Friday, January 15, 2016

How We Met: A Reflection Not Colored By The Early Days of Grief or The Early Days of Love

August 2012.  I spent the first night in my new town listening to the wild winds of a typhoon beating against my unfamiliar windows. I awoke to thick, humid air hanging still as can be like a glass cake dome over the little town of Hadong; a place I had committed to calling "home" for the next year.

Hadong is a small farming town so far south on the peninsula it threatens to fall right into the sea if one shakes the map too hard. I had seen glimpses of rice fields and tiny buildings and an impressive river on the drive in the day before. I was eager to lace up some comfortable shoes and wander my way around the town's streets and back roads. I was ready to explore.

Hadong, Gyeongsangnam-do Province.
A view of Hadong from across the Samjingang (river). My apartment is the tall building.

The eyes one has when taking in a foreign place are special. Magical, even. I know this because as one returns to the same places over and over, they lose their mystique. The extraordinary becomes ordinary to the accustomed eye. If we could sustain the electric charge in the air, the vibrant translations our sight gives to every color on every sign, the way in which each stranger passed has a curious air similar to a celebrity seen in person, the absolute awe and wonder we assign to even the most ordinary things witnesses- if we could sustain this way of taking in a new place, we would expire from sheer euphoria. It is akin to visual Viagra and is a state of enhancement not meant to last hours into days into weeks without contacting a doctor. It is hyper-reality. For someone who loves adventure, it is a desired state often sought after by frequent moves across the globe.

This was my first such experience, not counting an 8-week stay in Vienna, Austria during university and a 2-week stay in Haiti a few years before that. Those were extended vacations. A life barely settled into before it was time to leave again. This was my home. I would go through several toothbrushes and make my way through entire family packs of toilet paper during my time in Korea. This was commitment. This was real.

Shoes laced and elevator taken down to the first floor from the 8th, I walked through the parking lot of my apartment building and turned left onto What-The-Heck-Is-This Street. I had close to no command of Korean language, so in addition to my eyes zig-zagging all over creation, they landed on Korean characters here and there and tried to make sense of what they were reading: 굿모닝마트.
굿 Gooo....Goos?...Goot...모 mo....닝 ning...마 mah...트 teuh. Goot...moning...mahteuh....GOOD MORNING MART! Haha! DID IT!

Just about 5 minutes into my new explorations, I spotted a whitey on a bicycle. I have since been told that it's not the best habit to get into to shout or even mumble "Whitey!" or "There's a whitey on your 2 o'clock" or something of that nature whenever I see a white person in Korea. It's just that it was a surprise to see a foreigner like me, and man, did he stand out. I would learn that there were only a tiny handful of foreigners, whitey or otherwise, within Hadong's town limits.

I watched him pedal closer and wondered what the whitey-to-whitey protocol was here in small town Korea. Do we head nod and otherwise continue on our way? Do we wave? Shout English greetings? Do we high-five or hug? Am I killing his "I'm a foreigner in a foreign land having a foreign experience" buzz if I acknowledge him or speak to him? I added this to the growing list of things about which I had no clue.

I did the best quick-judgement I could: Whitey. Late 40s? Bike-owner. That's about as far as I got when he rode right up to me, planted his feet down to stop himself, and said, "You must be Bridget! I was on my way to your place to bring you these flowers and welcome you to Hadong."

Ok. That was weird. How did he know my name? Or where I lived? Reveal your secrets, Whitey!

The first whitey- I mean foreigner- I met in Hadong.
This was the first of many things that would show me time and time again what a small town I lived in. In a place with only a handful of foreign teachers like myself, with one coming in to take over the job and apartment of the one before, we would all come to know each other very well. We are known by who we are replacing. "You're the new Melinda, right?" he said.

I was.

His name was David and he spoke with a lovely British accent. He was soft-spoken and warm, and I was eager to listen to words being spoken in a language I understood. David had lived in Korea for several years with his Thai wife, Lin, and young son, Solly. His apartment was the building next to mine, and he hoped I'd come round for a cup of tea sometime soon. (I would.) He also hoped I'd like the potted flowers he bought. (I did.)

I was hoping he'd be able to help me find a cup of coffee- was Starbucks completely out of the question here? (It was.) David told me there was a coffee shop nearby ("near the market") and he would gladly take me there. He walked his sporty red basket-ed bike alongside me and in under 5 minutes (one can walk from one end of the town to the other in 20 minutes) we were at the door to a coffee shop tucked in tiny, unfamiliar streets. Yoger Presso was a chain, and this particular location was owned by a sweet couple who previously had a bakery inside the middle of the largest supermarket in town.  They spoke very little English, and they were hardcore Seventh Day Adventists who thought my brand of spirituality was all but going to send me quick straight to Hell, but their warmth and attempts to communicate with me made their shop a favorite daily resting and writing place.

The owners of Yoger Presso frequently gifted me with all sorts of treats.
(Pictured here: a Korean pear and some traditional rice cakes)

David and I enjoyed a cup of tea and coffee, respectively, on that first visit.

Owners of Yoger Presso on the left, and Hadong Angel and Friend to All Foreigners, Go Myung Soon, on the right.
When I get stressed about the wild details of lesson planning and grading and making sure I teach enough things to prepare students for whatever is next in their education, I remind myself that what I teach them really doesn't matter. They likely will not remember a single lesson that I taught when they are my age. What they will remember, hopefully, is how they felt in class. They will remember if they were liked by me. If they felt safe. If they enjoyed being in my class. That is the real lesson.

I can't remember what David and I spoke about on that day. But I remember feeling relieved to have made a friend who was kind and who would be there to help me when needed. I remember that he gave me flowers. I remember that he bought me a cup of coffee. And I remember that he introduced me to Gareth.

Gareth, in a little shop, no less that 5 minutes after we met for the first time.

After coffee, David planned to walk home and meet his wife, Lin. I was in need of a pair of slippers for school, having read that shoes were traded for indoor slippers. I had no idea what indoor slippers really were or looked like, but David assured me there would be "loads" in the little shops in and around the market. After exiting Yoger Presso, we turned right down a small street. "Oh!" said David. "And here comes another one you should meet."

Gareth and David met a few times before; such is the small nature of the expat community in Hadong. Gareth, I'd learn shortly, had taken a bus from his town to ours to wander around a bit. Seems if our town was sleepy, his was perpetually in deep slumber.

"Bridget, this is Gareth. He lives in the town next to ours. Gareth, this is Bridget. She's the new Melinda. Just arrived yesterday." I really need Gareth here to pick up the story, as he always did when we told it. It included impressions of our witty banter, the details of which I can't recall, as it was his shining moment in the story-retelling. I got us to the meeting point, and he took over. This particular story and his way of telling it was always a crowd-pleaser.

What I do remember is that we traded some jokes about stranger-danger and we had some kind of handshake gone wrong that we both turned into something theatrical. I remember whatever was happening in this initial interaction between us was enough to be noticed by David, who remarked, "Well...I'll just leave YOU TWO alone!" I remember scrunching my face at him and not being sure what he meant by that- a comment better suited for two people whose harmless public display of affection rapidly turns into what those of my parents' generation called "heavy-petting." If Gareth and I were flirting with each other, I certainly hadn't been aware of it. I just knew that we seemed to instantly plug into the same language, whatever that was.

The photo taken moments before Gareth appeared. He must have been rounding the corner ahead when I took it.

David made a sudden escape. I shared the indoor slipper predicament with Gareth, and he (problem-solver and helper-of-others that he was) made it his instant mission to help me find slippers. We ducked into a nearby shop (see photo above), and while no slippers were found, we spent oodles of time in there finding and pointing out to one another printed English that had us in stitches. After a few years in Korea, only the most absurd Konglish garners a reaction like this; but in the early days, even one misspelled word or odd phrase was enough to double-me over.

It was this initial exchange that we'd both remember so well- the searching, the bringing to one another, the tears of laughter, the photographing, the searching again. I was not smitten. I was not makin' the moves. And I had zero plans to do any kind of dating of anyone, Korean or wherever this guy was from (couldn't quite distinguish the Kiwi accent at this point), during my stay. I don't even think I was consciously thinking about how well we were hitting it off. I was just having a blast.

White. Wait for it...
A Green Tree: Paradise is where I am.
Strawberry is made from love.
I do ok, I guess.

We popped into store after store looking for slippers, and after having success in this area, I invited Gareth over for tea, scrambled eggs, and toast made in a skillet. My culinary skills were few and my actual groceries on hand were fewer. Gareth remembers this being one of his favorite meals ever. I remember that he was wearing a giant backpack like he was going to hike Everest, that he was wearing black dress socks pulled up to his calves, and that he smelled a bit like a homeless person. A really funny and witty homeless person with a lovely accent, which I guessed correctly on the second try. (Sorry, Kiwi friends. I can tell the difference now.)

Like with David, I can't recall the specifics of my banter with Gareth. I can't recall the jokes. I can't recall the topics. What I remember is laughing and making him laugh. I remember that we were passing the pizza place when he told me that he was from New Zealand. I remember the corner where we almost parted and where I asked if he was hungry. I remember wanting to know what he was hauling around in that backpack, but not asking because I didn't want him to feel self-conscious about it. I remember wondering if all Kiwis smelled like homeless people, since I had only met one other in 1994 in Vienna, Austria and all I remember about him was that his hair was bright blonde and had little ringlets like Shirley Temple. My knowledge of people from New Zealand was more limited than my ability to speak Korean.

And I remember this. I remember long after Gareth left my apartment, when the events of the day were replaying in my head, I had a conversation with God. The same God that I assumed had something to do with me coming to Korea in the first place. The same God that sat back and watched as my placement to Seoul was thwarted due to a problem with the name on my diploma, causing my pre-Korea paperwork to have to be re-submitted and eventually causing my last-minute placement to the town of Hadong. I had a conversation with this God. And in it, I let Him know in no uncertain terms that I had ZERO interest in any kind of boyfriend during my stay here. I was quite happy alone, thank you. And...AND...I had things to do here. THINGS. I wanted to travel and experience things and DO things and we all know some kind of love interest would just get in the way of that, so WHATEVER YOU'RE THINKING UP THERE I just want you to know that NO. I am NOT DOWN for that. Got it?

Some could say I got a little bossy with God. Which is completely ok. He's used to it. And it seems to have no impact on the eventual outcome, anyway. But still. I wasn't sure exactly where God's face was, but I was giving it the stink-eye. I must have known.

I must have known. Somewhere deep down, I must have known. God had other plans. And four months earlier, I had clearly stated that yes, yes I was down for that. I was ready. So help me, God.

 A photographic tour of Hadong:

Walking path along the Samjingang (river), across the street from my apartment.

Hadong scenes.

Hadong scenes.
Entrance to Market Street.
Children. Market Street.
Ajumma. Market Street.
Hadong scenes.
Covered market area.

Hadong scenes.
Hadong scenes.

Bag of chilis.

Hardware store.

phone booths



Hadong alley.
Hadong bus station.
Cardboard recycling.

Fish. Cardboard.
Fruit stand.
Shoes for sale.
Students. School uniforms.
Grocery store.
Taxi drivers waiting for a call.
My favorite store window. Wait for it...
Hadong taxidermy.