I knew the first day of camp would be a success before it even started. That’s because my middle schoolers were making gingerbread houses. And gingerbread houses are edible projects. And edible projects plus always-hungry Korean students are a recipe for a successful camp.
But of course, one should not merely rely on a project being edible for a camp to be successful; a successful camp is still very much dependent on how prepared the teacher is.
The night before, I walked to a small shop to get the ingredients: M&Ms, chocolate-coated nuts, jelly worms, biscuits, marshmallows and miniscule star and dinosaur decorations. I pictured the delight on my kids’ faces as I picked each item from the shelf. I would be a hero. The greatest thing since Psy. I walked like a champion to the till with my basket of goods.
On the way, I passed an ajumma who stopped in the middle of lowering a packet of sugar from the shelf to peer inquisitively into my basket. She moved her eyes from my basket to me, then hobbled over, stopped inches from my face and raised her left hand slowly (her right hand still clutched at the packet of sugar). For one bizarre second I thought she was going to slap me. She didn’t. She rested the back of her hand on my face and gently stroked it. Her face broke into a warm smile as she did so and without saying a single word, she turned and continued with her shopping.
I gave myself a few seconds to let whatever just happened to me sink in and then proceeded to the till to pay. I left my 10 000 Won note on the counter while the old cashier scanned all my items. Just then another ajumma appeared at my side and placed her goods and a crisp 10 000 Won note on the counter just next to mine, completely ignoring the queue behind me. But I was the only one who seemed to care about this.
With my mind still on the queue-jumping ajumma, when it was time to pay, I mistakenly pushed the ajumma’s 10 000 Won note to the cashier instead of mine.
Not even my mother shouted at me like that ajumma did. She waved her arms in the air. She pointed fingers. She banged her fists on the counter. Neither of us was listening to the other; she screamed at me in Korean while I apologised in English and Korean over and over again. The old cashier and the other customers just watched. I could feel my face growing hot. I didn’t know what was worse –
1. Being scolded by a tiny ajumma
2. Being accused of stealing 10 000 Won (R100)
3. Being scolded for stealing 10 000 Won (a mistake), which could have been avoided had she not jumped the queue (not a mistake)
When I showed her that my note was lying right next to hers and therefore mistaken for my money, she finally gave up and left me alone. I paid (with my money) and left.
My kids’ eyes lit up when I walked into class the next day. They made a bee-line for the bulging packets clutched in my hands and spilt the contents on the table. They looked at me confused.
“Sam-Sam, where is eggs?”
The eggs were still in the shop. I had forgotten the most important ingredient. Without the eggs the houses would fall apart.
My school is located in the countryside. A one-way trip to the closest shop is 20 minutes. Their lesson was only 90 minutes long. I had no choice but to run. It was 32 degrees outside; sweat dripped from you when you stood in the shade. But I ran. And I ran. I didn’t stop running until I reached the small grocery shop.
It’s no wonder the little, old shop keeper looked so terrified. I barged through the door clumsily as a result of my urgent running, sweat was streaming down my forehead and back like mini waterfalls, my hair was sticking up at odd ends and my heavy panting filled the small, dark shop. I ignored the terrified glances of the shop keeper and scanned the shop. I spotted an orange sack containing three eggs hanging by the counter and grabbed it. I could tell the shop keeper was terribly confused: the running, the barging through the door, the sweating and panting, only to grab a sack of three eggs?
“1000 Won,” she mumbled hesitantly as I put the lonely sack of eggs on the counter.
That’s one dollar to you and me. I opened my wallet and my blood went cold. I didn’t have the dollar. I unzipped the coin section of my wallet and counted:
100 Won, 200 Won, 300 Won, 400 Won, 500 Won…almost there, 600 Won, 700 Won…please God, 800 Won, 900 Won – bloody hell.
100 Won short. I can’t tell you how much that is in Rand because it doesn’t even exist in Rand. I looked at the shop keeper. She looked back.
I felt the slightest tap on my shoulder. I turned my head, but no one was there. I looked down and saw a shrivelled man seated in a wheel chair that was far too big for him. He must have been at least 90-years-old, and it looked as if someone had soaked him in a bath for four hours. He had about five strands of white hair which were neatly combed to the side and his eyes were barely open as he stared at me. He was dressed in hospital clothes and he had a drip connected to his arm. I didn’t even hear him entering. Neither did I see him wheeling around the shop. His tiny arm was outstretched towards me. I noticed it trembled slightly. Something was clenched in his fist. I held out my hand and he dropped it on my palm.
It was a 100 Won coin. I really didn’t want to take the ancient man’s coin. But I really needed those eggs. So I took it. And I got my eggs. Anyway, it would all be worth it when the kids made their gingerbread houses.
I ran back to school.
“I’ve got the eggs!” I yelled as I practically fell into the classroom.
I left the eggs on the table and flopped down in the nearest chair to catch my breath.
“Yes, what about it?”
“Ah, I don’t know English word.”
She took out her phone and typed the Korean word into a translating application. She gave me the phone.