First appeared in The Christian Courier, December 2009.
There’s an old beggar on the subway station stairs, dressed in soiled combat fatigues, sleeping against the wall. An upturned service cap lies at his feet. Leaving the station, the traveler pauses, noticing that there’s something strange about the man and the uniform. The uniform isn’t frayed—it still has creases in those strange places generals demand—and the face isn’t wrinkled, just filthy. Old isn’t always old. He doesn’t move when the foreigner places the ten-thousand-won note in his hands.
The traveler finds himself on a morning pilgrimage to Sinchon, an easy subway ride from his hotel, one of the more brightly starred destinations on the not-to-scale tourist map the concierge had provided. He stops at the top of Exit 3’s stairs, feeling tired and alien. Seoul in December isn’t quite as festive as he had hoped it would be, and the subway ride had been longer than he expected. He takes a deep breath and walks away from the station.
It just doesn’t smell like Christmas.
Except for the occasional convenience store, most of the shops are closed, shuttered up tight. The detritus of last night’s revelry litters the now quiet street: advertising papers, restaurant and strip-club cards, and garden-variety garbage. Every so often, he steps over brightly-colored ribbon taped to the ground at crazy angles, guiding customers to the stoops of a dozen hot-spots.
A few streetside vendors move slowly around their carts and stalls, getting ready for the day. He smiles at an aproned, middle-aged woman warming her hands over fresh coals. She brightens, unleashes a volley of rapid-fire Korean, and turns to her substantial pile of desiccated octopus and flattened cuttlefish. Her hands find a particularly large specimen, almost a meter of blackish-brown, suckered tentacles and, before the foreigner can protest, throws it onto the coals. Her monologue never slows as she flips the octopus a few times, a happy vendor plying her perfect morning trade. The pungent smell makes his stomach turn, but having neither the stomach to consume or the heart to refuse, he takes and pays for the dried seafood.
This is not Christmas, he thinks to himself as he moves away.
He ducks into an alley and throws the octopus into a small trash pile, looking around to see if anyone has noticed. No one has. A shiny object under the take-out containers and drink straws catches his eye. He uses his foot to uncover it fully and in the process knocks off the gold-colored lid. Immediately the alley is filled with the strange odor of perfume, deep, musky, spicy. It is exotic, different than the perfumes he is used to, but also familiar. Suddenly his mobile phone feels heavy in his pocket. He takes it out and looks at it, the backlit keypad a bright mosaic of stars in the semi-darkness. A few pressed keys and he could connect. So easy. But what would he say? No one likes to be reminded of distance. He puts the phone away and exits the The street, as quiet as it is, is suddenly too big, too loud. He is heartened by the bright windows of a Starbucks splashing light onto the sidewalk—maybe a cappuccino or macchiato will comfort him, maybe the familiar flavors and warm ceramic mug can give him his own pause. But an employee stocking the cream near the door says something to him in Korean when he walks in. He shrugs, not understanding. She smiles shyly and crosses her fingers. “Not open,” she says.Again standing on the bricked sidewalk, the foreigner looks back up the street towards the subway station. He sighs, resigned to heading back to his little hotel room. A quick subway ride, a short walk, and he can be in familiar environs. Perhaps he’ll make some coffee, perhaps a cup of tea. He really likes Korean tea.
He takes a few steps and catches a movement in his peripheral vision. Before he can react, ice-cold water splashes the sidewalk at his feet, drenching his shoes and socks. He jumps up and howls in surprise, making the sound as much to express his displeasure as to display discomfort. From a small storefront dashes a diminutive Korean man, wearing a purple apron and holding a bright red bucket. He makes a straight line towards the traveler, taking in sharp, apologetic breaths through pursed lips. The foreigner tries to guess the age of the man but fails, the wrinkles and gray hair contrasting with young eyes and upright posture. He is older, but could be fifty, could be eighty.
Before he can make a hasty exit, embarrassed and irritated, the foreigner feels a firm hand on his sleeve. The older man guides him into the shop, past the dingy doorframe, peeling window-stickers, and faded sign. He pulls out a stool and sits the traveler down before ducking into a dark room in the back. The water has soaked through to his feet, and a chill moves up his legs to his arms. He gets up, hoping to get his blood moving, and looks around.
It is a tiny restaurant with four tables and an assortment of plastic sitting-stools, peeling wallpaper, smoke-darkened ceiling. He can tell that the place is old: the pollution-tested storefront, the accumulated grime around the outlets and fixtures, the darkened corners where the mop never quite reaches. But the tables are spotless, and the stools are new. There’s a pristine straw mat at the entrance as well.
He smiles at the familiar sounds of dishes being rattled. Flickering orange candlelight dances in the darkness beyond the doorway, and he hears shuffling feet and a low, contented laugh from the old man. The foreigner ducks into the small kitchen to see what the older man is up to.
The candles have been placed in the middle of the preparation table. Vegetables of every possible variety surround the man, who grins at the traveler when he comes in. He stops his furious chopping, grabs a large mushroom, and places it in the foreigner’s hands. He places his own hands underneath, bows to smell the mushroom, and looks up expectantly. The foreigner doesn’t know what to do. The older man lifts his hands, bringing the foreigner’s own hands to his nose. He breathes. It is a good smell. Earthy.
Pleased, the man shoos the foreigner out of the kitchen. He sits again on the bright blue stool and looks through the shop window at the traffic, which seems heavier now. A few minutes later, the older man emerges with a tray filled with a stainless steel cup, some small side dishes, and a large silver bowl. He places all the items on the table, smiles, tucks the tray under his arm, and waits. Feeling very scrutinized, the foreigner takes a pair of metal chopsticks and a long-handled spoon from the little box on the table and samples each of the side dishes. Kimchi. Radish. Red-chili minnows. Greens.
The main dish is a kaleidoscope of rice, vegetables, red-pepper sauce, raw egg, and seaweed that the foreigner has never seen before. He hesitates. The owner laughs out loud, claps him on the shoulder, takes the spoon from his hand, and stirs the dish, outside then up then in. The spoon, now warm, is placed back into the foreigner’s hand, and the older man stands back again. The foreigner scoops carefully, trying to capture as many of the ingredients as possible in one spoonful, and places it into his mouth. Delicious. He couldn’t have imagined a vegetable dish with such a diversity of flavors, all working together under a fiery red-pepper aura. “Oh, wow,” he mumbles through a second spoonful. And a third. A fourth.
He finishes the dish, his lips tingling, nose running, eyes watering. A meal fit for a king, he decides. He places the spoon and chopsticks next to the silver bowl and looks up, hoping to catch the owner’s eye. But he no longer stands next to the table. The dish had occupied the traveler so fully that he hadn’t noticed him leave.
Outside, he finds the proprietor again washing his small stretch of sidewalk. The street, now bustling, has regained its normal sense of hectic abandon, and the foreigner looks around, amazed at how different things can look on a full stomach, how a good meal made by trusting hands can ease the chill. The older man puts down his bucket and stands next to the traveler, observing the people moving up and down the sidewalk. He says nothing. Before he knows what he is doing, the foreigner is digging into his wallet, hoping to find enough to pay the man. Embarrassed, the older man puts his hand on the foreigner’s and shakes his head. The foreigner insists, but each time he tries to take money out, the older man stops him, his eyes never looking away from the foreigner’s own.
A long moment passes.
The foreigner nods and puts away his wallet. There’s a full feeling in the back of his throat, the kind that betrays the vocal cords. Coughing to cover his emotion, he manages a low “Thank you,” forgetting to use even the minimal Korean he has learned for his trip. Again, the older man shakes his head. “Yay-soo,” he says. “Today.”
With that, the proprietor disappears into his little restaurant, leaving the foreigner to ponder the distance between continents, his own wet feet, generous reminders of a man named Christ, and a suddenly warm December morning.