There is Hope | Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely

A version of this short, non-fiction narrative is included in the book, "Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely."

From the Seoul Lantern festival

From the Seoul Lantern festival

Throughout most of my life I’ve kept a generally pessimistic perspective on things. My childhood pictures show cold stares sprinkled with regret. There was never a specific reason, and though I avoid the idea of blaming it on “my nature” (whatever that is), happiness was, and is, an elusive thing to me. The things I desired didn’t desire to be around me, so I grew up always expecting very little out of the life that I counted every day of.

Moving to South Korea was an extension of that phenomenon. I wanted to be in the publishing industry just as mergers were allowing companies to fire their staff, and print media in general was walking the path worn out years ago by the Tasmanian tiger, the Bermuda Ern, and the eight-track tape. During my internship as Farrar Straus and Giroux an assistant editor talked to me:

He asked, “You know the other intern? Jerry?”

I wasn’t sure, but I said, “Yeah.”

“He’s looking too. He’s thirty years old. He’s got an MFA in creative writing and used to be at another publishing company. Right now, though, he’s not working. It’s just really hard right now.”

Eric raised his eyebrows, which lead the rest of his face into contortions of sympathy. I smiled back faintly and said, “Yeah. I know.”

I didn’t have an MFA. I didn’t have any friends in the publishing industry. As a consequence of those facts, and many others, I landed a job as a layout editor and Plan B web-master for a local newspaper in Queens, New York. It wasn’t fulfilling in any way, but they regularly paid me in money – as opposed to feelings of satisfaction, which would’ve been nice, but done nothing for my stomach.

In Korea, anyone her age is referred to as an ajumma (아줌마), or a married woman. Among foreigners, they are infamously interesting.

I worked with my then girlfriend until she got in a car crash which later ended with her getting laid off from her sales position, and me being the only one able to pay for anything/everything.

At some point, while looking for a better paying job I was called by a recruiting agency for a South Korean private academy. I was hired, and after few months of arguments with my girlfriend, hugs from my Mommy, and drunken goodbyes with a few friends I boarded an airplane to a foreign county to do a job. One friend said, "Man I wish I could do that. I wanna just leave and see the world. How can you do that."

Sipping on a goodbye present I said, "I have to. There isn't another choice."

I would think about that every so often since leaving America. It was hard to forget whenever I smelled some unfamiliar food, or went to a clothing store to find that they didn't sell pants that would fit my thick thighs. I wanted to work with books and I couldn’t. I took it as another sign from the world that you seldom get what you want.

I tried not to have that idea sit in my head for too long, but while I was on the KTX a few days ago it was hard to avoid.

The KTX is the national railroad system for South Korea, and if you pick the wrong time to buy your ticket you'll be stuck without a seat for the duration of your trip. This happened to me after seeing a friend who lived three hours away. So with nothing but time on my hands, and a decent spot on the top step of the train car’s exit staircase, I sulked.

After an hour of looking out the window and thinking, I noticed from the corner of my eye a middle aged Korean woman. In Korea, anyone her age is referred to as an ajumma (아줌마), or a married woman. Among foreigners they are infamously interesting. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be gawked at, or touched, or yelled at – these being the negative behaviors associated with ajummas. When I turned to look in her direction, however, she smiled and began to walk towards me.

The woman, who I guessed to be in her late forties or early fifties, kneeled down and continued smiling as she looked me square in the eyes.

I smiled back.

She began to talk to me as best as she could. Using a combination of pantomime, full Korean sentences, and stand-alone English words to communicate with me, we had a conversation. This is what she told me, if my interpretation can be trusted:

I am a teacher to small children. It is a very hard job, but I enjoy it. I enjoy academics, and like you I read and study a lot. My eyes, however, are strained from years of reading in bad light. They sometimes hurt. I have two brothers who live in California. They both speak English better than I do. One is a mathematician or an engineer or a scientist. To be able to read and learn is a great thing. A gift. Both of my brothers studied, and they are in good situations. You should continue what you are doing.

She walked away but came back five minutes later to hand me a piece of candy. I bowed politely, then unwrapped the thing and put it in my mouth. I hadn’t eaten breakfast and the flavor (which I forgot about) was one of my favorites.

She kneeled down again, and in the only full English sentence she had used, said, "Do not give up hope."

Before she got up to leave for the last time, I smiled and said thank you. "감사합니다."

A version of this short, non-fiction narrative is included in the book, "Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely."