Pak Jae Ick is a skinny, humorous man who reminds me inexplicably of my college soccer coach whose name is Kim Jong Il (not related to Kim Jong Um or his daddy). I am a great fan of Park Jae Ick partly because he is the only Korean colleague I have who has willingly chatted with me and partly because said college coach he resembles memorably encouraged one of our players, “It’s okay, Ribbie. Next time you break her leg!” Sometimes I imagine Pak Jae Ick encouraging me with those same words after I finish with my more frustrating freshmen.
Consequently, when he recommended I tutor Keum Jin Woo, I was “impressed” as my students like to write. They really mean something like “eager to do something because my heart was touched,” but as far as I can tell there’s no English translation for that. More later about how much more in tune Koreans are with their feelings.
I walked across our campus’ dirt soccer field the next day, found Keum Jin Woo’s office and knocked. I was greeted with a short, small, elderly professor with a warm handshake and a friendly, “You can call me Jin.” A squirrel-like man in the best way possible, Jin Woo abounds with well-contained mirth and complex thoughts, communicated in a reedy wobble of a voice.
He is also a wealth of information about all sorts of Korean culture:
“It is ancient Eastern medicine ideas. Yeomso. Yeomso . . . ah . . . you know?” I shook my head; he rifled through a dictionary. “Goat! Yes. Ancient Eastern medicine idea. Goat good for women, to eat. It’s a kind of seasonal food. Goat for women’s hormones. For men, chueotang.” We looked it up. “Mudfish soup. Good for men.”
“When I was in high school, army was compulsory subject.”
“Wait—really? What did you do in class?”
“Korean high school is three years. First year do shooting and—” He gestured blocking a punch with his forearms. “—hand-to-hand fighting. Second year do—” Again, a gesture and small game of charades before we figured out: “—weapons assembly. Because war with Vietnam at that time, so . . . situation . . .”
“Was tense?” I suggested.
“Ne [yes]. The girls had to practice nursing.”
“Wow. Fourteen-years old—were you boys scared because of . . . ?”
“No.” He chuckled—a squeaky, staccato cough-like chuckled from his whole, tiny torso. “We thought fun!”
Jin Woo teaches in Kosin’s design department and publishes two articles a year in Korean journals. His current research project being how design can be used in nonprofit governmental aid-type projects in economically-struggling countries. He likes to hike, dabbled in marathons a few years back, and has traveled widely with his wife. She and his two daughters live in American now; Jin Woo visits during both the winter and summer vacations, but he turned down a professorship in America because he didn’t feel his English was up to the task.
This week, the cost of health care came up.
Jin Woo said, “I was in Korean neighborhood in Chicago and I saw advertisement. It said for homesick trip back to Korea included hotel in home-town, some food, and plane back to Chicago—and! And medical check! Because it’s so cheap here. And Koreans get homesick.”
I asked if some people came to Korea for plastic surgery too, and Jin Woo said yes, citing a newscaster who, that very morning, had castigated Busan for only drawing ¼ of tourists, including those coming for health and appearance reasons. Since one of my students had flaunted her recent epicanthoplasty, I naturally pursued the subject and asked Jin Woo if his daughters wanted plastic surgery.
“First daughter wants—” He pointed to his teeth.
“—orthodontia,” I supplied, pointing unnecessarily and empathetically at my own orthodontia-ed teeth.
“And second daughter wants to be taller.”
We both laughed. He is a very short little man. I can imagine his Korean wife is also physically diminutive.
“But I—I cannot support!” he squeaked, spreading his arms wide in an open-armed shrug.
I hope when I’m Jin Woo’s going-on-venerable age, his shy yet exuberant chuckle is one of many memories about Korea that stays with me.
|This has even less to do with Jin Woo, but it sums up what I consider to have been a perfect Saturday morning involving sun, letters, pinterest, coffee and not getting out of bed.|