Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Kougars Approach with Caution...

A handful of months ago, I was riding the bus to work with a belly full of coffee and very little else, listening to music just to take it to the next level. I was lucky enough to snatch a seat when I boarded, so passengers at subsequent stops found themselves standing. I didn't feel so bad, since most of them got off the bus after two or three stops. About 5 minutes from school, a lady that got on the bus with me at my own stop approached me. When I say approached I don't mean it in the conventional sense, as in: They approached the Kodiak bear cubs with tranquilizer darts and party hats. I mean approached in the Korean sense of the word. Whether on Geoje or in the city, whenever a Korean has gotten the courage to talk to me on public transport, they've always stood in my comfort zone, nearly brushing my clothes and taking quick glances, sidelong or face-forward. I still haven't gotten used to it.

As I said, this lady approached me and stood next to me as the bus lurched and chugged its way through light traffic. Not being completely oblivious, I noticed and made eye contact. She took this as her opportunity to speak. The conversation went something like this:

Woman: Where are you from.
J-Mao: Mi-guk.*

* For those of you who don't know, Mi-guk (pronounced: mee-gook) is the Korean word for the U.S.A. I usually give this answer for two reasons: 1) so I can practice the little Korean that I know and, 2) so the Koreans asking me don't feel entirely anxious and stupid for trying to engage in conversation with a foreigner. It usually ends up making me feel more awkward in the long run.

Woman: Oh, you speak Korean?
J-Mao: A little.
Woman: (speaking Korean far above the level of which I'm comfortable)
J-Mao: Um...uh...hrm...
Woman: It's okay, I can speak a little English.
J-Mao: Good.
Woman: Are you a teacher?
J-Mao: Yes. Are you?
Woman: Yes. A little.
J-Mao: What?
Woman: A school calls me for teaching. I teach for...small time.
J-Mao: You are a contract teacher?
Woman: Yes.

At this point the woman was getting excited.

Woman: I see you at the bus stop every morning.
J-Mao: (starting to be slightly concerned for my well-being) Do you?
Woman: Yes. What time do you finish school?
J-Mao: The normal time. 5:00. (This is a lie. I get off twenty minutes earlier.)
Woman: Then this Thursday, I would like to eat dinner with you at 5:30.
J-Mao: Okay.**
Woman: Oh! I am going to miss my bus stop. Okay, meet me at this - here at 5:30. Good-bye.
J-Mao: Wait!

** Most Koreans, even those that have lived in English-speaking countries for a couple years, have not picked up on the many contextual meanings of the word okay. I said, "Okay," as an assessment of her invitation. It took me by surprise and I was still trying to get my head around it. She took it as an "Okay! Sure! Let's have dinner together!"

I asked my teachers at work about it later. They were all in agreement that this was indeed a strange thing and I should probably proceed with caution. Wednesday, on the way back home, she was on the bus again. This time, I approached her and asked her why she wanted to go to dinner. She replied, "Because I see you on the bus many times. I do not know you. I also want to practice in English-speaking." Very well. I changed the time and place to one that would work better for me.

The next day was Thursday. All day, I had been worrying and anticipating what this woman's true intentions might be. I created several possible conversation topics that might come up during dinner: "How's your steak - oh, God, my husband's here...", "I've just slipped a powerful sedative into your drink. Tomorrow, you will wake up and play the most dangerous game," "I am your real mother," "I am your real father," "I need you to give me a baby." I never came up with any suitable responses. Work was over and when I got off the bus, I went the back way to my apartment. One can never be too safe, after all, because this world is often sad, and bad things happen when you're not careful. I went upstairs and changed into something more casual and later, met her at my bus stop.

Dinner was Korean/Italian food and not altogether too appetizing, but it was free, so I wasn't complaining. The conversation was slightly drab and I kept hoping or fearing that she would bring up a conversation topic I had anticipated earlier in the day, but it mostly revolved around her life in England, her daughter, opera, music, movies, English language and my level of Korean. Thankfully, none of my fears had been realized, though she often skirted answers to questions about her husband. She paid the bill and we left.

The walk back was saddening. She admitted that she was divorced (which again, raised my suspicions as to her true intentions for the evening), and that her husband had been a drunk. There was some mention of abuse and her daughter. She didn't want to talk about it anymore after that. We made our way through the drizzling rain and awkward chit-chat to her subway stop. She said good-bye and thank you and took the escalator to wherever home was.

I've come to understand that some people are just lonely to want to talk to a complete stranger, a feeling I've never really experienced firsthand. The woman probably chose me because being a single woman with a child in a country that professes the strengths of its married couples is a stigma that not many ladies feel comfortable with, especially when married couples and single Korean men marginalize them.

This first instance was singular, unique, but I've since had run-ins with the Korean cougar (or Kougar) that don't end so melodramatically.

In Korea, there are ubiquitous little neighborhood grocery stores where one can stop and buy everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to tupperware to jarred tea and jams to candy and snacks. They have soap and toilet paper and laundry detergent, beer and bread, fresh tofu, canned tuna, mackerel, noodles and various Korean sauces.. These stores have varied, simple names, but finish with the words super (pronounced: shyu-puh) or mart (pronounced: ma-tuh). In no way are they even close to being what Americans call the "supermarket," but they are handy to have around.

Mostly women operate the various sections of the mart. They are not generally drop-dead gorgeous, but it's obvious that they take care of themselves and often wear heavy makeup and enough hairspray to keep a dead elephant erect for a day's work. They pull in long hours and probably don't get much in the way of awkward English conversation, despite the fact that there is a plethora of native speakers in my building. I make a couple trips a week to the one close by whenever I'm out of ramen, mandu, or whenever I want to cook breakfast for my girlfriend.

One night, while looking through the various greens, I heard a woman's voice. I ignored it, thinking it wasn't directed my way. How could it be? It wasn't even in English. I continued to peruse until I heard her voice again, this time louder and more focused. I looked up and realized it wasn't a shopper, but a smiling female employee of the mart. She was in the vegetable station, labeling mushrooms and bunching perilla leaves (sometimes called sesame leaves) together with pink twist-ties. She looked at me again and asked me something in Korean. Maybe? It was hard to tell: "Sam-ship-ee-eh-yo? Sam-ship-ee-yeh-yo?" I recognized that she was using numbers and then I was really confused until she pointed at me.

Vegetable Kougar: Ee-ship-oh-yeh-yo?
J-Mao: Ee-ship-oh... Oh! A-nee-oh! Ee-ship...pal...ee-yeh-yo.***

***The woman wanted to know my age. They use Chinese numbers with a Korean pronunciation and her first question was if I was 30 or 32. She aimed lower and asked if I was 25. I told her, "No, I am 28." However, the word 십팔 ("18", pronounced ship-pal) sounds similar enough to 시팔 ("Fuck you", pronounced shi-pal) that I had to be extra careful when telling her that I was 28.

She asked if I was married. At this point, enough people have asked me if I'm married that it's stopped phasing me, except when kids do it, especially when kids do it and chide me for not having gotten married already. I responded that no, I was not married. She then formed this really strange, knowing smile that gave me a slight chill. In addition to asking me where I was from and the usual line of questioning, she told me I was very handsome. I expected her to tell me about her daughter, but no dice. I left the mart that night and have since seen her, but nothing was as strange as that one evening.

I should go ahead and point out that her questions or comments did not bother me. I've heard the "married question" before, and lots of kids, girls and boys, have told me I'm handsome. It was the sense of immediacy and desperation for responses that unnerved me. I didn't know why she was asking. I never know why they ask. They just do. Dirty older women.

My third run-in with a Kougar happened outside of my girlfriend's building, when I was taking Rocket (the dog) out for her afternoon constitutional. The questioning was the usual fare: "Where are you from?" "Oh, you speak Korean." "You speak very well!" "Do you have Korean friend?" "Do you have Korean girlfriend?"

It's this question that got my defenses up, because I knew that I didn't know where this line could go. She then asked me where I lived. I responded. She looked confused and asked me what I was doing in that particular neighborhood.

J-Mao: I'm visiting my girlfriend and walking our dog.
Mountain Kougar: Oh, okay, then! Nice to meet you! Bye!

Dirty older women.

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