Written by Carlota Smith
Amidst the quick-moving people at Incheon International Airport, I struggled to usher myself inside the building. I followed the flow of moving bodies, the incomprehensible sound of various voices, the muffled melody of the air, the fleeting footsteps, and the horrifying screeching of luggage bags and trolleys. An officer at a counter verified my documents, then, with a traditional nod, gave me a stiff smile. I went down through the escalators and waited patiently by the luggage conveyor. Everyone seemed to be ecstatic, everybody except me. I got my luggage and scurried to find the exit. Without a clue where to go, I started to have fears I never had in my life after a few minutes of waiting. I learned that nobody was there to fetch me. I would later learn that my friend, who was a minister’s wife, had prayed to God – her god – that someone would be kind enough to help me. Swallowing my shyness, I tried to ask some people about my destination, Gwangju. It was rather odd because all I knew was that I had to go to Gwangju. I did not know there could be two possibilities, either Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, or Gwangju, Jeollanam-do. When I found that there were no more buses going to Gwangju at that time, I felt doomed.
Then, out of the blue, a couple came into view. I asked them to help me get to Gwangju, a city in the southern part of the country. The man said, “It must be Jeollanam-do.” He, fortunately, was bound to the same destination with his girlfriend, but he only had two tickets. I figured the man might have sensed the fear and pending tears in my eyes when he politely excused himself. I ended up talking to his girlfriend who hails from a province nearby the city I came from. The man then returned to us with a nod. At first, I did not understand. I thought the nod was for them to just go, but he said to me in his croaking, yet reassuring words, “Let us go to Seoul.” Many had booked their trips earlier, and he was able to exchange their tickets so we three could go together to Seoul from Incheon. I thought to myself, “What a kind man.”
I uttered my stunned thanks several times before he looked at me and asked me my name. After learning it, he again looked at me with distant eyes and asked me my age. I said I was 40, adding that I was married and had children in the Philippines. This time, he smiled and, with careful words, asked me why I came to Korea. I explained I was on a student visa and that seemed to settle the man’s curiosities. My heart continued to pound, however, over the course of the long trip.
From one terminal to the other, we finally reached Gwangju, and there, in a dark corner beside the other buses, I saw my friend standing draped with a shawl. She placed the shawl on my shoulders and I said, jokingly, yet with an emotional sincerity, “I hate you.” We embraced and my friend said it would be a short drive. I politely said goodbye to the couple who had helped me; they returned a bow, and we parted ways.
It was a strange feeling to be there with my friend in the front seat of a car and trying to lighten the chat. I thought it was just because I was new to the place and because it was so cold; my lips were numb and so were my legs. She asked me how I felt, but her eyes were evasive. I kept telling myself that the coolness between us was just the outside temperature.
I stayed with my friend’s family, initially sharing a room with their daughter, then after a few days, my friend took the liberty to sleep in the room with me. I wasn’t comfortable with it because I had the luxury of my own bed back home, but since I was a transient, I had to make do. Night after night, I had to lull myself to sleep after long days at the academy she and her family ran. The fear was still there inside me.
Time passed, and slowly, things began to go well, all ill feelings were forgotten.
But then my relationship with my friend began to decline once again as my ego suffered blow after blow from her. She told me she could use some help with the household chores. At first, it was a hefty sum to swallow, especially when I had to tolerate underwear that had been left scattered around and wash them. I complied with my friend’s wishes at first, but as time wore on, so did my patience.
Finally, I decided to leave and find my own place. I couldn’t stand living in that environment of a broken family and watching my friend struggle. I didn’t want to be a burden, and at the same time, I did not want to be burdened by the thought that she was in control of my life, my family, and my friends. My friend spoke of heresy, and I could only tell her that we all were heretics in our own way. She became difficult to understand, so my leaving was the only solution.
Eventually, I found my own niche apart from my friend and her family’s hagwon, despite my broken Korean and difficulty with Hangeul, and was finally at peace. I was broke, but I knew that money wasn’t everything. I still had to complete one thing, though, and that was my education. I often had a few moments to look back and ask myself about how I had responded to the situation with my friend. We had had a falling-out, and I know, too, that the faults might have been magnified by many things. But I guessed it served us better to be away from each other. She, too, had to write her own story.
More time passed, and I slowly discovered a lot of things. I learned why the people here seemed to move all at the same pace, a fact that was disturbing to most foreigners like me: It was their way of life.
I began to meet people who were very different from my previous acquaintances. Most of them were good, warm, and generous souls. They helped fan my passion to further my education and eventually stand on my own feet. I kept my hands at work even in my sleep. It was not difficult for me because I liked to learn, and studying satisfied my intellectual hunger. School was the remaining thing that kept me sane after my disappointing experience with this spicy, spinning country. I began to love the kimchi and its peppery people, too.
I spent almost five months of my weekends with the Choi family in Gochang. They were so warm, and Mrs. Choi now holds a place in my heart – for even in her silent words, I knew she had the very warm heart of a loving mother. Her smile, I will always remember. It was a painful experience for me to give the Choi family up. I cried for them – for Yu-mi, their baby; and for Eun-ji and Yae-eun, the elder daughters who took after the good personality of their parents. I wouldn’t forget how the family brought me to my feet on my birthday and every low-spirited day of my first few months in Korea. Mr. Choi’s friendly eyes and simple smile was a picture of a kind family man; it complimented Mrs. Choi’s bubbly and cheerful personality. With this family, one would never feel sad. They certainly were a great family to know because they made me feel that I was a member of the family. They shared everything with me. They made each day very livable. I ached for their company. It was stronger than my emerging emotion, stronger than my fear.
I met amazing Gwangju people who showed me a better view of the Kimchi Country. It isn’t the spicy food that one will love in Korea but the people who are caring and generous. They encouraged me to easily learn my way out of fear by mingling and being. At first, I had thought that Gwangju people were rude because of their strong accent and their vociferous nature, but as time went by, I understood their heart. I came to know that it is most probably the same as every human heart. My professors, Kang Seung-kwan, Oh Soon-ah, Guk Soon-ok and his wife Kang Mi-suk, and Professor Yiombi Thona were very supportive, too. Professor Yiombi has been a great guide for not only did he constantly offer tips on how to survive in Korea, but also on how I could keep my family as an inspiration.
I learned Korean at the Maru Center from Teacher Kate and Sister Sukki. I tried to enjoy the lessons and the language. Today, in my broken Korean, I can articulate what I want. It would also be amiss not to mention that their sense of volunteerism is not superficial but real in even the smallest sense. These people who I met along the way slowly diffused my fears.
To this day, I bank on the experiences that have made me who I am in this Kimchi Country. I like to emulate not the kimchi alone but the warmth that it brings to any foreigner. The soothing effect that it has makes me crave it more and more as I spend my years here. I have learned much about these people and am still learning. They have helped me become subtle with my judgement and fleeting with my emerging emotion. The kimchi has healed me.