Sometimes you just can’t say ‘no’ . . . nor should you

September 21, 2006

A loooong day today. Busy in the morning doing housework, emails, a little blogging and chatting and stuff. Then off to Seoul-dae for an afternoon of reading/research. Then a colloquium on Korean Studies at the Kyujanggak. Luckily, the office generously secured for me by my old advisor at Michigan, Professor Cho, was a mere ten steps away from the happening, so I had no excuse to miss. Perhaps it would have been easier if I would have…

I got there early, and to begin with, it was only myself and Professor Jeong Geunsik, a rising superstar in the field of Korean Studies who specializes in social history, that is, the writing of history based not on official sources and big personalities, but on local stories based on oral narratives of daily life. Another of my professors had introduced me to him last week, and I wondered if he remembered me. Actually, I kind of hoped he didn’t, because when we met, I had been in a particularly low state of mind and my Korean just wasn’t flowin’ that day. I had left feeling humiliated. Luckily, he assuaged my shame by saying to me right after I sat down, “Hey, how many years have you lived here?” which, experience tells me, meant he was next going to say, “Because your Korean is really good.” Nothing highlights the general politeness of the Korean people than these kind of compliments. Truly, my Korean is passable, but not “very good” by a long shot. Still, the fact he went out of his way to break the silence and say something comforting was, well, comforting.

Eventually, more people flowed in, and I started to get a bit nervous. You see, in American situations like this, it is really easy to disappear. Being invisible in an American classroom is actually quite easy, unless the teacher is outstanding, meaning, 95% of the time, you can say nothing and get away with it… even more so at a voluntary lecture like this. But not in Korea… no way. First of all, we all had to introduce ourselves. Luckily, I’ve done this before and have a rote spiel at the ready for just such occasions. Still, issues of pronounciation and unseen errors do cause consternation. I sweat a bit, but then it was over.

Then the talk began and the really hard part began. The speaker was a rather charismatic story teller of a man, an anthropologist urging us to rethink our approach to Korean Studies, and to focus more on “field work” and less on archival research. In the course of his presentation, he suddenly looked at the other foreigner (a nice chap from Germany) and me and asked a question in the guise of a joke. It wasn’t rhetorical, so I had to quickly answer, more sweat… I hadn’t understood exactly what he was saying… so, the standard “Yes” wasn’t going to work. I had to quickly calculate what exactly he said and mustered enough of an answer such that the dialogue could flow on without dropping a clanger. Luckily, I guessed right! Pfew~~~

Then, after the talk ended, there wasn’t a simply Q and A session for volunteer questioning, as in the States. Oh no. Here, Professor Jeong began asking various audience members specific questions in relation to a specific aspect of the presentation. Oh lord… he couldn’t possibly ask us, could he? Even the other Korean professors had seem a bit intimidated. No he won’t. But wait, what’s this, my old professor from Michigan enters the room… and begins introducing the German and me more specifically. Please don’t! Ha ha ha. “Oh, really,” Professor Jung says in response to hearing about our research, “Well then,” and he turns to us and the sweat starts dripping. I’ll spare the rest of the details, but he asked us a very direct question. I waited for the German, but nothing was forthcoming, so, I took the bait. I answered in a bit of a confused manner (actually, it wasn’t a language issue, it would have been confusing in English as well, i think, but I’m contrary like that), but, in a way that was at least marginally understandable. Nevertheless, the German owes me one!

Feeling relieved after that, it was time to go home after a long day. But long days only seem to get longer here. So, as I climbed the subway stairs and made my way through the ‘hood. I decided to say a quick “Hello” to the only neighbors I know, Mr. Bae and his wife, owners of the local beauty shop. I met them on the first day I was here after walking by and saying, “hi.” From that one word, a nice little relationship has blossomed, and I never pass now without greeting. I’d met their kids already too, and even had a bite to eat.

Tonight though, I was feeling particularly buoyant, and I wanted to get a picture of them to show Dominica, so, I stopped for a sec to get a photo of Mr. Bae.

As always, he hammed it up. img_4855.JPG
There are no quick “hello!” “goodbyes!” in Korea. Oh no. He ran over, grabbed my hand, asked if I’d eaten and upon hearing I hadn’t, insisted now was a good time as any for him to buy me a meal. Though, of course, a beer would taste good first. I sat down, he ran to get a couple a beers and we chatted happily. I was pretty hungry by now, and told him I should get going to eat, but then suddenly his wife appeared from a cubby hole in the wall next to us where she had, unbeknownst to me, been sleeping with their son! She quickly scurried off to a kitchen they have attached to the shop and proceded to whip up some vegetarian japchae, pajeon, and fried eggs. Oh, and by now, Mr. Bae, who had by the end of the beer become the more familial “hyoung” (“older brother”), had gone and got a coupla more beers.

Shaping up to be a good night indeed. We ate and chatted and drank. img_4856.JPGHe wanted to talk about cultural differences, like how among Korean guys it is perfectly common to grab each other, and hug and walk hand in hand and stuff, but if he did that to a foreigner they’d think he was gay. I faked like I misunderstood and said, “Oh, you are a male hairdresser, I already guessed you were gay.. and your wife is just for show. I know, it’s okay, don’t worry, I don’t have prejudice.” I had him going for a little while, but eventually he just started laughing really hard… and grabbing my arm and tussling my hair in that “oh you rascal” way…. Good times.

So goes another night in Hanguk. I eventually made it home with pix and another good story to blog. One thing i can say for population density, the chances for a good story increase exponentially.


We’ll see what trouble I can get into tomorrow.



  1. Boy, I don’t know anyone who can strike up a conversation with anyone and become life-long friends. More power to you and good on ya!! As Grandpa says, who is sitting next to me, it helps to keep you from getting too lonesome and that is good.
    Such great life experiences you have. Love ya!

  2. […] arborescence « Sometimes you just can’t say ‘no’ . . . nor should you another week done gone September 25th,2006 […]

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