Ajeossi

Words by Eden J. Jones

It finally happened. One of the worst things imaginable came true. At the time, I was living in a small, rural city called Naju, which lies about an hour south of Gwangju via the No. 160 Bus. After a fun night out with friends, I was spent and headed home. It was perhaps 10:30 p.m. when I flagged down what was probably the last purple bus of the night and stepped onto it.

As I entered the bus, despite being tired, I nodded my head slightly to the driver, greeting him with a polite, “Annyeong-haseyo!” The driver responded with only a grunt and tapped the card payment reader with his finger, indicating that I should pay and move on to my seat. By now, I had become well-accustomed to these grumpy ajeossis who drove the buses. They could be incredibly rude, but perhaps I would be grumpy, too, after an entire day of driving the same monotonous stop-and-go route. I sighed, scanned my card, and made my way to an open seat in the back of the bus, grabbing onto the seatbacks for stability as we jerked forward into the night.

Sometime later, I heard the automated Korean voice over the bus’s loudspeaker say the name of a familiar bus stop, shaking me awake from the nap I had been taking. I had only been living in Korea for about a year, so my Korean wasn’t great, but it was good enough to recognize certain words by now. I jumped to my feet in a panic, grabbed my things, and rushed to the front of the bus, calling out to the driver to stop. “Yeogi-yo, naeryeo-juseyo!”

The bus driver responded by breaking and shouting angrily at me in Korean for giving him such short notice. I quickly escaped the bus (and the angry ajeossi), my heart still racing. Victory! I thought, congratulating myself for not missing my stop. But as I stood there in the quiet center of Naju under the dim street lights, something suddenly didn’t feel right. This is when I realized I had left one very important possession on the bus – my purse!

I took off after the bus, hoping I could catch it at the traffic light at the end of the street. My whole life was in that purse: my wallet, identification cards, and the small tablet device I used daily as a form of communication. Previously, I had boasted to friends and coworkers of how I had canceled my 40,000-won-per-month smartphone plan that I rarely used. I had found that, in most cases, I could easily communicate by using free online messaging applications, and it had felt good not to be one of those people super-glued to their phone. However, at the current moment as I ran after the bus, my lungs burning, I suddenly felt differently. When I finally reached the stoplight, it was too late. The bus was already pulling away, leaving me gasping for air. As I helplessly watched it disappear, I could only hope that another bus would come soon.

I waited impatiently until another 160 Bus appeared over the hill. But, would the hard-calloused bus driver take pity on me? The monstrous vehicle screeched to a halt at the red light where I was standing, and I immediately pounded against its door. Seeing my desperation, the driver mercifully opened it, and I leapt onto the bus while hurriedly explaining to him my situation in very broken Korean. The bus driver’s expressionless face, as he looked at me, seemed to indicate he hadn’t understood a word I’d said, and he motioned for me to sit down. I obeyed and watched as he then pulled out his phone and dialed a number.

“Isseoyo?” I heard him say after a moment.

I sat forward in my seat. “Isseoyo?” I half shouted to him. “Isseoyo? Do they have my purse?”

The driver glanced at me with a slight smile. “Isseoyo.”

I had never heard a word more beautiful in all my life.

Minutes later, our bus pulled into a shady-looking terminal in a part of Naju I had never seen before. I got off the bus and immediately spotted another driver exiting the bus adjacent ours holding my purse.

“My purse!” I exclaimed as I ran to him. He handed over my bag, and I just sort of stood there in the parking lot staring at it while crying tears of joy. A small crowd of passengers and drivers had gathered around me and began to applaud. It was like a scene from a K-drama, with onlookers happy to see the main character of the story finally reunited with a lost family member – or in my case, a valuable lost possession. I bowed slightly to the friendly strangers and then quickly thanked the ajeossis who seemed humored more than anything else.

For the next while, I sat awkwardly on a bench outside the bus terminal while the ajeossis stood around nearby, happily drinking instant coffee and glancing over at me from time to time while pointing and chuckling. They thought the whole ordeal was hilarious, no doubt, but I didn’t care. I had my purse.

Suddenly, a steaming paper cup appeared in front of my face.

“Koe-pi?”

I looked up to see one of the ajeossis smiling at me. I returned the best smile I could muster and shook my head. Although it would be a while before I’d recovered enough to eat or drink anything, the gesture touched me, and I felt a sudden warmness toward the man and his compadres. It was good to know that in a sometimes-cruel world, where bus drivers are grumpy and don’t say hello to you when you get on the bus, there is still sometimes a kind soul willing to help a silly foreigner girl in a moment of crisis.

Before long, the bus drivers had begun boarding their buses and firing up the engines. I stepped back onto the ole 160 that would take me back to my apartment, clutching my bus card in one hand and my bag ever so tightly in the other. As I scanned my card, the ajeossi in the driver’s seat smiled at me, and I smiled back. Then I sank into a seat behind him, making a mental note to visit the cell phone store first thing in the morning.

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