Dragons and Angels

모슬포 (Moseulpo), South Korea. 1997.

The next morning I was awakened by the loud banging of a gong. It was earlier than I would have liked to get up, but I still had a lot to learn about this place--and I didn't even know it. I went in to the dining room again and Mr. Kim was seated at the long table ready to eat rice. He asked if I slept well. I said I did.

The others I had met the night before soon joined and lent a hand in setting the table. Turns out there's a younger brother too, simply referred to as 용이, and he lurched his massive girth in and sat down, bedhead and all. He was a sophomore in high school and appeared tired from studying and lack of sleep. Next came four ladies known as the 천사 (angels). They were the only ones paid to be at the house that morning, but they joined in the meals as if they were part of the family. There were 11 of us at breakfast that morning. Mr. Kim referred to the group collectively as his 식구--all were mouths to feed, but family as well.

Mr. Kim's wife did the cooking that morning, but 민철 did the dishes. After breakfast the dining room cleared out except for Mr. Kim, his wife, and myself. They both lit cigarettes. 민철 delivered three instant coffees with sugar and Prima to us as we sat talking it over at the dining table. Mr. Kim told his wife how he and I had met. I guess I thought he would have mentioned me before; she had seen me talking to him on the ferry after all. But now he told the story of meeting me through his eyes.

He told her that when he noticed a foreigner sitting next to him, he thought I must not be American because I was sitting still and silent. He expected all Americans to be noisy and rambunctious. When he found out I was American he was very surprised. Then he told her that I was lucky he had not met me 10 years earlier. If he had met me then he would have ended me. They both laughed. I didn't know what he was referring to. The conversation stayed very light and high level because we were all still feeling each other out. But I took my cue not to be an obnoxious twit while around these folks.

Mr. Kim's wife occasionally threw in an English word and I noticed her pronunciation was very good. I didn't want to probe, but I commented on her English. She switched to English and told me she spent 10 years in New York City. It had been years since she returned to Korea and she apologized for having forgotten so much of it. Mr. Kim also knew a ton of English vocab but couldn't really construct sentences so we spoke Korean almost exclusively.

When we finished our coffees, Mr. Kim rose and told me to follow him. I silently trailed him out behind the house. The back "yard" was much more rocky and weed covered than the front of the house. There were no neighbors behind and we enjoyed an unobstructed view of Halla Mountain. But we didn't go out there just to ponder a mountain...

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