“This was unforgettable.”
This thought has flitted across my mind many times in the past year. I will likely remember many Korean adventures for as long as I live. However, one afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing this from one of my own students.
Ascencio is currently in the third grade. I don’t teach him anymore. However, I made him a promise last semester. I said I would meet him out for pizza. This was months ago. Suddenly, because enjoying life and staying busy evaporates time, many months passed. Morning arrived.
I awoke quite hungover. It was 9:30. A Mokpo welcome dinner (as well as my own foolishness) led to consumption of makgeolli, beer, wine, and a tequila shot on top. I felt ill-prepared to spend time with my student but steeled myself anyway.
As I got my clothes together and finished selected elements of my morning routine, Potato also came to. She was in town for the welcome dinner and slept on my floor mattress. As we folded the mattress and finagled it into the zipper case like a sleeping bag into a stuff sack, my phone rang.
“Hello? It’s me, Ascencio.”
“Yeah. We are meeting in 30 minutes. What’s up?”
“Oh. Well, come on up I guess. I’m almost ready.”
Several minutes later, Ascencio knocked. I let him in. Awkwardness ensued.
Here was Ian Teacher preparing his knapsack on a Sunday morning with a female friend hanging out in his apartment. We fumbled through Korean and English conversation trying to suppress the palpable this-isn’t-what-it-looks-like feeling.
Ten minutes later, I turned to Potato.
“We’re going to Rose Street to catch the bus if you’re headed that way.”
So we departed. The bus stop lay adjacent to my school a block away. To save time, I said we should cut through the campus. Ascencio agreed.
Finally, the bus arrived and we continued to struggle through conversation.
“So do you have brothers or sisters?”
“Actually I have two brothers,” replied Ascencio.
“Are they hyung (older brothers) or nam-dong-saeng (younger brothers).”
“They are both hyung. They are in the army.”
Soon enough we arrived. I’m sure Potato felt a weight fall from her shoulders as she split off from us to join other Misfits for lunch. Ascencio and I went off in search of pizza.
Why Ascencio wanted pizza I’m not completely sure. It may have stemmed from his experience in the States.
During a weeklong stay in Atlanta, he tried a meat-lover’s pizza and ate almost none of it. It was too salty. Ironically (or not), my foreign friends and I often note how many Korean foods are too sweet. I mean who coats a corn dog with sugar?
After Potato left, I too felt an awkward boulder fall from my shoulders. Ascencio went on to describe his American experience. Many of his tales held a reflective mirror to my own experience. For example, many Korean fast food restaurants have specialized compartments for cups, liquid, food waste, and general trash. This surpsised me. Yet in Atlanta, things are a little different.
“At Taco Bell I had a half-taco I didn’t finish. I looked for the food waste bin but I did not find it.”
“So I ask the staff, ‘where do I discard this?’ They pointed to the trash can.”
“Wow, that must have been a surprise.”
“Yeah. And then I didn’t finish my drink. So I pointed to the liquid and asked, ‘where can I discard this?’ And she pointed to the same trash can.”
He laughed at this. Ascencio’s genuine laugh can’t help but induce a smile.
Soon our pizza arrived. This Korean-style pizza had cheese, chicken, sweet pumpkin, pepperoni, garlic, and about 12 other toppings I cannot remember. Its decadence astounded me. I patted myself on the back for choosing water over coke.
“So I know that in America people expect tips,” Ascencio said. “So when I went to Taco Bell I ordered my food. Then I paid. And after that, I handed the lady ten dollars.”
His erupted in genuine laugher again as I smiled. Part of me smiled at his genuine enjoyment. The other part pictured this Taco Bell employee’s reaction to receiving a 120% tip.
“During school, I had to take a math test.”
“American math is very easy. But when I got my grade back, it was a D.”
“What? Was it tough to understand the English instructions?”
“Yeah. I knew the material, but I didn’t know the instructions.”
He laughed liberally throughout our lunch. His good vibes were infectious. They were so infectious, in fact, that I opted to treat him to dessert. We settled on a dessert café for a bowl of bing-soo.
Bing-soo is a popular Korean dessert consisting of toppings (such as chocolate, fruit, or green tea matcha) on a bed of finely shaved ice. It is like a snow cone (the good snow, not the chunky shit) and an ice cream sundae had a baby.
There Ascencio shared his dream of working for the U.S. Army in the KATUSA (Korean Augmentation into the United States Army). Since the Korean War, South Korea and the U.S. Army have had a complicated relationship. Not everyone appreciates the U.S. bases on Korean soil. However, other Koreans prize a position in the U.S. Army via KATUSA. The positions are very competitive, requiring a high English proficiency score followed by an arbitrary selection by U.S. Army personnel.
Ascencio has dreamt of this for years. His interest in American culture and the English language would make any native teacher proud.
Exiting the café, we said our goodbyes.
“Thank you, Ian. This has been unforgettable.”
My heart smiled. Early in the day, I saw this meeting as an inconvenience. I wasn’t keen on unhealthy eating and would have preferred almost anything besides pizza. Regardless, my attitude now felt petty. The chance to make one of my students’ day made it all worth it.
Whether I was riding a high or just throwing caution to the wind, I stopped by Daiso on the way back to my apartment. I picked out my notorious combination of chocolate Tim Tams and Peanut Butter Oreos. As my hands wrapped around the blue sleeve and my eyes ascended, I noticed none other than Ascencio.
“Oh, hello. Yeah, I thought I would get some junk food today.”
“Yeah, “ Ascencio smiled, “me too.”
“I can’t believe I’m still hungry right now.”
“Can I tell you something?”
“After my mom picked me up, I told her I wanted McDonald’s for dinner. I’m still hungry too.”
The teacher appears to take drug education too seriously and the kids look eager for hands-on experience.
I had a lovely Saturday hiking in Jangheung.
These cows were curious – as if they’ve never seen a foreigner on their mountain farm before.
As the rainy season approaches, I am grateful that I took this hike when I did.
Do your worst, bugs. You’re no match for me. I’m camouflaged, so I’m invisible. See?
My favorite part of the hike was easily this ridge trail. The view was lovely and the bugs were nowhere to be seen.
One more picture for the road.