The Beat January 2003
This Saturday I follow Caleb as he makes the rounds through our neighborhood. All up and down our street, ajummas sit gossiping, shucking garlic or picking persimmons off trees. Caleb greets each group but is intent on a specific place. We reach a courtyard entrance and he clicks the ringer. The gate swings open and an old man pops his head out of the front door to greet us. Caleb bows, takes off his flip-flops before leading me into a bedroom where a high school girl sleeps off last night‘s study session. Caleb proceeds to shake the poor girl, and when that doesn’t work he pulls her blanket off and grabs her hair, saying, “get up” in Korean.
Sometimes when I walk down in our local market strange men and women yell to me, “Caleb’s Papa!”
This weekend is a two-day trip to the countryside with my kids and mother-in-law. My mother-in-law carries three packs with her. One is a change of socks and underwear. The others are food and drinks. Each bag seems to weigh as much as me, filled with fruits, candies, and canned drinks. I offer to buy lunch but she shuffles away before I can insist.
Most westerners believe Korean women are naturally weak and helpless. Korean girls enforce this stereotype through excessive diets and knock-kneed, finger-sucking mannerisms. But not long after the first child is born, a stout ajumma replaces the flimsy little virgin. In place of the timid girl is the aggressive, blustering woman we submit to on subways.
So we sit down on the train and my mother-in-law begins opening bags of goodies for us, tossing emptied bags into the aisle, stuffing pear peels into torn vinyl seams and the net pouches attached to each seat. Like all old Korean women, she refuses to believe someone might not be hungry. She wakes me up to offer me apples, peaches, pears and persimmons, then three kinds of juice, a beer and soy milk before finally allowing me sleep. My son has picked up this Korean habit. Two year-olds in America are greedy. My child will climb on my chest and force-feed me.
Its 9 pm and we‘ve returned home from a five hour train ride with our two sons. Our oldest crawled over seats and demanded candy and cola for the whole ride. The youngest has a cold.
We approach our home’s front gate with children, backpacks and boxes. Oddly the store is closed, but I hear the faint pulse of hands clapping and voices howling. A light shines out from beneath the door leading into our spare bedroom. My wife is mumbling emphatic tones, shaking her head and hissing. I follow her into the next room, where she kicks in the bedroom door. Standing on a small dinner table, my mother-in-law is wailing out a trot, shaking her arms and hips. Surrounding her are old women clapping, cheering and toasting. The room is covered with empty soju and beer bottles. Upon another table are three gas burners frying black Cheju shit-pig.
I head towards the scent of burning grease. But then the room is silent. My mother-in-law‘s face wears the look normally reserved for guilty teenagers. The ajummas have fled. I sit down, eat, and empty soju bottles into an unused shot glass. Jang-mo-nim collects beer bottles, appeasing my wife‘s newly cultivated temper.
A female friend from Michigan arrived in Busan about three months ago. She is a tall, robust girl with impressive breasts and thick curly hair. Needless to say, the average Korean man is possibly intimidated, by both her physique and intelligence.
But love comes when least expected. Two Korean men are now obsessed with her. One is a divorced playboy with a Russian fetish. He is apparently fascinated with my comrade‘s breasts, as is the occasional taxi driver telling her “boobs number one!” This man‘s height places him at a convenient point of view.
The other man took her out last week. He said he liked her because she was sexy. I‘d not warned her of the Konglish translation – sexy girl. She figured it out. After dinner her date suggested a video-room. One hour into the movie she went to the WC. When she returned, her date lie stretched out on the vinyl couch naked, smoking a thin cigarette and smiling. “I love you,” he said. She tossed him twenty thousand for cab fare and went home.
It’s 11 pm, we‘re all sick tonight, sitting on the heated kitchen floor watching Korean soaps and blowing our green running noses. I’m listening to wind rattle the splintered, dry-rotten window frames. Outside the store wash-water from neighbors’ kimchi tubs freezes to the tarmac. Vegetables stiffen, seem to wilt, but in two days will be bigger and greener, in front of me on the little floor-table with a dish of peppered dwenjang and samgyeopsal.
The metal store gate screeches its welcome and in hops a snot-nosed ten year-old neighbor girl wearing sandals, shorts, and t-shirt. She skips to the door, grins and bows. “Dad wants liquor and cigarettes,” she says. Then she stumbles back out, cradling two bottles of soju, two packs of cigs, and an ice cream cone.