One day I pulled the milk out of my fridge to make tea and was gravely concerned. Vaguely lumpy milk is never a good sign, and it’s the kind of mild biological oddity that makes you uncomfortable and question if its something airborne and going to spread to the rest of your food. Also I couldn’t drink my tea without milk because what am I, some kind of animal? With time, I came to realize the issue: my fridge was bonked. The regular fridge part itself was rapidly becoming warmer, and the arctic ice floe that lived in the freezer above was beginning to gather condensation. My heart sank. The fridge was terminal.
There were a few reasons for dismay: for one, food! For two, beverages! Life sustaining milk and orange juice and beer! For three, anything going haywire in my apartment means I need to bring it to the attention of my school. This, in turn, means I would need to brave the depths of Korean bureaucracy, a journey that strikes fear in even the stoutest of hearts.
My apartment and most of the things in it are technically owned by my Korean public school, and thus should something shatter or explode under my watch, it is as though I have personally robbed them. I brought the current status of the fridge up to my main coteacher one day, to much furrowing of brows. We could call for a repairman, but I would foot the bill. Two hours later, we would call for a repairman, but I would be reimbursed. Still later, I received the school credit card so I could pay the repairman. Each of these developments was almost certainly resultant from the scrupulous efforts of my coteacher, who was scurrying the depths of this and that labyrinthe of paperwork in order to get the twenty bucks to pay the Daewoo man.
The next leg in our journey sees the arrival of the confirmation calls, like a flock of bewildering carrier pigeons. The repairman, of course, wanted to simply confirm I would be around on the day previously specified, entirely in Korean. A problem: when someone talks to me in Korean in the phone, I usually tell them I don’t speak it (if I’m feeling down), or that I will only understand if they speak insanely slowly. Repairman did not quite understand this concept, and thus blustered on, unabated. Now, after the primary strategy, my primal instincts kick in: continued Korean means it’s fight or flight, and it’s kind of hard to punch him in the throat through the phone, so I simply hang up. I do this with the majority of people who call me and proceed to speak Korean, but he did not take well to this, as the several dozen missed calls over the next few days attested. Eventually, a mysterious woman wandered into the picture: a Daewoo call centre worker finally contacted me — not to speak English, mind you, but because she was apparently the only one within the company capable of speaking slowly.
Repairman arrives. After a few minutes poking around with some stern 아이고s for good measure, he tried to tell me (and would later tell my coteacher when I simply gave him my phone) that maybe the motor was stressed from the prodigious ice block living and breeding in my freezer (I liked to think of it as a pet. I named it Reginald). Defrost it, and maybe all will be well?
After several hours, a moving funeral for Reginald, and great piles of water, the fridge remained borked.. A week later the Daewoo man once more made the sojourn to my lair, though with still more calls to my cellphone, showing, if nothing else, a healthy and robust sense of determination in the face of adversity. He tinkered for a few moments longer, before motioning desperately for me to contact my coworker. After nearly ten minutes of blistering interrogation over the phone, my co-teacher provided me with her succinct translation: “It is broken.”
Another week passes. I begin going out for every meal, and looking longingly at all the foods I can’t realistically store. When I come home, my fridge stares at me like a jilted, broken lover, wondering where I’ve been, why I smell that way, why I don’t look at her anymore. Her demeanor is accusatory, and we go to bed without speaking.
News arrives once more: we will get a different fridge for the apartment. But, maybe, there is no budget, so you will have to pay. Hours pass. But, maybe, we will take the fridge from the office downstairs. Still more hours. However, maybe you cannot have that fridge. An hour. Michael: maybe there is some budget for a new fridge.
Of course, for the budget to be approved, my coworker once agani had to brave the deep fathoms of Korean school bureaucracy. In order to secure this fridge budget, I am relatively certain that my long-suffering coteacher first bathed in the waters of the Ganges and clothed herself in the Golden Fleece, before defeating the Hydra. Drinking this blood would, of course, grant her the power of flight so that she might arrive at the Garden of the Hesperides to steal the golden apples, which she would present to our great and lordly Principal. Our Principal would then take the apples and the required blood of the doe on the second moon of March and perform Sacred Budget Rites. And on the sunset of the third day after the Rite, he might release a dove of the whitest feather, and should that dove fly due east…
Several days later, after passing through countless Korean hands (and, ostensibly, consulting the ancient budget runes), the new fridge was approved. G-Market had been consulted. The fridge shall arrive post-hence! I lied awake with excitement at night, thinking of all the things I might store. My friends actually asked me with what food I might christen this new receptacle of goods. I dream of jam, and butter, and dumplings frozen for convenience.
Friday arrives. My coteacher notes that the delivery-men will come at midday, when I am teaching. Could I perhaps foist over my keys so that a secretary might receive the fridge in my absence*? With barely a thought**, I tossed my keys aside and began counting the hours.
*When I later told this story to friends back home, that question was always answered with a howling “No! It’s private space!,” much to my general confusion. It’s just my apartment that they’ll be snooping around while I’m at work. No big deal? Maybe I’ve been here too long.
**Well, one thought: I haven’t put the laundry away. The entire admin office knows what kind of underpants I wear now.
And lo, when I arrived at home that evening, it was waiting for me: the new fridge. Sure, the old one was still there (the delivery man had refused to pick it up), glowering at us in the bloom of our new love. But I couldn’t care for such petty jealousies. All I could see were me and my new fridge.