I exited the school building to the courtyard where the sun struck the ground fiercely. A group of students, unperturbed by the heat, were intensely occupied with a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to win a single packet of chips, which they momentarily paused to greet me. I said my goodbyes and hurriedly headed to the merciful shelter of the bus stop just outside the school entrance to catch the 150 home. The bus stop was already occupied when I reached it.
In my haste to get out of the heat, I tripped and stumbled clumsily, almost knocking over the teacher who was already there hiding from the heat. I was still new to the school at that time and had seen her around, but this was our first time properly meeting. I wished I did a better job at creating a first impression than by knocking her over at the bus stop, but it was too late for that. I apologised awkwardly about five times and then greeted her.
But she wasn’t great at first impressions either. I didn’t receive an ‘annyeonghaseyo’, or a ‘gwenchanayo’ (it’s okay); in fact she didn’t even give me a sliver of acknowledgement. Instead she searched in her bag and found her earphones, which she smashed into her ears, then crossed her arms and turned around, leaving me to stare at her back.
Maybe she didn’t hear me.
“Annyeonghaseyo!” I repeated, a little louder.
“Annyeonghaseyo!” came the animated voice of a homeroom teacher who joined us at the bus stop and clearly thought my greeting was aimed at her. I returned her greeting, bow and smile and watched as she made her way to our mute colleague (who ignored my second annyeonghaseyo).
“Annyeonghaseyo!” the homeroom teacher sang to her.
When the homeroom teacher got nothing more than a bit of blinking in return, she looked at me, quite happily, as if she wasn’t just completely ignored, motioned with her index fingers to her ears and said in her usual singing voice, “she music like very very” and then continued humming to herself.
This unusual behaviour became a daily pattern: I would say hello and she would reply by ramming her earphones into her ears and looking the other way. Once, however, she decided to change things up a bit:
I remember it was raining so hard you could barely see beyond a metre in front of you. Clutching my umbrella, which was about as helpful as a sheet of paper in the downpour, I ran to the bus stop. She was there. She was always there before me.
“Annyeonghaseyo,” I said, only to receive my usual no reply.
She fidgeted with her bag, but didn’t fish for her earphones; instead she picked up her bag. And left the bus stop.
She chose to stand about two metres away from the bus stop, in the pouring rain, to wait for the bus. She didn’t have an umbrella with her.
I had ruled out racism, xenophobia and the possibility of my body giving off a pungent odour that day the homeroom teacher received the same harsh treatment, but what could possibly make her choose to leave the bus stop and stand two metres away in the downpour over standing under the shelter with me?
The tiny (really tiny) bit of optimism in me spoke up:
1. Perhaps she saw the bus approaching and decided to get ready to embark.
But there was no bus.
2. Perhaps she saw one of her friends walking to the bus stop and went out to say hello (she must really like this friend to leave the bus stop and meet them in this weather).
But there was no friend.
The 150 finally arrived, saving us both from the awful awkwardness and the rain. Her clothes were drenched and stuck to her body and she left a trail of water all the way to the first empty aisle seat she could find. I took the aisle seat opposite her and watched her from the corner of my eye. She carried out her usual routine: hunted for her earphones, plugged them into her ears, folded her arms across her chest and stared out the window intently until the bus approached her stop.
As the bus slowed, she rose from her seat and turned her back to me so that she faced the window on the right. At the same instant the bus came to a complete stop, she jerked and slipped on her own trail of water, lost her balance and fell backwards onto the seat opposite hers, which is where I was seated. It was like everything happened in slow motion. I watched in horror as she flew backwards, arms flailing, over my armrest and onto my lap, where she just lay for a few seconds blinking up at my face.
Without saying a word to me, she clumsily rose again (this time from my seat), set her soaking hair back into place and rushed (this time carefully) off the bus.
Weeks had passed since that rainy day. I checked the time and at four-fifteen I made my way to the bus stop. I waited about two metres away from it to save her the trouble of exiting the bus stop upon my entering, which had become her new daily pattern. While I waited for the bus I occupied myself by staring at the ground.
“Sam…do you like music?” came a foreign voice behind me.
I jerked around at the sound of the voice, not only because it was like a gunshot in the long silence, but because the voice belonged to her, the teacher who spoke to no one. Her voice was a little rough, but animated and friendly. And she spoke English, well. With this exciting new development I almost immediately forgot what she asked me.
“…do you like K-pop?” she prompted.
Ah yes, music.
“Not really…” I said hesitantly, worried that my answer would jeopardise our blossoming friendship.
“Me too!” she shouted, her face brightening. We even had something in common.
“I like many kinds of music,” I said.
“Have you…,” she paused and screwed up her face as if puzzled by a very difficult maths sum, “…heard…,” she let out a loud, almost bottled laugh and added, “ah, my English, terrible!”
She attempted the question again.
“Have you heard Blitney Spears? Do you know Backstleet Boys?” her voice quivered with a mixture of excitement and nerves as she tried to rattle this off speedily and without any mistakes.
I was barely listening. Up until this interaction I was convinced this teacher hated me, and now we were bonding over Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.
Once again she fished for her earphones from the depths of her bag. But this time she handed me one earphone, which I stuck into my left ear, while she stuck the other in her right ear. I had no idea how we got there, but there we were, sitting side by side, listening to a Backstreet Boys classic, while waiting for bus 150.