“You said you need to lose weight, right?” my date said between slurps of noodles.
“I don’t think I said that.”
“Oh.” He put down his noodles and went back to the chicken, unbothered. “You said something about how Korean girls are so skinny.”
“Yes.” I poured myself more beer. “That doesn’t mean I need to lose weight.”
“Oh.” He turned back to his food without comment and I conspicuously checked my watch for the tenth time.
Things had started out well enough.
After a disastrous series of dates with a Korean doctor (with such a big language barrier between us that I couldn’t even break up with him without consulting a dictionary), I relished the opportunity to date a Korean-American and talk freely.
Jason (obviously not his real name) was on vacation in Korea for a month to visit his family. We’d talked about medical documentaries and hunting rifles, sushi and horror movies and everything in between. Over text, things had been going well.
When we met in Hongdae on a Friday night, everything seemed great. We played rock paper scissors to decide where to eat and picked a place based on the pretty lanterns in the window, which we both hit our heads on upon entering because we are TALL.
Things started to fall apart once we ordered food.
Jason spoke to the waiter, asking questions about the grill that neither of us really understood how to use, then thanked him and turned back to me.
“So, did you understand what he said?”
“Who, the waiter? No, not really.” I hadn’t really been listening. Why would I, when there was a fluent Korean speaker placing my order for me?
“Damn,” he said. “You need to study more. You’ve been here two months already.”
He was smirking, so I knew it was supposed to be a joke, but I didn’t find it funny. There was nothing funny about how I spent hundreds of hours making Korean flashcards and reviewing them every night. It wasn’t funny when I mapped out a detailed plan to communicate with a bank teller in Korean, but failed in the first two minutes of actually speaking to him and went home ashamed. It wasn’t funny that I tried so hard but still didn’t know how to refill my prescriptions, or where to buy size 10 shoes, or how to ask for salt for my fries.
“I study every day,” I said, amazed at how unaffected my voice sounded. My face probably wasn’t as pleasant, though. I’d always thought I had a poker face until my thesis advisor informed me that I very noticeably pursed my lips together when someone said something I disagreed with in class. “I mean, Korean is hard,” I said.
“No, it’s so easy,” Jason said, setting more meat on the grill.
“For you, it is,” I said, frowning. “You grew up speaking Korean.”
“No, it’s just easy.”
I looked out the window so I wouldn’t have to look at him anymore. A mosquito buzzed by my ear.
“You’re making me want to punch you in the face,” I admitted.
I wasn’t joking, but he laughed anyway.
“Kylie, I’m a black belt. I could kick your ass. I’m also an egalitarian, so I’ll hit girls.”
I wondered if that was supposed to impress me.
“You must say that to all your dates,” I said, snatching a piece of meat off the grill with more force than necessary.
I learned that Jason liked to talk a lot. I took the opportunity to eat most of the meat while he ranted, because I’d accepted the fact that I’d be paying for my half of the meal. Even if he tried to pay (spoiler: he didn’t), I knew I wouldn’t let him.
I tried my best to sound at least mildly interested in the conversation, because I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like to make other people feel awkward. I hate it when I share what I think is an interesting fact with an acquaintance and I’m met with stone cold silence. Something as simple as “Oh, really?” or “Wow, that’s interesting,” goes a long way in making me feel at ease.
But Jason was really testing my patience.
“Wolves eat people from the ass up,” Jason informed me.
“Mhmm. It’s the softest part of the body. Always remember that.”
“Oh. You don’t say.”
“Yep. The ass is the softest part of the body.”
“Yes, that is what you said.”
“I’m tipsy,” he announced.
“Really?” Korean beer was basically flavored water. I’d had more to drink than him and I was still completely sober.
“Yes, so I’m going to find the bathroom because my dick is about to fall off.”
I graciously assumed he’d meant to add “because I have to pee” to the end of his sentence but decided not to press it.
I watched people walking by just outside the window and imagined I was with them, definitely having more fun than I was with Jason. When he came back, I was still looking out the window.
“Their haircuts are all the same,” he said, sliding into his seat and gesturing to the people on the other side of the glass. “It’s disgusting.”
“It’s a small country,” I said. “It makes sense that one trend is so pervasive.”
He shook his head. “It’s gross.”
I sighed and turned back to the window. Two girls were taking a selfie by the restaurant, probably because of the pretty lanterns that had drawn us there in the first place.”
“I’m gonna throw up,” Jason announced.
I spun back around to face him. “Wait, seriously?”
“Yes. They’re disgusting.”
I frowned. “Who?”
He pointed at the girls taking pictures by the window.
I scowled. “That’s not what ‘seriously’ means. And they’re just taking pictures.”
“But it’s so fake,” he said, still grimacing. “I only like candid shots.” He glanced over his shoulder at the girls who had yet to move, then groaned and turned away again.
“You’re a very negative person,” I said before I could stop myself.
He blinked, and something flashed in his eyes like he’d started to realize that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t impressing me at all.
“I’m just a realist,” he said. “I tell the truth.”
“You mean you say your opinion.”
“That’s the truth.”
“So you just walk around disgusted with everybody and everything, always angry?”
“Yep!” he said proudly.
“That sounds miserable.”
He shrugged, stabbing a piece of chicken with his chopsticks.
“We should get going,” I said.
“Yes,” he agreed. “I just need to finish this meat.”
I was naive in thinking he meant the meat on his plate. He meant the rest of the meat on the grill, because we were paying for it and it “couldn’t go to waste.” He continued to share unsolicited stories about his travels for another hour before he had to use the bathroom again.
“Can you ask for the check so it gets here by the time I’m back?” he said.
By this point, I was blatantly checking my phone for the tenth time to not-so-subtly show him that I wanted to go.
“Why don’t you ask for it,” I said. “You’re the one who can speak Korean, aren’t you.”
He nodded understandingly and went to go get the check. I didn’t tell him that I’d asked for the check dozens of times in Korean restaurants.
The waiter gave me the bill and I slapped money on the table for my half, not willing to let him pay for me even if he’d offered (he didn’t). For a moment, I seriously considered paying and leaving before he got back from the bathroom, but ultimately decided I wasn’t that level of evil.
We finally left the restaurant, but we had to take the same train for a few stops, so we walked to the station together.
“Say something in Korean,” he said as we boarded the train.
“Come on,” he said, elbowing me.
I sighed and mentally scrolled through the sentences I’d memorized for my last Korean dictation exercise.
“당신 같은 사람은 이 세상에 없어요.”
It means: “There’s no one like you in this world.” This can be romantic, if you smile and bat your eyelashes when you say it. It can also mean “You’re really fucking weird” if you say it with a completely straight face, devoid of emotion. Guess which one I did.
He laughed and said something in Korean that I didn’t catch.
“I said ‘there must be a few people like me.’ See, you need to practice. It was a simple response.”
“You don’t know me well enough to say that to me,” I said.
He stopped smiling.
My stop came mercifully soon. I was ready to run out of the train, but he opened his arms for a hug, which I reciprocated with the enthusiasm of a wet sock, grateful that at least he didn’t try to kiss me or ask me to go home with him.
I transferred to another train line and stood staring at my boots, suddenly feeling profoundly sad.
Part of it was that I’d wasted my time and money. But a bigger part of it was that I worried he was right about my Korean. After all, my co-teachers who always complimented and encouraged my efforts weren’t exactly unbiased — they loved me and fretted over me like a little sister. But this stranger clearly had no problem telling me the truth.
Just as I was fishing my headphones out of my bag, my phone vibrated with a message from Jason.
I laughed, startling the old man sitting next to me.
It must have been so easy to go through life with an attitude like Jason’s. To think, “I had a good time, so that’s what matters” and damn the consequences for the people around you, who cares how you made them feel? They just can’t handle the truth.
I stared at my phone for the rest of the train ride, then tucked it into my pocket for the walk to my apartment, kicked off my shoes and fell into bed, hugging my stuffed lion.
It was hard to be mad at Jason when deep down, I knew that he hadn’t meant to make me feel this way. He was just socially inept and had poor taste in jokes.
I rolled over in bed and looked at the broken piece of wood that I’d leaned up against the window. During orientation, we’d written what we wanted to accomplish in Korean on pieces of wood, then broken them during a taekwondo class.
My piece of wood now sat in my room as a reminder of why I was here — to learn and to keep learning even when it was hard, even when I was scared.
I took out my phone and stared at Jason’s text for a few more minutes.
My first instinct was to type: “I know, no worries :)” because at least I could pretend to be happy through text if I couldn’t in person. It wasn’t like I was going to see him again, so it didn’t matter.
But then I decided I was done pretending for the night.
Instead, I typed:
I set my phone down on my bed and stared up at the ceiling. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I was probably going to die as an old woman not in the arms of a man but surrounded by ragdoll cats and welsh corgis. And, at this point in my life, that sounds like a pretty awesome way to go.
Bonus: Versatile Blogger Award & 7 facts about me
I’ve been nominated by the lovely Carol (Born into the Wild Life) for the Versatile Blogger Award, which is less of an award and more of a way to get to know other bloggers. I haven’t dedicated a separate post to this because I try to keep my blog centered around travel and writing, but I do think this is a fun idea to get to know both me and other bloggers. The rules are as follows:
If you’ve been nominated, you have been awarded the Versatile Blogger Award (lol, like I said, not really an award)
Thank the person who nominated you for this award (thank you Carol! :D)
Include a link to their blog (heeeeeeeere)
Nominate 15 other blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly (see below)
Tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself (also see below)
I have to be honest and say that I don’t really follow many bloggers besides the really well-known ones (who I know will never see this post), so I can really only nominate 4 people. But hey, quality over quantity, right?
Born into the Wild Life — the lovely Carol, who writes wonderfully about her very relatable life experiences, often about being half-white-half-asian like me 🙂
The Landscape is Always Changing (Stephanie Yu) – reflections and insights on life that are practically poetry because they’re so beautifully written.
The Empathetic Activist — discussions of mental health and self-harm
Babs Handmade Creations — adorable crochet animals that I love to admire
And for the last part…
7 facts about me:
I love escape rooms and I’m decently good at them:
2. I’m tall. Like 5.9-5.10″ (depending on who’s asking)
3. Once, I managed to get red wine on my ceiling (don’t ask)
4. I love cereal and eat it for dessert most nights. I have received cereal as a Christmas present. The day I went to a cereal cafe in London was maybe the best day of my life. Brand-name cereals are about $7/box in Korea, which makes me incredibly sad.
5. I also love tea, which is probably why my teeth are never the right color.
6. I taught English to a group of Tibetan monks at my university. I’m not sure why anyone trusted me to do this unsupervised (this was before I had any teaching credentials), but it was an amazing experience.
7. I keep many toys on my desk at work (for the kids, I swear). My favorite is a stuffed lamb that I use for games. Usually, the kids pass him around to music and whoever has it when the music stops has to answer a question. The lamb inevitably gets thrown around the room. He used to be white but now is sort of gray. I creatively named him Snowball, but the kids call him 양양이 (yangyangi) which is like “lamb lamb”