I’m reading in a coffee shop next to two high school boys. The taller one leans over and says in English, “Can my friend take a picture with you?” “Um, sure,” I say, and his friend, giggling, scoots over while his friend uses his cell phone to snap a picture.
A few minutes later I’m outside waiting for the bus. An old woman, perched with knees splayed on the bench, turns and stares at me. A middle-aged woman walks by, sees me, and pauses. She starts walking again, but then abruptly switches directions. She does this again and I realize she is pacing in front of me and staring. I look up from my book and half-smile, hoping she will see I notice and leave. Instead, she leans in close to me.”DO YOU SPEAK KOREAN?” she says loudly in Korean. “Um, no, not really,” I say in Korean. A string of fast and loud Korean of which I understand about three words follows.
Later, I step onto the bus. “Jungang Rotary?” I ask the driver, hoping he’ll take me to the stop closest to my apartment. He nods and I open my wallet for the fare. I look up and three old woman sitting near the front stare blankly at me. They have gone silent. I feel their eyes on me and sit down quickly on the closest seat, near the front. They start talking again. “Jungang Rotary? She’s going to Jungang Rotary?” I hear them in Korean repeating what and how I said it. I put my wallet in my bag and when I look up I see the old woman in the seat in front of me has poked her permed head around the seat barrier and is three inches from me, gawking. She turns back around when I look up and I stare out the window.
Suddenly I feel a sharp slap on my forearm. I jump and there is the permed head again, speaking loudly in Korean. “DO YOU SPEAK KOREAN?” I shake my head and rub the arm she just hit. “YOU DON’T KNOW KOREAN? KOREAN, YOU DON’T KNOW IT?” “No, I don’t speak Korean,” I say in Korean. “YOU DON’T SPEAK KOREAN?” “No, but I wish I did so I could tell you to turn around,” I say quietly in my head. “She’s from America. She doesn’t speak Korean.” The woman has finally turned around and is now discussing me at a lower but still audible volume with her friends.
A few hours later I walk into the Center for Adult Education, where I have been taking a Korean class. In the foyer there is a group of five women. They get quieter and their heads turn, following my movement, as I walk towards the water fountain. I take a paper cup and one woman says "pretty" to me, first in English and then in Korean. “Oh, thanks” I say in Korean and accidentally overfill my paper cup, splashing water on my jeans and the floor. “Oh, you speak Korean!” she says in Korean. “No, I...I don’t speak Korean” I say in Korean, wiping my hands on my jeans and head into class.