Barely glancing the take out menu in my hand, I automatically dial the number I have so often dialed before.
This time it’s a man’s voice on the line. Sometimes a woman picks up, but today it’s some guy whose voice I also recognize.
Without my even saying anything he recites the address I am currently at.
Without my even thinking I say “재육덮밥 하나 주세요”
Without any response the man on the other end hangs up. I don’t mind. I know that soon someone will bring food directly to my office and I will pay him and he will leave and I will eat and place the dishes outside of my building and in an hour or so he, or someone else will come get them. The circle of lunch.
A Korean co-worker overhears my order and remarks “your Korean is improving”
“Well, it’s just my lunch order”
“Yes, but I can tell your intonation is very good”
This makes me laugh, “well, I order the same 3 or 4 things every day so I hope I’m good at it by now”
“So many foreigners don’t know how to order their own food, but you are very good”
“Thanks” I say, and we part ways to our respective work spaces.
In about 10 or 15 minutes someone will bring me food. He probably thinks I am fluent in Korean.
In the land of foreigners who often refuse to learn basic language skills to get by the foreigner who can order lunch is king.
Not that anybody would have, but if you would have asked me 10 years ago to name the least likely things I would expect to be up my rear I might have listed ‘the fingers of a Korean child’ somewhere near the top of my list.
Yet, here we are.
(If you don’t get this, read the description of the ddong chim game played in Korea, or for the urban dictionary definition click here.)
Just above my apartment, for the past few months, lives an elderly gentleman. Every time I am sitting outside my apartment, he seems to come outside at the same time. I have never spoken to him and he has never spoken to me. We always glance at each other, never acknowledge each other in any way, and eventually we both go back inside.
I sometimes wonder if that is my future, and does he conversely consider me as his past.
On the walkway next to my building there is a structure of garbage, and an elderly Korean man who continuously sorts it. Occasionally he takes a large bundle away, leaving the walkway to my house clear for a moment. He wears green camouflage cargo pants, a red t-shirt, and a black baseball cap…everyday. On cold days he wears a jacket, and occasionally he is a drinking. During the previous winter I considered bringing him one of my extra jackets that I no longer wear but didn’t. He might have felt obliged to speak to me the next time we see each other, and we see each other almost every day.
Across the slender alley from my apartment there is a pretty girl, seemingly in her mid-20s, who lives on the ground floor. I often see her enter her apartment later at night, around 12. Sometimes she is alone, sometimes she is accompanied by what I assume is her boyfriend. I’ve never really looked at him, but I think it’s the same guy.
Sometimes on the weekend there are children playing in front of my apartment in the alley way. They have taken the liberty of becoming my sporadic Saturday alarm clock; and if I hear them playing I can assume it is a nice day outside. One time I helped one of the smaller boys carry his bike up the stairs leading to his apartment. Mostly though I try to avoid the children on my way out.
Civility in a city is allowing people to live their lives without recognition, and without forcing upon them the requirement of having to recognize others.
It’s been a few years since I posted anything to this site, and about 6 years since this site was something I updated on a regular basis. After my year in Korea I left for Mexico for a year.
Then, after a year in Mexico, I came back to Korea and have been living in Seoul ever since. There have been a number of changes in my life since then.
The difference between moving frequently and living in one place for a while is one of growth. Staying in Seoul for 5 years has given me a chance to push myself personally and professionally in ways I didn’t expect a few years. Some things I have enjoyed growing, other things have become structures which need to be done away with, and some structures which need to be rebuilt.
It’s taken me a while to realize that.
Time to rebuild.