I was totally in my, “the world is a lovely place” mode until I sat down at the “Bar Rouge,” ground floor, JW Mariott, Seoul, Korea. And there I was met with the expatriate echo of Americans – loud. The one Korean-American woman gets it the worst, because everyone assumes she speaks the language. It’s its own racism – assumptions made because you look the same.
Before their raging argument about why Aleppo is called Aleppo, and is CNN right to do so given that it is clearly the Italian name, my mind was in a soft and warm place. The only one who didn’t seem to know it was going to rain, my hair is just-out-of-the-shower sopped. This is not so hard to believe given the weather conditions, but amazing since, three, yes, three, whole women, walked next to me at some point in the traverse from office to hotel and included me in their umbrella. Each time I jumped with surprise: a woman at my side with a silent nod and an askance smile. Three-for-three they speak no English; one-for-one, I speak not a word of Korean. They share a kindness. Three in a row – unattached to each other, separated by time, each with the same instinct. My mind boggles to compute the reasoning, so unfamiliar with this impulsive gesture of generosity.
Can you imagine in New York City or Boston or Chicago or Paris or Madrid or Lisbon or London, or any of many other places, a person sharing an umbrella with a stranger, never mind three in a row? Walking as far as they could to escort me dry? The first got me turned around from walking the wrong way. She asked me in every-other-word English, “why did no map?” I tried to explain; showed her how the phone displayed the address but not the route. Ugh with the GPS.
I am bounded by curiosity. Is it that my curly hair stands out farther than my face to name me as “other.” Is it the wide hips? Is it that for once I am not wearing all black (my usual uniform)? Ironically, by the way, because it seems this is a city center dressed entirely in black. Or is this just the way it’s done – a city where people care for each other in simple, simple ways?
The moment I stepped off the jetway into customs, I remembered that feeling – being aware of my race. Hadn’t felt it since Japan, but there it is. I am white and Jewish and Italian and none of that means much, tells no such rich, ethnic narrative, because I am not what is – Korean.
As an aside: I realize I have gotten inconsistent about writing this blog mostly because I was trying to save myself to write a book. Like a fighter who refuses sex before a big match for fear of weakening himself. But let’s face it, the world passes by each day. It is of complete marvel or complete desperation. And I feel the need to record.
For all I have for my self-regulation is this one day, this current time zone, this single sip of water, this watching my boy turn fourteen last week, this airline on time or cancelled, this departure date, this meeting that has got me completely frazzled as to how anyone manages to get from one day to another. It is a wonder. Being human is harder than anything else I’ve ever known. The vastness of it mesmerizes me. And the next thing I know, in a country where everyone knew to bring an umbrella, I am covered by a stranger, shielded from the rain.
©Gabriella Strecker, 2016
Photo courtesy of http://8tracks.com/chuleeness/rainy-days-in-seoul