My day, as you may recall, had been a far cry short of what I had hoped for. (Read Part I here) Instead of delight and laughter and penile ogling, instead I had been frustrated by missed busses ad naseum, infinitum. I was pursued by the pervading feeling of loneliness and self pity and the alienation of language barriers. But most importantly… I hadn’t eaten all day.
Having realized earlier in the day that I had forgotten my friend’s borrowed cell phone at the apartment, I had no way to contact her and find out where we were meeting for the Buddhist lantern festival. I fretted and worried the whole bus ride back to the city, listening to Korean pop music on my mp3 player and anxiously tracking the sun as it descended slowly over the high rises.
Despite catching a subway train going the opposite direction I wanted to go, I somehow found myself in front of Jogyesa temple, located adjacent to a touristy street of shops. Insadong isn’t a huge section of Seoul, but there were enough people surrounding me, talking laughing loving each other around me, that I definitely felt alien and awkward and lonely. Multi-faceted lanterns of every imaginable color floated past me, big as lions and shaped like dark Sith Lords, angry faced samurai, dancing girls in traditional hanbok with curved swords, and members of every animal kingdom possible. Hundreds of schoolchildren marched with their handmade lanterns, proudly waving at parents lining the side of the street, filming every precious moment with their fancy smart phones. My heart ached for a kind word, a hug from my friend and assurance that I hadn’t completely wasted my day. My stomach grumbled rebelliously with hunger, and I stopped at a booth manned by smiling monks, eying the large steaming cups of drink and simple sticks of bland rice cake. Buying one of each, I took a big sip of what I hoped smelled like strong tea. Instead I spilled half a cup of scalding bitter coffee down my front, and dropped my wax paper wrapped rice cake in the dirt. Hurrying to rub at the hot stain spreading across my shirt, I tripped and fell, scraping my knee raw on the cement.
There are only so many tiny little insignificant yet mildly irritating inconveniences one can take before they no longer seem tiny and insignificant. After a full day of delays and disappointments and dread, I couldn’t take it any longer. Sitting down on the curb of the street, gorgeous lanterns and beautiful floats and stunning musicians marching past, I let the disappointments and dejection of the day set in. I could feel the tears welling up in my throat, and I was really not looking forward to this ugly, ugly cry. I was clenching my hands into fists on my knees and staring blearily at the parade of brilliantly garbed older women floating past like silken flower petals, trying not to let the tears out. Two of them whispered to each other, pointing at me and shuffling the plum and crimson colored lanterns in their hands indecisively. I could only sit and stare as one detached from the rest of the company, drifting over to me in a yellow and blue silk dress. She bent down and smiled kindly at me, crinkles appearing at the corners of her eyes. She gently pressed the softly glowing lantern into my shaking hands, said something sympathetic and warm to me in Korean, then glided back to join her fellows.
Despite the throbbing of my skinned knee, the bitter smell and rapidly cooling stain of the spilled coffee on my chest, and the heaped discouragements adding up over the course of the day, I hid my face against the soft buttery yellow glow of the lantern and cried happily. A stranger had seen the desperate look in my eyes, and gone out of her way to try to cheer me up. It didn’t matter that I was disheveled and stained, undignified and foreign, and that I couldn’t even choke out ‘Kamsahamnida’ in polite thanks. She had a kind smile, and laugh lines at her eyes, and for all I knew she could have been my birth mother. She was a woman of this country; this strange and elegant and dignified country, steeped in tradition and ritual. She had comforted me, on the verge of deciding this was the worst day I had spent in Korea.
I held the lantern in my lap at a restaurant open late for the festival, scarfing down what seemed like the most delicious dol sot bibimbap I had ever tasted in my life while teaching the restauranteur’s son how to sing “I’m a yankee doodle dandy” and the numbers that came after 20 in English. I carried the lantern through two subway transfers and up three hills before I sleepily left it on a seat in the last bus home. Whenever I close my eyes, I can clearly see the elegant red loops and designs across the yellow painted paper surface, the plum purple border and light blue script on the lantern. I can see the way her eyes smiled at me through language barriers, so kind, and it still makes my throat close with happy tears.
It was the best worst day I ever had in Korea.
Born in Korea but adopted to and raised in America, Jenny hopes someday to find roots in Asia and reconnect with the country she never knew. She also hopes to go out in the sun more, and stop being such a cave dweller. With two college degrees and boundless interest in books, manga, cuisine, dance, photography, theatre, film, and Skyrim, she is currently editing and contributing to Tickets to:.