I was leaning against the entrance to the Shinchon subway station watching people turn the corner into the Semaeul Shijang, the outdoor market where I bought rice each week and where my friend Mr. Kim had bargained one of the vendors down from the price she was going to charge me for a blanket because I was migook saram, an American, to what she would normally charge a Korean. I’d just finished lunch, a bowl of kimchi chigae, and I had no place to be, so I just stood there, enjoying the sun, smiling at the people who could not help but stare at my very conspicuous western presence and laughing with the children who, when they passed by, also couldn’t help themselves. “Migook saram! Migook saram!” they would yell out and point, as if I were some rare animal they’d sighted, or as if a character from one of their favorite storybooks had come to life. One group of kids, about four or five of them–maybe they were siblings–stopped right in front of me, but when they called out to their mother, who was a couple of steps ahead of them, and also to everyone else who was passing by, and to as far beyond our immediate vicinity as their voices would reach, that I was an American, I gave in to a mischievousness I’d been contemplating for some time and, instead of nodding and smiling, looked from side to side, gave them an excited, quizzical look and asked, “Odio?” Where? If only I’d had my camera with me. The look of surprise that froze their faces when they heard me speak Korean is something I wish I’d been able to capture.
A few minutes after they left, laughing and waving and calling out anyigeseyo, goodbye, an old woman wearing traditional Korean clothing passed by. She had a cigarette in her mouth, glasses on her nose and her hair was pulled back into a tight bun. She walked with her hands clasped behind her; and her back was bent, as if she were carrying something heavy; and, as if she were lost in deep contemplation, she took slow, deliberate steps, clearly not in a rush and clearly assuming that people would make way for her. She got about four of those steps past where I was standing and stopped. She lifted her head and I could see that she was muttering something to herself. Then she turned around, her mouth still moving, and walked straight towards where I was standing. She stopped in front of me, looked me up and down, muttering what I thought at first was gibberish, since it sounded like neither Korean nor English, but after fifteen seconds or so, I began to make out words like “tall,” “handsome,” “strong” and then “American.”
She moved a little closer and put her hand on my bare forearm, a gesture to which I had become accustomed from riding the subway. Koreans often have less body hair than white people and so the hair on my arms and on my chest, which was visible if I was wearing an open-necked shirt, was a constant source of fascination. Wherever I went on the train, older Korean women–who, because they live in a culture where age is venerated, can do pretty much what they want–would sit next to me and stroke the hair on my arms, smiling and chatting amiably with me as they did so. This woman, however, when she was finished with my forearm ran her hand up to my bicep and gave a quick squeeze; then she laid her other hand flat against my stomach and moved it down quickly to cup and pat my crotch through my jeans, smiling and nodding her head as if she were evaluating me and was pleased at what she was finding.
This all happened so quickly that I had no time to react, and since she was standing directly in front me, there was no way for me to get away from her without pushing her, and she was so small and so fragile looking, and I did not want to make a scene, so I continued to stand there; and then she was looking up at me, still smiling, and her eyes were bright, without pretense, though they held also an impish mischievousness, and she asked me in a slightly accented English, “Are you American?” Surprised that I was able to understand her, I hesitated for half a second before answering, and she put her hand on my arm and asked again, “Are you an American?”
“Yes,” I said, and she tightened her grip on my arm just a little bit. “Why you here alone? Come with me. Room-cafe around the corner; I will pay for you.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a very thick wad of bills.
“No, thank you,” I said. ”I am waiting for a friend.”
“But it’s no good you out here alone,” she insisted, giving another gentle tug on my arm. “Really, I will pay,” and she again showed me the money in her hand.
Room-cafes were just what they sounded like: cafes with private rooms where men went to be “entertained” in ways not so different from the way Mr. Park and I had been entertained in Miari. I knew which room-cafe the old woman was talking about since I’d walked past it many times on my way in and out of the market, though I’d never gone in. It was called Sing-Sing. Once, when I was coming home very late at night, after the cafe had closed, the women who worked there were sitting outside, smoking and chatting–some of them were eating kim bop–when one of them, a tall woman in a tight neon green dress, with nail polish and eyeliner to match, called out to me, “Hey! You like what you see?” Her companions laughed. I smiled and kept walking.
The old woman held up her wad of money one more time. ”No,” I answered again. “Maybe next time”–the polite thing to say–“I really need to be here to meet my friend.”
She let go of my arm, but she didn’t walk away. “Are you a soldier?” She sounded just like the woman who’d chased me on Chong-no.
“No, I’m a teacher.”
“A teacher!” The woman’s face lit up as she put her money back in her pocket. “Teach me some English while you wait your friend?” She took my hand and started to walk towards the market. The change in her manner and her tone–she was polite and deferential, in stark contrast to the almost demanding tone she took in her insistence that I let her take me to the room-cafe–also reminded me of the woman who’d chased me on Chong-no, and my curiosity got the better of me, so I let her lead me where she wanted to go. She stopped to point at the different fruits on a stand that we passed–apples, grapes, pears, oranges–and asked me the words for them in English; then we stood in front of a cart on which the merchant had very carefully arranged alarm clocks, blowdryers, hair curlers, electric shavers and other small home appliances. After that, it was a clothing stall, where she asked me the words for pants, shirt, belt and underwear. Finally, she picked up a package of women’s socks. “Will you buy these for me?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, taking them from her. I hadn’t forgotten about the money in her pocket, but I’d started to like her, and I wanted to do something nice for her. I also felt suddenly a little bit like one of those young men in the fairy tales who meets and is tested by the old hag, who is really a witch or sorceress in disguise, who, depending on the story, either rewards the young man’s kindness or punishes his cruelty. So I paid the 1,200 or so won that the socks cost and handed them over to the woman. She turned the package over and over as if she no longer recognized what it was, and I realized that she had expected me to say no. “Do you smoke?” she asked.
“Good! Do you drink?”
“Sometimes, but not very much.”
“Good! Come sit here with me.” She pointed to an empty space on the steps in front of a closed store. ” You know, I lived in America. Once. In California. During the war. Soldiers call me mamasan.” She didn’t say which war, but I guessed it was the Korean war, and I knew from the little bit of hanging out I’d done in Itaewon, the part of Seoul where the American army was stationed, that if the soldiers had called her mamasan, it meant she’d been a madame.
We talked a little while longer. She asked me about my life back in the United States, about where I lived and worked in Seoul, about the kinds of Korean foods I liked. She told me she had a daughter with whom she lived and she asked if I would like to have dinner with them that night. By now, I was completely disarmed, and I thought it would be a very interesting experience, and so I said yes. She stood up immediately and started leading me away from the market. I had a brief moment of anxiety when I realized I had no idea where she was taking me, but I set that aside and walked quietly beside her for about five minutes or so, until she looked at me out of the corner of her eye and smiled slyly. “Maybe next time, you and I enjoy in bed together,” she said.
I walked in silence for a few more steps as I tried to decide whether or not she was joking with me and how to respond if she was; but then I realized it didn’t matter. I no longer felt safe going with her to a part of Seoul with which I was unfamiliar and so I decided to “remember” a call I was expecting that night from my mother in America. I needed to be home to get the call, I explained, because my mother and I had some important business to discuss. The old woman looked disappointed. She took out the socks I’d bought for her, removed the cardboard backing from the package and wrote down her phone number. “When you want, you call me. We have dinner. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. We told each other goodbye and I started walking back in the direction from which we’d come. I turned once to look at her again, but the street had become suddenly crowded and I couldn’t see her. I looked at the piece of cardboard. She’d written “dinner” and then a phone number, and then “Love, Mamasan.”
I didn’t want to go back to my apartment right away, so I walked instead to the Lotte World department store. I knew some of the people who’d worked on the indoor amusement park and roller coaster that everyone was talking about, and I’d been meaning to check it out for some time. Since I hate roller coasters, though, I did not ride it. Instead I wandered around the store a bit, until I found on one of the top floors a large fountain around which people were sitting. I bought myself a strawberry ice cream and took a seat at the water’s edge, eating slowly and thinking about the old woman whose phone number I had in my pocket.
I was staring off into space, not looking at anything or anyone in particular, but a woman sitting with her daughter on her lap on the other side of the fountain must have thought I was looking at them because she nodded her head and smiled. I nodded and smiled back, just to be polite, and the woman’s daughter left her lap almost immediately and started walking towards me. When she reached the spot where I was sitting, she climbed without a word into my lap and sat there gazing silently at my face for about ten or fifteen seconds. Then, still without speaking, she reached behind me for the water in the fountain, trusting the arm I raised to keep her from falling. When she sat back down, she opened one of my hands, palm up, and held her fingertips above it, letting the drops she’d gathered drip onto my skin. When the last drops had fallen, she climbed down to return to her mother, never once glancing back in my direction. The mother stood up, took her daughter’s hand, smiled at me, nodding one more time, and then led the girl into the elevator, which carried them down into the rest of their day.
My day took me next to dinner in the restaurant where I first practiced reading hangul, the Korean alphabet, by ordering each time I ate there a different item from the menu that was posted on the wall. Two of my colleagues, Tom and Gavin, were already eating when I walked in. They invited me to join them, which I did, and we decided that we’d meet later that night at the Gilbert Standbar, which was also in the Semaeul Shijang, a few doors down from the room-cafe the old woman had offered to take me to. I arrived at the Gilbert about fifteen minutes late, but my friends were not there, and so I sat by myself at Ms. Park’s station–she insisted on Ms. and not Miss–ordered a beer and some fruit and settled in to wait. My friends never showed up, but that night at the Gilbert turned out to be, in some ways, a fitting ending to a day in which an old woman grabbed my crotch in public and a little girl who was a complete stranger sat in my lap and dripped water on my palm.
A standbar is what we would call today, here in the US, a karaoke bar, though since this was in the late 1980s, before digital technology made karaoke jukeboxes possible, the music to which patrons paid to sing along was live, provided sometimes by an entire band and sometimes by a single keyboard or piano player. As far as I know, the term standbar–I don’t think it’s much in use anymore; a google search turned up practically nothing–comes from the fact that there are bar stations, or “stands,” arranged around the room at which sit the hostesses whose job it is to entertain the customers, who are almost always men. This entertainment includes pouring drinks, serving food, going up on stage to sing when their customers do and dancing blues, slow dancing. The women are also often available for sex–though, as it was explained to me by my Korean friend, if the suggestion for sex comes from the woman, you don’t have to pay for it.
The one or two standbars to which my Korean friends had taken me reminded me of a cross between the more extreme excesses of the disco era and the stereotypically sleazy Asian “girly bars” that are so familiar from the early James Bond movies. The Gilbert, however, was more of a neighborhood place. There were no disco balls or flashing lights; the hostesses dressed very casually–jeans and a button down shirt, for example–as opposed to the tighter, glitzier often more revealing outfits the hostesses wore in other standbars; and there was, in general, a much more laid back atmosphere. In fact, my colleagues and I learned after we’d been going there for a while that it was the place where the men and women who worked at other sex trade establishments came to relax.
This difference, of course, was one of degree not kind. The same things that went on at other standbars went on at the Gilbert, only more quietly and discretely; and, most importantly to me and my friends, no one made a spectacle out of us because we were westerners. The hostesses were not constantly asking us for (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) “private English lessons;” the other patrons were not constantly coming up to us to buy us drinks or practice their English. We were able, in general, just to hang out, drink a few beers and sing a few songs, just like regular customers.
Ms. Park was the hostess at whose station we always sat, and, over time, she and I became friendly. My Korean was better than that of my colleagues, and so I could make very simple conversation, about the weather, for example, or food; about our jobs–she was very funny when describing the men who’d sat at her station whom she didn’t like– and a little bit about my life in the US. She told me very little about herself, though we did talk about books; she liked to read and she was fascinated by the fact that I was a poet. She introduced me once to a man who did not come to the Gilbert regularly, but whom she seemed to know pretty well, telling me he too was a poet. He gave me a copy of one of his books, though I lost it a long time ago, and I cannot now remember his name.
Over time, I began to realize that whenever Ms. Park danced blues with me–just because I would have been perfectly happy not to dance with her did not exempt her from doing her job–she stayed in my arms a few beats longer than the end of the song, which is what happened on this night, but then, she stayed there even longer, gazing at me and grinning a satisfaction she offered to share when she asked if she could come to my apartment after work. I wanted her in that moment as well, and so I said yes. I gave her my address and phone number and we went back to her station. Waiting for us, however, was a thin, balding man in a crumpled gray business suit and thick-framed nerdy glasses. As soon as Ms. Park sat down, he commanded her to fill my glass, not from the bottle of inexpensive beer that I’d ordered, but from the bottle of Chivas that he had in his hand. This kind of behavior was out of character for the Gilbert, as was the fact that he did not ask Ms. Park drink with us, and I was immediately uncomfortable. I looked at Ms. Park, but her face was frozen in her best customer-service smile, betraying nothing of what she might be feeling.
The thin man toasted me as if she weren’t there, waited till my class was empty and then pointed at Ms. Park with a finger that was unusually thick, given how skinny the man was. “Do you like her?” he asked, not deigning even to glance in her direction. Because I knew where the conversation was headed, I did not answer him and told Ms. Park that I wanted more kolbengi. She got up and went into the kitchen, and I tried as hard as I could, while she was gone, to let the thin man know I was not interested in talking to him by focusing my attention on the very drunk, immaculately groomed silver-haired man trying to sing John Denver’s “Country Road” without falling over onto the hostess who was standing under his shoulder to prop him up.
The man with the Chivas bottle did not take the hint, however, and he fell silent as well, sitting with closed eyes until Ms. Park returned with my food. Once she was sitting down again, he leaned over and said quietly in my ear, “Isn’t she pretty? Don’t you like her?” When I still didn’t answer and kept my eyes focused on the silver-haired man, who was now stumbling back to his seat, my uninvited and unwelcome companion put his hand on my arm and said more loudly, “She has beautiful labia.”
Still I said nothing; still I would not look at him.
“Don’t you understand?” He was not quite shouting as he pulled from his pocket a wad of bills almost as thick as the one the old woman had pulled out of her pocket earlier in the day. “Korea is a paradise for men! Here!” He waved the money in my face. “You can have her if you want.”
I realized at this point that I had to say something, but I also understood that whatever I said had to be calculated not to escalate the situation, and so instead of saying what I wanted to say–some version of “Stop talking about her like that and get the fuck away from me!”–I said instead something that would get him to leave me alone, while allowing him to save face, “Maybe next time. Tonight, I am very tired and I just want to drink by myself.”
My words had the desired result. He looked at me, looked for the first time at Ms. Park, gave a snort of disgust and walked back towards his table just as his friends were coming over to pull him away.
For the rest of that night, Ms. Park refused to meet my gaze, but each time I went to the Gilbert after that, and in all the time before I left Seoul, she continued to dance with me the same as always; even as I watched her belly swell gently and then flatten out again over the course of three or so months, she danced with me a little closer and a little longer than the other men; and sometimes I saw flashes of the smile she gave me when she asked if she could come to my apartment, but she never brought that possibility up again, and neither did I. And we talked just as we always had, though she was more revealing about herself than she had been before, telling me often about the man who’d promised to marry her. All he needed, she said, was enough money to buy a place for them to live, and she said he’d told her that he didn’t care if his mother disowned him. She was the woman he wanted.
I have no idea if this man really existed, though I hope he did, and I hope he kept his promise and that Ms. Park was able to stop working at the Gilbert and be, simply, happily, his wife. I hope she has children and that they have brought her great pleasure. I hope all this, but I know the odds are against it being true, that she is more likely to have had a very difficult life; and so right now, as I remember Ms. Park, what I choose to remember is how deeply she smiled when she asked if we could be together, not because of anything having to do with the sex that didn’t happen, but because I could see in that smile that the thought of being with me made her happy and it’s more painful than I want to feel right now to remember her any other way.
Edited 11/16 to account for editorial suggestions in Mandolin’s and Katie’s comments.
Cross posted on The Poetry in The Politics and The Politics in The Poetry.