People Far Away Now In My Faraway Neighborhood

Roganda asks:

Who are the people in your neighborhood? The people that you meet each day? That is, 5 people who are neither friend nor family member, and whose name you may or may not know, but whom you see everyday or thereabouts, e.g. your paperboy, local bum, milkman, etc.

This is especially tough since I can’t simply think about the people in my neighborhood as I encounter them, over the week, and prepare my answer. I need to think back over the the past few months and try to remember them all. This is especially hard as I’m sitting at a pay-for-time terminal on a Tuesday night, killing time because it’s too early to sleep and I don’t know anyone in Toronto, and I have to catch a train tomorrow.

But anyway, here’s me taking a shot at it. I’m going to impose on caveat on this, which is that I will not mention any co-workers in this post. I’m only going to talk about non-coworkers who live in my neighborhood. I’m doing this for two reasons: the first is that people I work with also know about and read this blog, and I know how weird it is to read about oneself on someone else’s webpage without forewarning (or to hear about the same). Secondly, I think that my situation is a little artificial right now, because there are three other people who work in my office who are living on the same floor in my block of flats. I see those people every day, but it’s at work, and in fact I see them less regularly around the neighborhood than I do other people, so I’m going to write about those other people instead.

  1. The shikdang family. There’s a little diner down the street, what’s called a “shikdang” in Korea. The family who runs it is composed of a husband, a wife, and a couple of kids. The mom and dad are always there, always making and serving (respectively) amazing amazing run-of-the-mill Korean food. I love the Kimchi Jjigae and the Sam Gyeop Sal comes with an amazing spread. But it’s the warm welcome that I especially like. It was the last place I ate at before my trip to India, and the first place I ate at when I returned. I might also have eaten there before coming to Canada, but I was too busy and Lime happened to order from another place we both really like… but it’ll be the first place I eat when I get back to Jeonju.

    And by the warm welcome, I don’t mean the way the woman who runs the place always says, “Oh, the professor is here!” and how excited she has t0o have “an academic” in the house… no, it’s the way she remembers me. All I can say to show you what I mean is how her husband, when I got back from India (and two months of not coming into the restaurant), commented that a “special customer” was in the house. She asked, immediately, though she could not see me from the kitchen, “Is it the professor?” and when her husband answered yes, she was excited and asked me all about my trip and what I thought of India. I swear she spent two hours asking my questions with great interest and making her own observations. It was a good conversation, despite my spotty Korean. I also get a kick out of seeing her husband whiz past me on his scooter, delivering food orders to local homes. He always smiles in recognition as he zooms past at dangerous speeds.

  2. The ajumma at the local convenience store. There’s a little store across the street, somewhere between a grocery store and a convenience store, and the matriarch of the family who runs the store is a wonderful, kind person. When I got back from India, her shop was out of kimchi and when I explained my disappointment, she went into the fridge and got me a container with some of her personal stash in it. That’s an act of wonderful, stunning kindness. On top of that, I know she’s done the same for another foreigner in the neighborhood, Heather, whom I’ll write about next. So this ajumma impresses me with her generosity and friendliness.
  3. Heather. Heather’s a friend who lives in the building next to mine. She used to be a professor in Iksan when I was working at the Wonkwang University Language Center, and by chance, after she came back to Korean after returning to Canada for a year, we discovered she was living in the building next to mine. It was a very pleasant discovery for both of us. We occasionally have dinner, and very occasionally just run into one another or see one another in passing. She’s a very smart and good-hearted person with whom I became friends one night when, at a birthday party for our friend Chai, we both savagely told off a very mouthy, backwards-minded witch talkative, opinionated person with whom I was working at the time Heather’s great, and I wish I had more time so I could see her more often. We always have something to talk about, even if it’s just sharing gripes about admin hijinks at work.
  4. The Kwallishil Ajeoshi. Korea has a surplus of old guys (ajeoshis) with no jobs. In what seems to be a kind of weird job-creation program, a chunk of these old guys seem to be given something to do at the apartment buildings where they live. That is, they become Kwallishil Ajeoshis. These old guys sit there all day in the booth pretty much doing nothing but watching who comes and goes, occasionally letting people into their apartments (or letting strangers into residents’ apartments, on occasion), and watching peoples’ comings and goings. They’re usually gone for lunch or dinner when you need them, and can never answer questions in any great detail, not even in Korean. They’re kind of security guards except of course they’re too old to fight someone off or protect anything. The Kwallishil Ajeoshi in my building is someone I see everyday, but I don’t think I could describe him if I had to, except that he’s about 60, wears tinted glasses too big for his face (like Kim Jong-Il’s) and he’s skinny as hell. He’s not necessarily a bad guy, he’s never made me angry, but he’s never been a great help either.
  5. This guy down the hallway, for whom I feel sorry. He’s always out in the hallway, smoking. Half the time there is a gagle of children in his apartment, and he looks as if he’s just smoking to escape their presence. I don’t know what he looks like as he seems to retreat into his flat half the time when someone approaches. He’s got the door open all the time, but there’s a hanging blind obscuring the view of his flat from the waist up, so I never see his face for more than a few seconds in passing, and only every second time I see him. I don’t know if he’s married, divorced and getting visitations, just a beleaguered uncle with a sister who needs time out of the house, or what. There is a couple down the hall—I’m tempted to say tat the couple I’m thinking of lives in that flat, but it may be the one next door—who is always fighting, man locking woman out, and then woman locking out man. But I don’t know if he’s half of that couple or if it’s the neighbours. What I do know is that, nameless, faceless, the figure of a man staring out the window, with the look of one whose dreams have forsaken him or at least have put off their impending visit for the present, is a fixture in my building. Everyone who lives on our floor has noticed him and people have even commented on his presence on rare occasion.

One of the interesting things I’ve found writing this list is that these people refute one of the myths of “the foreigner in Korea”, which is that they often can’t connect to Koreans at all. Certainly the Koreans on my list, who only know me in passing, don’t relate to me the way that they do to other Koreans. Yet, because I tend to hang around in the local restaurant and frequent the local grocery store, the people there have developed a rapport with me based on some very simple conversations in Korean (possible because of the little bit I’ve learned during my time here), based on seeing me often, and based on them recognizing something that we have in common. Sometimes it’s because of my foreignness that they relate to me differently, I think. In any case, these people make my daily life what it is: these are the faces of my everyday… the people in my neighborhood.

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