The initial idea of servants is beyond comprehension. I marvel at parties when the conversation centers on the "useless and incompetent servants." I see my house transformed from a huge tri-level box to a warm and comfortable home through the efforts of Miss Lee and Mr. Chin. I am left with only the most personal cares. Not a speck of dust or a dropped sock escapes Miss Lee. I read her recipes from American cookbooks; and she memorizes them to perfection, somehow finding the proper or substitute ingredients where the mainstay of the diet is Kimchee, fire hot pickled radish and variations. She washes the fruits and vegetables in chlorine, and our family suffers none of the parasites rampant in the populace from human waste fertilizers.
Mr. Chin fixes whatever breaks and also hammers the ice blocks into cubes for homemade ice cream. I never carry a parcel; and almost expect my workday jeep driver to carry my briefcase to the classroom as Mr. Chin does on the days he drives me to the remote bases. Useless and incompetent? It is hard not to love them. It takes discipline. It's hard to find the line that engenders respect. I am constantly warned not to ruin the servants by overindulgence. Yet, it is Mr. Chin who stands by me at the hospital, anxiously waiting for me to come to from a fall on the ice, while Derek is too busy to even express concern about my mild concussion. At first, I can't remember who I am; and it is frightening. As I begin to respond, I see Mr. Chin who continues to watch over me all the way home and passes his responsibility to Miss Lee. Derek tells me not to skate anymore like a fool kid. The palace grounds are flooded in winter, and skaters are in the spiritual company of former royalty and the reality of palace guards. It's worth the risk to life and limb, gliding across the ice with my friend and our children.
Mr. Chin is patiently waiting for me where I had stepped out of his car. No judgment passes across his face as I arrive with empty hands.
The men have now exceeded their drinking tolerance. The driver takes the women home, and the men, including Derek, leave to spend the rest of the night at a Kiesing House, Korea's answer to the Japanese Geisha. I should go back to the Hamilton. I'll gratefully let Miss Lee tidy up. I can't keep my eyes open; I'm nearly sick. I'll just rest a minute on the bed and then decide.
“Mrs, Mrs.,” Miss Lee is shaking me. I haven't changed clothes nor set an alarm. I need to dress for work, and I'm still dressed from last night.
They won't leave me alone this morning. After all, we three have been sharing all our hopes and dreams for two years now on our four-hour round trips through crowded cities and rice paddies. To suddenly keep a secret is not fair.
The sun beats through the plastic jeep windows and I tell "the girls" a little about my state of infatuation; Derek's lack of awareness; and my utter abandonment of reason. Rainee takes particular satisfaction in her meddling, and Marie is full of caution.
My days are only motions leading to my nights with Jack. I've barely hugged or talked to my son. A devoted mother, I am too absorbed by the pull of this man to notice. Miss Lee is faithfully filling the gap, playing games, proudly watching him at the park, and guiding his little bike down the path with ready arms for spills. Tonight, Jack and I are shopping in Itaewon so I have to hurry.
I race down the stairs to the Hamilton where Jack is waiting outside already. Itaewon is a bargain hunter's paradise. Colorful shops and open-air markets crowd the streets and alleys for eight blocks. They cater to every desire from bars and little Kimchee stands to custom-made clothes and Adidas tennis shoes. The sidewalk consists of broken blocks of cement, careening up and down, threatening every walker. Jack needs to pick up some custom made shirts; we bargain shop along the way. The shopkeepers know me. I speak the Korean language and greet them as we move along. I see them whispering and pointing as I cling to Jack to keep from tripping, trying to stay together in the crowds.
The city is always teeming with crowds, a mass of humanity moving in this direction and that in every form. A man with no legs is carried by a friend or porter on a wooden backpack; bicycles loaded with enough boxes to fill a small U-Haul Truck teeter down the road; women with babies on their backs and bundles on their heads haggle with the shopkeepers; and then, the ever present urinating around corners since public bathrooms are nonexistent. The hawker of fresh meat has cats and rabbits today. The dogs lolling by the shop better beware as well. Kagogi, barbecued dog meat, is a special delicacy. I often wonder if the beef I eat "on the economy" really is. I give up beef. There goes a man with a blanket chest strapped to his back.
While we stroll along, a fortuneteller is just ahead, settled for the day on the sidewalk. Regal and ageless in pith helmet, he gravely accepts the coins of passers-by, and then opens the birdcage door to encourage his sparrows to hop out onto a box of tiny envelopes. With seeming deliberation, the bird chooses a packet and presents it to Jack. He opens the tiny rolled paper, but it is in Korean. I translate as best I can, "You are laughing with happiness on the one hand while in agony on the other during January and February. Be patient, for your luck will come from the direction of West in April. If there are no changes for you, there may be some for other family members. In May and June you will earn a great deal through your own efforts, but it will also be your fate to spend as much as you earn. Stay private in September and October because there may be suffering and unexpected bad fortune. By November and December all bitterness will have gone and sweet good fortune is on its way to end the year for you in delight."
"Whew! It's a lot to translate; fortunately, the words are not complicated and it's not full of Chinese symbols, which I haven't learned. There you are, Jack, the sparrow knows." I tease him.
Jack puts some coins in the man's palm and rolls up the little fortune and puts it in his pocket. We wander into some other shops, try on jackets, and examine bolts of cloth. The carved Korean jade is exquisite with its milky, pale sea foam green. The vendor is anxious for Jack to buy some for his "beautiful lady," Ah, the ever present "for foreigners" smile. So anxious to please and so close to doing so. My habit is to lower my eyes when we reach the end of town. A mountain there is fenced with boards. On the slopes are hundreds of scantily clad Korean men with pick axes literally tearing down the mountain by hand. From a distance, it looks like an anthill. A fence is around the bottom, no one really sees the men on the mountain. That would be impolite.
I love this country and the simplicity of its people. I regret their lives are often as beasts of burden; all activities so labor intensive with only the crudest equipment. Yet, the people are proud. They know their station. It is their karma, their place in the never-ending circle of life. They are fulfilling their destiny. Only those contaminated by Western thought or universities are restless with the harshness of everyday living, the constant battle to be fed, housed and clothed. I have learned, as a Westerner must, to put aside my guilt from my world of excess in contrast to the lives of the Koreans; yet, I avert my eyes at the end of town. Pick axes on a solid mountain of rock to make way for a modern highway is not something I want to see, polite or not.
Time, the enemy, is passing. We've finished our shopping and start toward the Hamilton. We stop in the restaurant for a bite to eat. It attempts glamour, but doesn't succeed. Yet, tonight it is the loveliest restaurant in Seoul. We linger at dinner until the band starts playing in the lounge. As much as we treasure our private time together, we enjoy the dance of love we share, moving effortlessly to the various rhythms of the band. We reluctantly leave the dance floor early because we can't dance till curfew, make love through the night, and work. I am no longer shy but eager for our intimacy, the heights of our passion as yet unreached.
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