Getting through a Korean blizzard
"You like sex shop?" he asks in broken English.
I'm wearing a worried expression as we drive off into the snowy night.
I'm sitting in the cramped passenger seat of a tiny blue Korean microbus, lit up by the tiny lights on the dashboard. The wind is whipping the snow around us as we drive, the van itself teetering on the edge of being blown over. We are crawling along an icy road, the tires of the van squealing as they spin through Boseong, my own little slice of Korea. The town isn't massive. I'm uninformed on city scales but I'd guess it sits very comfortably between a hamlet and a borough. It's mid-winter and the town, renowned for its green tea fields has been flirting with the idea of snow for the past few weeks. Sometimes there's a little bit, a lingering touch, and sometimes there's enough to warrant careful walking, a peck on the lips.
Then 3 days ago, and without warning, the town slipped into a fit of hedonism and gave us full-on snowfall for three days straight; windows were iced shut, schools were closed (not mine), and the whole town shut itself indoors and around warm heaters, away from the cold white nonsense nobody had asked for.
Having never truly experienced snow, I found myself with a big stupid smile from ear to ear as I trudged through the thick snow on the second evening of snowfall. Camera in hand, I'm heading to a friend's for a photo-mission and dinner.
We get it done and after dinner I said my goodbyes and find myself in the parking lot. A thick layer of snow and ice covering everything, the air thick with silence.
Except for one thing.
A shrill squealing is ringing out. As I walk towards it I find the culprit.
A tiny microbus is trying it's hardest to edge out of its parking spot, its wheels spinning in place. I walk in front of it and make a pushing gesture. I'm met with what I think is a frantic nod. I go ahead and lay my weight on the vehicle, pushing it as the wheels desperately try to find grip. They do.
As the van pulls out, I give a friendly wave which is met with "gamsahamnida!", Korean for thank you. When I turn to walk off, thumbing the cigarette I've prepared to stave off the cold, the driver shouts to me again;
"Where do you stay?"
I give him the name of my apartment but to no avail. I follow it up with "bus terminal' and a gesture signaling 'next to'. That's enough. He offers me a lift in broken English and beckons me to climb in. The door is iced shut, so it takes some effort, but soon we are on our way.
"You know sex shop?" he continues. I meet it with a combination of uhms, ahs, and pauses anyone living in a foreign country should be familiar with. My inner monologue is sighing. At worst, tonight is going to be much longer and more eventful than I wanted or needed; at best I'm in for a very awkward chat in broken Konglish about sex toys. Neither sounds great. "I own sex shop" he says. I'm relieved; both in his reply and that the tiny bus has stopped skidding sideways along the slope we are on. He doesn't seem phased; my knuckles are showing as I grip the dash.
"Tiny car" he says, and chuckles, "will be fine'
My relief sets in and we share a hearty laugh at the confusion.
As we drive/skid on down roads, warm windows and flashing traffic lights flash into the bus, illuminating our faces. We learn more about each other.
I want to inquire about the sex shop's existence in a small conservative town, but decide my Korean isn't up to the task. Instead, I learn his name is Yo Jung Lee, and he works 3 jobs, including the sex shop. We narrowly miss a bus driving past the train station.
A pretty apt visual metaphor for our driving conditions.
"You from Nam-Apeulika?" he responds to my introduction with disbelief. "But your skin is.... pale."
I give him a shrug, and explain there are many white South Africans. It's a common misconception here. One I have hilariously met since my first day of work. As we sit taking turns to trade information in broken English and broken Korean, I couldn't help think about how this is a perfect micro-representation of life in Korea as a foreigner. Living in a foreign country can be difficult, and you sometimes have working against you like language, culture and literacy. It feels like hard work, and it is. Not nearly as hard as that of the man who works 3 jobs and has to use a dangerously old microbus to travel from place to place though. It teaches you to be humble and to be patient and accept the weird adventures sometimes required just to get home. The very home we are now skidding though the parking lot of. I un-clench my hands from the side of my seat and say goodbye to my new friend, promising to visit him in the sex shop. I step back out into the cold blizzard, the blinking yellow traffic light nearby giving the whole snow-covered scene a weird ambiance.
We wave goodbye and he rides off down the snowy road, screeching through a closed intersection before disappearing into the dark.