After returning to the United States I recall listening to a man interviewed on NPR talk about his immigrant father’s trouble with the English language. After initially struggling to form even basic phrases, the father eventually acquired a level of English that his son termed “negative English.” That is to say, he spoke just enough English to land himself in trouble, but not quite enough to find a way out. Although I had not heard the term before, I was all too familiar with the concept.
My rooming situation in Seoul was one not readily comparable to anything I’ve seen in the west, but could perhaps be best described as a pension. In Korean it is called a “Hasook Jeep (하숙집).” The boarders in a Hasook Jeep all have their own rooms, with television, internet, and in some rare instances, their own toilet or shower. The majority of these rooms have trouble holding more than two individuals at a time, and many of them have rules explicitly stating that cohabitation of these closet-sized rooms is prohibited (partially to maximize rent profits, partially out of concern for those boarders living on the other side of those paper-thin walls). The building is taken care of by a middle-aged woman called an “ajumma (아줌마),” the term by which all middle-aged women in the country are called. They clean the building and cook some type of meal (often no more than rice and odd vegetables that, thankfully, do not exist in the west), and take care of (i.e. outsource) any maintenance issues.
While room size is certainly not to be overlooked, in reality the most important detail in choosing a proper “hasook jeep” is finding a kind “ajumma.” Unfortunately such a commodity is in short supply. At best, most of them will suffer your presence silently. They will put together a meal with some semblance of nutritional value, and only bother you for rent once a month. There are, of course, exceptions. One of my former ajumma, for example, used to take fellow boarders to the countryside to pick flowers. I presume that there was also frolicking. But it should be understood that most of these ladies simply don’t have the presence of mind to separate their anger towards scrubbing and cleaning from their anger towards their residents.
It is also important, if more difficult, to ensure that the other boarders are somewhat sane and cooperative. There are many odd people in this world, as I am reminded on a daily basis, and naturally some of them find their way to Korea. There are Japanese women who, unable to marry in their own country, come to the homeland of their favorite dramas in an effort to avert a complete meltdown. There are also westerners who, driven by yellow fever, a failure to find gainful employment, or a mixture of the two, come to get laid and get paid (there were relatively few westerners who, like myself, were simply too shiftless to go to college).
There are also cultural differences that, in many cases, cannot be overcome by peace and understanding. For example, unbeknownst to me prior to entering my first hasook jeep, Japanese people apparently love indoor heating. In fact, I think they may like it more than sex, Pokemon and Sailor Moon combined. For this reason I humbly beg the reader to never live with a large number of Japanese people in either the fall or winter. In light of the high volume of Japanese in my hasook, the ajumma thought that 30 degree Celsius, or 86 degree Fahrenheit, was a suitable temperature for our lovely boarding house. Yes, that’s right, they wanted to heat their rooms up to a temperature that would have caused any sane individual to turn on AC.
Unable to sleep, I asked the Ajumma to turn down the heat. She complied, but then later, once again unable to sleep, I found that the heat had been turned back to its original temperature. This process repeated for a few days, with me asking the ajumma to turn the heat down, her doing so, and then moving it back up. Finally when I asked why she kept increasing the heat she said the other boarders liked it. “Well,” I replied, searching through my limited lexicon of three or four insults, “the other residents are idiots.” I then switched to English for a few heated swear words which, thankfully, no one appeared to understand.
Perhaps her failure to comply with the basic living standards set forth by the U.N. was due to her long-festering anger at my existence. I had managed to incur the wrath of my ajumma early on by failing to wear shoes in the stairwell. Living on the third floor, I thought it was a bit of a waste to put on shoes so that I could go down to the second floor for dinner, and so I often went barefoot. The ajumma asked me why I wasn’t wearing shoes, and thinking that she was concerned my bare feet might lead to a cold I responded, “Oh it’s okay! I’m an American! We do this all the time!” I was a bit confused at her cold, silent stare, but having never seen her smile during my time at the boarding house, I chalked it up to a cultural inability to express emotion.
Perhaps my most salient failure involved use of the communal toilet. Feeling a bit queasy late one evening I went to go relieve myself in the bathroom. Having already managed to clog the toilet once by flushing toilet paper (a major no-no when using the low-pressure toilets of Korea), I was careful to avoid doing so again. However, as I discovered all too late, whoever had used the toilet before me had already clogged the toilet. Had it been a small shit, I might have just gone to bed and worried about it in the morning. Sadly, it was not small, and its odor was not insignificant. I grabbed the plunger and shoved it in without result for the better part of an hour. At the end of the ordeal the toilet bowl was sprinkled with specks of shit, and there was a bit stagnating in a pool at the bottom that simply would not flush.
At this point my language abilities could still be classified as “Negative Korean.” Although I felt confident that I could tell the ajumma that I had clogged the toilet, I was less confident that I could explain, to her satisfaction, that it wasn’t my fault. Like any rational being, in an effort to avoid confrontation I placed a fragrant sachet (meant to be a gift for my friend’s mother) on top of the toilet seat and crept back into my room.
The next day when I entered the bathroom there was a sign written in the men’s stall. Although I knew it dealt with the toilet I had to grab my dictionary to understand all the words. Translating, I was surprised to learn that “Whoever did this has no conscience.” I was also somewhat perturbed upon learning that they should “please move quickly!”
Some time later I called a high school classmate mate of mine, Andrew, who was on vacation and back in Seoul. I told him about the problems I was having with my living situation. “Man…the ajumma here is such a bitch.”
He responded, “Dude about that…you have to move.”
What? Apparently, the ajumma, fearing direct confrontation with me, had called Andrew’s mother to tell her that I needed to move. I’m not sure if she knew that I was the culprit in the toilet incident, but I imagine she suspected such a thing could only be the result of housing a troublesome American like myself. Truthfully I couldn’t blame her. The general cleanliness of the Japanese residents had left me wondering if they were capable of producing something as vile as shit.
Not really having much say in the matter, I packed up my bags and moved to another boarding house a few meters away. This second one was located on top of a bar, and I must say that there were many days when I longed to be in my old residence, which was located on top of a piano studio. Even the poorly struck f-notes of elementary students were preferable to the incessant banter of drunk college girls calling out for their equally drunk and substantially more obnoxious boyfriends.
Thankfully though, this new hasook jeep was run by a kinder ajumma, who I eventually came to call “emo (이모),” or “auntie.” The only real misunderstanding was that she imagined I loved Cornflakes. When I would come to breakfast in the morning and halfheartedly attempt to swallow rice and seaweed soup, she could tell that there was some sort of cultural food barrier. The solution? Cornflakes.
“William, we have cornflakes!” she would excitedly say as I stared blankly into the adjoining hallway, trying to conjure images of steak, eggs, and country biscuits. While I am certainly a fan of several cereals currently on the market, I dislike Cornflakes. They are bland, but still manage to lack the nutritional value of other bland cereals. Eventually, tired of inventing excuses for why today was not a good day for cornflakes or fish, I quit going to breakfast at the boarding house, and began frequenting the nearest McDonalds for a “HohtKayKuh (hotcake) and Soshijee (sausage) Sehtuh (set).”
My first experience with Korean McDonald’s had been about two weeks after arriving in the country. It was an experience for which, I must pathetically admit, I spent time preparing. In my mind, I practiced saying what it was I wanted over and over, and wrote and rewrote the vocabulary I would need in an effort to memorize the material. I had decided that I would order a cheeseburger with onions.
When my turn to order came I nervously said that I would like a hamburger with cheese and onions. The server responded, “cheeseburger?”
“Yes,” I said.
“No,” I said. Please give me only cheese and onions.”
At least, that was how I imagined the conversation unfolded. In reality I think it went along the lines of:
“Please give me cheese onions.”
I believe the latter is more accurate because upon unfolding the hamburger wrapper I found a bun with cheese and diced onions. The meat was nowhere to be found.
But while I understand what went wrong in the aforementioned situations, there are several situations about which I am still, to this day, utterly confused. Once, while walking by the Hyundai Department store in Sinchon, the district of Seoul in which I lived, I ran into a girl I had met at a Mexican restaurant aptly named “Choi’s Tacos. I recalled thinking that she was a bit odd the first time I met her, as she seemed to be unconcerned with wiping off the massive amounts of sour cream that had accumulated on her lips. Regardless, I stopped and talked with her. Perhaps I missed something, lacking much ability in the language, but it seemed to me that she was asking for subway directions. Odd, considering that of the two of us it was clearly I who should be asking for directions, but I went with her into the subway station and pointed on the map to where she needed to go.
She then told me that she didn’t have money for the subway, and that we should go get tea. I had been complaining of late about not having anything to do after school, and so I agreed. To make friends, I rationalized, perhaps one has to spend time with women who forget to shave their legs or wipe their mouths. The path to the tea-shop, however, seemed unnecessarily convoluted. Why did we have to take so many back alleys?
Eventually we arrived at a private institute where one could learn Latin. The girl informed me that as a Catholic she had been trying to learn the ancient language. I wasn’t quite sure what being Catholic and reading Latin had to do with drinking tea, or why we couldn’t have gone one of the innumerable tea shops around the subway station. Apparently, sour cream girl informed me, one could obtain a cup of green tea from the school’s main office.
Surely I missed something when conversing with this girl, but I wasn’t particularly concerned with finding out what exactly I had misunderstood. She seemed very odd, and having recently watched the “Davinci Code,” I was wondering if I hadn’t encountered a member of Korea’s Opus Dei. I walked back home and lay on my bed so that I could reconsider the day’s rather strange events. I vowed to keep my mouth shut in the future.