by James Parr
I’m pretty sure that me and Hyacinth Kim were dating for about four months while I lived in South Korea but to make sure you’d have to ask her. We certainly did lots of things together, and spent a lot of time with one another, and I met both of her parents for at least two sit-down restaurant dinners—no small feat in that country. I’m back in America now, taking care of an elderly relative as something like a full-time job, and she’s still living near Daegu, the third or fourth largest city in the country depending on who you ask. She doesn’t do e-mail (“That’s for old people”) and I don’t currently have a smartphone, so we’re out of touch right now and probably will be forever.
That’s fine. I miss her sometimes.
Two springs ago, almost summer, we took her tiny new car out and away from the city for tea. That’s all she told me, and that sounded good enough for a Saturday afternoon. I was happy to have her drive, but at six foot one inch (or 185 centimeters, as Koreans would recognize) I never did sit comfortably in her car’s passenger seat.
“Buy me a bigger car then, Mr. America.”
We drove about twenty minutes north of town, past the vegetable and flower wholesalers, the golf driving ranges, and the occasional church or convenience store. Hyacinth took a lot of pride in her driving abilities, and I certainly never noticed any problems after squeezing myself into the front and trying to find an angle for my barbarian-sized legs that didn’t make them sore after ten minutes.
“What should we bring?”
“Nothing. Mrs. Song will have everything she needs.”
Spring was closing down shop to make way for what would be another brutally hot and humid summer, as usual. Unlike the coastal cities, Daegu is surrounded by mountains—a big, deep bowl, basically, and the sun bakes it all day while winds are blocked from alleviating any of the heat or humidity. The highway was pretty full, with various families and couples enjoying weekend trips, and delivery vehicles working hard to bring people what they’d ordered online. Hyacinth hated that I was wearing cargo shorts (“You look like a child”) but I was only a little self-conscious about it. I was wearing a nice shirt though, one that she’d bought for me for Teacher’s Day this past May.
We pulled onto a smaller two-lane road and then a one-lane after that. I knew we were north of the city, but that’s where my practical knowledge ended. The GPS was on, but only displaying its typical mess of lines and dots and warning signs with no real show of coherence. We pulled up under a willow tree on the bank of what seemed to be either a small stream or creek, maybe even just a runoff ditch for irrigation from the local farms. There was a small hill with a shabby concrete path leading up to a few older style wooden houses that you’d never find in the city, and only rarely in the suburbs. We were just slightly “in the country,” and if you listened hard enough you could still hear the noise of passing traffic from the highway overpass far behind us.
Hyacinth got out of the car and straightened her dress, then grabbed her bag from the backseat. She pulled out a small gift-wrapped box as well.
“I could have brought something.”
“You don’t need to. She’s my friend so I brought something.”
Walking up the path I noticed some empty dog houses, then an inhabited one. In front was a beautiful, nearly all-white Jindo dog.
“That’s Summer, Mrs. Song’s pet.”
Summer looked lazy and content, maybe a little sleepy. She was on a short chain wrapped around a nearby persimmon tree, something you see a lot in Korea that drives me crazy.
“Oh man, not the short dog chains again.”
“If the chain is too long Mrs. Song is afraid she’ll run away.”
“That’s not how dogs work, Hyacinth.”
“No, but that’s how people work.”
As we’d ascended along the path the creek still ran alongside us, but we were about fifteen feet above it now. The water was somewhere between clean and slightly muddy, but it reflected the sun dutifully in crisp stray patterns. Across the water were other small, old wooden houses, each one with a satellite dish on top. Farther up the creek were the first vegetable fields, and probably a few orchards as well, spreading out toward the horizon. We approached a stout but cozy looking house, with surprisingly modern glass doors and a blue tile roof. It had to be Mrs. Song’s place, and behind us Summer yawned then stood at attention, maybe recognizing us as guests finally.
I could see Mrs. Song watching us through the windows and she came out to greet us. She gave a small bow to Hyacinth and me and we returned it. I managed to use up my polite Korean introductions and greeting phrases in about twenty seconds, then Hyacinth took over and handed the gift box to Mrs. Song. She was an elegant woman, with pure white hair tied in a tight bun and thick glasses, and a small but shiny gold cross on her necklace.
“Please come inside now!” she ordered us in fairly good English.
We removed our shoes in the entryway then took a few steps to the right into a small, tidy room with a large, low table in the middle and various examples of Chinese calligraphy on the walls. Hyacinth practically pushed me down to take my seat, legs crossed, while she disappeared in back with Mrs. Song to help with the refreshments. I caught small glimpses of Summer out front, calmly staring back at the house and lapping from her own water bowl. The chain still bothered me, but I noticed that the persimmon tree was casting what must have been a cool and comfortable shadow over the dog house.
Within minutes Hyacinth and Mrs. Song came back with a large tray, almost comically so, loaded with a pot for hot tea, and a clear pitcher for some kind of cold red juice, filled at the bottom with ice cubes, along with various cookies and snacks. About half were Korean—rice cakes and savory crackers, and the other half were Western-style cookies and ladyfingers
“Mrs. Song asked me to bring Paris Baguette cookies in case you didn’t like the rice cakes.”
Me and Hyacinth didn’t go back that long of course, but we’d had plenty of teas and coffees together with plenty of Korean rice cakes and savory snacks, which she knows I like just fine. But I was glad she’d brought a gift along all the same.
Everything was delicious and served with a particular, studied care on the part of Mrs. Song. She and Hyacinth spoke rapidly in Korean even as their hands slowly divvied up and distributed various crackers and sweets. We each received a small cup of steaming brown tea, and a smaller glass of fruit juice—“five fruit tea,” served cold and welcoming on this warm day. Mrs. Song glanced at me briefly and got up to turn on the room’s air-conditioner. Maybe I had a few drops of sweat around my neck, but I thought I was doing well all things considered. Koreans can’t stand the sight of human sweat.
In my broken Korean I managed to thank Mrs. Song for the drinks and food, which were very much a treat as I realized I was hungrier than I thought. We munched on the delicate cakes and rainbow selection of macarons from P.B.—all the rage here for as long as I can remember—and simply basked in the bright spring light of a calm afternoon outside the city. I listened to Hyacinth and Mrs. Song as best I could, but managed to understand very little. They had both settled into a kneeling position that seemed to come so naturally to Korean folks, but never to me and most foreigners who usually settled for cross-legged style.
“Mrs. Song survived cancer four years ago. She almost died.”
“Oh, Mrs. Song. I hope you’re feeling better now.” Not really thinking, I added, “My mom died of cancer a long time ago.”
Hyacinth translated the information and Mrs. Song looked at me sadly through the rims of her glasses before speaking back to Hyacinth, who relayed the words to me.
“Yes, you really should have been there for your mother when she died and not living in Korea.”
I tried to respond—it was right before I graduated from high-school actually, I was there even at the end, of course I was—but Hyacinth and Mrs. Song had moved on to lighter matters. Hyacinth let me know that she had a son who was coming down from Seoul to visit on the next weekend, a weekend off from compulsory military service, and that her husband had gone golfing for the day. Her son was well and only had five months left, doing something involving heavy artillery in case North Korea finally invaded after all these years. Mrs. Song sighed briefly and smiled noticeably after Hyacinth relayed this.
Outside the window I could see almost straight down into the creek. There were some decent sized fish coming down from the hill, hiding in the rushes. Feeling a bit refreshed and probably too confident, I used my terrible Korean to say—to try and say—“There are fish in the river!” I got to use one of my favorite Korean words at the time, and even today—“water meat.”
Mrs. Song laughed and spoke rapidly to Hyacinth. Hyacinth smiled in her real way, like when I actually made her laugh, and not the way she did when I was embarrassing her, making her cringe with my utter foreignness.
“Mrs. Song says the water is too dirty for fishing, but the fish keep her company when she’s cleaning the house.”
We were enjoying our second cups of hot tea, and Mrs. Song had already poured my third cup of tea. The pitcher was almost empty but still threw a bright ruby reflection across the room. Having used pretty much all of my Korean, I was content to let my gaze go back and forth between the Chinese calligraphy and the creek down below, hoping to spot another fish or two. Mrs. Song and Hyacinth continued their chatting, something about how the house never stayed warm enough in winter but was fine the rest of the year, and that her son maybe had a girlfriend and they’d get married once his military service ended. I’d been in Korea long enough to grow a little jaded by the traditions and customs side of things, but afternoon tea here had turned out to be a perfectly lovely affair. My legs were starting to fall asleep though as they always do when I sit on mats, cross-legged or not, but it felt like we might be leaving soon. One thing I appreciate about living in Korea is that when it’s time to leave—a house, a restaurant, a bar, a classroom—you get up and leave, everybody together, with no hesitation. It’s a form of shared telepathy, as far as I can tell. I was still learning on the levels above and below the actual language itself.
“Mrs. Song says you have a kind face and your Korean is good, but you should probably lose some weight to avoid heart disease and hypertension.”
“Oh. Yes, thank you Mrs. Song. Can you tell Mrs. Song that this was all really good, and she has a really beautiful home?” I decided to say nothing about Summer the dog and the short leash.
Hyacinth turned, and with a slight adjustment of her calves I could tell it was finally time to get up and go. We stood and I brushed some crumbs off of my shirt. Mrs. Song quickly handed me a single, plastic-wrapped baby wipe for the obvious mess I’d made of myself. I got to use my departure Korean, which is really just a variation on my greeting Korean, and Mrs. Song looked pleased. She beamed at me and Hyacinth as we moved to the foyer to put our shoes back on. As we walked out the front door she gave us a fuller bow, not quite a full one, and we thanked her again.
In English I said, maybe too loudly, “Bye Summer! Thank you for letting us visit your big house! Thank you for the tea!” The dog was kind enough to let me scratch the top of her head and rub the sides of her face just a little bit. This close to her, I could tell her white hair was hiding the noticeable gray of her muzzle. She was a happy old girl, short leash or no.
Mrs. Song laughed. Hyacinth scolded me—“Summer didn’t make the tea, Mrs. Song did.”
Walking back down the hill, along the creek, Mrs. Song stood on her front porch and watched us go. As the hill flattened out we were almost level with the creek again, but it was harder to see the fish, the water meat, from this particular angle, almost too close and direct to see anything but the ripples and reflections, a few skittering dragonflies. It was hot now in the afternoon sun, but Hyacinth seemed to be in a good mood so hopefully she’d let me blast the AC on the way back into Daegu proper. Her father was staying at home this weekend, so I was hoping we could have dinner together and she could stay over at my place by the college. Staying over was always a problem because no matter where she parked at least one of my students—more likely a pack of them—would see her and me walking together into my building, a perfect scandal.
Hyacinth paused a bit, then turned on the AC to roughly mid-blast, not full, which I still appreciated. We drove slowly back to the overpass and she was waiting to pull us onto the highway back into Daegu. I gazed lazily back in the direction of Mrs. Song and Summer the dog and figured this was probably the last day of spring. The miserable summer heat would cover us all like an unwanted blanket soon enough.
After a decade living and teaching English in South Korea, James Parr returned to Bellingham to help take care of an older relative. You can find James on Twitter @wetcasements or via http://wetcasements.blogspot.com/.
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