It’s deadly quiet when I eventually step out into the icy Korean air at three minutes past seven to catch bus 150 to school. It takes me nine minutes to walk to the bus stop. Each one of those minutes is more precious to me than a mirror is to a Korean teenage girl. Because each of those minutes is a minute to myself. The last thing I want at that time of the morning is to converse with other humans. But there is always someone who wants to converse.
Like this Korean man who also waits for bus 150. The only English he knows is ‘hello’ which he uses for both hello and goodbye. So our conversations are less like conversations and more like games of charades being played with two very incompatible team mates.
We have the same ‘conversation’ every day. He wildly exaggerates the action of spooning food to his mouth and I nod to say I have eaten breakfast. He then pulls his coat closer to him and does a sort of trembling motion and I nod again to say, “yes, it’s cold.” He then pulls my ear phones out of my ears and puts them in his ears. He screws up his face and hastily smashes the ear phones back in my ears. Every day he checks to see if my music is any different (at least, that’s what I think he’s doing), and every day he looks at me, almost angrily, as if I am the one who asks him to listen to my music.
There’s an arcade vending machine next to the bus stop. Just behind the vending machine a silver, locked door is almost concealed. There is a small space between the door and the machine which is just big enough for me to hide in from him. Sometimes he finds me, sometimes he doesn’t. When he doesn’t find me, I watch him from the safety of my cave:
He swings his arms, away from his body, in circular motions. Koreans use any spare time they score to exercise, even if it’s seven in the morning at a bus stop. Sometimes he stretches his arms out so that his hands are in line with his shoulders and then he repeatedly claps his hands together, the clap as loud as a gunshot in the empty street. He reminds me of a human-version of those creepy cymbal-banging monkey toys. Once, he took my hands and clapped them together until they stung in an effort to make me join his manic clapping exercises.
Five of the longest minutes later an angel in the form of a green bus arrives. We do a silent “You go first, no you go first, no you” until I go first, while the bus driver just stares. The Korean man sits at the front which means I head for the back. On my way I pass my co-teacher who is fast asleep, her head leaning against the window and her mouth ajar. And I pass the ajummas who spend the 40-minute ride competing with one another over who found the best vegetables at the local market that morning.
My school is tucked away in the sleepy countryside of Gyeongju. Now and then the bus comes to a stop. People always get on, but rarely do people get off. A small, wrinkly Korean man decides to sit next to me. He smells faintly of soil and soju. Almost immediately he falls asleep. The bus stops again. This time a box of what looks like grass slides into the bus. The box is followed by its owner: a shrivelled, bent over woman supported by a stick which is slightly taller than her. She moves slowly, pushing the box with her foot and collapses into the front and last open seat. She is followed by a man who walks down the aisle, realises there are no seats and stands next to my seat, facing right. Which means his bum is a hair away from touching my face.
As we delve deeper into the waking country, the road snakes more and more and the bus driver hurtles along, clearly unaware that the road is winding. While my stomach churns, the old man next to me continues to sleep, his mouth slightly open and his face inching worryingly close to my shoulder. His scent of soil and soju is aggravated by the heater which is now turned on unnecessarily high.
We reach the tunnel in the road – the halfway mark. By the time we come to the end of the tunnel, the old man’s head is on my shoulder. The bus driver momentarily loses concentration and comes to a sharp halt at a bus stop. The man standing next to me loses his balance and his bum brushes the side of my face. The old man asleep on my shoulder jerks awake and grabs my thigh. He doesn’t look at me; there’s no trace of I-just-grabbed-your-thigh on his face. The bus starts moving again and he goes back to sleep.
My heart does a cartwheel of joy every morning when the face brick walls of my school appear in the distance.
When we disembark the bus we are greeted by a traffic controller, of sorts, complete with a nifty stick which he uses to signal stop and go – even though there are maybe two cars which drive past the school. I wait for his go-ahead before crossing the road with the rest of the teachers. I take two steps onto the road before my co-teacher grabs my sleeve and shouts, “SAAAAAAAM, it’s dangerous still!” I look ahead to the traffic controller who is now looking at something in the sky. I look to my right and see a dot on the horizon which is supposed to be a vehicle. When the car eventually passes, we cross – this time my co-teacher takes my hand in case I do anything else perilous. She doesn’t let go until we are in the safety of the school building.
It feels like the day started hours ago. It’s 7:58am.