July 11, 2012 by Sarah's Toothbrush
It’s 9:30 AM on a Wednesday Morning.
I’m sweating and absolutely starving. And depending on my coworkers’ aptitude to “just have one more,” I’m probably a little hung over.
I’ve almost gotten hit by both a commuter bus and an angry cab driver. Both of whom possess little forethought to glance in the review mirror before carelessly changing lanes.
I arrive at some generic coffee shop which features an overpriced Iced Americano with an atrociously off ice:americano ratio.
This is the best part of my day.
It’s here where I meet her. A smaller than small woman with a rounder than round face. She doesn’t enjoy sports. She prefers Canadian boys to all other ethnicities. She hates the fact that coffee causes her to break out. She drinks it anyways. She hasn’t seen her parents or other family members for over five years. She speaks to them for less than 10 minutes only once a year or at least until “they cut the phone away.”
She is a North Korean defector living in Seoul, South Korea.
I volunteer with an organization called PSCORE. This is an NGO which strives for the successful reunification of North and South Korea. In the process, PSCORE assists and supports North Koreans who have recently defected to Seoul and the surrounding area. They provide transitory support and things like 1:1 tutoring once they have “settled.” (A term which I’m using quite loosely because admittedly, I have no idea if this is possible.)
For the sake of confidentiality, and my own misunderstanding about the popularity of this blog, I’ll skip the identifying factors.
Regardless, twice a week I meet with her. I look forward to rearranging my sleeping patterns, skipping my morning yoga routine, and paying triple for an exceptionally shitty cup of coffee. It’s absolutely amazing.
Having defected well over five years ago, she’s no stranger to living in South Korea.
But attempting to learn a convoluted language based on countless exceptions and strange placements of the letter “h” when it is really not all that necessary?
Well, she’ll get there.
I’m “supposed to” be her English tutor. That’s technically my job. But technically, I’m not actually working or getting paid. So I’m taking the whole “supposed to” thing quite liberally. Besides, volunteers aren’t obligated to follow rules all of the time. It’s not in our contract. (Guys, that’s a total lie. But I really had you going for a second there…)
She brought a book of Tolstoy to our first English lesson. At the end of the session, its spine remained unopened.
Instead of talking about an anarcho-pacificist (which believe me, usually tops the list of things I like to discuss), we talked about ourselves. We talked about ourselves in that curious way you do when you assume that if you open up a little about yourself, then the other will too.
I complained that the antiperspirant in Korea needs to redefine their idea of “anti.” She complained that the humidity in Seoul makes her hair “sticky.” (Note: Add “frizzy” or better yet “an absolute rat’s nest” to the list of new vocabulary words to teach.)
She asked about my experiences dating in Korea. I asked her if she thinks she will ever get married.
Soon our sessions were more about her fights with her long-term boyfriend over a future with/ without children. Soon I started to rant about people always throwing their garbage in my bike basket.
We share an intense fascination with the other’s upbringing.
We translate funny things on her phone. Things like “athlete’s foot” and “precarious.”
Sometimes I see Tolstoy or another Let’s Learn English in the Most Impractical Way Possible textbook popping out of her oversized purse. But neither of us seems too worried about conjugating the word “go.”
Instead, it’s here where the distance of more than 190 kilometers, becomes the shortest route to friendship.