And so it was, that when I left school the other day, it was raining in Korea. Well, hardly. I’m talking, like, despite it having drizzled for well over an hour, the roads and pavements were hardly completely wet. And because of this barely-rain I decided to walk home without an umbrella.
Now, I thought that somewhere in the course of the last year, I’d become immune to the incredulous stares of Koreans. Because let’s face it, despite TV and the fact that foreigners have been living here for decades, it’s still quite the curiosity to “see a live one”.
But I digress.
I’ve become mostly oblivious to the staring. But yesterday… It’s like I was in The Emperor’s New Clothes. People stopped to watch The Foreigner Walking In The Rain. It was, to put it bluntly, ridiculous.
People stopped and looked on in shock as I passed by them. As a result, I became all huffy and my mood soured, despite the light, cooling drizzle surrounding me.
I was walking down the street, about half way home, when I heard someone in heels approaching me from behind at quite a pace. I was silently ranting at this woman for being in such a rush, and it’s not even monsoon season. I stepped to the side so she could pass by me. If last year’s rainy season taught me anything, it’s that I’m at eye level with the average Korean umbrella, and that the average Korean umbrella carrier lacks the coordination necessary to keep their umbrella from poking me in the eye.
Anyway, the next thing I hear someone calling out to me and I look around. It’s the high-heeled running woman. She starts shoving her umbrella at me and speaking to me in friendly, but panicky, Korean. I assess the situation behind me. And to my amazement, I realise that she got out of her car, engine still running, and ran after me to offer me her umbrella.
Wouldn’t you, too, feel a little ashamed at your inner rants after such a kind gesture? Luckily we were standing under a tree at that point, otherwise I would have felt even worse about this stranger standing out in the rain, getting “wet”, and offering me her umbrella.
Despite knowing that, within Korean culture, it’s rude to refuse an offer or gift from someone, I didn’t have the heart (or the storage space) to take this woman’s umbrella. So I politely declined. She insisted, in a friendly, concerned way. I became a little flustered. So much so, that I gestured at the nearest apartment block, pointed at myself and made a house shape with my hands. “Here, my house.” There was a huge language barrier, so reasoning with her or explaining calmly that I greatly appreciated her kindness, but that I was really OK, was just impossible.
I thanked her for the millionth time (in Korean), bowed for the gazillionth time, and made my way into the apartment complex. She seemed to understand this body language, spoke to me in some more fast-and-furious Korean, smiled, bowed and walked back to her car – with the umbrella open and shielding her impeccable suit from the drizzle. You’re welcome, lady.
So initially, this blog was going to be about that moment of extreme kindness overshadowing the moments of insensitive and annoying stares (it even had an appropriate title). I started typing it that evening, and got busy (read: procrastinated), and I was going to finish it the next day after classes.
And then the next day happened.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting a lift with two of my students’ mom (they live on the next street over). We arrived at school, and it was raining lightly, so we had our umbrellas out. The pathway from the parking area to the school is a little narrow, so the second the rain stopped, I dropped my umbrella and helped the kids manoeuvre theirs. At this point, a group of my colleagues walked past us.
And later, I was treated to the following conversation by one of my colleagues:
Colleague: Why no you use umbrella?
Me: Because it wasn’t raining
Colleague: I see you, before. You no using umbrella. Why?
Me: This morning? It stopped raining. I didn’t need an umbrella.
Colleague: Really? I see you, you have umbrella, but you no use.
Me: I didn’t need it. It wasn’t raining. The roads were wet, but the rain stopped.
Colleague: Oh. I use my umbrella. You no use.
Me: No. I no use for no rain.
Colleague: No rain? I think rain.
Me: No. No rain.
Note to self: just use your damn umbrella and save yourself the distress.