Your mom and I traveled to South Korea the summer after we were married, and then twice more after that. We were there with six other Americans to teach English to school-age children at weeklong camps put on by the Gyesan Central Methodist Church in the northern reaches of Incheon.
I say “teach” but it wasn’t like I was recruited to provide any deep level of insight into, say, the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. While the other Americans in our group were able to impart some wisdom on how to remember all the backward rules of our English language, I was mostly there to be a spectacle: a goofy white giant for all the kids to climb on and joke about to one another.
No one ever really told me what they hoped I could achieve with the children, so I created my own measure of success. I decided I had been of value when, by the end of camp, the children could make fun of me with equal ease in both Korean and English. By this standard, I was massively successfully, if I do say so myself.
Even when they were not making jokes about me, it was apparent what a novelty I was to the people in Incheon. (Whereas when we ventured into Seoul, a far more international city, hardly anyone gave me a second glance.)
For instance, one of the kids at camp asked what my freckles were. That’s a damned good question, I thought. I tried my best to answer, but his puzzled expression made clear I was not having much success. After a few minutes of staring uncomfortably at my freckled face, he asked, “So, are you black or are you white?” I couldn’t believe there was a place on the globe where my upper Midwest whiteness was subject to any doubt, but I was glad to have found it.
Other kids were fascinated by my soft, curly blonde arm hair, so different from the coarser black hair of their parents and grandparents. I would be sitting on the floor during a group gathering with children gathered around me when I would notice something brushing up against my arm. I’d look down and see a six- or seven-year-old with a hand outstretched and hovering just above my arm, feeling the soft hairs. Though I’d quickly find an excuse to divert their attention to something else in the room, I loved that they were so curious.
It wasn’t only the children who were curious. Once, returning to our hotel room after camp, a couple rushed into the elevator after us, just in time to sneak through the closing doors. The woman noticed me immediately and shrieked, “Omo!” which, as I found out later, means, “Oh my god!” If the doors hadn’t already shut, I imagine she would have backpedaled and said whatever the Korean equivalent is for, “I think I’ll catch the next one.” The man who was with her wasn’t so easily frightened, though. He sized me up, looking down first at my feet and slowly lifting his head up the length of my body. When his eyes finally reached mine, he solemnly held out his hand as if in congratulations. I shook it, feeling extremely validated in my choice to grow tall.
There was an “otherness” to this spectacle, this way in which I was treated as an object of fascination and interest. Although I suppose I would have tired of it after a while, my differences were admired and respected in Korea. So many ‘othered’ people throughout history have been subjects of scorn and ridicule when aspects of their personhood do not match the majority. Thankfully, that wasn’t my experience, and I learned a lot from the Koreans we encountered about how to treat people who look or speak differently than I do.
But it wasn’t just me who caught the Koreans’ attention. Your mom was an object of fascination, too. She was a third- or fourth-generation Korean-American, depending on how you count it, with a Caucasian mother. Many of the Koreans loved American culture and were entranced by your mom’s deep roots in it. They wanted to talk to her about pop culture and reality TV and what it was like to grow up in America.
The Korean women were taken by her Anglicized features: her almond-shaped eyes, her wider nose, her lighter skin tone. We could hardly go anywhere without someone commenting on how beautiful she was. While I disagreed with Koreans about a few things, like whether fish soup is an appropriate breakfast food, I certainly agreed with their assessment of your mom.
The children adored her, too. The class I “taught” would be bouncing off the walls, loud and wild, laughing at me as I yelled out for them to calm down. Your mom’s class, meanwhile, would walk into rooms in a straight line, raise their hands to ask questions or for permission to use the bathroom, and quietly stare in horror at the boorish behavior of my class.
Though you were still a long way off our radar, I knew then that she was going to be a great mom, and that I would be relying heavily on her to teach me how to get kids to pay attention. Not sure I ever really learned those lessons. Thankfully, though, you are your mother’s son and my job is pretty easy.
Some evenings after camp finished, our Korean hosts would lead us to gigantic meals at restaurants that seemed tucked away into the most random of locations. We would follow the hosts up to the seventh floor of some industrial building, wind our way past what appeared to be a call center and a martial arts studio, and then suddenly we’d step into a room filled with the most amazing smells. On low tables sat heated bowls of a reddish broth and dozens of small trays of pickled vegetables and who knows what else. We’d all plop down on one of the cushions around the edge and begin to dig in.
Before we left for Korea, my friend Paul had taught me a phrase he figured I’d need more than any other: “Mul juseyo!” “Give me water!” He was right. After hearing me call the same thing out ad nauseum, the waiters and waitresses would just set before me whole pitchers of water. I probably averaged about three bites of food per pitcher of water.
An hour later, bellies full and mouths aflame, we would head off to some cultural event. One night it might be a visit to a bath house, where I would encounter a few more people not so subtly enraptured by the foreignness of my body, only this time it was worse since I was on full display. Another night it might be a trip to a local pub, where I discovered how much more fun it is to drink beer from a glowing pitcher.
Some nights we went with some of the college-age Korean camp helpers to do noraebang, which I discovered is like karaoke on speed. The Koreans led us into a room that they had purchased for a set amount of time, and one of them immediately started queuing up the songs using a large keypad controller. Another helper started yelling at an employee and I worried that there was something wrong, like maybe I had exceeded a noraebang height limit or something, until the employee came back with fried food and cheap beer. After settling in, and helping myself to a Hite or three, I graced the audience with a rendition of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” one of the many random English-language songs on the machine, and a Korean helper who was either completely tone-deaf or incredibly polite told me I sounded just like Elvis Presley.
The bulk of the night’s selections were fast-paced Korean pop songs performed by the helpers, whose enthusiasm for noraebang far exceeded that of us American visitors. It seemed like all the songs were being played at double speed, a feeling that was only heightened by the fact that our hosts often used a “skip” feature on the in-room controller to blast past any musical interludes that threatened to give a moment of respite from the frenzy. Just trying to get their most noraebang for their buck, I suppose.
As the night went on, I discovered a pattern in many of those K-pop songs that kept blasting in our small room: a guest spot featuring an English-language rap. Even after having consumed a few beers, I could tell that the rapping was terrible: words didn’t rhyme; the wordplay was boring and nonsensical; and the emcees flows were stilted.
Hey, I thought to myself. I could rap this poorly!
Thus my alter ego, MC Krazy Krump, was born. Throughout the remainder of our trip, I would turn my hat to the side and make up silly rhymes, hoping a talent scout was among the masses of Koreans staring confusedly at me. As you may have guessed, that never happened.
I could go on and on with stories about Korea. Someday I will tell you about eating fried squid at an SK Wyverns baseball game. Or about going to Lotte World, where we watched a theme park mascot sing “Like a Virgin” to a crowd of delightfully oblivious, cheering children. Or about our visit to a winter festival, where I signed up for a barehand fishing competition in a pool of shallow, freezing water, and discovered that the Koreans may not have accounted for me when they made a uniform described as “one-size-fits-all.” Or about trying to control the kid who opted for “Fireman” when the class was allowed to select their own American names starting with F (“Fritz, will you tell Fireman to stop staring at Francine?”)
Your mom always wanted us to take you to Korea someday. Before she died, I promised her that I would still do that.
So, someday, we’ll head back to Incheon and Seoul, and I’ll watch with pride as the Koreans we meet all become entranced by you, just like they were entranced by your mom. I’ll introduce you to the Korean friends we have kept after all these years. We’ll eat delicious food and yell out “mul juseyo!” together. We’ll make new memories as I tell you about all the good ones I had with your mom and our American and Korean friends.
When we go, you can ask me to take you anywhere, to see anything. If you wonder why I keep answering you loudly in awful rhymes, though, it’s just because you never really know when a talent scout might be standing nearby.
This was fun to learn more about your time in Korea. Great writing, as always. I felt like I was right there with you in the elevator. 🙂
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