Monday, September 26, 2011

Conditions are Perfect

I recently learned that Koreans do not smile at passing strangers. Those who do so are considered crazy or lewd. Not so in the US of A where smiling is essential to your social life. I’m still in the transition stage, so instead of an American smile or Korean polite distance, I have been giving everyone a horrible half-grimace.

Notice the grinning foreigner and the not-grinning tour
guide. Side note: guess how old she is. I dare you
to guess closer than I did; Koreans are timeless.
Yesterday, my grimacing skills were put to the test as the day dawned perfect for hiking. The sun was bright but distant and the breeze worked hard not only to be pleasant, but playful as well. Plus, Busan is an amazing city in that even though it’s a sprawling metropolis of people piled on top of one another in sky-scraping apartment buildings, the city sprawls take place in the valleys of forested mountains, on which there are some incredible trails.

The day started out well with Lee, my fellow hiker and newbie to Korea, falling on two different old ladies as he tried to disembark from the bus. One of them smiled at me and the other rubbed her wrist but responded positively to my worried “kwinchanna?” Luckily, our interactions became more positive as the day wore on.

Off the subway (from which Lee was able to disembark with much less struggle and injuring of elderly women), we stalked a couple of well-outfitted Korean hikers.

Pardon. That was redundant. All Korean hikers are well-outfitted. If Lee and I didn’t stand out enough without our map, his blond hair, and my tendency to grimace at everyone, our “hiking” clothes did the trick. Real hikers in Korea all wear black hiking pants and a bright-colored, long-sleeved hiking top, hiking backpack, hiking gloves, hiking boots, and hiking poles. All brand names, of course, and spotless.
South Koreans believe in "fan death" (if
you leave the fan on while sleeping...), but
they seem strangely uninhibited about
passing germs by these communal
drinking cups.

So it was easy to know who to follow off the subway in order to find in the trail. Except that one of the women we were tailing saw us and pointed in the direction she thought we ought to go. Which turned out to not be the right way at all. Which led us to speak to a monk—a bald, very friendly chap who alternated between speaking in Korean and laughing at us—and a receptionist manning the desk of the college campus we had stumbled onto. Neither recognized the name of the mountain we asked about: 구덕산 어디에 있아요?

Long story short (too late!) we found a trail that led us to the top of the mountain. On the way there, we ran across one of Korea’s many outdoor public fitness centers on top of mountains: complete with bench press, assorted free weights, and quite a few metal and wood structures that might be intended for flexibility or army training but no 외국인 (oegugin=foriegner) will ever truly know.

On the way up and down the mountain, our fellow hikers often pulled over, opened a few dozen Tupperware containers of kimchi, rice, and everything else for a full meal and went to town with their chopsticks. A couple of smiling Korean ladies stopped us and wouldn’t let us pass until we accepted two pieces of Asian pear (which blows normal pears out of the proverbial water, btw, in both size and flavor). This we did, with many a kamsamnida, and as we passed the next few people, I completely forgot to grimace like a good Korean.

Then we reached the top, marked by a large Epcot ball tower that turned out to be a weather station. This tower is visible from everywhere in Busan and at the base of it, three girls were wildly practicing their “Everyday I’m Shuffling” ( moves. Recognizing it, Lee taught them some steps and pretty soon the five of us were shuffling like mad things. A few pictures and laughs and a private viewing of said weather station later, we started back down the other side of the mountain.

We were greeted with plenty of anyeonghaseyoes and nods and smiles and one “Have a good day! It was nice to meet you! What nation are you?”

It felt nice to be part of the gang—a cult of hikers or something. I’m clearly an outsider here in Korea—with my curly hair and un-Korean willingness to display my teeth when laughing—and  that wears on a person. As we rode home on the subway, I looked particularly un-Korean. Not only did I lack official hiking gear, but my ankles and shoes were scuffed with dirt, and my hair—far too short for a Korean girl in the first place—was sweaty and unkempt. I crossed my legs and tried to pat my hair into submission.

Then I caught an older lady smiling at me. It wasn’t a close-lipped and nodding sort of smile either. It was a big smile of approval mixed with enthusiasm and—somehow—a wink. On a related note, I am throwing my grimacing policy by the wayside.

1 comment:

  1. I can just imagine you and Lee shuffling on the mountain top with three girls. Yeah, the whole looking-different bit takes a bit of getting used to, but it gets better.