via Laura at Oddunout, I discovered a neat blog with postings about elevator experiences. I liked it so much I found out how to post there (in the extended section of this post) and posted something. It’s a little creative writing piece about a weirdly ambivalent experience I had in an elevator a few weeks ago, and how it showed me the kinds of changes and even mild paranoia about others’ thinking of me that I’ve developed living as a foreigner in Korea.
Now, that might sound weird, but you know, I’ve heard some pretty weird, bad, strange things about foreigners from Koreans, or from other foreigners who heard them from Koreans. Actually, some of those things I agree with, for the general population of foreigners here, though not for myself. But it does make one wonder how one’s being perceived by others, especially in situations where one makes a small mistake which could be misinterpreted. And the paranoia that can developone I am working on minimizingleads to me misjudging people who may well not be misjudging me in the first place! What a mess.
Anyway, you can read the text I posted over at The Elevator Blogwhich is worth a look anywayor in the extended section of this post, by clicking the link below. But please leave whatever comments you have over there, and I’ll check there for them. And feel free to submit your own posts there! It’s a great project so far and could even more fun to read if more people contribute interesting stories!
The buttons on the panel read: 1, 2, 3, F, 5, 6… F, because the Chinese number for 4, sa, which is used here in Korea, sounds like the Chinese word for “death”.
4th isn’t my floor, anyway, it’s 5th I want to go to. I am not alone, this ride, as a younger man stands to my right, stealing furtive looks at me, the white stranger, the foreigner, the resident alien who lives on fifth. He’s not gay, that’s just how people in this city look at white people, the way I looked at blacks or Indians or Asians when I was a kid, mainly curiously, not knowing what a strangeness it was to look that way.
I turn my head to him and say, politely, “Myeo cheungae kayo?” He smiles, not answering me: perhaps he thinks, despite me asking which floor he’s going to in perfectly clear Korean, that I won’t understand his answer… as if someone like me simply cannot count to 10 in a foreign language. I shrug as he reaches past me to the panel of buttons, his finger passing over F to the 5th floor button that I just pressed a moment before. He pushes the button, and I am watching the button, and nobody’s looking out into the cold corridor that leads outside the building.
But there’s a woman running down that hallway, two of them in fact. I know it from the clonk, clonk, clonk of their high heels before I even look up. One of them calls out something in Korean, so frantically I don’t catch it, and I realize I should stop trying to figure out what she said, and just hit the button where the arrows are in opposite directions, to keep the door open for her. For her and her daughter, I realize, as I noticed the woman in tow is much younger.
Is anyone good at this kind of thing, suddenly hitting the right button in an elevator? I never have been. I wish I could blame the code-switching involved as I stop working in my third language and start thinking spatially, looking for the right button. I usually take the stairs, but I’ve used this elevator enough over the last year and a half that I ought to know which button is where.
The woman is plunging through the door of the elevator as if the devil is chasing her down that first-floor hallway. I read a story like that, where a boy runs races and always wins, and finally gets asked how he does it, and he admits that he imagines the devil chasing him, wanting to take his soul if he loses. I remember the story ending with the boy losing a race and ending up dead, facedown on the racetrack. Who the hell writes such a thing for children? What’s the message of it, anyway, that the little crutches we use can kill us? I don’t know, but maybe that’s why my hand aims too low, and brushes the F button.
The F button. Why should that be linked to “death” in my mind? Has the little Korean I’ve studied invaded my mind so deeply?
I gawk at the wrong button, as the woman is passing through the elevator door, even as it is closing upon her. I reach up, higher, looking carefully but blundering in my pause to check; I make it worse, and hit the “close” button, just as the doors are about to hit her. I could have averted that, but I didn’t. And I can see, in the corner of my eye, the eyes of the young man on my hand, as it hovers indecisively over the panel of the buttons. What he’s making of this, I cannot even imagine.
They thud into her, on each side, and the other man and I gawk at the scene. It is one of the most inelegant things that could happen to this woman between her car and her apartment’s front door. She lets out a groan and tries to remove the look of shock from her face. To have apartment elevator doors close on her… the indignity. And in front of her daughter. She looks up into my face, and the dismay only deepens: and it was a foreigner who didn’t push the button for her, I can see that slightly deeper dismay registering on her face.
I feel the excuses coiling up inside of me: she shouldn’t have run for the elevator; she shouldn’t have plunged through the doors; who does she think she is, anyway? What’s the big rush, anyway? Dammit, at least I tried for the button… would she push it for me? Would she hit the right button if I had called out to her in English? And shame on her, for taking my foreignness into account at all…
Except, I realize, maybe she’s not even thinking it. Do I see derision on her face, or is it just embarrassment, or annoyance at the force with which the elevator doors closed on her? I don’t know… so many strange looks, so many strange or cruel words I’ve half-overheard, and I don’t know whether or when my foreignness comes into it or not. I chide myself for jumping to conclusions, and in my most polite Korean, bowing slightly to the lady and her daughter, I say, as clearly and respectfully as possible, “Chaesong hamnida. Naega jal anhaesseoyo, jal mot basseoyo.” Having apologizedwithout any kind of response, mind youand explained I didn’t see the right button, I ask, “Myeo cheungae kayo?”
Now, I should have said, “Myeo cheungae kamnikka?”, and kept in the same level of politeness as when I apologized, the high honorific. But I didn’t, I switched to the middle politeness, the yo that ends off with a simple civility between strangers, the civility of a hedged bet, the civility used with any old stranger, instead of the apologetic politeness of someone who just had a door slammed on her and may well feel it’s your fault.
But that’s what happens in your third language. I’m not sure if what happens next always happens in your third language, or whether it’s just a part of life in Korea, but the younger woman doesn’t even respond. Just like the man in the elevator, she reaches past me, and pushes the button for the top floor, without a word to me.
Oh, God, I think, as the elevator doors close again. Oh, she’s rich, and she thinks I slammed to door on her on purpose. Rich people are always like that, aren’t they? I turn my head away from the group, and look into the mirror on my side of the elevator. It’s the only mirror in the place, which is unusual: Korean elevators are usually full of elevators, one on each of the three available wall surfaces. But this elevator only has one, and when I look into it, I see the young man, looking at me, not quite frowing but not quite grinning, just intently watching, curious in some way he’s not quite letting on.
The elevator is not silent, for the machines that make it work were built in the 1970s, and are serviced only when necessary, I think, so there is the whirr and clanking and the occasional heave to it. But nobody says a word, except the rich woman, who mutters, “Aigo…”, something of an old woman’s “Oh my goodness,” in Korea.
And then the doors are opening on fifth floor, and the man is saying somethingI miss it because I am still wading through my embarrassmentand the women move out of the way. I follow him out into the hallway, turning and bowing slightly on the way out, saying, again as clearly as possible, “Jal kashipsio,” to the young woman and her mother. The mother says nothing, just looking at my blankly, nodding vaguely, but the younger woman’s affirmative “Nae” is audible as the elevator doors close, and the old machine continues its way up to the top of this building.
The man who got out of the elevator with me is already most of the way down the right-side hallway, in the opposite direction to the one I am going, so I don’t bother to say another word as I turn down my own hallway, wondering what that old lady is thinking to herself at that very moment.