Of Kimchee and Refrigerator Magnets
by Nancy Werking Poling
An international student I tutored, Ok-young, was excited about my forthcoming trip to Korea. She said she would ask her aunt to drive from Seoul out to the conference center where my husband would be attending a theological gathering. No, she corrected herself, it was her niece who made a living as a tour guide. Later she told me she’d emailed her cousin who would be glad to take me sight-seeing. Though I kept insisting “Please don’t bother,” Ok-Young was determined.
Nestled in the mountains, about an hour south of Seoul, the conference center resembled a large hotel. While my husband attended seminars and panel discussions, I was free to roam the rustic setting. I hiked uphill, where I came upon the sort of ephemeral spring blossoms that inspire Asian artists. On my downhill wanderings I passed a grassy family burial plot with four small unmowed mounds. Further down the road, in the valley, men sat by an artificial pond on old vinyl car seats, fishing.
Though the setting was lovely I was stuck in a rural area with little to do. So that by the time a black Hyundae pulled up in front of the conference center I was grateful for Ok-young’s arrangements for me to venture beyond this mountain and narrow valley.
The woman who stepped out, stylishly clad in a short muted plaid skirt and beige blouse, couldn’t have yet turned thirty. A handsome man she introduced as her cousin was driving the car. The two of them sat in the front seat, I in the back. Contemporary American music played softly on the radio.
Almost immediately my guide thumbed through her Korean-English dictionary then said something about her sister-in-law, referring to Ok-young.
I discovered, as she repeatedly checked her dictionary, that she was a travel guide, but for Japanese tourists. So while she probably spoke fluent Japanese, her English was limited. My knowledge of Korean consisted of hello, thank you, how much does it cost, and where is the bathroom.
Being a friendly sort and a curious traveler, I made several attempts at conversation as the car sped along the highway. My efforts were futile. The young woman’s halting answers seldom matched my questions, and she made no inquiries of me. When I took a break from the exhaustive efforts of social exchange, she and the man carried on an animated conversation.
Sometimes, instead of watching one high-rise apartment building after another roll by, I observed my companions. They exchanged affectionate smiles. Their eyes were flirtatious. They weren’t cousins, I suspected. Yet the woman wore a wedding band, and from our limited attempts at communication I knew she had a six-year-old son.
Our first stop was north of Seoul, a Buddhist temple in a large park on top of a mountain. While I admired an immense brass bell under an open pavilion and looked up at the ceiling decorated in vivid tones of teal and peach, my companions walked a short distance away, where the driver smoked a cigarette.
After a thorough examination of ancient pictures along the temple’s outer wall, I looked around. There was no sign of the two. Panic seized me. Not only did I not know the name of the conference center, all I knew about its location was that it was south of Seoul. Even if I found someone who spoke English, how would I ever be able to find my way back to my husband?
From a balcony surrounding the temple, I gazed down into a courtyard. There was no sign of guide or driver, only enormous brown ceramic food containers, about a meter in height, for storing kimchee and sauces.
I needed a bathroom. Fortunately, I came upon two doors, the outline of a man in scholars’ attire on one, a woman in traditional dress on the other. As if they recognized where a woman my age would end up, the couple was waiting nearby when I exited.
From the temple we drove into Seoul, where we lunched in a crowded tofu restaurant. While the two of them conversed, I concentrated on maneuvering metal chopsticks and gulping down enough barley tea to counteract the food’s overwhelming spiciness. (On a later trip to Korea I learned how to say Please make it mild.) So far I was not enjoying the day.
From the tofu restaurant we drove a short distance, through an elaborate wooden gate. “King,” my guide told me, which I assumed meant the large semi-open building with a tiled roof was a palace. This time the couple accompanied me on a walk around the grounds. Pulling a small camera from his pocket, the driver took a photo of my guide under a blossom laden archway. And by a weeping willow tree along the edge of the pond.
Back in the car, we headed out of the city. I had no sense of what direction we were going, only that we’d been traveling great distances between sites. Having given up on making conversation, I sat in the backseat and stared out the window while the couple talked and the radio continued to play American music.
Our next destination, it turned out, was a burial mound with its own park. “King,” was the only explanation I got. Guide and driver stayed in the car while I walked around.
Later, as we drove back to the conference center, I sat in the back seat stewing. In Chicago Ok-young had helped me select gifts to take along. She’d told me to buy souvenirs of Chicago—pens, pencils, bookmarks, refrigerator magnets. But earlier in the week I’d discovered how out of proportion my small gifts were to Korean hospitality.
The whole day had been an embarrassment. I was embarrassed that these two had sacrificed eight hours for this American woman who couldn’t communicate with them, who didn’t even remember their names. I was embarrassed by my guide’s insistence on paying for everything. And in return for their generously, I was going to give them both refrigerator magnets with pictures of Chicago!
Travel is supposed to bring people together, but the day had been a failure. I felt cheap, an imposition.
Just as we pulled onto the narrow road leading up the hill to the conference center, a familiar song from my adolescence came on the radio. To my surprise, guide and driver began to sing along. In English. “Oh, my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch, a long, lonely time.”
I joined in. “Time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much. Are you still mine?”
Next all three of us belted out: “I need your love, I need your love, God speed your love, to me.”
They both turned around and smiled at me. I grinned back.
I have no idea how the two of them felt about the day. Maybe they were happy just to have an excuse to be together. Perhaps they were disgusted with the obligation to chauffeur an American woman from temple to palace to tomb.
Perhaps somewhere in Seoul a magnet showing the Chicago skyline still clings to a refrigerator door.
Nancy Werking Poling is the author of While Earth Still Speaks, an environmental novel. Her essay, “Leander’s Lies,” won the 2018 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize, sponsored by the North Carolina Literary Review. She blogs at her website and posts on Facebook and Instagram under her name. She lives and writes in the mountains of western North Carolina.