It was sometime during my first month in Korea. The country was still a different planet to me. I still thought kimchi tasted like the underneath of a shoe, I still found it easier to stab food with a chopstick than use them properly and I still thought Korean looked like a modern form of hieroglyphics.
But I wasn’t the only one struggling with newness. My co-teacher, now my former co-teacher, couldn’t pronounce my surname after days of practice and eventually gave up and christened me under a new name.
“Kitty, I want to take you somewhere. I want to show you Korea.”
“Where are we going?” I asked hesitantly.
“It’s a surprise.”
It’s a surprise. This is what they said to me at my very first teachers’ dinner and then presented me with live squid.
He asked to meet me in the parking lot of a bank. He waited in a sleek, black car. Through the tinted windows I could see the silhouettes of two other people.
I thought their attire would help me in deciphering the destination, but I was mistaken. One of the two men looked as if he were going to a wedding, while the other looked ultra casual in a yellow and black checkered shirt and faded black jeans.
“Hi, I’m Sam.”
“Aaaaah Sam, nice to meet you!” they both yelled in unison. They reminded me of an upside down, Korean version of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
“We go together! Ready?” Tweedle Dee asked me as he buttoned his smart, black coat.
“I think so.”
As we drove, the buildings of the city gradually disappeared while the trees gradually thickened. The three of them chatted all the way, every now and then throwing in an English word to let me know they hadn’t forgotten about me.
It felt like we were driving for hours, but finally they started slowing down. I couldn’t read the English sign board in time – Ya-something-Village.
As I type this now, almost three years later, it’s silly to think that what felt like an hour-long trip was actually just a trip to Yangdong Folk Village, a quaint and well-known village not even 20 kilometres from where I live.
We got off at the entrance to explore. It reminded me of the Shire. Hilltops were peppered with matchbox-sized houses. Some had thatched roofs while others had my favourite kind of roof, the one which curls towards the sky. Some had cracks running through them like tiny veins while others looked like they were painted the day before. Some had washing hanging out to dry in their unkempt gardens while others stood boarded up in silence.
As we wandered through the village, we stumbled upon a persimmon tree. The branches of the tree were drooping with bulging persimmons which were probably ready to eat a few days before. A frail woman was bent over at the tree, and at a snail’s pace she was picking all the fallen persimmons and depositing them into a rusty wheel barrow. The colour of her face matched the persimmons in her wheel barrow. She noticed us watching her when she bent to pick another persimmon. She bowed and flashed us a toothless grin. Without saying a word she chose four of her best persimmons and hobbled over to us.
“Kamsamnida.” I bowed my head slightly and took the persimmon. It felt like its juice was going to explode with the slightest wrong move. I carried it carefully as we walked on. My co-teacher, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum were already gobbling theirs down. They noticed I wasn’t eating mine.
“KITTY, why aren’t you eating your persimmon?”
“I’ll eat it later”
“No Kitty, eat it now. We are making a memory now!”
It may just be me, but I find when someone makes you so aware of the fact that you are in the process of making a memory, it kind of takes away the magic of making that memory. But I wasn’t going to bother arguing with the persimmon police. I tried to take the neatest bite of the persimmon, but the juice exploded on my face. Orange liquid ran down my hands and into my sleeves, instantly making them sticky and smelly.
“Sam, do you know kimchi?” asked Tweedle Dee, trying to wipe away the orange stains around his mouth. Because I had only been in Korea for a month at that time, this question didn’t make me want to stab my eye with a chopstick like it does now.
“We will eat kimchi jeon! It’s a kind of Korean pizza, but with lots of kimchi!”
It sounded awful then, but now it’s one of my favourites.
We made our way along a disappearing downward trail, hidden by bushes, rubbish and fading light, and suddenly I grew slightly anxious. It led us to a dim-lit, poky room. If someone told me it was a toilet, I would have believed them. But it was a restaurant.
All that was in the restaurant was a single rectangular table which had a few cups and utensils on. Directly opposite the entrance was the tiniest door I’d ever seen; even I would have to bend to walk through it. The tiny door slid open minutes later revealing a middle-aged woman. She ducked through while balancing a large plate of kimchi jeon and a jug of barley tea. Everyone dug into the jeon and giggled at me as I tried and failed to grab a piece with my chopsticks. The tiny door slid open again and the woman ducked through. She gave me a pitiful smile. And a fork.
Someone appeared in the doorway. A large man in a sort of dress. He was in his traditional garb. He didn’t know us, but he joined us. He fished in his pockets until he found what he looked for. The large man placed the small, silver flute to his lips and played while we ate. My co-teacher, Tweedle Dee and Dum continued as if there was no large man in a grey dress playing a flute while we ate, and for the rest of the evening all that could be heard was the clinking of chopsticks, the sleepy Korean tune and the bushes dancing outside in the wind.
All I thought of at that moment was my co-teacher telling me, “We are making a memory now!”
And that I was.