Sunday, May 24, 2009

How to Treat a Celebrity

Last weekend was eventful, and I hope the pictures are enjoyable to view despite their photographic frailties. I'm becoming something of a reality snob (which, among all the snobberies, is probably the most meaningful and worthwhile - this is not why I adopted it, however). I see a view that moves me in ways I can't quite credit to mere grass and trees and scenery, an interaction between a mother and child on the street that signifies for me something profound about the universals of human relations, a philosophic expression on Malachi's unphilosophic face - and I think "I want a picture..." as in, I want proof that this happened, and that it is true. But then the photographic is flat - or rather, it just isn't like real life, and I find I'm becoming a reality snob.

All this is just to say - please enjoy our pictures. The events of our weekend are not the direct subject of our blog, but hopefully the pictures tell enough of the narrative version.

We have decided to write about our position here in society. Korean culture has long functioned within the structure of distinct and discernible classes, with specific expectations and traditions governing the behavior of each. For instance, we belong to the class of Mary Pickford and Matt Damon. In other words - in the words of the giftshop sales lady at the Folk Village - we are movie stars. We are so beautiful.

I thought I was prepared for this because Solomon claimed that he was treated like a celebrity in China. But, he did not carry an eleven-month-old cherub on his hip that lacks any semblance of social constraint and also, apparently, wears a label on his back that reads something like "please click at me, pinch my forearm, slap my cheek and, if your strength is great enough, release me from my incompetent parents" in Hangul.

We exaggerate, but in minor moderation. This is a composite-construction of our experience when we leave our apartment:

We enter our elevator and greet the mother and children already inside. The children hush themselves but the mother prods them to speak to us. A brave little boy says "hello," and we say "hello" and then the mother takes off Malachi's sock and compares his skin tone to that of her daughter's. The elevator reaches the ground floor. We say "bye" to the family, but are unable to take a step out because five little boys block our exit and say "babeeee" in unison and reach up their hands to touch some part of Malachi, somewhat as if he is hem of Jesus' garment. We push through and smile and say "hi" and "bye" (sometimes not in the right order) and make it to our mailbox before realizing that the one of the boys has followed us and is tugging at us. We stop - "for baby" he says, holding out a piece of hard-candy. We thank him (we no longer try to argue with these gifts) and say bye again, and then we make it out into the fresh air.

We walk very very quickly, but two older ladies plant themselves in front of us and laugh and clap their hands together, and we pause for them and Malachi claps his hands. It is then that I realize, they are not just clapping their hands, they are demanding that we give them Malachi. I act like I don't know this, and just keep encouraging him to clap and to wave at them. We try to walk on but a crowd has already formed in the milli-second that we paused. The ladies begin clapping harder and one of them takes ahold of Malachi and tries to peel him from me, to illustrate that this is what she means. I begin stepping away and twisting a little, back and forth, to get out modeled after a screw-driver removing a screw, and we smile and say "bye" in Korean and in English, only to meet another lady who has no desire to hold Malachi - only to look into his eyes and say "BLUEEEE", and to give him a small paper fan with an advertisement on it, which he promptly throws on the ground. So we mix thank-yous into our byes, and we get away from our apartment building.

At the first intersection, a group of six or seven school-age girls spot us and squeel and scream and dance around us and say "cuteee" and then, when the wind knocks Malachi's hood off and he is exposed in all his blondeness, the squeels become deafening and everyone is rubbing his head and asking where we are from. Busses of people go by, and anonymous hands come out, with fingers all pointing at us.

We cross the intersection, where an old man is waiting. This time, it is not Malachi that gets all the attention. The man reaches out and strokes Thaddeus' stubbly chin"aah, nice beard."

We walk on, with similar attention until we get to our bus-stop. On the bus, the people closest to Malachi offer him their cell-phones and business-cards and unchewed gum as toys, and he throws each of them on the floor (or into my hand if I'm able to intercept it), and the others, not close to us, stare at us, blinking twice perhaps in ten minutes. We emerge from the bus and hear the conversations begin in our wake...

The affects of all this can be strangely dehumanizing, I guess that is our conclusion. And to find some response that is not equally dehumanizing - that is sensitive, appropriate, personable - is a challenge we will probably never quite conquer, but one I do hope we always feel.

So, if you see the local weatherman at a gas-station, or Dick Cheney at a gun store or anything - ignore them, give them nothing, don't point at them, don't stroke their head or compare their skin to yours. Just to commemorate us.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

of hikes and gloves and jesuslove

Recent events have reminded me that this blog is much overdue.

Last week I took Malachi on a slight hike. Malachi made it far more strenuous than I had expected and I was unable to pause at the top because I didn’t want to disturb the serenity of an older man meditating on a bench. So on my walk home I pretended to be a 21st century Oscar Wilde and composed an observation which, in the moment, seemed saturated with tidy truths - walking after a hike is altogether in bad taste.

I tried to greet the eager passer-by’s with something of my usual pleasantness (I’m pleasant in Korea) but all my mind could do was gauge how far I had to go, and still to go, and still to go. And then, at the very entrance of our apartment complex awaited… the jesuslove missionaries.

I had met one of them before, on my way to the supermarket, and she had given me a pamphlet, so I thought I knew what to expect. This time there were two ladies, one a littler older than the other. They greeted me – annyonghaseo – and I tried to greet them, allowing myself only the slightest glance in the direction of our apartments, still about twenty meters from us (ok, a sheer guess, but meters are awfully hard for me since I’ve only used miles and feet and all the other nebulous Americanisms of distance measurement).

They held out a pamphlet and I tried to express that I already had one, and that I have even seen the church's structure, and it is big and Thank you, but I’m not in need of another pamphlet because that would be wasteful, wouldn’t it, and Jesus wouldn’t love that, right? But this did not come through. They persisted in pointing at the pamphlet and in the direction of their church and speaking Korean extremely quickly (just to join in the universal opinion that when you don’t speak a language, it seems that everyone speaking that language speaks it on speed) and so I took a different tactic: utter agreement.

Yes, the pamphlet. Thankyou. Kamsamneeda, right? Yes, the church, Yes, thank you. Yes, me, yes, that, yes, yes. When they wanted something more lengthy I would say “Hangu-gul-nu-tum-nee-da” (I don’t speak Korean) and then I would fall back on my simple “Yes.”

My affirmation was interpreted to be theological as well – the younger of the ladies leaned her shoulders into me and put her hands together in an attitude of prayer. I hesitantly indicated that I understood. “Pray” I said, and held my hands together as best I could. She looked up in to the sky and then opened the pamphlet, which seemed to be neatly arranged in proper numeric order – four steps to something. Salvation probably, and prayer is step two. She pointed at the pamphlet, mimed prayer and then pointed at me. I almost nodded, but then settled on “I don’t speak Korean." She got out a pen and started writing Hangul letters on it. I said "I don't understand." So she thrust her finger at each character separately and looked at me intently to see if any of them would be familiar and I alternated between saying yes and I don't understand. A mixed message, I know, but I was trying to both be polite and honest.

Then the other lady stepped into me and pointed down. I looked at the hem of my capris and then at her. She shook her head and then pointed at her skirt and spoke Korean quickly. At this, I admit, I laughed. But she peered at me so gravely that I stopped laughing and nodded instead and said “um, I don’t speak Korean.” She pointed at my feet. I nodded, trying to indicate, yes, I expect that my bare feet in flip flops might be equally forbidden…then she reached in her purse and gave me a pair of ankle-length-pantyhose.

I tried to mute my laughter, but I know some semblance of merriment came through because she shook her head at me and pushed the panty-hose into my hand, pointed at my feet and then in the direction of the church. “Ah” I said “I wear these, if I come to your church. Thank you. Kamsamneeda.” And then the other lady pointed at various parts of my body and wardrobe and shook her head and pointed at Malachi and shook her head and then slapped his cheeck gently and said he is adorable.

I decided to perform my creative leave-taking move that has successfuly freed me of many Korean crowds: I bolt (here I have long legs) and wave Malachi’s hand and pretend like he's saying “bye- bye.” Usually people think this is funny and also understand, and say ‘bye-bye’ back to him or get me to say it Korean but instead the older lady pushed against my shoulder again and hurriedly fumbled in her purse and handed me a box of something. I took it and said Thank you and smiled and said “bye” and they pointed at the church and then wagged their fingers at me and pointed at the panty-hose. I nodded and said all the same things you know I can say and then, I got away.

I was curious as to what could be in the box, but was surprised to find that it contained a pile of plastic gloves.

This led to an extensive internet search to see what the religious significance of the gloves might be, but I think it's just a common household item they give out since I've also received tea and tissues during similar encounters.

I was reminded to tell of this because just a few minutes ago someone rang our doorbell. I peeked out and saw a lady knocking on the door opposite to ours. But then she opened the person’s door! She immediately came back out and rang our doorbell. The door was not locked, so I panicked and, rather than have her open our door, I opened it and greeted her. I guess she’s our new neighbor – she pointed at her door and then, oddly enough, asked if I’m Russian. I said no, American, and she smiled and sighed and said "America, ah." She told me Malachi is adorable (so far it’s my favorite Korean word) and then….she reached in her purse and gave me, you know, the jesuslove pamphlet….