Thor's Korea Diary
All Is Forgiven
@12 December 2004
I have just come in from a 10km run, still cold in this season of mists. I head for the lifts, but before I can escape an ancient gent in a blue baseball cap blocks my path. His face is as brown as a walnut, and creased with deep lines. Two large gold fillings punctuate his smile. He has a message but we don't share a language.
No matter, he tells me anyway, in gutteral Korean with lots of hand waves. There is a tent set up in the middle of the kid's playground, between the towering 18 story apartment blocks we call home here. A bit of a surprise really. In Busan, where I spent the last four years, nobody bothered much with Christmas, but I can't think of any other reason they'd be throwing a party for the security guards and cleaners.
Our relationship has been a bit fraught. I arrived in Chungju on a rainy day three months ago, and hit the first prohibition. No, I couldn't take my stuff up in the lift. I'd have to pay W60,000 for a tower truck to lift it to the 8th floor. A week later the university finally delivered me a bed and a table and some chairs. They left it in the hallway outside my apartment. Things are pretty happy-go-lucky here.
But it was no time before a crotchety security guard was banging on my door. We had a non-conversation of hand signals and arm waving. The upshot seemed to be that I was supposed to pay him W10,000. Why? It smelled suspiciously like soju money. I gave him the university's phone number. They said it was a 'fee'. Well, let them pay. He got angrier and angrier. I didn't pay. It wasn't a good start, and we have been into black looks ever since.
The messenger sent to bring me to the Christmas tent isn't my old enemy. He is waiting, also in a blue baseball cap, and a little lightened by generous cups of soju. Around the trestle table is a raucous council of aged men in dark blue uniforms, with gold fillings in their teeth. The table is loaded with cold meat, tok and empty soju bottles, and half-filled paper cups.
My enemy gives no signal of past resentments. In fact this is his god-given chance to bury them. We go into an elaborate pantomine and he races off to get me a new bottle of soju and a clean paper cup. Kampai! But we must also break bread, or rather noodles. He returns a second time with a large dish of steaming noodles and a plate of kimchi. I am under inspection and instructed to eat. Nobody else is eating, but this is a ceremony. Noodles, kimchi, sweet tok, cold meat. They are all piled up in front of me. The soju flows and my head begins to float a bit. The old men banter and gufaw loudly. What's important is that we are all seen to share bonhomie, good bunuiki. Luckily, nobody expects me to understand a word.
All is forgiven. Now they won't put a hex on my bicycle in the car park, or scold me for placing rubbish in the wrong municipal plastic bag. Merry Christmas.
* Note on personal names: many names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals