First published here: http://infusion.fulbright.or.kr/warmth/
It wasn’t a real job because the English Teacher was never hired, never paid, never depended on. Her pay came instead in the form of a little warm feeling of comfort that tasted just like a crunchy fish-shaped pancake filled with sweet cream.
The owner of 김밥천국 1 Johnny and his wife used to be English teachers, and maybe that’s what made her return every day; the need to communicate with ease about anything, or nothing, at least once a day. Johnny’s somewhat mournful musings on life, marriage, and politics injected just enough life into her October evenings to put a thin barrier between the English Teacher and the clawing anxiety, whose relentless hands painted dark, threatening streaks across the landscape of any quiet moment, strangled the words in her throat, and switched her beating heart with cold metal. After hardly speaking to anyone all day, how could she make small talk, in Korean no less, with her carpool companion who was head teacher and host-father, on the ride home that never seemed to end? Just drop me off in town please, I’ll see you later.
Peeking her head inside the plastic flaps at 5:30pm, she exhaled a cheery 안녕하세요2, willing the iron replica of her heart to pump blood into her cold hands. She watched over Johnny’s shoulder as he stirred MSG into 카리덮밥3 and 치즈라면4, hoping one day she would be able to remember the specific formulation of every menu item so she could be a real help. Predictably, her time in the kitchen ruined her appreciation of small 김밥집 cuisine, but she would never tire of pouring the batter into the fish-shaped cast iron, and trying to create the perfect, golden brown snacks.
The English Teacher made the mistake of leaving 김밥천국1 too early that day. 7:30pm had come and gone, so she would have to wait for the 8:05pm bus. The temperature had dropped making no apologies to her nose, so she ambled back along the sidewalk away from the bus stop, unsure of where to get out of the cold. Before reaching the crosswalk, she glanced to her left and spotted a tiny florist shop. It was the kind of shop she always passed on her way to somewhere else. She would often peer inside, squinting through a haze of leafy shadows at the tiny potted cactuses and single roses enfolded in dainty brown paper. Florists shops in America had never seemed as magical as this, and she felt like an intruder window shopping into a secret garden. She was always wishing for a break in time that would allow her enter the otherworld suggested in the window. I would be happy if I could just have a cute little windowsill plant to love, she often mused uselessly.
On a whim, the English Teacher pushed open the door and tiptoed into the shop, thinking she could avoid the cold just like she was avoiding her anxiety, not forever, and not until the bus came, but just for right now. Exploring the little warm shop would eat up a few slow minutes, and the bus stop was only a few steps away. However, on entering she realized the shop was even smaller than it looked from the window–so small, in fact, that the owners spotted her immediately, and the English teacher had to explain in her childish, halting Korean that she was just trying to get out of the chill while waiting for her bus.
Shrinking into the ‘foreigner’ garment that, though it felt both too big and too small simultaneously, was becoming a familiar part of her wardrobe, and pointing her nose at a few plants in a show of looking around, the English Teacher thought about her reasons for spending evenings at 김밥천국 instead of studying Korean. She remembered a time when she claimed studying Korean as one of her main reasons for moving to Korea, but lately she avoided even speaking to her host family when possible. Shame made her feel small. At home in America her skin seemed to fit right most of the time. She was used to coming off just a little too sensitive, awkward, self aware, and off-beat. Here though, her skin felt too loose, like the seed of herself was shriveling up and disappearing. Fortunately, her thoughts were interrupted as the mother shop owner beckoned her to sit on the heated platform in the back of the shop.
On the TV a drama was playing. The English Teacher accepted the seat gratefully and perched next to the mother. The father, thin and tall, hair starting to recede and wisping up from his head, crossed his arms in the back corner, detached curiosity flickering in his eyes. A woman stood next to the mother, the daughter, of indiscriminate age. Her ponytail said she cared more about the substance of things, and the tangerine peels falling from her hands scented the air of the shop with a subtle tang. They all had forgettable faces, but as the family asked her the usual questions about teaching and her life in Korea, and together they mused over the antics of the drama characters, the iron trap around the English teacher’s heart released. Inhaling deeply into the new space in her chest, she asked who was the villain of the drama, and why was he searching for a key? When they pressed tangerines into her palms, the mother and daughter’s hands were as warm and soft as the skin on a sleeping child’s neck. The English Teacher’s heart nestled into this warmth and tangerine sweetened her tongue. Koreans are truly remarkable, she thought, not for the first time. Heart beat peacefully ticking off the seconds, the air tingled with the sound of a tiny bell on a string as she pushed open the door and waved behind her. 안녕히계세요7. Stay in peace.
The next evening, when The English Teacher passed the florist on her way to the bus stop at the more reasonable time of 8pm, she stopped and gave each of them a warm fish pancake with sweet filling. She had made them herself.
- Kimbap Cheonguk
- Annyeonghaseo: Hello, literal meaning “do in peace”
- Curry rice bowl
- Cheese ramen
- Kimbap Cheonguk
- Cheese ramen
- Annyeonghi keseyo: “stay in peace”