Angel Of The Morning Calm (1)
“The Land of the Morning Calm” Byron’s welcome literature had nicknamed this nation. He wondered what that could mean as he read the pamphlets of “useful phrases” and necessary customs. He memorized a few of the phrases as they appeared in these little books, but now that he had arrived, he realized that the spoken language sounded so different from what he had practiced.
Only yesterday he had arrived in this new land. He watched wide eyed on the three hour bus trip from Osan to Kunsan as people drove without regard for order on the same roads where others carried large loads of milk crates or even stacks of straw on the backs of heavily built bicycles. One man had a cart drawn by a large red bovine while the next man drove a large, boxy, but modern truck. Everything seemed to be a strange mixture primitive and modern.
The bus had taken them through Kunsan city on its way to Kunsan Air Base, but he had only gotten a cursory look while traversing the main highway through the city. This highway became just another city street when it reached Kunsan, so shops could be seen relatively closely. However; a quick trip though certainly did not give the intimate tour he wished to have of this town that was to be his home for the next year or more.
He determined this day that he would set out to explore part of the city by himself. He would not buy anything today, but he would begin at the places where people spoke of good shopping. The “Victory Arcade” was the place mentioned most often by those who had met him at the bus the previous night. He remembered seeing the sign for this little shopping center when he was coming through the city.
With this fixed point of reference in his mind, he caught the red and white Kunsan City shuttle at the bus stop in front of the barracks, and set off for his day of discovery.
Several classmates from tech school made the trip to this new assignment with him, but he really wanted a different view of the city than what he could get in their company. They were good for casual conversation, but their cat calls and lude remarks had embarrassed him at times at tech school – he certainly did not want that embarrassment in a new land where such things may be considered much more serious offenses than they had been in the U.S.
The bus retraced the last several miles of the trip as he remembered from the previous day. It passed the neighborhood of Eun Juk Sa, and turned onto the highway into Kunsan City. On the left, the yellow sea came into full. The rancid smell of the fish market permeated the atmosphere of the bus. In the distance, he could see the tall masts of cranes on what he guessed to be ships tethered at port.
Just a short distance later, the bus made its first stop. On the right side of the bus was a dull green one story concrete building with the words “Victory Arcade” painted in black on the side walls. Many of the GI's stood to exit the bus here. He rose also, trying his best to look as if he knew where he was, and what he was doing.
He exited the bus. He saw no door on this side of the arcade, so he followed several of the other Americans along the wide brick sidewalk that ran parallel to the concrete roadway around the corner.
Once around the corner, the scenery changed dramatically. The road was still wide and concrete, but the sidewalk disappeared. The foot traffic was very heavy, and almost nobody used a vehicle. The few vehicles that could be seen were the various colored Hyundai Ponies with the lighted taxi markings on the top. He could make out that the markings were different on the different colored taxis, but none of these markings meant anything to him.
He followed a few of the Americans through the glass doors in the front of the Victory Arcade.
Inside was much different from anything he had envisioned. The floor was divided into several booths or sections. Each section had someone working there. As he watched, he could see that each section sold its own goods, and took the money in place. There was no centralized checkout – apparently no one owner for all the spaces.
He roamed the aisles between the booths. Some booths sold shirt or jackets. Some sold ladies' clothing, and still others shoes. Some booths specialized in trinkets, and intricate decorations. He stopped briefly at one of these and examined the fantastically artistic chess sets proudly displayed in front. The pieces were distinguishable for their original place on the board, but to each of them Korean tiled roofs or armor had been added.
What caught his eye most were the colorful and beautifully designed “mink blankets” being sold at some booths. They were heavy, and made of a fur like material, and they were brightly colored. Some had simple, but distinctly oriental designs, and others had fantastic pictures woven into them. He made a note of the place intending to come back to buy one of these. The twenty to twenty five American dollars that they cost was more than he had brought with him this day, but certainly even a simple quilt in the U.S. would cost several times this amount.
He exited the arcade, and paused outside. To his left was the main road where he caught the bus. It was the road with wide sidewalks. To his right, the road that contained the Victory Arcade continued for as far as he could see. He had seen the main road, but had discovered the road with the Arcade only a few moments ago. He decided to turn right.
Onward he walked until the large street upon which he walked became a small street. Smells of new foods, and the charcoal upon which they were cooked wafted from the tents which sat at the sides of the streets. Some smelled pleasant, and some did not. He was beginning to get hungry, but in his wisdom, he brought only a few Korean coins which now jingled in his pockets.
The signs written in English became sparser and sparser until at last, they did not appear at all. The road wound, and sometimes forked or sometimes stopped at a T. Each time, Byron chose a different path. Each time, the scenery became more and more predictable. Side alleys between houses or buildings were too narrow to allow anything but foot traffic. The main road which he now thought he followed was barely wide enough to allow one car to pass. No longer were Americans seen.
As the sun passed overhead to such an angle that he felt sure that day had moved into mid afternoon, he decided to turn back from his uneventful and dull exploration. He encountered no problems, but it would not be wise to be in such unfamiliar territory after dark.
He walked back past streets and tents and made mental notes of things he had seen before. Eventually, he encountered a fork which he did not remember. He looked left. Nothing seemed familiar, so he turned right.
After passing several alleys and side roads, he admitted to himself that he had not come this way.
He looked around him. Several young men stood in the entrance to one alley smoking cigarettes and staring at him. This would not be a good place to look as if he were lost.
He continued on to the next street large enough to allow for the passage of a car. He turned left. He noted the tiny grocery store that occupied the corner position with its produce stands that extended outside its door onto the street. He might need to remember this landmark if his detour did not lead him where he thought it should.
He took the next left reasoning with himself that he could find a way back to the turn he had taken wrong without passing in front of those glaring young men again if he just went the right direction long enough.
About five minutes later, the street ended abruptly at the side of a large beige concrete building.
He looked unbelieving at the fence in front of this building. It was solid concrete, but it had broken bottles embedded into the concrete on the top of it. The glass shards which protruded from the top made it a nasty hazard for anyone with ideas of breaching it.
To his left a narrow alley went along the fence, but he could not see where it made its first turn. To his right another alley began.
He squinted to look down this alley. It looked as if it opened onto another street.
“This,” he thought, “is the only direction I can go right now.”
He turned down this alley, and stumbled past large wash pans, and smoky ondol heat systems. Beside some of these block like structures which rose one to two feet above the pavement, the beige cylinders of the consumed charcoal they burned were stacked awaiting the next carry off by some city department of which he knew nothing.
He emerged onto the street he had seen from the other end of this alley.
He found himself on a wide street with a wide red brick sidewalk, and many more shops with names written only in Korean. He wondered if this were the same street on which he had first come into the city of Kunsan. He looked left, but recognized nothing. A look to the right produced nothing familiar.
There was no denying it now. He was lost. It was time to ask directions.
He walked into a small grocery store that occupied a glass front on his side of the street. The man behind the counter at the back of this tiny, crowded market looked up, and stared as he came down the narrow aisle.
“Excuse me, can you tell me how to get back to the air base?” Byron asked.
The man behind the counter shook his head, waved one hand back and forth in front of him and said, “No engrishee.”
“No English?” Byron thought to himself trying to make sense of the heavily accented words.
“Does anyone speak English?” Byron asked.
The man behind the counter shrugged his shoulders, extended his hands outward from his side and shook his head – all the while displaying an overdone smile.
“Where can I go to get directions?” Byron asked much more slowly this time.
“Mulayo” the man behind the counter said shaking his head again. Seeing the confusion on Byron's face, he leaned forward slightly, patted his chest, and spoke more slowly. “No engrishee.”
Byron realized the futility of attempting further conversation. He turned and exited the shop.
He walked in the direction in which he thought the base lay. His stomach was beginning to notify him of its emptiness, and his throat was now dry. His legs were beginning to feel weary.
He stopped at the glass front of what he thought to be a restaurant. It was bigger than most of the businesses along this stretch of street, and seemed to employ more than just the business owner. In fact, as he strained to see what lay inside the glass front, it looked as if two waitresses were working.
“I wonder if I can manage to order something to drink,” he thought to himself, now regretting the decision to bring only a few coins with him.
He entered, and found a seat near the door.
The interior was simple. The floors were tile of a variety that he might find in a department store in his home town. The tables were mostly small and wooden, but each was covered in a checkered tablecloth. The chairs also were light and wooden with a thin vinyl pad on the front and on the seat. The walls were concrete covered by paper which covered their color, but not quite their roughness.
The food smelled so different from what he would expect to smell in restaurants in the U.S. It had a slightly fishy smell, but the smells of garlic, ginger, and other spices seemed to soften the impact of this fishiness had on his American senses. His hunger made it such that all of it smelled palatable, but his lack of preparation for this situation brought regret.
At the small mechanical cash register at the innermost corner of the dining room, three ladies gathered and began having a discussion. The oldest of the three motioned toward him often, but nobody actually looked at him.
The sound of their language was so different from the sound of the language spoken by the Asian people in his home town. He thought those in his home town were Chinese or Vietnamese, but he had seldom taken enough interest to notice, and had never taken enough interest to actually ask. In contrast to their language of mostly vowels and diphthongs, this language had many hard consonants, but thoughts always seemed to end with either “ayo”, “eyo”, “ida” or “ikka”. He did not know if there was any difference, but he recognized the “ikka” and “ida” endings from phrases he had learned from his phrase book. However; even these sounded so much different since the spoken version placed accent on the last syllable instead of the next to last syllable as he had thought natural when he practiced them.
After a few moments, and a few strong words from the eldest of the ladies at the counter, the young woman at the cash register came from behind the counter and approached Byron's table. She was strikingly beautiful. Her hair was shoulder length and had been styled to be wavy. She had pinned back the left side exposing her ear, but the hair in back and on her right side fell to its full wavy length. Her rounded oriental cheeks had been blushed slightly. She stood about 5’ 5” in height and was built delicately, but maturely. She was dressed in a pink sweater and a black dress that fell to just below her knees. Her shoes, although attractive, were of the backless style which Byron had already noticed was so common to here.
Perhaps it was to keep these backless shoes wrapped appropriately around the front portion of her delicate feet that she shuffled slightly as she walked – a shuffle Byron had already recognized to be typical of the ladies of this land. This gait gave her a glide as she moved. She walked without even swaying her slender hips.
Byron noted the walk particularly. It seemed so modest and lady-like, but perhaps it existed only for the practical purpose of preventing those backless shoes from leaving her feet.
“Hello, I am Miss Lee,” she said with a slight nod of her head and a flash of a pleasant smile. “May I help you?”
He took the menu she extended to him.
“I just need something to drink,” he said. “And I’m lost. I need directions to the base.”
Her eyes left him as and drifted upward and to her left as she tried to understand what had just been said. “Drinkee?” she said as she found a word she recognized. “You want-uh Coca-Cola?”
“Yes. Coke sounds good,” he said nodding. “And I need directions.”
“I am sorry,” she said. “Please speak-uh slowly. My English is-uh not good.”
“You’re doing well,” Byron answered.
She dropped her head in a slight bow, and gave a shy school-girlish smile with the tip of her tongue between her teeth as she looked upward from her head bowed position at him. “You thinkee so?” she asked.
“Yes I do.” He answered. “How did you learn English?”
“Just-uh I study high school,” she said hesitating sometimes to think between words. “I am not waitress. Just-uh you come here, and-uh nobody speakee Englishee. Ajuma tell me come and-uh takee you order.”
“Are you in high school now?”
Her school girlish smile disappeared and her mature beauty showed again as she straightened her head to look at pleasantly at Byron again.
“How old-uh you thinkee me?”
“I really have no idea. Maybe 17?”
Her smile dropped a little bit at this statement. “Not 17,” she answered in a much harsher tone of voice than she had used to this point. “I am now 22 years old.”
She stopped herself and thought for a moment.
“Korean agee 22. I thinkee American agee 21.”
“When were you born?”
She contemplated as she spoke, careful to translate in her mind properly as she searched the lists of English words she had memorized. “July fifteen, nineteen hundred sixty three.”
“Yes, 21.” Byron answered. “You’re almost exactly one year older than me.”
“You are 21 Korean agee?”
“I guess. I don’t understand Korean age.”
The oldest woman of the group from which Miss Lee had emerged now spoke something in the harsh demanding tone which Byron was becoming accustomed to hearing from the older folks in this new land.
“Neh,” Miss Lee called back over her shoulder. Returning her attention to Byron she said, “Ajuma say I must-uh takee order.”
“I just want a coke,” Byron said concealing the fact that the only money he had brought with him was a collection of a few Korean coins. “But I also need help.”
Miss Lee called back over her shoulder to the older lady. The only words Byron understood from what she said were “Coca-Cola.”
The other young lady who stood near the cash register sprang from her position and disappeared into the back room.
“What-uh help-uh you need?” Miss Lee said as she turned back to Byron once more.
“I’m lost,” He said. “How do I get back to the air base?”
Miss Lee contemplated for several seconds. “Mmm. You do not-uh know where you go?”
“I don’t know,” Byron said now gaining some comfort with the simple way he needed to word things to be understood by the delicately beautiful young woman.
“Ajuma,” Miss Lee said as she turned again to the woman near the cash register. She continued with her question entirely in Korean.
The old woman answered back in her normally assertive and strong, but now pleasant voice. She motioned in several directions as she spoke finally ending her thoughts with a slight chop of one hand onto the other and a nod of her head.
Miss Lee turned to Byron once again, but stood silently for a moment. She smiled and laughed nervously. “I thinkee,” she said. “I cannot explain this one. I just come-uh this town. My home is-uh Pusan. I come here yesterday, and just-uh today I start-uh workee here.”
“Ah,” Byron said. “Just like me. I just came here yesterday.”
Miss Lee smiled.
The second young woman emerged from the back room with a bottle of coke, a glass filled with ice cubes, and a bottle opener. She placed the coke on the table, opened it, and poured part of it into the glass. Miss Lee exchanged pleasant tones with her as she quickly exited after performing her task.
“So what do I do?” he asked.
Miss Lee thought for a moment, then called over her shoulder to the ajuma once more. Ajuma considered what she said, then answered back with a nod and a few words.
Miss Lee smiled back at Byron. “I thinkee you need-uh catchee taxi. Ajuma thinkee maybe 2000 won you can go base.”
Byron dropped his head, more embarrassed than ever at his situation. He was really in a bad situation now. He could not let the one person he had found who could speak English get away without knowing for sure how to get back to safe territory. However; even this three dollar price was more than he could afford with the money he had with him.
“I … didn’t bring that much money,” he said.
“Uh?” Miss Lee said surprised. “You no have-uh money?”
“I can pay for the coke,” he said. “But I was afraid to bring very much money with me. This was my first trip to town.”
Miss Lee continued to look intently, but softly and contemplatively into his eyes. After a moment, she glanced back toward the back room, then to Ajuma again. Her eyes returned to Byron’s.
She smiled, then said “Wait. I be back.”
She walked quickly and disappeared into the back room. After just a moment she came back to Byron’s table with a nervous, but pleasant look on her face. She glanced over her shoulder. Ajuma and the young woman who had brought the coke to the table were busily engaged in conversation. She quickly slid something under Byron’s hand on the table, and stepped back.
Byron looked beneath his hand. His jaw fell agape as he pulled a neatly folded 5000 won bill from beneath his hand. He looked back at Miss Lee in amazement.
She smiled sweetly, but nervously at him.
“Are you sure this is OK?” he asked motioning with his head to ajuma.
“This one my money,” She reassured him. “and-uh still, do not talk to nobody. Somebody thinkee I’m crajee.”
He tried to calculate in his head based on the figures his GI friends had given him. If they spoke the truth, she may have just given him half a day’s wages. It was too much.
“I cannot take this,” he said graciously, carefully choosing his words from words he had heard Miss Lee use.
“Takee,” She said nodding.
“It is too much.”
“I thinkee you good man. I do not know, just I thinkee you good man. My father tell me about American man before in Korea trouble time, and I thinkee you good man.”
“Really… I can’t.”
Seeing her determination, and considering his situation, he nodded.
“When you go Taxi, you tell ajoshi ‘Pi-haeng-jang’,” she instructed.
“Pi-haeng-jang?” he asked.
“Yes. You say ‘Pi-haeng-jang’, and-uh I thinkee every taxi ajoshi know.”
“Ok. I say ‘Pi-haeng-jang’. But, I have to pay you back. How do I get back again?”
“You come back?”
“Yes, probably tomorrow. Is that OK?”
“Tomorrow … Yes.”
“How do I find this place again?”
Miss Lee glanced back again at ajuma and the other young woman near the cash register. Seeing them still in animated conversation she took the pen and paper with which she had originally intended to take his order and quickly scribbled something down. When she had finished, she tore the top page off her little pad, and placed this on the table in front of Byron.
Byron stared down at the illegible squiggles and lines on the note in front of him.
“This is-uh this place name. If-uh you come back, you show taxi ajoshi this one and-uh he bringee you here.”
Ajuma called sternly and spoke harshly.
“Neh,” Miss Lee said in sweet submissive response. Turning again to Byron she continued. “I need-uh go now. Nice to meet-uh you.”
“Very nice to meet you,” Byron said as emphatically gratefully as he could enunciate.
Miss Lee smiled sweetly, then turned and quickly shuffled back to her place behind the cash register.
Byron sat quietly finishing his Coke. Occasionally he thought he caught Miss Lee looking at him, but each time when he looked toward her, she quickly and slyly was looking nearby or speaking to one of the two women near her.
* * * *
Byron exited the bus to the cool morning sea breeze at the Victory Arcade and hailed one of the many Hyundai Pony taxies that populated the roadway. One pulled over for him. He squeezed into the back and handed a neatly folded piece of paper to the driver.
The driver read the paper. He nodded knowingly, pulled away and drove in the reckless manner to which Byron was now becoming accustomed. Sometimes three cars were crowded into two lanes, and often red lights meant only “Stop if the drivers from the other direction get position on you.”
About 10 minutes after he left the front of the Arcade, the taxi driver stopped along the stretch of Road Byron recognized from the previous evening. He exited, and handed the driver a 1000 won note. Without a word being exchanged, the driver dug through the little leather purse in beside his seat, pulled out four 100 won coins and gave them to Byron.
Byron turned and walked toward the restaurant where he had met Miss Lee the previous day. Glancing to the other side of the street, he saw a young woman walking. As he came closer, he recognized Miss Lee. She was now dressed in a neat, but not fancy red hooded sweat shirt, and snug fitting stirrup jeans as many of the young women wore. Her hair was still arranged neatly and pinned back on one side as it was the previous day, but both dress and demeanor showed her to be ready for more casual activity.
Seeing an opportunity to cross, Byron jogged to the sidewalk where Miss Lee walked.
Attracted by the activity of someone jogging across the street, she looked and recognized him.
She stopped still in her tracks. Keeping her hands in her sweatshirt pockets, she extended her arms straight downward stretching the front of her garment. Her head turned slightly to her left and dropped. With the tip of her tongue between her teeth, she gave her shy school-girl smile as her eyes lifted with head still bowed slightly to meet Byron’s eyes. Her shoulders rotated slightly left and right emphasizing her bashful delight at seeing him run to meet her.
She straightened herself as he approached.
“Hello,” she said.
“Why you come?”
“You saved my life yesterday.”
“Ai-gu,” she said softly as she translated this to herself. “Not save-uh you life. Just-uh I want-uh help.”
“It was a big help. Without you I might not have gotten home. Thank you very much.”
A slightly mischievous grin came to her face. “You welcome very muchee,” she said.
He smiled at her attempted humor. “I said I would come back and pay you back, so I came to find you today.”
“You come pay me?”
“I’m not takee money back,” she said.
“Just-uh you come back, and-uh I know good.”
Byron thought for a moment. Something was missing in the last statement that made him unsure of the meaning. Was she saying she was satisfied just knowing she was right in trusting him? He decided to leave the statement and move the conversation forward.
“I was stupid yesterday,” he said. “You were like my angel – there to save me just in time even though I was stupid.”
Miss Lee looked musingly into his face. “I am Angel?” she asked.
“Yes. And you’re just as pretty as an angel, too.”
“Angel?” Miss Lee smiled at him. “Yesterday, when I see you, I see you blue color eyes. Before only on TV I see blue color eyes. I never see real blue color eyes. I lookee and I thinkee ‘So beautiful, and-uh so peaceful’. I lookee you and I thinkee you are angel.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been called an angel before,” Byron smiled.
“You eyes so beautiful,” Miss Lee repeated.
The smile left Miss Lee’s eyes. Her gaze became far-away.
“What’s wrong?” Byron asked.
“Yesterday, Miss Gunn see me give-uh you money.” Miss Lee began. “She talk to ajuma. Ajuma really mad. She thinkee I am crajee. I say you are good man, and-uh you come back pay me. She say I am stupid, and-uh American man all the time lie. I thinkee you eyes, and I thinkee you not lie. Still, ajuma say all American man lie.”
“Some do,” Byron answered. “We have some really good ones, and some really bad ones. Most of us are somewhere in between.”
Miss Lee thought for a moment. Nodding she said thoughtfully, “Korea, same thing.”
“Before I pay you back,” Byron said. “I need something.”
“What-su you need?” Miss Lee asked, her eyes showing some skepticism.
“I want to learn about Korea, but not the way most GI’s learn. I want to really learn Korea. I want to learn the language, and I want to see the country. I need someone like you who can teach me Korean, and show me this place.”
“You want-uh learn speakee Korean?” she beamed.
“Yes. And I’ll pay you to teach me.”
Copyright © 2004 Steven L Howard