25 May 2010

This 'n that

My regular camera may be a janky old brick with a memory card of comparable size and heft, but my sleek new Samsung cellular slide-phone has free satellite tv & radio, cartoon men in red Speedos that contort themselves into numbers when I dial, and a 2 mega-pixel camera that can email pictures.

Sometimes, my neighborhood looks like this:

The Buddha Street Festival, Jogye-sa Temple

A dragon boat lantern at the same festival.

A peculiar sight indeed, we backed away slowly after this ajumma selling bunnies in the subway station slapped a girl's hand away for trying to capture the image with her camera phone . . . the obvious reason to sneak my own picture.

One variety of the many aesthetically pleasing man-hole covers that decorate the asphalt in this city.

Average height of Koreans: women, 5'2" & men, 5'8"

I'd like to think that my height got me a free dinner this evening when I wandered into a very local kalbitang (beef soup) diner after work. A middle-aged man sitting on the floor finishing his food and soju at the table near mine, greeted me enthusiastically. Then, via the barefooted waitress (she was in socks, and spoke probably seven words of English), he asked my age and height. I told him 29 (in Korean years; Koreans are one year old when they're born), and 183 cm. Again, via the waitress, he told me he was 155 cm. We continued this exchange, me smiling, shaking my head, shrugging my shoulders, and looking exaggeratedly confused, saying "Hangul anio!" (No Korean!) after every other sentence, for the next five minutes, with his every other gesture being that of the universal measurement for height. Thankfully, he tired of his one-sided conversation, and went outside somewhere. I pulled out my book (Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles by Simon Winchester), drank my Hite, and kept my head down until my food arrived. I'd barely finished reading one page and swallowing one mouthful of the kalbitang before the man came back inside. This time, he didn't think my book and beer were company enough, so he got comfy right beside me. I was only slightly annoyed that this short, inebriated, yet friendly and excitable Korean man with NO English skillz invited himself to my table, and then proceeded to take my chopsticks out of my hand and poke at the kimchi. My first reaction was "holy shit, this dude is about to eat my dinner." My second reaction was, "holy shit, this dude is really about to eat my dinner." Korean-style dining is very communal, with everyone eating off of the same large dishes in the middle of or across the table. I really like that, actually, that it is expected for everyone to share everyone's food whenever you go to a restaurant for a meal. Remembering that made his behavior a little more acceptable, but I still thought it odd that this man I had met less than ten minutes ago considered me a close enough acquaintance where he could just use the chopsticks that I had just used and help himself to my side dishes. Possibly sensing my unease at the situation, he never actually ate anything. He left a few minutes later, while I half read my book and half humored him with some nodding, smiling, and shrugging, in response to his endless string of Korean commentary. As he departed, he bowed and said "Kamsamhamneeda" ("thank you") three or four times, then walked out the door. Relieved, I tucked into the steaming bowl of soup, and filled up as fast as the scalding temperature would allow, trying to avoid another exhausting conversation if the man decided to return. When I got up to settle the bill, the waitress indicated, with big smiles, pointing, and gesturing toward the table where the stranger finished his own meal, that the small awe-struck Korean man had paid for my meal as well.
Perhaps it was the 183 centimeters. Or maybe it was because I'm a foreigner. Either way, he's the first* stranger to ever buy something for me. People say you always remember Your First. I think it's safe to say that his generosity will not soon be forgotten.

*It's not true! On Saturday, during a bye at the Bids on the Beach hat tournament in Busan, a couple of tourists were asking me about ultimate. They noticed the absurd amount of tall beers being consumed by the players at this athletic event, and decided that I looked thirsty. They ran off to buy me a beer, and actually came back and gave me a beer! I wasn't thirsty after that.


matt said...

i very strongly considered applying for a teach english in korea program for this next year. i did, in fact, decide against it, for various reasons, but every time you post, i question that decision a little.

and i'll always remember the people who have been kind to me in my travels. they're often the best part of the traveling.

alex said...

If you get yerself into a decent teaching situation, where your boss treats you like a person and your working hours are regular, ESL in Korea is a pretty sweet gig. What did you do instead? I'm always lookin for ideas for The Next Chapter...

matt said...

it did sound like a sweet gig... i just didn't see it heading in quite the direction i'd eventually like to head, because i already mostly have the education experience it would have added to my resume.

i promise, i actually rarely think that consequentially. case in point: what i'm doing now. instead of working the weed control job i'd lined up for the summer, i'm spending the next couple months on my bicycle... without much of an itinerary. well, and sort of looking for a job for when my money runs out.

i should maybe be asking you for ideas for the next chapter. i for sure at least want to hear what convinced you korea was what you wanted to do. email me?

alex said...

I don't have your email address!

matt said...

sorry -- i was forgetting blogger doesn't show an email address,but just links to a profile. it's stebbins[dot]matt[at]gmail[dot]com