Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Tooth Fairy

When she was of a tooth-losing age, the Tooth Fairy was late collecting one of her teeth. Instead, the Tooth Fairy sent a letter apologizing, saying that she got caught in a typhoon. Or was it a monsoon? One or the other. Anyway, she loved that letter. She showed it to everyone. Imagine! Getting a letter from the Tooth Fairy! Everyone else just got quarters.

Thirty years later, she remembers that letter from the Tooth Fairy. Gingerbread Boy #1 lost a molar, and there they were, in a real live typhoon. Rain and wind and more rain. It was easy to see how the Tooth Fairy could get blown off course. Thankfully, she didn't get blown off course this time; she delivered a 1,000 won bill promptly, placing it by the note the Gingerbread Boy wrote.

Two weeks later, Gingerbread Boy #2 lost a tooth. He placed it in the drawer of a lacquered box, his prized possession here, purchased with some extra funding from mom. He carefully wrote a note to the Tooth Fairy:

"Dear Tooth Fairy,
My tooth is in the box.
[Gingerbread Boy] [heart, heart]

He let his dear mother know at bedtime that he hoped the Tooth Fairy would bring him some paper as well. The Tooth Fairy procured some paper from the reception desk at the hotel that says "Casaville Shinchon," and placed it and a 1,000 won bill by his note, along with a note of her own, saying, "I received your tooth. With thanks, Tooth Fairy. Post-script: Please find paper as requested."

The Gingerbread Boy was so thrilled, he immediately set about writing long and complicated and indecipherable notes back to the Tooth Fairy, apparently directing her to put an X on a piece of paper and leave that paper over the particular item she would like to have. He spread out an array of silly bands and Korean trinkets, ready for her choosing.

After stories and prayers and lights out, he lay in bed for some time.

"Mommy? Can you do something for me?"

"What would you like me to do?"

"Can you get some more paper?"

"Why do you need more paper?"

"So the Tooth Fairy can choose five things. She needs to put an X on five pieces of paper."

"She can't possibly carry five things. She has all those teeth to carry, and she's much too small."

"But she could take one tonight, and come back every night for five nights."

How can she dampen such enthusiasm? His sweet face looks up at her in the dark, and she explains to him how the Tooth Fairy is busy, collecting teeth all over the world, and asking her to come back five times would be too difficult for her.

He accepts this, lies back down, and lets her kiss him.

Then he wiggles another tooth.

Monday, July 4, 2011

On Any Given Day

You wake up because two walls of your bedroom are floor to ceiling windows. Though there are drapes covering them, they don't block out all the light. So 5:00 am, hello. The bed has no box springs; the mattress is mattress and box spring all rolled up in one. The bed is only covered with a duvet-on-comforter. No sheet, no light blanket, just a big honking comforter. The air conditioning unit is above your head and blows cold air down on you, off and on through the wee hours. Too cold without the comforter, too hot with it.

You get up for some quiet time sans children, and eat breakfast in the little kitchen. You've purchased five separate boxes of cold cereal in the hopes of finding something without sugar. No luck. Even the Special K seems sugar-coated. There is muesli, but at about $9 a bag, you'll make do with the sugary stuff. At least for now. There are several different colors of milk cartons at the grocery store; you've yet to figure out which one is skim. The last time you got pink, and just now, you realize you might have purchased strawberry-flavored milk. Hm. Maybe you'll have bread for breakfast today.

The bread you can buy is mostly either artisanal-type bread for about $4 for a very small loaf, or a spongy white bread. You rejoiced the day you found a wheat-ish type sandwich bread with sunflower seeds in it. There's no toaster in your kitchen, not even an oven, so you eat the bread untoasted, with either strawberry jam or European butter.

Time to shower. The shower is not really separated from the the rest of the bathroom. There's a shower curtain that doesn't reach the floor, but keeps much of the water contained. Koreans simply have a pair of rubber sandals they keep at the entrance to the bathroom for people to wear as they walk in to keep their feet from getting wet.

The shower is lovely, though it's tight quarters in there. You dry yourself off with the serviceable towels. Not much more can be said of them. Since the floor is all wet, you sneak into the closet next door to get dressed. The closet has a big mirror, a light, two bars for hanging clothes, two drawers, and two shelves. But only three hangers.

The gingerbread boys are up now and playing. It's time to get them moving. You pack up a snack: two containers of something crunchy and a few water bottles, the subway map, and bag of stuff: camera, Korean book, tissues, mints. You make sure you have the room key and the transit cards. One of them runs ahead to push the elevator button. There are two elevators, and a person could grow old waiting for one of them to come--or else melt, since the hallway is not air-conditioned. You ride downstairs in a packed elevator car, full of Korean women with blue-polished toenails peeking out of gladiator sandals, and Korean men checking their hair in the mirror.

Downstairs, you walk past the guard desk, and out the door. The gingerbread boys opt to go through the rotating door. To the right of the hotel is the Lotteria, Korea's answer to fast food. A speaker sits above the door and blares pop music. A bus stop is in front of you, and people wait as bus after bus arrives and then departs in a cloud of exhaust.  Next to that is a fruit vendor, with neat pyramids of round plums and tomatoes. Bananas sit at the edge, striped, next to the small yellow melons.

You cross a street, and enter into the zone of street vendors. To the right is someone selling socks--piles upon piles of socks. To the left are racks of men's shirts and pants. Beyond that underwear--mens and then ladies--then tables and round racks of women's clothing, and racks of shoes. It's like K-Mart on the street, but with salespeople hawking their wares with microphone and speaker. No blue-light specials here.

Across from the clothing vendors are the food vendors, with trays of California rolls, and plates of batter-fried octopus, shrimp, sweet potato, crab, and hard-boiled eggs. Some sell boiled corn on the cob. Down the street is the roasted chestnut guy.

Finally, you reach the corner, and with that the subway station: the entrance to a sort of underground purgatory with crowds of people and heat and noise, and the beginning of an adventure.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Speak Your Language

They say that almost everyone speaks some English here. What they mean is that almost no one speaks English here, and she finds herself racking up stupid American points left and right because of lack of communication: on the subway, on the bus, at the aquarium, in the lobby, at the grocery store. When she tries to ask something, she is met by a proliferation of Korean. There's no point in responding, so she doesn't; she only stares blankly, shakes her head, and feels stupid.

Her impulse is to speak Italian, and the impulse is so strong, and so ridiculous, that it makes her laugh. If Koreans don't speak English here, it's not likely they'll speak Italian. It's just that the last time she was in such a communication void, she was in Italy, and eventually, she became fluent in Italian. But here? She knows the word for "hello" and "thank you" and "grandfather" and "palace" and "rice." Today she learned the word for "salt." All she can really say is "Hello, palace grandfather. Thank you salt rice." Not exactly conversational, especially if you want to know how to get from one place to another, or if you want to know what this is on your plate, or if you want to find out where you can sit to eat a snack without offending anyone.

As she sits on the subway with the gingerbread boys, the youngest looks out the window watching for ghosts in the tunnel. The other one holds her hand and looks around. She watches the signs that light up with the names of the stations, and tries to figure out the hangeul--the Korean script--for the various letters. The hangeul is supposed to be a brilliant alphabetic system, easy to learn, but the lines and circles float around in her head, and she feels the greatest sympathy for dyslexics. She could try to learn the letters, but she doesn't know any of the rules of how to put them together to make words, and with only three and a half weeks left here, she wonders if there's any point in trying.

She stops looking at the signs announcing the stations and looks around at the other passengers on the subway. All of the younger generation are glued to their cell phones, texting or talking or playing games. A very few sleep. The older generation watch the gingerbread boys, smiling indulgently at them. There's a woman on the train who looks like the Korean version of someone she knows. In fact, she's seen several Korean versions of people she knows. She wonders if there's a Korean version of her somewhere here. Would she recognize her? Could she walk up to her and know her heart? She wouldn't be able to talk to her, because of course, her Korean self wouldn't speak English, just as she doesn't speak Korean.

But she wishes she could communicate with her...then she might not feel quite so foreign.

Ignorance is not always bliss.