“Teachaaa, Christmas you solo?”
1. Korean people for some reason use the term ‘solo’ when referring to being single.
2. This was the most frequently asked question by my students in the month leading up to Christmas, their eyes widening with a mixture of horror and sympathy when I nodded – in Korea having a girlfriend or boyfriend is essential, but having a girlfriend or boyfriend on Christmas Day is essential with a capital ESS.
“Teachaaa, to be solo on Christmas is HELL,” was the most common Christmas greeting I received when my students entered the classroom.
I mulled over my students’ words as I walked the streets on Christmas Day, hand-in-hand with my non-existent boyfriend.
I raised my head in the face of the icy air slicing at my cheeks to check whether I was at the right place. A sign above me which read “Beautiful Cats” in Korean told me I was: a cat cafe – a coffee shop in which cats of various colours, patterns and sizes strutted and smirked while you sipped on your coffee and stroked them. I hate cats, but I figured since I was alone it was fitting to be surrounded by cats.
The themed cafe was packed with people. Before I entered, I braced myself for the doubly-hard stares: not only a foreigner, but she was solo too.
Inside the heavily-heated coffee shop, I headed straight for the counter to order my coffee – buying at least one coffee was your admission fee into any of these themed cafes, whether it was a cat, dog, sheep, tarot card or one of the many other themed cafes found in Korea.
While I waited for my usual café-mocha-with-no-whipped-cream, I took in the coffee shop: All around me cats pounced on tables, jumped off chairs, uninterestedly snacked from their food bowls and chased one another on wooden ledges randomly attached to the walls.
There was a fake tree planted to my right with wooden boards attached to the branches. One greyish cat with black stripes perched majestically atop one of the boards, staring out unblinkingly through its jewel eyes over the coffee shop, as if it owned the land. On a board to the left of this cat, a brown-grey cat lay fast asleep; it wore the faintest smile, as if it were dreaming of bathing in a tub of warm milk while feasting on liquorice mice.
Here and there the tree was wrapped over and over in fine, cream-coloured rope, providing perfect scratchy surfaces for the cats, but making it look more like it was bandaged from the injuries sustained by their clawing of the tree’s body.
I collected my coffee, purchased a small packet of cat nibbles and turned to search for a table when the assistant grabbed my hand.
“Rule.” She giggled at her attempt to speak English.
“Oh, okay, what are the rules?” This was beginning to sound like a board game.
1. Do not let the cats drink your coffee (why would I do that?!)
2. Make sure you feed the cats with an open palm instead of pinching the food with two fingers, if you want your fingers to see the next day (should have gone to a dog cafe).
I resumed my search for an open table, but there were none, so I made my way to a wooden platform on the floor where the fake tree was planted. There were people already seated on the platform, some who also didn’t have a table, others who didn’t want a table and just wanted to mingle with the cats.
I removed my shoes before I stepped on the platform, a Korean custom which has become second nature to me, slotted them in the neat row of boots, Crocs, heels and sandals already beside the platform, and sat down.
There was a fluffy, white cat crouching not far from me. It looked like a crouching cloud; I definitely wanted to play with that one. I called it using my sweetest tone of voice. It blinked and walked off.
I turned instead to a plump, brown cat relaxing close to the fake tree. It yawned, displaying its miniature, white daggers, licked its snout and looked at me sleepily. I hesitantly reached out for its head. Its black ears fell back suddenly beneath its fur before it bolted.
I temporarily gave up trying to play with the cats and looked around at the other customers who seemed to be getting along with the animals happily. Couples were taking selfies with the cats, their limbs splayed (the cats’) from being squeezed awkwardly for the perfect selfie.
One girl sipped at her coffee quietly while in her lap two cats napped, embracing each other. She looked like she was trying to sit as still as possible to avoid disturbing their sleep. Not too far from her, another girl gripped a pink and green stick-toy which she shook violently in front of a grey cat, egging it to play. The cat’s eyes followed the toy in sharp, precise movements, its tail drawing pictures in the air, while its paw swiped at the toy with increasing aggression every time it missed.
Just then a customer yelped behind me. I whipped my head around to see her waving her hand frantically at my forgotten coffee, as if she was swatting away flies. But instead of flies, she was swatting away a ginger cat, who was helping itself to my coffee. I hurriedly shooed the cat away and checked to see if the cat police were eyeballing me since I had broken one of the rules, but no one apart from the lady behind me was paying attention. The cat merely stared at me and continued to lick the remnants of the café mocha from its snout. I looked down at my coffee. It was newly garnished with five, fine cat hairs.
I grabbed the coffee to take it back to the counter away from the cats’ reach, but just as I was about to stand, a confused storm of scurrying, scraping and hissing broke out somewhere above me before something heavy crashed on my head. I rubbed my pulsing neck and looked up: two cats were playing Catch on the wooden ledges attached to the wall and both lost control as well as their footing, but which one was responsible for my aching neck, I wasn’t sure. I noticed that most of the customers were staring at me.
“Gwenchanayo,” (I’m okay!) I said, laughing awkwardly, and they giggled and returned to their coffees.
Just then I spotted the same cloud-like cat not too far from me. I’ve got you now. I gently reached out for the top of its head.
It took a swipe at my face. Which animal does not want to be stroked?!
I was left with no choice – I pulled the cat nibbles out of my pocket. The sound of the crinkling packet did it. Like Korean girls to a mirror, the cats swarmed from near and far, their eyes locked on the packet gripped in my hand. I suddenly grew nervous as about ten cats crept closer and closer to me, their tails slicing the air in slow motion.
I opened the little packet. The stench stinging my nostrils and staining my fingers told me that it was a chunk of fish. I chose the cat closest to me and the most patient-looking, and lowered my hand to its mouth, careful to position my palm facing upwards at its mouth. While it ate gently off my hand, I stroked its furry head. Finally!
I felt a slight tug at the packet of fish in my hand, which because of my crouching, was close to the ground. The ginger cat was trying its luck. One of its whiskers still had a droplet of coffee hanging from it. I opened the packet and handed it some fish, which it lapped up greedily. It looked at the packet longingly.
“Sorry, buddy,” I said as I handed out the rest of the fish to the other queuing cats literally licking their lips.
When the cats realised the snacks came to an end, they retreated to their napping spots and forgot about me once again.
That was enough cats for me for the day (for the year). After giving my hands a thorough scrub in the bathroom, I pulled on my winter layers once again and walked out.
My leg got smacked by a metal rod, sending a pulsing pain through my body for the second time that day. It was a blind man who was trying to find his way, presumably into the same building. He mumbled something frantically in Korean before walking straight into the door. I took his arm and attempted to pull him in the right direction. And that’s when I noticed a second blind man holding on to the first blind man, and the second blind man was held by a third blind man. All three were brandishing metal rods and muttering over one another.
It was a lot more difficult than I expected to direct them into the building; the three men somehow formed a sort of circle, and soon I found myself stuck in the centre. What followed was a rush of confused shouting and bashing of rods (mostly on my legs), until I pushed through the men, grabbed the nearest arm and pulled hard through the open door. They were in. I didn’t know if that was where they were intending on going, but they were in.
I watched as they proceeded into the building, ensuring there were no further hiccoughs, and took a moment to take in what just happened.
I felt as if I had just run a marathon. Exhausted, I headed home, my students’ words replaying in my head as I walked:
“Solo on Christmas is hell…”
Maybe they’re right.