By Paavani Reddy, ETA ’17-’18
“I’m back!” I call out into the hallway, waiting a second for a response. The lights are all off in my homestay family’s apartment. “Hello?” I ask again more tepidly. I peek into the kitchen and then back again at the shoe rack to see if my host mom’s heels are sitting on the top shelf. Nothing. At first I’m confused– my host mom normally gets back to the apartment before I do. I pull out my phone, ready to text her, but then consider the fact that this is the first time I have actually been alone in my home stay family’s apartment, and potentially even the first time I’ve been alone since arriving in Hwacheon three weeks ago.
I put my phone down and instead head to my room and change into a pair of sweatpants. Then I plop myself onto my comforter and pull up Netflix on my laptop. I start an episode of The Office and then pull the sheets over my face, content at the idea of closing my eyes and listening mindlessly to something for a little while.
I make it just to the end of the theme song when I hear the click of the apartment keypad and the sound of the door swinging open. “Hello Teacher!” comes the friendly, bellowing voice of my host brother. I quickly pause The Office and plop myself up. My host mom peeks into my room.
“Are you sick?” she asks.
“Just tired!” I reply, as brightly as I can muster. She gives me a sympathetic nod and then gestures towards the kitchen.
“Let’s have a meal!” I flash her a hesitant smile and then follow her.
Mealtimes have become a lot more flustering for me than I had initially anticipated. While I knew that avoiding beef and pork would open my diet up for questioning, I hadn’t realized how much attention people would pay to me as I physically went through the process of eating. I tried asking for seconds at home when possible, but once I grew full, I could see my host mom’s face grow with concern, mentally taking notes about the food she thought I enjoyed and the food that she thought I was less than impressed with.
In school, when I couldn’t finish my rice, or decided I didn’t want as much kimchi, I could feel the other teachers give uncertain looks to my plate. Sometimes, in front of me, they would turn to each other and ask aloud in Korean, “She doesn’t really like Korean food, does she?” Every now and then, I could catch it fast enough and assure them that I actually really enjoyed the food, but other times I would grasp their conversation seconds too late and just be left flustered and self-conscious. I was beginning to approach every meal tenuously, wondering what I needed to say or how enthusiastically I needed to eat to show that I loved the food I was eating. Perhaps more than any other time of the day, mealtimes were making me nostalgic for independence. Eating alone, I realized, meant eating without an audience.
My host mom places some seaweed soup and curry rice in front of me. It smells so delicious, and I can feel my stomach grumbling. I feel guilty; I know most of the attention is coming from a place of care and concern, and I truly want to show my gratitude. I wish my cheeks would stop burning from the awareness that I was being observed.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’ve just come back from a meet-up with the other ETA’s. I hadn’t realized how fun it would be to catch up with them, and talking with them also reminded me of how quickly time was passing here. Already, a month had passed by in my placement, and I had made only flimsy efforts to accomplish my individual goals. I had been enjoying my placement so far, but I know now that the time had passed for me to keep using “settling in,” as a mental excuse to not do the things I wanted to.
When I enter the house, the only person in the living room is my host dad, a large soldier with a thin layer of hair and round glasses. He gives me a friendly smile. My host dad speaks almost no English, and seems a bit too confident in my Korean abilities, speaking quickly and lengthily every time we interact. Today though, I am able to catch what he’s saying. “Would you like to come to the gym with me?”
I almost instinctively say yes, eager to be as open and accommodating as possible in a new place. But I stop myself before I speak– remembering that I’ve never really liked working out with other people. Whatever I gain in company seems cancelled out by the feeling of being watched as I figure out how the machines work, or as I become unreasonably tired within minutes of starting to workout. I imagine a gym full of people, glancing up at the foreigner struggling with the weight machines and shudder at the thought.
Still, exercising doesn’t sound so bad, and could definitely give me the sense of accomplishment I’ve been craving outside of the workday. There’s a track across the street from the apartment where we live that usually seems pretty empty. “I’ll go for a run, actually,” I tell my host dad. I quickly get ready and exit the building with him. When I arrive at the track, I am relieved. There’s no one else there.
I start with a short jog. By the time I reach half way along the track I feel tired and out of breath, my legs already aching. I am very, very out of shape, I realize, and again feel relieved no one is around to watch me. Still, I push myself to make a few more laps and then call it a day. I’ll come back tomorrow and go a little farther, I tell myself, knowing that I will probably not do this at all.
But the next day comes, and after work, I’ve found myself out on the track again. And back again the following day. And the day after that. Each day I go a little bit farther. My host mom notices my new schedule and is intrigued. “Wow! You really like running. So strong!” she says admiringly one day when I return from the track.
Not really, I think, certain that my pace barely qualifies as jogging and that I do not really enjoy exercising. But still, I find myself outside on the track after work every day. It’s nice being out of the house in a town this small, where the air actually smells like trees and the river. And while I love my students and host family, and I can’t help but feel relieved at being alone for a little while in the day.
As the week passes, my resolve to run increases to enthusiasm, although I’ve started to become a little physically tired from the routine. That Friday, after a long day at school, I come home exhausted, and decide to take a short nap. A few hours later, I’m awakened by my host mother; it has already become dark outside. “Let’s have a meal!” she says brightly, and I enthusiastically follow her.
“Are you going to go on a run?” My host mom asks kindly after dinner.
“Is it safe? It’s getting dark outside,” I question back.
“Very safe! There’s no problem at all,” my host mom assures me, looking almost confused that I had even asked, much to my surprise. Even in college, being completely alone out in the dark made me nervous and jitterish. At home my parents wouldn’t have allowed it. I’m hesitant at first, but my host mother is so calm and unphased by the prospect, and I would like to have that time outside. Finally, I muster up the energy and decide to head out.
I approach the track, and it looks as peaceful and empty as ever, perhaps even more so in the evening. The river is glowing from behind the bleachers, street lights reflected onto the black water in shimmering yellows and reds. The sky is clear enough that it’s covered in stars. I’m struck with how remarkably beautiful it is in this small area. I shake my arms and legs down to my toes to get rid of my nerves, and then begin running, at ease and comfortable in the cool night air.
As I make the second turn though, I spot two figures walking along the track. My heart starts to race and I slow down to get a better look at my new companions. It has been over a month here in Hwacheon, and I still haven’t gotten used to the “stares,” and the self-awareness that accompanies them. My mind flashes back to the students who came up to me and pointed at my skin, the word “black” slipping out of their tongues, running away before I can say a word. I think of the old men who have stopped me on the street in Seoul, in parks, in town. “Africa? Africa? India? India? Where are you from?” they insist, not even waiting for an answer. I even find myself remembering the slightly more innocuous eye contact from soldiers and residents wandering in town.
As I get a little closer to the couple, I can make out that they are an older pair. But if they can see anything unusual or different about me, they don’t show it. In the darkness of the night, I wonder if they can see me properly. I certainly cannot see them all too well. I stay on the track for thirty more minutes, lapping the ahjussi and ahjumma a few times before returning to my apartment.
For the rest of the month, and the time after that, I come to the track after sunset. The weather is cooler, the sky more beautiful, and I feel startlingly inconspicuous. Sometimes children are playing in the track, or several old couples are taking hour-long walks. On some occasions, couples decked out in head to toe extensive workout clothes are running alongside me. And every now and then I am alone.
But I find myself not minding so much whether people are there or not. In the night, regardless of what is actually true, I feel that I am unnoticed, so I act like it. Some nights, I run for long, long periods of time, happy for the space to think to myself after a long day. Other times, I give up in 5 minutes, lie down on the grass, and marvel at the stars. My self-consciousness ebbs away slowly and this freeness spills into the daytime. Stares become background. Meals become mine to enjoy and times for shared conversations. I look forward to my minutes on the track every day.
Now, as winter approaches and thick sheets of snow began to cover the ground outside my window, I know that running beneath the stars has become more and more impractical. I take solace in knowing that it can be something to look forward to in the spring. For the time being, the idea of entering the gym feels far less intimidating than it did several months ago. For the few weeks I have left, I’ll appreciate the simple goodness of my time outside. In the nights, I put on my long sleeves and tug my hat over my ears and move forward, step after step with the kids and the ahjummas and the ahjussis, all of us dark silhouettes blending into the night.