I knew the first day of summer camp would be a success before it even started. I smiled as I wrote down the last few materials needed, picturing their elated faces when I announced that we would be constructing gingerbread houses, envisioning their hungry grins widening as they scrounged through the rainbow of sweets to adorn their biscuit-houses, my lip curling smugly as I foresaw them devouring their finished houses. I couldn’t wait.
The night before, I walked to a small supermarket to get the ingredients: M&Ms, chocolate-coated nuts, jelly worms, biscuits, marshmallows and miniscule edible stars and dinosaurs. As I picked each item, the delighted faces of my Korean middle-schoolers popped into my head. I would be a hero. The greatest thing since Psy. I walked like a champion to the till with my basket of goods.
On the way, I passed a hunched-over ajumma* who stopped in the middle of lowering a packet of sugar from the shelf to peer inquisitively into the foreigner’s basket. Her lingering eyes travelled from my basket up to my face. Her curiosity not satisfied, she then hobbled over, stopped inches from my face and raised her left hand slowly (her right hand still clutched at the packet of sugar). For one bizarre second I thought she was about to slap me. But she didn’t. She rested the back of her weathered hand on my face and gently stroked it. Her face creased into a warm smile as she did so and without saying a single word, she turned and continued with her shopping.
I gave myself a few seconds to let whatever just happened to me sink in and then proceeded to the till to pay. I left my browning-green 10 000 Won* note on the counter while the old cashier scanned all my items. Just then another ajumma appeared at my side and placed her goods and a 10 000 Won note on the counter just next to mine, completely ignoring the queue behind me.
Infuriated by the queue-jumping ajumma, I hastily shoved my items towards the cashier before the ajumma could, and somehow, by not-so-divine intervention, I mistakenly pushed the ajumma’s 10 000 Won note to the cashier instead of mine.
Not even my mother shouted at me like that ajumma did. She beat the air with her arms. She pointed fingers. She banged her fists on the counter. Neither of us listened to the other; she screamed at me in Korean while I apologised in English and Korean over and over again. I felt my face growing hot as the eyes of the old cashier and the other customers bounced between us. I didn’t know what was worse –
- Being scolded by a tiny ajumma
- Being accused of stealing 10 000 Won
- Being scolded for stealing 10 000 Won (a mistake), which could have been avoided had she not jumped the queue (not a mistake)
After about ten minutes of Charades in an attempt to explain my mistake, followed by more apologies, she finally gave up and left me alone. I paid (with my money) and left.
As I imagined, my kids’ eyes lit up when I walked into class the next day. They made a bee-line for the bulging packets clutched in my hands and in frenzied excitement spilt the contents on the table. But then their faces crumpled in confusion.
“Sam-Sam, where is eggs?”
My heart dropped to somewhere in the depths of my stomach. The eggs were still in the shop. I forgot the most important ingredient for their edible constructions; without the eggs the houses would fall apart.
My school was located in the sleepy Korean countryside. A one-way trip to the closest shop took 20 minutes. Their lesson was only 90 minutes long – I had no choice but to run. It was 32 degrees outside; sweat dripped from you when you stood in the shade. But I ran. And I ran. I didn’t stop running until I reached the small grocery shop.
I barged through the door clumsily as a result of my urgent running, making the sleepy shop keeper, who was literally busy killing flies, freeze and cast a terrified glance in my direction. Sweat streaming down my forehead and back like mini waterfalls, my hair sticking up at odd ends and my heavy panting filling the small, dark shop, I ignored his alarmed stare and frozen fly-swatter, and scanned the shop. I spotted an orange sack containing three eggs hanging by the counter and grabbed it. I could tell the shop keeper was terribly confused: the running, the barging through the door, the sweating and panting, only to grab a sack of three eggs?
“1000 Won,” he mumbled hesitantly as I laid the lonely sack of eggs on the counter.
One dollar. I opened my wallet and instantly felt my blood turn cold. I didn’t have the dollar. I hurriedly unzipped the coin section of my wallet and counted (and prayed):
100 Won, 200 Won, 300 Won, 400 Won, 500 Won…almost there, 600 Won, 700 Won…please God, 800 Won, 900 Won – bloody hell.
100 Won short. I looked at the shop keeper. He looked back.
Just then I felt the slightest tap on my shoulder. I turned my head, but no one was there. I looked down and saw a shrivelled man seated in a wheel chair that was far too big for him. He must have been at least 90-years-old, and it looked as if someone had soaked him in a bath for four hours. He had about five strands of white hair which were neatly combed to the side and his eyes were barely open as he stared at me. He was dressed in hospital clothes and he had a drip connected to his arm. I didn’t even hear him entering.
His tiny arm was outstretched towards me. I noticed it trembled slightly. Something was clenched in his fist. I held out my hand and he dropped it on my palm.
It was a 100 Won coin. I really didn’t want to take the ancient man’s coin. But I really needed those eggs. So I said “kamsamnida*” about five times and took it. And I got my eggs. Anyway, it would all be worth it when the kids made their gingerbread houses.
I ran back to school.
“I’ve got the eggs!” I yelled as I practically fell into the classroom.
I left the eggs on the table and flopped down in the nearest chair to catch my breath.
“Sam-Sam…this egg,” came the hesitant voice of one of my middle-schoolers.
“Yes, I got the eggs, now let’s START!”
“Ah, no, Sam-Sam, this egg…I don’t know English word.”
She took out her phone and typed the Korean word into a translating application. She handed me the phone.
*ajumma: old Korean lady
*10 000Won: roughly $10
*kamsamnida: thank you