I'm sitting in the back of my Korean host family's car, a big white monster with a mess of school books, some coats and wool blankets, and a bag of kalbi wrapped in tin foil. We have just come from lunch and now we are going...somewhere. I am used to, though still frustrated by the fact that language and culture and family pattens I haven't picked up on combine to make me generally clueless as to when or what we're going when I get in the car with my host family. All I know is that we just finished lunch, but that we are not headed back in the direction of our apartment. The Korean is too fast for me to pick up on many words. I catch "cha" but this could mean car, tea, cold, or carry depending on the context. I sit in the back of the car and mull over the possibilities, until my host sisters unknowingly answers my question.
"We will clean the car!" she proclaims excitedly in English.
Clean the car? Really? I ask Kumju, and she nods with enthusiasm that is exclusive to 11 year-olds going to a car wash. "It is so fun!" she says.
I am taken back to a year ago, before I had a this grant, and what I thought I might be doing here-- planning lessons on diversity to an excited group of students, learning to make yet another fabulous Koren meal, practicing calligraphy. I had many visions, but none of them involved washing a car. Then again, I live in Korea now, and my dreams are necessarily tempered. I have classes of 38 students, some of whom are as excited about English as in my fantasies, and some of whom cannot spell their names and have no desire to. I live in an apartment in a city. My bedroom window does look on a mountain, but most of it is obscured by the chain convenience store "Family Mart." And the busy schedule of my host family means that we eat a lot of take-out and restaurant meals. I am not taking calligraphy classes, though I do sometimes go to yoga and take a language class. My Korean is still bad.
But as we pull into the gas station and fill up (in litres), and then around to the entrance to the car wash, Kumju's enthusiasm is catching. "It is like, maybe we think the car will be broken!" she says, and checks the windows on her side to make sure they are rolled up. And I check mine. My host dad shifts into neutral and the the wheels click into the treads of the car wash as we roll in. The whirring starts and loud sprays of water come shooting on the windows. Kumju leans forward excitedly. A big sponge rolling brush starts on the top of the car. And I have to admit it is kind of fun; the car is surrounded and water is shooting at it and my host sisters looks more amused then I've seen her in a long time. Now the car has rolled in completely and there are brown twirling brushes on all sides. We are in the car wash's belly. I take Kumju's hand. "Duck!" I command as the car approaches some kind of drier that's heavy and lower than the car-- it looks as though we might hit it. Kumju giggles and together we duck.
And it hits me that my visions of Korea were pretty and unique and clean and grand-- but its these moments, in a car wash, clutching the sticky hand of my host sisters, that I am bound to remember later on. And there is a lot I don't understand about Korea, and sometimes that not knowing freaks me out. And I really should study Korean more, be a better Cultural Ambassador and not talk about how I miss cheese and smoke-free buildings and not slapstick television so much. But dwelling on these things, on my lack of control and my own imperfections, means that I don't have time to appreciate these moments. Sometimes joy and goodness sneak up in unexpected forms and I want to be ready to identify them.