I might have just experienced the most bizarre, most rewarding hour of my life in Korea thus far. No, it was not the “Dead Poet’s Society” moment I’ve always dreamed of, where I inspire my students to burn their terrible Korean textbooks and jump up on desks screaming, “Oh Captain, my Captain.” Though this is still an ambition of mine, The Ajumma Experience was much more unplanned.
So, after a rather delightful dinner with two of the teachers at my Monday school, I was walking home in the freezing cold, which isn’t an exaggeration, because things are actually starting to freeze, and I remembered that I needed milk. So I go into this tiny, dusty convenience store that I walk by everyday and the ajumma at the counter starts screaming at me. Ajumma (literally translated as aunt), for those not in SoKo, is the the term given to a specific species of female person, over the age of 55. They’re known for their everyday hiking wear, tight perms and constant scowls. Korea doesn’t have many large, scary animals. The war killed off the bears and the cats, but the ajumma survived.
So this ajumma starts screaming at me and I’m standing there, terrified, about to put the milk back in the fridge and run for my life, when I realise that she’s staring past me at the large TV located above the rows and rows of ramen. I turned to see a heavily made up young woman, weeping and wailing into a telephone, while some violin strings crescendoed in the background. I have no idea what was happening in the scene, but in seconds, I was hooked. I stood in front if the counter, milk in hand, debit card between my fingers, being ignored by the woman behind me, but it didn’t matter, I was transfixed. Why was she crying? Why was the lazy-eyed girl so desperate to reach the k-pop guy and what would happen now that they were stuck in the elevator? All these question buzzed around my brain. After a minute or two of this, I felt a tap on my shoulder and the ajumma tore her eyes from the screen long enough to offer me a seat on the crates next to her. You know what? I took it. And there we were, just two soap-watchers, enjoying Ji Eun’s pain. At some point, a guy came in to buy smokes and was defiantly ignored until he gave up and walked out. This was serious stuff. Every once in a while, between yelling at the TV and making dramatic gasps (the latter done by me), my new TV buddy would say something to me in rapid, impassioned Korean to which I would knowingly nod, without understanding a word. About forty seven minutes after I walked into the store, it was over. I got my milk and we parted with the warm of smiles of those who’d just shared a special moment.
I might just go back next week to find out the pretty dude in the elevator ever got to the the girl in time. I sure hope so. For the ajumma’s sake.
In which I describe my journey to the tiny city (barely) of Goseong with an overuse of adjectives:
It started with me being late.
By the time the short security official was checking the inside of my thighs for missiles, I was already being called on the scary airport speaker system, so I didn’t really care that they confiscated my mouthwash (because all the cool terrorists are using mouthwash bombs these days). I hurried (harried), looking like a crazy backpacker, all the way to my huge business class seat, already stocked with champagne and steaming fluffy towels with which to wipe my hands.
The flight from Cape Town to Dubai was uneventful. I slept like baby in my huge business class seat, ate delicious business class food from real plates and received a fancy package filled with designer toiletries. Oh, business class.
Then a two-hour stop in Dubai (which was 32 degrees Celsius at 2am in the morning) before I was herded along with the other slaves into my tiny animal-class seat, where I was offered stale coffee and a lukewarm napkin which which to wipe the sweat off my brow. The stench of overcooked beef and old man feet permeated the air. The Korean woman next to me snorted back a wad of mucus before falling asleep on my shoulder and remaining lifeless for the rest of the 9-hour flight (including the time I accidentally punched her in the face as I struggled past her for a bathroom break).
After 18 hours of flying, I was elated to be in Seoul and even more so, when the customs guy checked my visa and said, “Welcome Teacher!”.
I have an occupation. A place in the world. No longer am I destined to warm my mother’s couch while watching New Girl reruns. High off jetlag and new found feelings of purpose, I headed to the hotel with my life in two and a half suitcases.
The hotel was standard, and served as a great introduction to the Korean bathroom system which involves a wet floor and water just EVERYWHERE. I may have broken the fancy toilet, which did everything apart from telling my future (no, seriously, it does everything). I was later told that Koreans don’t traditionally throw paper down the toilet – they put it in a bin beside it. This is something I cannot bring myself to do. I’m currently testing the limits of my home flushing system, trying to work out a compromise.
Anyway, back to the hotel. Where I barely slept and instead took advantage of Korea’s supafast internets by streaming episodes of New Girl (hey, you can take the girl off the couch, but… no wait that doesn’t work).
Needless to say, by the time I got back to the airport to be taken to my final destination point, I was high off no sleep, caffeine and raw terror. Which, is how all the great adventures begin… right?
Part 2: Road to Goseong coming soon.