I walk past the busy people rushing to the marketplace on this blistering sunny Sunday morning anticipating my meeting with Achala, a kind woman I met serendipitously at the bus stop near my house. That fateful morning, I wandered into a nearby 7/11 convenience store for breakfast before heading to work, and as I stepped out I saw the brown-skinned woman pass by watching me with the same curious look I gave her. I believe in Korea, most non-Koreans look out for other non-Koreans, and when we see each other there is a mutual warm feeling that there is someone else who is foreign like them.
With a gentle smile and nod of my head, she reciprocated my friendly “hello” and asked, “Where are you from?”
“America,” I answered.
Her lips curled into a tender smile. In return, I asked if she was also from the states, to which she answered, “No. Sri Lanka.”
The more we spoke, I realized that she did not speak much English, and she realized I did not speak much Korean, but the beauty of this blended world is that we can blend language and communicate.
“Your house...yogi?” she asked mixing English and Korean.
“Nae,” I responded, “House yogiyo,” I turned my head in the direction of my apartment and pointed with my chin. “Chonun yeongeo seonsaengnim,” I answered explaining I was an English teacher. “You, too?” I asked inquiring of what prompted this Sri Lankan woman to move to this country so far away.
“Aniyo...hangook marry. Hangook husband.”
At her answer, my eyes widened with intrigue. It was one of the most fascinating encounters I had in all of my three years in Korea. I had lived in this neighborhood all of those years, and never seen another foreigner who wasn’t a teacher. Here I was, this Trini-American black woman, talking to a Sri Lankan woman at a bus stop in Korea, mixing English and Korean to have a conversation. I couldn’t help but ask to meet her again, and out of her motherly kindness, she agreed.
Achala stood at the end of the street waving for me to see her. She held onto the tiny hand of her precious daughter and smiled. Through the market, we walked passing by the mixed smells of fresh fruit, rich dirt on vegetable roots, and fish hung to dry. On the roof of one of the smaller complexes was a metal gate surrounding a corridor of steep cement steps leading to an apartment. “Yogi,” Achala exclaimed pointing at her home at the top of the concrete building. Her daughter wore a bright orange shirt complimenting the bronze hues of her skin and highlighted the pathway up to the steps and to their home.
I slipped off my sandals and watched in awe as I hardly ever get the chance to see inside the homes of others living in Korea, especially average everyday families. Directly across from the entrance was a plethora of family photos displayed on the wall. To the left were two doors -- one closed; one open-- and inside the opened room was a good-natured older gentleman. He made his way through the doorway and into the common area which was a combination of their kitchen and dining area.
“Anyeonghaseyo,” I brightly smiled and lowered my head in traditional Korean fashion to greet the man. “Hello! Welcome!” he greeted me warmly and reached out to shake my hand in an American manner. My brow raised in curiosity and prompted me to ask, “Do you speak English?”
“Chogeum (a little),” he responded in Korean. “My English speaking chogeum,” he explained.
“Also, my Korean speaking chogeum,” I replied and we both shared a laugh at our own expense, but it was comforting that we were all different people willing to share a conversation without letting language limit us. Achala prepared some juice for herself, her husband, her daughter, and I as her husband pulled out a speech translator for us to participate in this multicultural discourse.
Achala has been living in Korea for about sixteen years having moved here in 2003 for work. When asked about Sri Lanka, she responded that life in Sri Lanka was hard and she really enjoys her life in Korea. To be very honest, I expected some cultural dissonance; however, she says she loves everything about Korea. When I inquired about any difficulty in Korea due to prejudice because she is a foreigner, she explained she never experienced any discrimination. Rather, the most difficult thing she had to overcome due to cultural difference was a traditional service during two major Korean holidays.
Achala and her husband explained it was difficult for her to become accustomed to the traditional charye and seongmyo services Korean people usually perform on Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving, and Seollal,New Years. These customs require setting up a meal for the family’s ancestors and visiting family graves. In these settings, one must perform a ritual of bowing multiple times in honor and reverence of those who have come before. It’s also customary to clean the graves of the ancestors and spend much time eating with family (I had the fortune of being invited to a Korean friend’s house for Chuseok one year, and it was an occasion unlike anything I had experienced before).
Although these customs were hard to adjust to, after living a happy life with her family, Achala says it’s okay now. She and her husband, Byeong Tae, have been married for seven years and have their daughter who is six years old -- who they refer to as “the baby” which I think is adorable and can be attributed to their loving family dynamic.
Achala has two sisters and her father who live back in her native land, Sri Lanka, but when I asked her about her family, she pointed to one of the pictures on the wall and said, “That’s my family.” The picture was of the baby’s first birthday party. Achala and Byeong Tae wore beautiful hanbok, a traditional Korean dress. The hanbok was delicately designed and displayed vivid variants of reds and pinks. They each cupped their daughter in their hands to lift her up together to be the center of the photo. Behind them stood about fifteen people, relatives from Byeong Tae’s side of the family, and those were the people Achala called family.
I had come to learn that her mother had passed away, and her father was in his old age. With a smile, she opened her Facebook profile and showed me pictures of her two sisters and their children. Whenever the subject of life in Sri Lanka was brought up, Achala’s responses became a little colder, but I didn’t want to press her to find out why.
Her husband graciously invited me to stay for lunch, and they cooked a delicious meal of spicy braised chicken and potatoes with rice. It was a very Korean meal, and served in Korean fashion, so out of curiosity I asked, “Do you also cook Sri Lankan meals?”
here in Korea. Byeong Tae chimed in and said none of her Sri Lankan friends are here in Korea.
“Are there other Sri Lankan people living in this city?” I asked.
“Mostly men for industrial jobs, and in parts of the city that are far from here,”
My eyes lowered, and at that moment I felt a bit of sadness. As a foreigner --who genuinely likes Korea -- I know it can be a lonely experience when no around you is completely like you…Even if they’re nice, loving, and empathetic.
The corner of my mouth quirked up, and I said, “I’ll be your friend.”