The World Is Just a Fish Pond

October 25, 2010
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“Look at those little fishies out of water!” Jenna chuckled as a group of slightly bewildered white kids came in sight of the teahouse.
Of course her real name wasn’t Jenna, and of course she didn’t say that in English; because the words that filled the air weren’t English, they were spoken in her natural language. My friend “Jenna” and I are both college students at the University of Korea in Seoul simply taking a break from the city in Chonju for the weekend. We weren’t flabbergasted by white people, just a little amused.
I smiled at Jenna and pretended to slap her wrist for staring as the group of five white teenagers strolled towards our seat at the teahouse. They were the starry-eyed image you only see in Hollywood movies. One of the white girls stepped off the sidewalk and towards the entrance to the teahouse. Jenna and I both watched her every move. She was cocky for such a young girl so far away from home. I’m not extremely strong in English but I caught a few phrases like “Come on!” and “I want tea!” She wore a black skirt and a gray tee-shirt with sunglasses that were a little too big for her face. She wasn’t tall or stunning, but she stood confidently with her shoulders square as she stepped out from the pack.
Just at the moment where she caved and turned to leave with her group, she angled herself a little to the left and noticed me and Jenna. We froze from the conversation we were having as she locked eyes with each of us. She looked like a deer-in-head-lights as she realized that we had watched her feuding with her friends. She looked away for a minute down at her feet, nervously. Jenna turned her head away indifferently, but I watched her more to see what this foreigner would do. I was glad I did too, because the next thing she did was look up and smile. She opened her mouth and revealed a row of perfectly fine teeth. (Not perfectly white, but very straight!) I smiled back, looking down on her and nodded a little to let her know she could catch up to her friends now. Jenna looked at me puzzled. The girl turned coolly, but then ran to catch up with her friends.
“Kaitlyn? Do you have a new European friend to tell me about?” Jenna said tilting her head and smiling.
I knew she was just making fun of me, but I decided not to let the topic drop at that.
“I think it’s more likely that she’s American. She had a funny accent.” I pointed out to Jenna’s delight and amusement.
“So she is your best friend, ah?” she heckled tugging at my sleeve a little.
At this I finally let the subject drop and turned back to my steaming cup of Chai tea.
* * *

About twenty minutes after Jenna and I let the Americans drift out of our minds, they were back! I’m not even sure that they had made it all the way to the end of the street, they must have just turned around somewhere near the parking lot. Jenna’s eyebrows almost flew off her face. She couldn’t contain the shock that she was seeing this same group she had just teased me about again. I nudged her hand in attempts to get her to snap out of it! It was no use though, she went right ahead and stared. Jenna’s disbelief deepened as the same independent American girl took the handle of the screened-in teahouse in her hand and lead her friends into the small porch area. They all stood for a minute just looking around the teahouse, a few of the boys looking frustrated and confused while the girl who smiled at me and her other female friend beamed with joy.
The girl who smiled at me looked exceedingly happy as she took in a deep breath of the new air. Jenna, on the other hand, looked younger than she really was as she gazed wide-eyed at the outsiders who nonchalantly entered into an obscure Korean teahouse.
“Jenna! You act as if you’ve never seen anyone with white skin before!” I quietly and gently reprimanded her.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I just was never expecting to see this in Chonju. It’s understandable in Seoul but Chonju is no Seoul!” she exclaimed in her rapid, excitable Korean.
I sighed and then leaned back submissively deciding that she could make a fool of herself if she wanted to.
“Now, will you continue your story about Korean lit. last semester?” I suggested.
She begrudgingly picked up her cup of tea and attempted to remember where she had left off in her story.
Meanwhile, the Americans began to filter back onto the patio where the overly-attentive Korean cashier hurriedly gathered enough chairs for them. All of the Americans chirped “Kamsamnida!!” or “Thank you!” Probably because it was one of the few words they knew in Korean. Jenna smiled a little at their Korean but was good enough not to say a word. Although they had skipped a syllable in their excitement, we both knew that it was nice that they tried.
As Jenna finished up her story in which she got high marks in her class after a rough start, the Americans settled into their seats. Finally, even the more nervous ones had a content grin on their faces. Even though they all talked a little louder than Jenna or I would find necessary, we sympathized with their enthusiasm and youthfulness.
I was obviously much more open to understanding their position as foreigners because I was an English major surrounded by exchange students whereas Jenna was a Korean major, happily sheltered. Jenna was so kind-spirited that she warmed up to their presence in the room. What I think really won her over was when one of the more tall and awkward boys (who probably took the longest to look comfortable with the idea of tea) pulled out a set of Gonggi. Gonggi is a game very much like jacks (or at least that’s what my English professor told me.) It’s pretty much the national game of Korea. Every Korean child is always carrying a set of Gonggi attempting to perfect their catches and make their hands more agile. Jenna’s face lit up with instant memories of her champion-Gonggi-days. She picked up some spare chopsticks on the table and smirked like a mischievous young girl as she displayed how fast she could snap up things with her chopsticks. I laughed and knew that Jenna had fully embraced the idea of Americans in her favorite teashop outside of Seoul.
In my mind, the deal was sealed that our table and their table had accepted each other when we were approached for the final time by the young lady in the gray tee-shirt and the black skirt.
“Annyeonghaseyo!” she chirped the traditional greeting through her giant grin.
“Yes?” Jenna said and then bowed her head respectfully in anticipation for the rest of the international conversation.
“Would you be willing to take a picture of myself and my friends for us?” the girl asked choosing her words carefully, but yet not making the common mistake of insulting our intelligence.
I nodded my head and we all exchanged knowing smiles as I took the camera from her hands.
“KOREAAA!” the five American kids chanted with peace signs proudly held out in front of them.
After the girl took back her camera and the group disappeared down the street, Jenna turned to me and said:
“Looks like the fish pond just grew a little bit smaller!”

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