Sunday, September 28, 2008

Slurpin', Shiverin', Shilleh Hamnida

If you take a pair of boxers from the washing machine, suspend them on a hanger on the front of a pedestal fan, and let them blow in the wind like an eccentrically designed flag, they’ll dry in about three minutes. This may come in handy if you’re ever ten thousand miles from home and don’t have a dryer. I’m just sayin’.


Last week, at the beginning of one of my classes, a girl of about six came up to me and started petting my forearm as if it were a cat. She was enthralled. I pulled away, confused. Then I realized: Korean men have no hair on their arms.


Ray has been living in Mrs. Kim’s late mother’s house, which is as far above my apartment in size and quality as mine is above the dorm. Now the family is selling the house, and Ray says he’s happy to be moving back into the dorm, because he can save a tremendous amount of money: his Internet and heat are paid with a simple $90 deduction from his pay each month. For all the dorm’s faults, the ugly little rooms will be cozy as Bag End in the winter.

I’ll have to pay my own bills, and the heating bill may be enormous. It’s getting chillier already, and Daegu gets down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. For that matter, there’s a two-inch gap between the window and the right-hand sill over the tv to allow the cables to come in. I told Heeduk about it, and he’s going to have George and Manager Yeung see if they can find something foamy and insulationesque to stick in there.

I have been bequeathed a heater that resembles a pedestal fan. It makes things nice and toasty for a six-foot radius. Even so, I probably will need to put plastic sheeting over all the windows, keep the heat down, wear lots of layers, and hope my hands don’t shiver too much to shell out all that money.


When I first got here, I didn’t mind picking up my cup of soup to drink it, but I was careful to not slurp. Don’t want to be the ugly American, after all. But then I noticed that everybody slurps: it’s good manners, as it shows how much you’re enjoying the food. So now I’m learning to slurp. It’s kind of liberating, in a way.

However, an awful lot of men hawk and spit, and I think that’s one habit I don’t think I’ll pick up.


Korean currency is a funny thing. A thousand Won equals about 88 cents, so I was instantly a millionaire when I exchanged my dollars at Incheon Airport. The largest bill they have is 10,000 Won, so that made for quite a stack, though as I get nearer my first payday, it isn’t nearly as big a lump as it was. If I were paid my monthly salary in cash, I’d have to try to close my wallet on over 200 bills.

On the other hand, their denominations are different sizes and colors, so in that way they’re a lot smarter than we are.


Now that I have my alien card and bank account, I should have the ‘net hooked up at home in a few days. It’s been hard without it; I’ve missed chatting with friends, I’ve missed the collapse of both the US economy and the Mets (the two are equally important), and I missed the debate. I can’t believe Obama isn’t up by fifteen percent.

In 1968, my Uncle Frederick sent us a post card from Southeast Asia that said one thing: “Vote for George Wallace.” I thought, and I still think, that telling someone how to vote is the epitome of rudeness. But… please go vote for Obama as many times as you can. I’m Steve Cornman, and I approved this message.


At the track meet, I sat for awhile with some Americans, Nike executives who came up from Busan to see their wares in action. Sadly, the six-year-olds in China who actually manufactured the gear couldn’t make it. Anyway, the guys gave me a program and a beer and passed on some of their experience of living in Korea.

What one guy said stuck with me: Korea is a land of opposites that are equally true. It’s very, very hot in the summer (Ryoo, a girl I’m helping with her writing, says she saw a tire melting on the street in August) and very, very cold in the summer. The women are very beautiful and very… not. Their voices can be charming and can drive you up the wall.

More to my point, he said that Koreans are the most gracious and the rudest people in the world. He’s right: they can be very warm one-to-one, whether welcoming you to their homes or waiting on you in a store. It feels as if E-Mart has hundreds of salespeople, and they bow and say hello and would break a leg to grind your coffee or bag your vegetables. One doesn’t tip cabbies or waiters, because providing good service is part of being hospitable. But…

One of the first phrases I learned was “shilleh hamnida” (excuse me), but I have no idea why they have it in the language; I don’t believe any Korean has ever actually said it. People will brush by on the bus, bumping you hard, and not acknowledge that you exist. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the sidewalk toward two people talking, and one of them will seem to go out of his way to stand in mine. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, the grocery is mobbed; last night, I had a woman to my left and a kid on my right, and the little booger shoved my cart into her to get by. She never even noticed.

But when some little kid’s face lights up and he says “Hi!” in English, so proud to show an American he knows the word, all that is hard to remember.

No comments: