In a small town, it’s a given that you’ll see some people more than a few times and learn their face, even if you don’t know their name. In a teeny tiny rural Korean town with three roads, it’s even worse (or better?). There are some people that I see every single day, doing the same things, while I do the same things. Sometimes they talk to me, sometimes we just pass each other by with a head-nod of acknowledgement and sometimes it’s a new face, doing the same things the other old, similar face was doing. It’s kind of a weird way of life, but the people that live in my town are the pillars of my existence, in a sense. They make Sambong, my little town, what it is. They color my experience with entertainment and wonderment, causing me to simultaneously scratch my head and laugh hysterically in public.
So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the characters, the faces, the Korean people of Sambong.
The Exercising Ajumma
Every morning I wake up earlier than the crack of dawn to run with my puppy. I walk to the school track and in the dark morning, through the darkness I always look for the moving shadow. The exercising ajumma is often the same woman, but sometimes a new face appears to do the exact same thing. She does a brisk walk for about 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes, and then does strange stretches for another five minutes before disappearing into the new daylight. Her signature stretch is arms raised in a V-shape above her head, holding a scarf taught between them, and twisting to either side. Another favorite is what I like to call the almost-falling-backward-onto-the-bed stretch, where she leans backwards, arms stretched out, as far as she can without falling over and holds the position. Do these stretches actually stretch? I’m not sure. But I would never question her.
The Avid Golfer
About ten minutes into my morning exercise routine, the avid golfer usually arrives. In his mid forties, he comes to the track in his running gear and with a golf club in hand. (I’m totally serious, this guy is real.) He does the same series of exercises: alternating between a brisk walk with the golf club, a (very) short jog with the golf club, some stretching with the golf club and then actually using the golf club for its intended purposes, by doing swinging practice in the nearby sand pit. His reasons for exercising at all are crystal clear.
The Gung-ho Crossing Guard
On one of the three roads in town sits my school and while there is some traffic in the morning, I’m not entirely convinced of the need for a crossing guard. Regardless, he is there every morning, bright and early, in his neon vest and military-style hat. He takes his job extremely seriously, swinging his stiff arms in quick succession; signifying to cars that yes, they may pass, even if no students are in sight, let along trying to cross the road. He reminds me of a robot, on occasion. As I walk closer to him on my way to work each morning, he swings his arm sharply up to his forehead into a salute, and yells “Good morning!”
The Farming Neighbor
This elderly man was clearly hot stuff back in the day, based on his charming smile and confident swag. I don’t see him everyday, but on the stretch of road between home and school, he sometimes walks around his fields or checks on piles of garlic (or potatoes or cabbage) that need to be sorted out for selling. When I see him, he smiles that devious old man smile, waves hello, asks about a random work in English (“pumpkin!”) or just gives up the facade and makes arm hearts at me.
The Sober Laborer
Korea has a bit of a social epidemic on their hands: all the women move to the city and all the men working menial jobs are left in the country, wife-less and bored. I live in a building of one-room apartments, which I’m sure you can imagine attracts exactly this kind of 40-year-old man. The sober laborer is many people who all do the same thing; they smoke, they wear their construction vest, and they stand outside between 6:10-6:25am waiting for the bus to work. All of them say hello to me, as if we’ve talked, because hey… there’s only one foreign girl with a dog in the area. They adore Mary, and frequently use her as an in to ask me weird questions that I don’t understand.
The Drunk Laborer
The drunk laborer usually appears outside of restaurants on Saturday and Sunday mornings, though occasionally he appears outside my apartment having a Saturday/Sunday picnic on the rolling table. He says things like “beautiful!” “pretty!” or the classic, “foreigner!” He adores my dog even more than usual. Last week the drunk laborer even gave me arm hearts, although usually he just slurs his words or stumbles down the road, going nowhere with a lit cigarette in hand. By evening, he’s ironically nowhere to be seen.
The Student Terrified of Dogs
Some students like puppies, but other students have this deep seeded, unexplainable terror for animals in general. As I approach, the student terrified of dogs will give Mary a wary eye, and as I get closer they’ll shy a little behind their friend, towards the street, away from me. When I get close and I let Mary sniff their feet (because I’m a jerk!), the student terrified of dogs inevitably lets out a high pitched scream, runs sideways or backwards off the sidewalk and never takes (usually) her eyes off of the scary, biting and drooling, flesh ripping thing that is my ten month old, ten pound puppy.