This post serves as a tribute to the many wonderful faces that made my time in Pyeonghae unique and unforgettable.
ONJEONG BUS AJUSSHI
My sweet, smiley, Onjeong bus ajusshi (old man) greeted me every morning when I came through his bus terminal and chatted to me every evening as I waited for the bus home. My fondest memories of him are when he sat next to me and sang, “Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clementine.” His pleasant, soulful, and seasoned voice reminded me of my grandpa when he sings, “Que sera, sera. Whatever will be will be.”
DRUNK MAN WHO HIT MY CO-TEACHER’S FATHER
Ohhhh heeeey, drunk stumbling man. Why are you eyeing us weirdly? Why are you approaching my friend’s dad? What the HELL?! WHY DID YOU JUST HIT HIM?!! Thank you, drunk man, for making the arrival to my new home a scary and memorable one. Click here to read the full story.
The kids at Onjeong Middle School are special. They grow up in this small community and have been taking classes with the exact same classmates since elementary school. When I taught at the school there were about 50 or so students for all three grades (7th, 8th, and 9th in U.S. grades). Because they grow up in such an isolated and close-knit environment I really felt that they interacted more as family than as classmates. This does not mean that they are all sweeties to each other all the time, but that they really seemed to know everything about each other. Their interactions were great to watch. On top of the school environment being like none other, the students were such a joy to see every day. Whether their English ability was high or low, I’m thankful for each and every one. Thankful they joined my English camps, thankful they would always smile at me and chat to me, thankful for the notes saying they loved me, and thankful for the hard days where I had to learn how to be a better teacher. Being a foreign teacher was hard, especially in a place where close to no one spoke English. When not many people speak your language, you get excited by every comprehensible interaction, and it seemed like they always tried to make interactions with me happy ones.
This adorable harabeoji (grandfather) and I were never able to share a single word because of the language barrier. Our interactions were simple, but his smile made me feel very welcomed in a place that was initially very lonely. I’m most thankful for the times he’d show up at my door with a basket of apples, grapes, or chestnuts. My one regret about not learning to speak Korean came after learning he was a North Korean refugee. I would’ve loved to talk to him about that.
RANDOM TALL WHITE MAN IN MY ALLEY
So to understand how truly strange this encounter was I need to be clear. I was the only foreigner who lived in Pyeonghae. Onjeong, the much larger, neighboring, tourist town that I worked in is reported to have a population of 2,000 on Korean wiki. The only foreigner I ever saw around Pyeonghae was the teacher who would bus in to teach at the elementary school–along with the random person who would come visit me for a weekend. Not only did I live in a small town, but my house was also pretty secluded being that it was off the main road and down a narrow alley.
Now that I’ve painted the picture for you, onto the story: It was 6:30 AM; a quiet weekday in early summer and I was just returning home after a morning jog. I turned up my alley and (to my utter bewilderment) a tall, slim, white man was walking down my alley and past my door! He was about 6′ 3″, maybe 60 years old, and wore a khaki colored baseball hat and fanny pack. My eyes must’ve jumped out of their sockets. As we got close, I nervously made eye contact and said, “Hi.” In return, he turned his head down to me and gave me the stank eye!! Then he walked past me and out of the alley. I was so shocked and confused, I just went into my home. Quickly thereafter, I decided I wanted to figure out this guy’s deal, so I grabbed enough change to buy some milk from the convenience store (as an excuse to be wandering around) and rushed out the door. He was gone, and I will forever wonder what in the world he was doing there.
MAN WHO LOCKED HIS DOORS BEFORE TALKING TO ME
Well this was a new one. It was 8AM on a Saturday and I was trying to find a specific trailhead for my morning hike. There was only one car around and I waved it down to ask for directions. Apparently I gave the driver a reason to be nervous. He slowly pulled over and before he rolled his window down to see what I needed I heard him lock his doors. That insulting act was followed by a 4-inch crack of the window to talk to me. REALLY?! Little ol’ me? Rude.
A simple paragraph cannot describe what this sweet babe did for me. Sugar Bear was my adopted (by heart) pup who lived on a chain, next to a vegetable garden that sat on the road to my school. I promise to write a more suitable tribute to him later, but he deserves to be mentioned in a post about those who shaped my time in Pyeonghae. He was either a jindo (Korea’s national dog) or jindo mix. I met him as a puppy in October 2012, and in November I got the courage to ask his owners for permission to take him on walks during lunch. After they said yes to that, our friendship flourished! It wasn’t long before I was walking him 2-3 times a day and traveling to the school on weekends to take him out to play. He gave me so much joy and I like to think I did the same for him. Unfortunately, in May 2013 his owners gave him away. I had one-week notice before he left and he was actually taken away the Friday before my last planned weekend with him. I still cry about him from time-to-time and am actually fighting back tears in this damn coffee shop as I write this. Like I said, a proper tribute will come later.
So that concludes part 1 of my tribute to the Pyeonghae characters. Part 2 to come shortly!