In preparation for future travels and just to enjoy life more, I have been working on having more human interactions in public places. Overall, I am failing this course. Moscow trained me well to wear a “city face” and stare off into space. For the most part, I do not talk to strangers.
So, when I got onto the train for Daejeon, searched for my seat, and saw that an older Korean woman was sitting in the seat next to mine, I geared up. I could tell from the look on her face that she was ready to chat.
My seat was the aisle, but she insisted that I sit near the window. Because I understood this interaction and the word “sit” in Korean, she continued to speak in Korean. She said something, and I caught the word “pretty.” A nice thing considering I had no make-up on and was wearing my glasses. I said, “Thank you” in Korean.
In Korean, she said, “Ah, you speak Korean!”
Now, I knew I was in for it. I tried to slow her down by saying, “a little,” but she continued speaking to me like I understood everything. Maybe if I had studied Korean formally, the phrases she had used would have been familiar. Maybe if I were always surrounded by women this unapologetic, I would learn more.
She forged ahead and asked me how long I had been in Korea. To simplify things, I told her “eight,” meaning eight months. I did not know the word for years or months, but I could tell by her surprise and expression, she had understood eight years. I fumbled a bit, then took out my notebook and wrote down the date that I arrived in Busan. February 2014. Then she understood. In retrospect, I suppose it is technically nine months now. I communicated that I taught English. After the end of our short interaction about me, there was a lull. I did not know how to ask her about where she lived or what she did, and like I said, I’m failing the course of conversations with strangers.
Then, at about the time the heat in the train was getting unbearable, she piped up. She made a twisting motion with her hand in the air and said something in Korean that I could not quite make out. Based on how I was feeling, I assumed she was talking about the air being turned on, on the train. The motion could easily be interpreted as such. So, I said, “It’s hot,” and fanned myself a bit. She kind of shook her head, not in disgust, but there was a tinge of frustration. She was a talker and needed to be understood. She repeated herself and made the twisting motion again.
Finally, she simplified the thought to one word.
“Gam,” she said. “Gam.”
I shook my head.
She said, “gam” again, and then wrote with her finger in the air the Korean letters in “gam” 감. Luckily I know the Korean alphabet. I guess she could safely assume that because of the bits and parts of Korean that I understood. Still, for some reason, I thought this effort to show me the spelling was odd. Perhaps it was based on her knowledge of English. Maybe she only understood written words. When I shook my head again and told her, “I don’t know,” she said, “gam. Gam,” more loudly. Then she wrote quite emphatically with her finger on the back of the seat in front of us, the three letters that make up “gam” in their syllable block, in Korean.
I could tell she was not going to let it go, and why should she? I live in Korea. I should try to understand what she was getting at. Also, we had a couple hours in front of us. So, I took out my phone and used google translate.
In my google translate app, only one translation came up. “Feeling.”
I looked at her confused. She glanced over. Then she shook her head and said, “gam,” as if searching. So I tried the other letter in Korean that sometimes sounds like a type of “a” 검. That just caused more confusion for me because it means “sword.” Then she did something ingenuous for translating a word that has multiple meanings. She told me a longer phrase. When I typed it in, “persimmon tree” came up. I probably made the most ridiculous, “Ahaa” sound. I knew the word for persimmon in Korean. Why couldn’t I put two and two together?
At that point she must have known exactly how limited my Korean was. She smiled and pointed to herself and communicated that she picks or grows persimmon. Then she rambled on a bit more. I caught “America” “gam”, and I could tell by the intonation it was a question. At this point I started mixing the tiny bit of Korean I had with English to communicate a bigger thought. I tried to tell her, “Yes, we have persimmons in America, but I never tried one until I came to Korea. They are delicious.” I’m certain she understood delicious, but when it came to America, she repeated a similar sounding phrase. She seemed surprised when I said the equivalent of, “Yes, persimmon America.” So I googled “persimmon America” to show her. That seemed to convince her and placate her interest. I tried to communicate my grandma grows apples, by saying the equivalent of “my grandma … apple.” She nodded. I have no idea if she understood. Then the conversation ended abruptly. Language barriers create labor intensive conversation.
Not long after, she got up, stood next to the seat, and let the rightful ticket holder take their seat.
I dreamed out the window about the landscape, the fall leaves, the biking paths, the river, and the mountains. Then the landscape changed rather abruptly. Orangish-red objects covered dark brown trees that had already dropped all their leaves. Rather than fall leaves of all colors, the hillsides were inundated by persimmon tree upon persimmon tree. Quite appropriately at the train station surrounded by persimmon trees, the older woman got off. She smiled, waved goodbye, and stepped into the landscape of persimmon trees.