bit o’ kimchi is a series in which I catalog short visions of ordinary life I encounter in Korea. (Actually, this one is more of a "longer vision" - let's call it "pot o' kimchi.")
Over the Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday a couple weeks ago, I went hiking in the mountains behind our apartment complex. We’re lucky to live on a mountain. There are several trail heads within a five minute walk of our front door. While I like to hike just for the sake of hiking, I often use it to recharge in the middle of the day during holidays and weekends. On non-teaching days, I spend nearly eight hours at the computer writing and use a nice 30-60 minute hike to recharge from the computer.
The Chuseok holiday offered us an amazing five-day weekend. On one of these days, I went hiking by myself and told James that I’d be back in an hour to make lunch. I love spending the time in silence, leaving my cellphone and iPod at home.
On many Korean trails, you will come across natural springs with safe, drinkable water. These are often marked by a sign and will even have drinking bowls available for use. There’s one particular trail James showed me a few months ago and it leads up to a natural spring. So, I made my plan to hike up to this spot, enjoy some refreshing water from the root of the mountain and then hike leisurely back down.
On this particular day, I was especially worn out from the morning’s work (probably because I’d been working like that for four days straight because of the long holiday), and really needed some open space and silence.
I hiked for a while, passing a few Koreans, many in jovial moods from the weekend of drink and abundant food. Soon, I could hear rushing water and the trees became very dense and everything smelled green. Things were freshly cleaned from recent rain.
I nearly got to the bridge to cross over to the spring when I heard a Korean woman shouting. At first I ignored this, assuming she wasn’t talking to me. Then, I heard a tentative, “Hello?”
She then proceeded in Korean – I couldn’t catch enough words to understand what she wanted other than I thought I heard her say “저거” which is a way to refer to something far away (but usually within walking distance…as opposed to the word for this thing right here, or that thing right by you). I didn’t understand why she needed me, and kept politely waving her off and declining because I was nearly at my delicious spring water and my silent resting place. I could see the spring from where I was standing, about twenty yards away.
BUT SHE WAS INSISTENT that I follow her back down the path I had just come up. So then I thought that maybe someone was in trouble or something. Or maybe she was in desperate need of help for some reason – though she wasn’t hysterical or anything – just very insistent. And also could not speak a lick of English other than “Hello.” She asked me if I knew Korean and I shook my head because I don’t speak enough of it to actually carry on a real conversation. But that did not deter her so I figured she needed help of some sort and reluctantly followed her down the mountain.
I followed her down the path and then we took another trail that I was familiar with and we started up a different portion of the mountain. Just as I was beginning to wonder where the person or thing in need of rescue was, we got to a rest area where an older Korean woman sat. The women waved at each other, spoke (I heard the word “foreigner” being exchanged), and then beckoned me to come sit with them.
Turns out they just wanted to hang with a foreigner. There wasn’t much we could talk about because they didn’t speak English and I only speak some scattered Korean words and phrases. Now at this point, basically at the exact time we arrived at the resting point, I really needed to turn around and go back down to the mountain to get home by the time I had told James. But I didn’t want to seem rude, so I figured I would stay a few minutes and then walk a little faster than normal. (Usually I hike at a very, very slow place and soak up everything around me – sights, sounds, smells --- another reason I prefer to do it alone.)
Well, they would not let me go. Not in a mean way, but they really wanted me to share in their picnic they had. That’s when (while partaking in their delicious food and coffee) I tried to explain I needed to meet my husband. I knew the word for husband (남편), but at first they didn’t understand me because my accent sucks. Then, they didn’t believe me because (from what I could gather) they thought I was too young to have a husband. HARDY-HAR.
Eventually one of them took out their cell phone because they remembered they had a translator. The translator (as with most computerized kinds) sucked and only made them more confused.
So now at this point, I am thinking I am going to have to sprint down this mountain to make it back on time. Both James and I try to be diligent about returning by the time we say, that way we know when there might be trouble.
Finally, I used the translator to say “I must cook. I must go home and cook. My husband is very hungry.” I didn’t want to say this because I was afraid it would come across like my husband was some sort of control freak and I’m constantly sensitive of the impression I am giving to Koreans because there are already so many misconceptions about foreigners. But alas, it was my last resort other than to just straight up leave. So I pulled the hungry hungry husband card.
They laughed a lot but then nodded in a knowing way and let me go. Just like that.
I jogged down the mountain and then sprinted through my neighborhood and I was only four minutes late. My butt was sore for three days from the down-mountain sprinting.
Although this situation is a little more elaborate, I’ve had similar experiences before. For me it can be hard because I don’t like the attention. I prefer to blend into the background and it’s impossible to do that here since I am clearly a foreigner. But this experience we special because I’d never encountered such a stubborn and kind lady before who would stop at nothing to get me to come to her informal picnic.
Ahhh, ex-pat fun times.
At least I got delicious food and good exercise out of it.