First Impressions

Originally written December 4, 2015


Korean apartments don’t heat the air but instead warm the floor so don’t let a bag of chocolate drop from your fingertips when you first get in the door—it will melt; I know this; I’ve wept for it. The controls are obviously in the hangul character alphabet that I can vaguely remember and I thought I turned off the heat before leaving for Lotte Mart with Michelle (pronounced in the cute Korean accent like Michel from Gilmore Girls with that first syllable a long E instead of the usual short i). However, I’ve been on my feet so much since Tuesday at 3:00 am and they’re burning from either the floor heater or from the revolutionary experience of walking as a mode of transport.

I’ve been on my feet or on my ass and now that I’m in the apartment (Korean: apahtu as it’s an adopted word, truncated and with the r halved so it hardly rolls) being on my back is heaven. After catching the end of Mags’s Bloodborne rage stream featuring CollectableCat and Laurence the first vicar around 3:00, I wasn’t feeling sleepy. I just wanted to rest, relax, watch YouTube.

Then I lay down.

I didn’t get up till my alarm sounded at 7:15 pm, which I snoozed, and again, and again, till I absolutely had to get up to meet Michelle, the director of my school EIC. I’m guessing it means English Institute Center.

Michelle is the nicest lady in the world.

Korean culture puts a huge emphasis on feeding people to the point that a common greeting in Korea is “Have you eaten (last meal)?” and if you haven’t, even if you’re not hungry or if you plan to eat soon, they’ll drag you to a shop and buy you something. You better say you enjoy it or they’ll buy you something else too. That level of generosity isn’t uncommon. I saw it at my last school.

However, Michelle drove me to Lotte Mart, the Walmart of Korea mixed with Disney (Lotte World theme park and a line of programming for kids) and McDonald’s (Lotteria), because it’s about a 45-minute walk and they have a large selection in general compared to the Mom-and-Pop stores nearby, but they also carry Western food. I thought it was quite nice of her to show me the multi-level store so that I felt familiar and if I needed anything, she could point me toward it so I could buy it myself. I had the cash ready and my card too if I ended up needing a lot. 

Instead, Michelle told me, “I’ll treat this time.”

She said immediately upon entering the store, which put me in super frugal mode as I was spending someone else’s money. I examined all the brands, comparing price per unit, getting only essentials, striking luxuries like a router from my list, until I grabbed a shampoo bottle, small and cheap, and she took it from my hands and said, “Get the better brand. You’re so pretty, you want to smell pretty too.” And then she chose the big bottle scented like Lotus seeds.

She did this for everything.

She made sure I had lots of vegetables. She saw the meager list on my phone and added items of her own, promising to teach me how to cook sweet potatoes sometime and to give me a bag of her own rice at home because her parents grow rice themselves and it’s much fresher this way (the bag ended up being a 40-pound bag of fresh rice that I’ve stuck in the desiccate from seaweed packages so it doesn’t get moist and attract weevils). She pulled employees to ask where various items were then explained to them who I was and some of them also called me pretty by speaking Korean and framing their faces with hand-hearts.

It got to the point that I was refusing delicious things like mandu (Korean dumplings) because “I think I have enough for now, but thank you, thank you,” and I couldn’t say it enough really.

In total, it came to 217,000 won (for ease of conversion, I think 1 USD : 1,000 Korean won but it’s actually closer to 1 USD : 1,100 won).

Then since it was evening, she asked if I had had dinner already.

I hadn’t but I lied to be agreeable and to prevent any more generosity because I was feeling like I’d taken advantage of her. Thinking I’d just eat when I got home, I told her I went to the local store earlier for some potato chips, but she either didn’t believe me or thought that wasn’t enough to satiate me so she bought me a hamburger.

The problem with a culture built around niceness and generosity is that it can often feel forced, even fake. Asking “How are you?” in America when you don’t really care and they don’t want to share so they just answer “I’m good. You?” and you reply the same.

But Michelle’s generosity felt genuine because of the amount and the framing. The entire time she asked how the flight was, how my parents were, even remembering the anecdote I told earlier (my mom’s cheeks were speckled with wiped tears as she said bye in the Springfield airport then after I thought they left, they came back in for hugs and photos). Michelle told me how as a young girl she always wanted to be a writer too so she was excited I was here and wanted to hear about what I write. She told me about her husband and how they live separately because as a team manager, he has to live in his factory’s apartment complex with his team but that’s too far from EIC and their kids’ school so they now live separate but see each other on the weekends, which is also when their daughter comes home from Gwanju where she goes to high school (boarding school situation to prep for university). She told me how she started EIC in 1996. Small businesses usually fail after a year, and in such a competitive market, hagwons usual teeter on bankruptcy year-after-year so to last 20 years almost and to be the oldest hagwon and one of the first in the city is a huge accomplishment.

And I just listened to it all, asking more about it, sitting in the silence between stories thinking of how glad I was to be here already.

We were in Lotte Mart getting eggs and I asked if she wanted me to push the cart as it was getting full and probably heavy.

“No, no, I can do it,” she told me. “When I come with my husband, he always pushes it but today I’ll push it. Today, I can be your mom.”