Special Event Story

Here is my third piece of thirty-nine. Yee-haw! (Already working out how to modify this project because I am not made of as many words as I first thought. More on that soon). This essay ends on an idea I want to explore more. 


A couple of months ago I was at a Special Event in the basement marketplace of a department store. Special Events – usually street food stalls or specialty foods and wines – are a great way to sample what I will likely never cook. I have two favorite snacks I look for when I see a Special Event sign. One is hoduk, a griddle-fried flat, round pastry filled with seeds, nuts and brown sugar. The other is a Korean pancake sandwich: shrimp or bacon stacked between two small cabbage pancakes, sloppy drizzles of brown and white sauces and a scoop of papery fish flakes on top. So good. And a couple of months ago I was just returned to Korea after summer in Wisconsin (nary a papery fish flake to be found), when I saw the sandwich vendor. Two, please, I said. When the server picked up a single sandwich container I thought he misunderstood. I gestured to the sandwiches again and said, Two, please. Then I pointed at the bigger box next to the small containers. At this, the server made a small x, crossing one wrist over the other, and said, That is for three.

Ah, I said, Two will also fit. I smiled, but he looked distressed, emphasized the x. I said, I don’t think it’s impossible. Two will fit!

An aside: Not long after this Special Event exchange I attended a workshop about understanding Korean culture and the speaker addressed social microaggression. As in, don’t engage. I thought of my cheerful bullying, a thin cover for irritation at the very idea boxing two sandwiches in a box that fit three is impossible.

To my small credit, I didn’t say to the server, This will blow your mind, to break the three sandwich rule, but go ahead! Try it! Two fit! But I also didn’t relent. I could see he was upset. Boxing two sandwiches together in a box made for three sandwiches was not allowed. I briefly thought of ordering a third sandwich, but I didn’t want a third sandwich. And I preferred later discarding one paper box to two plastic tubs. In the middle of this moment, and now, I did not like who I was. I smiled and gestured how two sandwiches would fit perfectly. Perfectly! The server sweated. We were at a moment of decision. He reached for the box, put two sandwiches side by side, doused both with sauce, added papery fish flakes. He did not look at peace with his decision. He remained conflicted. I bowed my head in thanks, walked away thinking this is how neighbors end up slaughtering each other. This is how the Nazis kept on for so many years. Because of rule followers.

Yet. Following rules has also worked dramatically in Korea’s favor as the country catapulted its economy and grew its infrastructure in only three decades. Men, women and children were told what to do for the collective, and they did it, and though Korea is now reconsidering the (recently) traditional long workday, following rules by way of memorizing academic texts at school, snapping to attention in the military, forging strong business relationships, developing innovative medical techniques, and relentlessly pursuing more and better made a way for Korea to climb from the devastation of its war.*

Every place I have lived, I bump against my most awful bits. Unexpected rage, judgement, hate. In Colombia I shook a fist a truckful of men who hissed and hollered as I ran up Cañas Gordas. In Kuwait I brake checked an SUV flashing its lights to pass. When I moved here I wanted the grace of cultural acceptance. But I moved here. I am not yet as gracefully accepting as I might be one day. During our first year in Korea I cried to my husband because we keep doing this on purpose – we choose to live and travel in places we don’t know until we’re there, figuring out how to turn the heat on during the first weeks of winter, or looking for an ingredient we miss. To mitigate the shock of a new home, I learned what I could about Korea in the months before our move.

I called my friend Kate. I called Kate because we grew into adulthood together, hundreds and later thousands of miles apart, but checking in via long emails or wandering phone calls. I also called Kate because she studied Asian languages in college, married a Korean American, and had actually traveled to Seoul a few years earlier. When Kate visited Kuwait during my last spring in the desert, we talked about two different places. I told her about the Middle East I grew to love. She told me about the Korea I now hope to love.

One night we went to the old souk in Kuwait. We ordered two platters of rice and fish, and lemon mint drinks. On the drive back it rained and the traffic slowed. Over the few days she visited we dropped and picked up conversations easily. Looking ahead at the red taillights, the rain falling, I said how fortunate I felt that Korea is so safe, you know, with the kids. Our Kuwait neighborhood was increasingly unsafe and I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone with Claire and Grant anymore, so moving to South Korea where the crime rate is low answered a want I didn’t know I had. Well, it’s a shame culture, Kate said, No one wants to bring shame on their family.

I still think of that revelation. We all know shame. And shame serves a purpose. But I hadn’t thought how shame might serve to bring the behavior of a whole population in line. The upside of shame culture is good norms are enforced. When I run in the morning, it’s dark and I am not afraid of being attacked under a bridge or being killed by a stray bullet. In the afternoon when my kids want to spend their allowance at Dream Depot, I send them on their way without worry and they come back to me with art supplies and gummy candies. The downside of shame culture is the limitation of expression. Coupled with adherence to hierarchy, everyone stays in their place. My understanding is small, mostly circling education, but I ask questions to understand better. In Kuwait one of our neighbors was a Korean woman who occasionally shared fresh kimchi with me, and enrolled her son, my son’s friend, in a  Saturday Korean class. Only after nearly a year in Korea, when Joohee and her son visited Seoul and we met for brunch, did I ask about her education experience. It was awful, Joohee said. Grades were posted so everyone could see who was doing poorly.

That pressure first learned in school years carries into the military and business world. Young men serve two years in the military and abuse, though addressed and lessened today, remains a concern. After a workday, there is a tradition of bosses taking employees out to dinner, and subordinates drinking to keep up, drinking to stupor and vomit. Gender inequality and harassment are issues as well. All of this, and a pressure to excel despite (or more likely, because of) the strictures of shame.

When we were living in Kuwait, my brother and his family was living in Seoul. You should move here, they said to us. You’d like it. I very much doubted I’d like it. Liking sushi (Japanese) and Pocky sticks (also Japanese) is just not enough of a reason to move to Korea. I had in my head only a couple of scraps of information about Korea, lifted from living in the international dorm during college, reading, and knowing North Korea exists with a desire to obliterate South Korea (it’s more complicated than that). And as my philosophy of education developed, I didn’t believe my approach to teaching or curriculum would match what I perceived about East Asian education.

Yet here I am. And where I am I learn. During our school orientation I marveled at the ingenuity and resilience of the Korean people. I wowed the satellite photo of the many dolmens dotting the country. I wiped tears at the story of men and women giving their gold and jewelry to stabilize the economy in 1998. I wanted to know this country, fastrack my love for the new place, people and culture. One morning I was running along the river path. Dragonflies! Tall grasses! Water over rocks! And many people weaving. As a runner, I made myself as a deer, leaping and bounding to the side as men and women listed from one side to the other. I thought of the Japanese building crooked little wooden bridges and wondered if this was similar. Were these men and women evading evil spirits? I asked a couple of friends who’d lived in Seoul longer than me. No, no one was evading evil spirits. They just weren’t walking in a straight line. I liked my conjecture better, especially as the year went on.

When I run a crowned surface – path or road – I alternate sides to keep my body from taking on unnecessary muscle imbalances, tilts, injuries. So on the river path. I run alternating sides. Usually this is totally fine. I am not the only person walking or running on the wrong side of the path, but I am often the only foreign woman on the wrong side of the path. So during the first year running in Korea, several old men stopped me to say I was running on the wrong side of the path. When I see another person coming my way I guess if they are moving to the inside of the path or the middle of the path, and adjust my approach. Usually, this is totally fine. But when I see an old man walking my way, I gauge the situation differently. Sometimes the old man looks to make way for us to pass and at the last moment, he turns to cut me off. I stop and listen to him tell me, Wrong side! Wrong side! Then he points to the other side of the path and says, Right side! Right side! A few times I’ve tried explaining why I switch sides to run on, only to be waved off or shouted at again. Right side! Right side!

Once I stayed my course until I was an arm length from plowing into an old man staying his course. That time I was the one who spoke loudly and gestured. Why? Why? The old man did not understand me. He was only out in the cold winter for a quiet morning walk and now I was gesturing my own incomprehension: why do we not move for one another? Why must I be the one to give way to old men? After that I decided to be kind, or try, to just move over for all the old men. But even making way does not work if I am still running the wrong side of the path and some old man wants to make that point.

I am thinking about getting tiny cards made up, to explain why I alternate sides, to emphasize my joy at living in such a lovely land as Korea, and to wish a best day. I could carry these cards and produce one for the next old man who cuts my stride. But I doubt tiny cards are an answer.

I bend.

In Kuwait there was a Sudanese man named Adam who shepherded the expat teachers through the many pieces of paperwork needed to keep a visa, get a driver license, obtain a marriage or birth certificate. Once he and I were shuttling between different government offices after my passport was confiscated at customs. I needed to get a chest x-ray, the record showed. I’d been pregnant with my son so requested a deferral for the x-ray, and then in the space of about one year, I had three chest x-rays to ascertain I didn’t suffer tuberculosis – the first was this time, to satisfy my visa requirement. Adam waited while I stood in line, my breasts leaking. We took the paper showing my x-ray was clear to another office. There I saw men drinking tea at desks. I saw a pile of passports on a table. Adam sensed my panic and sent me out of the room. From the hall I watched the casual gestures of the men sipping tea, the slight bow by Adam. Back in Adam’s old Pajero, I asked how he did it. I thought I was going to lose it, just seeing the pile of passports and nonchalance of the officials. Adam said he made himself small. You make yourself small, you be kind, he said to me. When I talk, he said, I let them be bigger than me.

Small. Kind. I continued to chafe in Kuwait even as I grew to care deeply for the country and region. Appreciating a culture is not to acquiesce. So now in my second year in Korea, having pushed a Special Events server into giving me one box for my two sandwiches, and actually considering having tiny cards printed to explain why I am on the wrong side of the path, I wonder what the balance is to be open and closed in a new place. I do not live in Korea to make it my way. And though I had no great affinity for Korea when we chose to come, my respect grows as I learn the stories of this place.

Kate told me that her mother-in-law was a little girl during the Korean war. Her family house was commandeered. Executions took place in their courtyard. The family ate acorn soup to survive. I think of the suffering and resilience and I soften toward the old men and women who still walk without deviating from the right side of the path, and those who stand bow-legged at bus stops. Soon after arriving in Korea, I went on a school trip to the eastern shore. Each morning I woke before the students to run a road along the beaches. I stopped to take a photo of the sunrise. Chain link fence topped with barbed wire snaked along many of the beaches and later I asked someone why. Because in the seventies North Korea sent small boats to coastal towns, conducting midnight kidnappings – I want to know more about this, but even a sketch of why barbed wire is strung along beachfronts points to the civilian good of adherence to rules. I soften. But I also think of the protests in the eighties when workers wanted fair pay, and when people questioned the ruling order, and I wonder if the old men cutting to tell me I am on the wrong side of the path were the same old men who lockstepped with the military to put down student uprisings, to take people off the street, to ruin a woman. Or did they look away. Or were they on the right side, then. This whole country tells stories to keep children in school until late at night, to ensure more children are born, to secure prestigious work, to keep the streets clean, to keep the air polluted, to honor the elderly, to keep a faith in their own people.

Sometimes I consider if I chose this life abroad to lift away from the stories of my own country (the stories I don’t like), or to escape the stories of my own self (the stories I don’t like). But stories follow. Stories collect. When I drop into another country, I reckon with another set of standards, learn through different stories, see how I am not so far from where I started, and despair a month or several before deciding to keep on. I still might get the tiny cards printed. But next time I order two sandwiches I’ll take however I am served.


Three of thirty-nine! 2573 words. Started in November, first draft finished 14 December.

* This paragraph is added after Kate’s thoughtful response to the initial post. I am very interested in how the Korean War has nettled the psyche of the country, and what different stories are told to explain even present behaviors. For example, the old ladies who push past me at a grocery store shelf may be pushing because that was just how you got food during shortages, by pushing past the person in front of you. Or they may be high on being old and revered, supposing I’m unlikely to bodycheck them in response. Or they may just be impatient that I’m taking too long deciding if I will really use a bag of bean sprouts this week. 

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