Friday night when I came home, I was just ahead of a mother and son going into my building, so I unlocked the door and let them in. I heard the mom say something like “We have a foreigner living in our building?” I didn’t say anything, just smiled to myself as I walked up the stairs. When I got to my apartment, I realized they were my neighbors, so I introduced myself. They are Korean Chinese, so we spoke in Korean and they invited me into their apartment. We talked about all the normal stuff (including my age and salary) and soon the mom asked me if I had time to teach the son English so he could review for his big test in June that decides what high school he will go to. I said no at first, because I’ve trained myself to always say no to such requests, but then I asked her if she would have time to teach me Korean (or Chosun mal, the language of Korean Chinese) if I could spare some time to help her son with English. She said that the best way for me to learn more is just to come over and talk with her. She quickly said that she has plenty of time since she doesn’t work, so I should come over often. She asked how I eat and told me if I don’t have anything to eat or drink at my house that I should come over anytime. She continued to say that she hopes I will never move, but just stay in this apartment as long as possible.
So, Sunday afternoon, after a little nap, I took the few steps over to their door. The son was out at the internet room, so the mom and I chatted for a while. She told me that it was bo-rum, the first full moon after the lunar new year, so I should stay for dinner. The son came home soon and we talked in English, Korean, and a little Chinese. I think the mom told him to help me with Korean and Chinese, so he was trying to get me to read from his Chinese book. Amazingly, I knew the first three characters of the sentence, but after that I was no use at all. He expected me to be able to read Chinese characters. (This also happens sometimes with others. If I can’t understand what they say, they write it down, not realizing that’s even harder for me to understand!)
I joined the family for an early dinner. They pointed out all the things you should eat on this first full moon of the new year: dumplings, go-sa-ri (some sort of fern that’s poisonous when eaten raw, but when dried and boiled then fried, it’s ok) and perfectly formed rice balls with bean paste on the inside. We also had chicken, shrimp (which the mom peeled for me while everybody else peeled their own), an egg and vegetable dish, and weak wine. I guess this was my first time to drink with older Koreans. We toasted at first, and all drank. The mom and son turn their heads away from the dad when they drink, which I didn’t do the first time. Later on, I had another sip of wine and they all instinctively picked up their glasses to drink with me. I was embarrassed and apologized, explaining I didn’t know the custom. No problem, they said, of course. After that, I waited until somebody else drank to take another sip. They talked among themselves that I wasn’t eating enough, that it must not suit my taste, but I tried to argue, saying that in fact, I was eating a lot and enjoying it. I don’t think I convinced them, but it was very good and I was full. The mom’s sister came to visit halfway through the meal (her head covered in snow) and asked why there wasn’t any kimchi. The mom said that she didn’t think I’d like it, so she didn’t put it out. Oh no, the aunt said, all the foreigners she had ever met love kimchi! So the mom looked to me for confirmation, and I said that yes, many foreigners do learn to like kimchi. She was shocked.
For some reason, I am excited about this new relationship with my neighbors. Part of the reason I moved downtown was to interact with people outside the university, and other than my landlord, this is the first real chance.