The Last Foreigner on the Island

In Ulleungdo, Sister and I were people watching in the square. A Korean kid, upper-elementary age, pointed at me and screamed, “Oh my God, a foreigner!”

I pointed back at him and said, “Wow, a Korean.”

“Really?” he asked. I realized that the lack of subjects and objects in the Korean language made him think I said I was Korean. What a dumb kid.

He walked over to his friends and started pointing at me. They were all in shirts that indicated they were on some trip for some group or another, and that group was located in Gangnam. There was no reason for this kid to be shocked at the sight of a foreigner. I mumbled to Sister, “He’s never seen a foreigner before today? What is he, a country boy?”

The man sitting next to Sister puffed on his cigarette and said, “She speaks Korean very well.”

I shook my head no, Sister told him yes, and the man stamped out his cigarette and left.

***

At dinner at the fish market, a family was sitting at the table behind us. I turned around to look at something and saw the boy at the table staring at me. I held his gaze. He didn’t point or scream. Since I could tell he was curious, but he wasn’t being rude, I finally said in English, “Hi.”

“Hi,” he said. He said it normally, without pointing or giggling.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine thank you.” He turned to his parents, who coached him a little more, “How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

He paused. “Are you an English teacher?”

“No.” I smiled, knowing that would not be what he was expecting.

We continued on for a few minutes in English before I switched over to Korean and spoke with the whole family. They were from Anseong. “I’ve been there!” I said excitedly.

“No, no,” Mother said, “not Ansan—”

“Right, ㅇㅏㄴㅅㅓㅇ,” I spelled out. “[Good Man] and I went there for a…” I looked at Sister and said in English, “Festival?”

“축제.”

“Ahhh,” the father in the family said, “the Baudeogi Festival!”

“Yes! Anseong is so beautiful!”

Mother looked at me, “You and [Good Man] traveled a lot together.”

And we lied about it every time.

Death by Fan

At our motel in Ulleungdo, there are two doors, the main door and the door to the sleeping area. Mother turns on the AC and I close and lock both doors and close the windows. Mother freaks out over the window being closed. I say, “The AC will work better with the window closed.” I don’t point out that she only runs the AC for five minutes at a time and I’d really like the room to cool down.

When I wake up in the morning, the inner door is open. I know I locked it, so it couldn’t’ve drifted open by itself. I wonder if Mother believes in Fan Death but say nothing.

***

Mother keeps the house hot. Really hot. Eighty degrees and above hot. At night I sleep with a fan on. The fan is too far away to make much of a difference, but it does help a bit. Every morning, the fan is off.

Finally, one morning I say, “Mother, it’s hot. I need the fan on at night.”

“You will get too cold!”

“No, I’m too hot. I am sweating all the time.”

“You will get too cold if the fan is off!”

I nod. “OK, so do you want me to sleep without clothing?”

Mother shakes her head. “I have not been turning the fan off.”

“Who has been?”

Sister laughs. “A ghost.”

“Please tell the ghost I need the fan on.”

Mother shakes her head, “You need to leave the door open.”

I have never closed the bedroom door, because Mother has always kept the fan outside of the bedroom, but I don’t argue. “I will keep the door open,” I said, “and the window, too.”

“You are going to get too cold!”

Online, I tell Good Man about the fan issue. “I know,” he replies, “she believes in fan death.”

Searching for Grandmother

Mother likes to watch TV programs that make her cry.

My first day here, we watched a program (Love in Asia) about foreign wives, specifically Southeast Asian wives. A Filipina woman was visiting her family with Korean husband. The husband bought a younger sibling a laptop for school. Mother cried. I asked if she would have let Good Man marry a Southeast Asian woman, she said no way and then cried some more at the program.

Weekday mornings, there’s a program that follows one person, or a family, for the week. Last week’s program followed a 91-year old woman in Ulleungdo who dives for fish and seafood as a living. (These women are rapidly dying off and it’s pretty incredible what they can do.) As is typical in Korea, the woman was referred to as “Grandmother” throughout the entire program.

Mother and I watched the program together. Mother cried at times. I cried at times. And Saturday we headed off to Ulleungdo…

Ulleungdo Fishmarket

The first day of the tour, on the tour bus, Mother looked out the window and said, “This was the view from the program. Mother’s house is somewhere up here…

The first night, at dinner, Mother chatted with the waitress about Grandmother and her son (also in the program). The island population is small, so of course our waitress knew who she was.

The next day, before dinner, Mother left. I had been listening to her conversation with Sister, but I was sure I had misheard her. I looked at Sister, “Where’d she go?”

“Guess.”

“To find Grandmother’s house?”

“Yep.”

I laughed. “Really?”

When Mother returned before dinner, she proudly announced she had found the house.

We actually had two dinners that night. First we stopped for some gimbap for me. Mother chatted with ajumma at the restaurant about…Grandmother. Of course.

Raw, Moving Squid

Then we headed to the fish market so Sister and Mother could eat some raw seafood. While Mother was choosing the stall to eat at, I dipped my head down. “Mother, look behind you.”

Mother swiveled her head, “Is that her?” She turned to the fishmonger. “Is that Grandmother?”

“Yes.”

“아이고, 세상애…” Oh my goodness, oh my God…

Fishmongers

Mother went and introduced herself to Grandmother and all was good in the world. Unfortunately, Grandmother was not down with photos, so I have no proof that Mother really met Grandmother, but this happy look on Mother’s face says it all.

“아이고, 세상애…”

Bananas in an Olive Oil Sauce

Mother won’t let me cook (yet), and she’s afraid I don’t know how to use the subway and will get lost/die/be kidnapped/gorge myself of Dweji Bars if I leave the house alone, so all I’ve been eating is Korean food. For all of my bitching about Mother bitching about what (when, why, how, how much) I eat, she is trying to be accommodating. Of course, we only got there after Mother lectured me on how fabulous Korean food is and how I should eat it all the time.

I sighed and said, slowly, “Mother, in America we had one American meal. And then we had Thai food with rice. And then we had Korean food. In America, you ate more Korean food than American food. Right?” Mother admitted I was right. “I don’t only want American food. I want it sometimes.”

“OK.”

***
At breakfast, Mother told me to eat my vegetables. Breakfast was cabbage in an olive oil and vinegar sauce, cucumbers, pepper strips, apple chunks, and an English muffin with strawberry jam. I had eaten most of it, when she was telling me I should make a salad every day or breakfast.

I said, “But usually, in America, we don’t eat salads for breakfast.”

“Why not?”

I thought for a moment and finally settled on “it’s a different country.”

“What do you eat?”

“Cereal or oatmeal or bread [Korea’s idea of bread is nothing like America’s, but I don’t go into it], fruit, maybe bacon or eggs, juice, coffee… Sometimes we eat rice with milk and cinnamon.”

“Rice with milk?” Sister asked.

“[Good Man] hates it.”

Mother asked, “Fruit? What kind of fruit?”

“Apples, bananas, kiwis, strawberries…”

Mother disappeared for a moment and comes back with two bananas in her hand. She sliced the bananas over our salads. Then I watched with disbelief as she rolled her pieces around in the olive oil sauce.

***
Mother asked what I want to eat and I told her the truth: a sandwich. We settled on left-over curry and I forget about the sandwich. At dinner, Mother told me she’s made sandwiches. She handed me two slices of the darkest bread I’ve ever seen in Korea (which isn’t saying much). I looked at the filling. She’d cooked and mashed up potatoes, carrots, scallions, and onions. And this is a fine example of what Koreans think “bread” is.

I asked if she has any black pepper. She said we’ll get some at Costco next week.

***
We’re touring Ulleungdo and Dokdo. I knew that food would be included and I knew it would be seafood, seafood, seafood. I hate seafood and fish, with the exception of tuna (canned—I know), but I used to be a vegetarian, so I am used to eating what I can and leaving the rest.

We had some tofu with our lunch, and it was delicious. I asked for more and the server said they didn’t have any more. Mother pulled the server aside and said quickly and quietly, “My daughter-in-law is having a hard time with all of the Korean food and doesn’t really like fish. Can you please get some more tofu?”

Five minutes later, I got a huge plate filled with hot slabs of tofu, fresh from the kitchen.

***
We’re eating pretty much the same lunch as the day before, except now the soup is too fishy to eat, and I can’t bear the thought of a bowl of rice for the fifth meal in a row. Mother tells Sister to go take me to find a sandwich. Neither GS25 nor FamilyMart have sandwiches, so I pick up a jar of fruit salad, some string “cheese,” some crackers and some juice. I expect Mother to lecture me about the crackers, but instead she says, “Good, now you can have your cheese. And for dinner, you can have gimbap and we will eat raw octopus.”

Meeting Master (Again)

Last night I headed over to Tongil to visit Master and his family. I’m lucky I managed to escape alone, since Mother is afraid I’ll get lost on the subway, I won’t know where it is, and I’ll get so drunk I’ll blow all my money on a taxi coming home.

In fact, Mother told me over lunch that she wants to meet Master. I froze. “I am worried.”

“Why?” she asked.

“He knows all of my secrets,” I said. Like the fact that we don’t want to have kids.

“You have secrets? What secrets?”

But I had promised she could meet him next time. This time, I want to be alone. And she had finally relented, after I’d pointed out, on a subway map, where I would go and how.

Finally, a 70-minute ride across town, I walked out of the subway station and immediately felt at ease. Gwangmyeong is dirty, busy, and loud. I love it.

I headed up to the studio, stopping at the fruit stand I used to shop at to get a watermelon (~$12). It was a small class (because of the summer time) with four students and Sabeomnim the Man. Sabeomnim the Man immediately greeted me and we clapped each other on the backs. Then I heard a deep voice, “Amanda!” and then I heard screaming, “Amanda, Amanda, Amanda!”

I turned and saw the deeper voice was a student I haven’t seen in three years. I gasped. “You are so tall!” Then I felt hands on my legs and realized the screamers were Master’s kids. “I have gifts,” I said. I was surprised his kids remembered me so easily. Last time I saw them they were shy at first and then warmed up to me. This time they knew who I was right away. It warmed my heart.

I was a little early, and Master was busy prepping for an MT (small trip) that starts today, so I waited in the studio with the kids. They were just as I remembered, but taller. Daughter immediately got me some water. Son immediately took my camera. Then they fought over who should get the camera, and showed off a cup full of…something.

Daughter and the Fish (?)

Son

I looked around the studio, which has been greatly remodeled. On my last trip here, Master was worried because a new studio had opened up down the street. I had noticed it was still there, but the remodeling made me think it hadn’t affected Master’s bottom line.

Soon enough, Master was ready. We headed to his home and the kids tore into their gifts. Before I left America, I went out with my coworker who took the belly dancing classes with me. She’s a kindy teacher, and Master’s kids are seven and turning-six this year. Since she teaches kids who are five and six, I thought she’d be good to go shopping with, and she was.

We went to a local toy store, which is always far more interesting than a chain toy store. We picked out two hand puppets (a T Rex and a crocodile), and stacking game that requires no English, and some eggs that hatch into toys after being in water for two or three days.

Daughter immediately started trying to smash the egg open. “No, no, I said, we need water.” We put them in the water and I showed her how to play the stacking game. You have wooden hedgehogs (or maybe porcupines) that you stack them up as high as you can.

“Daughter, how do you say this in Korean?” I said, pointing to the animal.

She nodded her head. “고슴도치. 고. 슴. 도. 치.”

I held out my hand and she wrote the characters out for me. I repeated after her, “고슴도치.”

“Good job!”

Playing the Hedgehog Game

We went to the restaurant we’ve been to several times before, for dalk kalbi. In fact, this is where we had our last dinner together before I left for America, and it’s where we had our first dinner together when Good Man and I visited last time. I love this restaurant, and when asked where I want to eat, I immediately mentioned it. I paused and said, “After, I want ice cream. ‘My Mother is an Alien.'” Master laughs and I continue, “And I want soju. Mother told me not to drink, but when you meet Master, you have to drink!”

Master nodded. “OK!”

We walked into the restaurant. It was very busy, but when the owners saw me, they greeted me excitedly and asked where my husband was. Master explained that I was traveling alone and we settled down and started chatting about this and that.

When people in America found out I was going to Korea alone for five weeks, and was going to live with my mother-in-law at that, they’d say, “Oh! Well. That will be an adventure!” But the looks on their faces said something else, usually, “Hmm, I wonder if they’re having marital problems.”

At one point during dinner, Master’s Wife told me it is strange that I’m traveling alone without my husband. As a married woman, it is very weird. She is not being mean or rude, she’s simply telling me what other people are thinking, but won’t say.

I nodded in agreement and explained why I came alone. When I got to the part about wanting to get to know Mother, she said it’s a good reason afterall. I finished by pointing out, “I’m not going to meet another man. I’m sleeping at my mother-in-law’s house!”

Shortly thereafter, the server called out, “Whaa! I remember when Amanda first came here! She didn’t know a lot of Korean and now all of you are just speaking in Korean the whole time! Wow!”

Every (obvious) foreigner who chokes out a few syllables of Korean speaks Korean “well.” But to hear that improvement has been seen by someone who’s seen me sporadically, several times over the years, well that felt good, I admit.

I asked Master how the kids knew who I was. He said they remember me. I asked how. “It’s been a long time.”

“Amanda, you are the only foreigner I know,” he replied.

I looked at the kids. Daughter had found a comic book and was devouring it isntead of her food. Son was playing with the puppets. He had sparred with the T Rex so much, its head was already loose. Master took the puppet and looked at the tag. “Made in China.”

“I know. In America, everything is made in China.”

Sabumnim the Man, and Master with the T Rex

Condoms and Tattoos

One of Mother’s sisters and her daughter came to visit today. I met them both very briefly before I left Korea. We sat around, the three of them talking about my vacation plans while I nodded and offered up a “yes, that’s right” every once in a while.

I was surprised when I understood them while they were talking about varicose veins. It’s amazing how much Korean I remembered after only a few days in the country, although my spoken Korean is far worse than my listening or reading skills. Then Auntie got in very close and asked me about my health. She always does this—as if sticking her face very close to mine will make understand her better.

We had dinner together. Mother is obsessed with the idea that I eat ice cream every day, for every meal, and keeps telling me I need to diet. I don’t bother to explain to her that I refuse to diet for numerous reasons. She wouldn’t understand. Even if the words were crystal clear, she would choose not understand the reasons.

And it doesn’t matter, because Mother tells me to diet with her mouth. But in the next moment, her hands give me a huge plate of white rice, smothered in curry. When I am full and stop eating, she yells at me to eat more. Mother’s idea of a “diet” is very strange.

The three of them turned and all started talking to me at once. They wanted to know what I want to eat. I wanted steamed pig’s trotters. I wanted them last time I was in Korea, but we didn’t eat it, because Mother doesn’t like it. Mother asked if bossam was fine. “Sure,” I said.

While we walked to the restaurant, Auntie said to me quietly, “I like pig’s feet, too.”

“You tell her, please,” I said. Auntie is younger than Mother, but she’s not the daughter-in-law, so maybe Mother will listen. Several steps later, Auntie says, “We should get bossam and pig’s feet, since Amanda likes it so much.”

I whirled to look at her, jaw dropped, “You like it, too!”

***

Sister is working, and will meet us at the restaurant. I am practicing telling her something crazy Mother said to me today, while she dragged me hiking. I’m rolling the words over in my mind, when I notice the delivery guy pulling sleeves on his arms to protect them from the sun. The sleeves have a pattern on them so it looks like he’s covered in tattoos. I nod toward him, “His arms, he looks like a bad man.” “Bad man” is the closest thing I can think of to “gangster.”

Mother laughs, “Ah, like a tattoo.”

I pick up some meat with my chopsticks and smile. “I have tattoos,” I say, “where you can’t see them.” Mother’s chopsticks stop in midair, rice a few inches from her mouth.

“Really?”

“And [Good Man] has a tattoo on his butt. ‘I love Amanda.'” I nod, trying to look very serious.

Mother’s eyes are large. “Really?”

I laughed, “I’m joking. No tattoos.”

“Really? Promise?”

I get serious, “Mother, I’m just joking. No tattoos. I promise.”

She looks at me sideways and I think she might just strip search me in the middle of the restaurant to see my hidden tattoos. I look out the window to gauge how many Koreans are passing by, how many people might see my butt. I see Sister and run to greet her at the door.

I loudly, excitedly ask her about her day, so Mother hears me. Then I grab her in a hug and whisper quickly what I’ve mentally practiced. “This morning while hiking, your Mother talked to me about condoms. Shhh. It’s a secret.”

Sister stares at me like she can’t believe what she just heard. “Condoms?” I nod. “Oh my God, my mother!”

A Mistake (?)

Sunday night, just before going to bed, I started crying. “This is a terrible idea! Your mom likes me right now. What if she hates me in five weeks? And you’re so busy, you’re going to live off of ramyeon and bananas!”

“You are ridiculous!” Good Man said, with love in his voice. “You want to get to know my mom and sister. You need to speak only Korean with them for that to happen. If I am there, you won’t get to speak only Korean,” he said reasonably. “And I am so busy at work, I probably won’t even be home. I’ll probably be [at the other office] and there is no Korean food in that city, and the hotel doesn’t have a kitchen, so I can’t eat ramyeon.” He grinned at me.

Just a few hours later, the airport shuttle came to pick me up. Good Man worked the entire weekend and was exhausted. I didn’t want him to drive me to the airport because he was so tired. He waved to me. “See you in a month.”

I blinked back tears.

***

For some reason the flight attendants had told us when to close the shades, but they’d never told anyone to open them again. So when I arrived in Seoul at 3 pm, my body wasn’t even sure if it was daytime. When I got to passport control, the woman greeted me, stamped my passport, and sent me on my way. I had expected some questions about why I was there, or at least a warning that teaching English without a visa is illegal, but she said nothing. Was it my new, completely blank passport? Or did she decide warnings didn’t matter to anyone?

I easily found Mother. She greeted me, then immediately grabbed my stomach and told me I was fat and needed to diet. I rolled my eyes. “Have you been waiting long, Mother?”

In the car, Mother told me I needed to have babies. In fact, she wanted me to promise her two things: I would lose 10 kg on this trip, and I would have a baby next year. She held out her pinky, waiting for me to hook it with my pinky.

“No, I will not promise,” I said, struggling to find the Korean I haven’t spoken in so long, while simultaneously trying to think of a reason why. “In America, a promise is very, very important. Oh my, I am so tired.”

I closed my eyes. This was a mistake, I thought, I should have stayed home.

Money From Travels, Not All Mine

“Amanda!”

“Yes, Mother?”

“Please teach [Good Man] how to cook.”

I laughed, “Mother, he is working all the time. He is too busy. He needs a wife. But we did get some food for the slow cooker, and I wrote down the recipes for him.”

“Good, good.”

***

“Do you have any won on your desk?”

“No,” Good Man replies.

“Really? I could go to your desk and I’d find no won?”

Good Man blinks at me. He’s been working the entire weekend. “You go look.”

I smile and dump my makeup case of foreign coins on the table. “Sit,” I said to Good Man, “help me find the won.”

Good Man shakes his head, “You do not need help, you are good at finding money.”

I pick the won out from the euro, the Swedish kronor, the Vietnamese dong (which I seem to recall were illegal to leave the country with at the time I acquired them), Thai baht. Out come the dollars—Canadian and Hong Kong, the Costa Rican colones, the yen.

Those, I know how I got.

But I wonder how the 1929 Canadian penny ended up in my hands. I have a Deutsche Mark I found on a run (a few years after Germany switched over to the euro), and a pfennig, too. I’ve got some money from the Philippines, though I’ve never been there. I have quite a few pence. I have a coin from Iceland featuring a bull on one side and a cuttlefish on the other. I had a New Zealand something or other, but I think I accidentally used it in a vending machine and lost it the same way I got it.

A few weeks ago I opened up a roll of quarters from the bank. In my roll of US quarters was a Panamanian quarter, which seemed to be the same size, weight, color and composition as a US quarter. I did some research and it turns out Panama’s coins are based on US currency. In fact, we used to make Panama’s coins for them. So the quarter is the same size, weight, color, and composition.

I count out my Korean money and slide the rest of the coins into my makeup case. Perhaps I’ll use them in the future. Perhaps they’ll collect dust. Maybe I’ll sell them for scrap when the world economy collapses.

Dweji Bars

Mother is worried about health. “Amanda! Don’t eat ramyeon. Amanda, don’t drink cola.” I like Dweji Bars (ice cream). If I eat a Dweji Bar while I’m in Korea, and Mother sees me, she will scold me.

Yesterday, Good Man and I went to Great Falls National Park for a very short hike. I was practicing for my upcoming trip. “How do I say this?” I switched to Korean, “‘Mother, I am 30 years old. If I want to eat a Dweji Bar, I will eat a Dweji Bar.'”

Good Man shook his head quickly, “No, you can’t say that. Do you want to fight? Do you want to die? No, no, that is not the way to make good relationship.”

Big Red Buddy

“Maybe you can drive my car and not your Big Red Buddy,” said Good Man about picking him up at the airport.

“I haven’t driven my truck since you left,” I replied.

***

Last year my truck needed a new bumper to pass inspection. A year or so before that, my dash just died. (Going zero miles per hour while flying down the street, that was interesting.) A year before that, the front of my truck was sagging and I needed new something-or-others. When I first moved here, I needed new tires (it’s really amazing I didn’t kill myself driving here from Minnesota) and a bunch of other stuff.

I’ve had my truck for a long time. It was a gift from my mom when I graduated from college back in 2002. My mom was still paying it off then, so I finished paying it off. I didn’t even know how to drive stick, and I was on a time crunch to learn, since I started grad school a month after graduating from college.

It’s a ’99 Ford Ranger with no AC, no CD player, and not even a tape deck. It has an antenna. They don’t even build antennas on most cars any longer. It fishtails on snow unless I put an extra 40 lbs of weight over each back tire. It has no AC. I live in Virginia. With no AC.

I love my little truck, but I think I’m ready for a new (used) car. A car with AC. And a CD player or hookup for my iPod or something similar. However, neither Good Man nor I want to take out a loan for a new (used) car, and I want a fairly new (used) car, rather than spending $2000 on another old car.

Before I took my truck to inspection this year, I talked with Good Man. We decided if my truck needed over $500 in repairs, we’d seriously consider getting a new car for me, even if it meant taking out a loan.

Before inspection I took my truck in for an oil change, a new air filter, and some new wipers. That was under $100, and all maintenance, so it didn’t really count.

Then I got to inspection. In Virginia you need to inspect yearly to stay legal, and in Northern Virginia you need to pass emissions every other year.

“Your breaks are squeaky, but the pads are good, so they pass. You just need new side headlight and that’s it.”

I looked at the man. “Really?”

“Yeah, and I can do brake lube if you want, but for inspection, you just need new headlight.”

“How much is a lube job, headlight, and inspection?”

“Ninety-one dollars.”

I nodded, “But my car keeps rattling when I go over bumps. It sounds like something is going to falling off.”

The inspector looked at me with a sideways glance. “It’s an old car! Old cars are like old people. They rattle.”

I guess my Big Red Buddy is sticking with me for another year.

It’s a Ford. It’s never going to die.