternoon after lunch, quickly grabbing her friend and whisking me out the door before I could decide what to think. You’ve never even talked to me one-on-one. I remembered the note as they took me by the arms on either side, smiling.

Sarah Muscutt is a 2016-2017 ETA at Gwangcheon Elementary School in Hongseong, Chungcheongnam-do.

  1. Jamong ade, grapefruit ade
  2. Eonni, older sister
  3. Jipsanim, church member