The Unpopped Personal Bubble

The river

My personal space extends as far as the horizon line. I hope you understand.

It’s sort of hard to explain the concept of the personal bubble, if you think about it. It’s this weird, murky, invisible halo of space surrounding your body at all times, a sort of inviolable corona of mobile real estate that hovers around your person, cushioning it, protecting it, cradling it like a gentle cloud baby. If you could see them, it would be like thousands of people walking around with up-ended fishbowls all around them. It keeps you safe. It keeps you comfortable. It keeps you private. And you cannot see it at all, but everyone knows about them, and breaking into another person’s bubble is a great violation. Only the dregs of society, the scum labelled with the gutter-nom of “creeper” would ever dare to venture into your bubble without due invitation.

It’s even harder to explain once you move to a place where the personal bubble functionally does not exist.

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A Cake for Every Occasion: Holidays far from Home

Take that, snowman cake.

I was meeting Faith for dinner. Her boyfriend Ty would be DJing later that night, and we were grabbing a bite before going to the show. I waited beside a Baskin Robbins, where a woman stood outside in the freezing cold, chanting desperate advertising mantras into a microphone as steam gushed from her gaping mouth. She was telling every passersby, in her strained and quivering tones, about the very many cakes they could buy inside, each themed for the season. Each of them named in a nebulous massacre of Konglish, to the point that she was basically speaking English in some profane accent. At some point she may well have developed hypothermia, and just went on shaking and trembling and gesticulating at those who wandered near. When Faith arrived, she had on reindeer antlers and attached an ornament to my collar, to be festive.

It was Christmas Eve in Korea.

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Good For Man: Squid Brains and the Strength of Your Junk

Bask

More times than I can count, I have been assured that various mediocre-to-disgusting foods are basically really good for my wang. No one will say these things outright: everyone decides to play coy, like we’re in an erectile dysfunction medication commercial or Victorian England, and thus everything is covered in sheathes of euphemism. But the message is still clear. Eat these squid brains: they’re good for man. Good for man strength. Good for speed. Good for stamina. Good for staying power. Good for man health. Depending on who I’m talking to, these turns of phrase are accompanied with various nudges to try and make sure I’m getting the point, in case I don’t understand figurative language. A wink, a nod, an actual nudge. Once, a coworker said the food we just ate was good for man, and after several moments of consideration, pointed, with both hands, to his crotch to illustrate. Just to make sure I got it.

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The Great Restaurant Language Dilemma

The moment we are first noticed upon entering an establishment, there is anxiety. Tension begins to fill the air, and the hand-wringing commences. When we enter to sit down at a restaurant, or walk through a store, the waiters usually assemble in a quickly thrown-together caucus to discuss the dilemma now facing them: one of us might have to speak English to finish our job tonight. They weigh out the pros and cons, and in the vast majority of establishments (though certainly not all), it is simply less embarrassing and risky to struggle valiantly and painfully through every interaction with non-Korean-speaking customers than it is to try to bar them form the business with pitchforks and raised voices.

And so, an argument begins.

Who studied English the most, or the most recently? Who has been to any country where you have to speak it? Who is the most daring, the least shakeable, the least likely to run back to the kitchen drenched in tears, flop-sweat, and whatever toxic emissions foreigners surely seep through their alien hides? In rapid succession, candidates are nominated, and struck out of contention, and nominated once more.

When one sacrificial lamb is finally elected, they begin to waft over to our table as though facing the gallows. Their palms are sweaty. Their brows are furrowed. This had not been in the job description. If they had known they might have to speak English, they would have just started working in a stockroom. Or shovelling manure somewhere, or began working with dangerous animals. Taken a job on a mountain top, or in a rural village, or just somewhere, anywhere, where the travesty that is coming to befall them would not have occurred.

They heave a sigh once before us, and simply pick up the bill, hoping we will start the interaction. In their eyes is the desperate plea of an animal, of someone being led to the slaughter — make this quick.

Because I am ultimately a cruel and capricious fiend, I have, more than a few times, allowed people to swing in the wind for a few moments of harried, desperate, strangled English. Once, a waiter came to tell us that the kitchen would soon be closed, but when we began asking a clarifying question, he recoiled viscerally. Soon, a waitress came to shield him, to stand in front of him, to barricade him from us and our brutal linguistic assaults upon his very spirit.

When waiters or service people do start an interaction, it is almost invariably with a long, disheartened apology about the quality of English we are about to receive. But they will do this for us. Because it is their duty. And because they will probably get yelled at if they don’t.

***

The moment when I first reveal enough Korean to get us through the interaction is one of fairly intense confusion.

While having dinner recently with a friend, we searched for the bing-bong (the table doorbell) to summon one of the waiters, and when we discovered none, I yelled out the customary “Over here!” in Korean. A waitress perked, and began to scan the restaurant, looking for who might be calling out to her. “That certainly sounded like Korean,” her expression read. Consternation swam across her features. She could find no source, and was prepared to just believe it a ghost, a bit of wind, until she noticed me waving and blinking rapidly at her. “Him?” She shook her head and began walking towards us. “Oh well, a lucky coincidence that I hallucinated just when he was trying to get my attention.”

When I, or someone else at the table, finally take pity upon this long-suffering and, to be fair, legitimately straining face, I begin speaking in Korean. After a few pained, brutal sentences through English, each one seemingly rending another internal organ from their torsos, I inform them they can continue the interaction in Korean. Or I just begin rattling off the things that we want.

The look is at first one of genuine bewilderment. “Oh, of course. I suffered an aneurysm from that much English in one sitting, and purgatory is a world of illusions.” I can’t be speaking Korean, that would just be nonsense.

But then I keep going, and I’m saying all the food or help that I need. And they remember their job, and that as much as they want to interrogate me as to how I have engaged in such sorcery, they don’t want to ask me to repeat just in case it’s a one-time distortion in the fabric of the universe.

And last is an overabundant praise of my Korean. Usually it’s overkill, as my Korean still largely sucks. But I know just enough of it to get the job done. They are not praising my Korean, really. They are thanking me for saving them from the fate they had dreaded.

Seconds later, they return to the caucus. They tell them what they have seen. “You’re full of it,” their faces say, and they glance at me or whoever I’m with, and shake their heads. You just don’t want to have to answer them the next time they call for a waiter. The person is looked upon with suspicion, with rolled eyes. They might as well claim Bigfoot is sitting in the restaurant.

Chocolate and Turmoil

Happy Pepero day, teacher! Enjoy whatever these things are!

Two days of great cultural importance jammed right up next to each other this year in Korea. On Thursday was Suneung (수능시험, the Korean College Scholastic Aptitude Test), a day-long testapalooza for high school seniors that essentially shuts down the entire country. It generates such a wide collective holding of breaths that the natural flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide across the planet is disrupted, and volcanoes on the other side of the earth erupt from the tension. Then Friday was Pepero Day, Korea’s approximate 87th couple holiday of the year, where everyone buys lots of chocolate sticks, sacrifices their firstborn on the altar of the Lotte Corporation, and enjoys a day of showing love and companionship through commerce, as God intended.

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Desert Mouth

Temple water. The only time Koreans willingly enjoy water.

As someone with a great deal of free time, I am prone to reflect on my surroundings. In Korea, I find I constantly make notes in my brain, becoming a particularly bored and unambitious anthropologist, not seeking any new people out, but recording my dull observations internally for later reflection (and blogging) . I note how the Korean people are concerned with their world image, how they are intensely curious about what foreigners think about their food, how they dress, how they eat, how they act. Most of this I shelve away because it’s been well-catalogued all over the internet. But holy hell, you guys, Koreans seem like some of the most chronically underhydrated people I’ve ever met.

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The Love of the Cookie Stick: Pepero Day (뻬뻬로 데이)

Anthropomorphized cookie sticks feel the blush of first love.

In South Korea, November 11 is Pepero Day, named for the eponymous chocolate-dipped cookie stick (called it Pocky, much like one could call the East Sea the Sea of Japan, and prepare to be seethed at). It is, apparently, an actual thing, and was reportedly started by a teeming horde of Korean middle school girls somewhere. They began gifting each other Pepero sticks on November 11 (11/11, because that’s four Peperos together) so that they might one day grow up to be tall and slender, like the candy. And, one presumes, slathered in chocolate syrup of moderate quality. (The irony of giving fattening sweets in order to hope to become skinny and Amazonian is apparently lost on middle schoolers).

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