The Characters of Seobu—West Busan

I warn you that this post is incredibly long and boring and smacking of self-satisfaction and also declare that you have no business at all reading it.

These ajummas feel the same way as I do, but they're still reading what's below.

My wife and I have scarcely had a second to ourselves since Harry first climbed out of her stomach and began his viciously cyclical lifestyle of screaming, yelling, crying, shitting, pissing, eating, and, sometimes, rarely, sleeping; at least he is consistent, but he is certainly not the most polite or considerate member of our family, and being preoccupied with soothing his endless tantrums has meant that we’ve had no time to get to know anyone in this neighborhood. But I once lived on the darker side of the city, a westerly hour or so away from here by subway, and I got to know, at least in a superficial way, a few of the people who stood out from the crowd.

When I first arrived in the 西 I was afraid that the total lack of flat open space, combined with merciless heat, humidity, and pollution, would put an end to any endeavor to exercise, but I got over my fears and concerns and ran up and down some desperately steep hills for at least a few months, off and on, and encountered a few of the same characters every now and then.


One of them was an old man with a massive Santa Claus beard and a mouth full of teeth that were so yellow they looked like kernels of corn; gold fillings may have also been mixed in among them. I noticed his teeth because he always smiled at me when I passed him on those laborious climbs, when I was practically jogging up on all fours, bellowing out a Stentorian gasp every time my hands and feet struck the hard tar mountainside. I liked him because in a very sad nation of beardlessness, in which the word beard is practically a hapax legomenon, the two of us were united by our defiance of convention, our hatred of the razor, and our simple love of being able to scratch different parts of our bodies by rubbing our beards against them.

I have now been a flawed vegetarian for about five months, but in the olden days I was one of those meat eaters who knew that devouring animals like a jaw-gnashing cyclops was wrong for environmental and health and humanitarian reasons though I still lacked the final heavy kick needed to propel me away from my carnivorous lifestyle. So it was still possible for me to wander into any restaurant in コリア, and eat whatever they decided to give me—a thing that happened more than once, because I could not read the menus and had no idea what anything was called and still less of an idea of how to ask for it. But, regardless, you could walk inside, sit down on the floor, smile politely, and wait patiently for them to give something to you. And I am a young adventurous man: and I bisogno di lasagna.

A typical street scene in the west---where all the photos on this post, except the first one, were taken.

아직도—being illiterate was so unbearable that I overcame the basics of reading Korean as soon as I possibly could, blinking away confusion via autodidactic trompe l’oeil, but in the beginning I found myself, one day, inside a family-owned Gimbap Chongook, or Gimbap Heaven, a Korean chain restaurant that made pretty decent food, in my opinion, until I began to taste real Korean cuisine, which you can only get in people’s homes.

But in this place, which was the size of a closet, you could see a grandmother, mother, and daughter, all working together to whip up some pretty decent chow for the fairly rude crowd of hoi polloi that passed in and out of the ringing glass door. I don’t think I actually heard any of them ever order their food politely; customers would usually grunt out their orders without bothering to conjugate any verbs (“Gimbap!” “Doenjang Stew!” Kimchi Stew!” “Bibimbap!”), and then, when the food came not more than five minutes later, they would thrust a fist full of cash into the mother or daughter’s hands, and walk out without so much as a прощание.

I saw at least one drunk old husk of a man try to stiff them on the bill after he slurped and whined over his bowl of still-boiling soup for a few moments, spraying droplets of brown liquid out from his spoon and onto the tabletop when he snorted with cheap affected fury, but they followed him after he staggered out into the night and then argued with him for twenty minutes before he finally ponied up.

The neighborhood.

I became a frequent customer there, and though the daughter was pretty and we spoke a little now and then and this alleviated the incredible loneliness that descends upon someone living alone in a foreign land, the mother, who looked like an older clone of her daughter, was a more interesting woman to me; she seemed to be slaving away in the kitchen all day, every day, and I once caught her “dieting” though she was in no way overweight by gobbling down an enormous bowl of greasy orange lamyeon noodles. She herself saw me running around outside sometimes. I eventually learned how to say please give me this, thank you, hello, and goodbye, which convinced them for a few weeks that I knew everything they were talking about, and also that I was a rather polite fellow of impeccable breeding, conscientia sui sub nixus.

But you can only go so far when you don’t speak the same language and only spend a few minutes together every week. The closest we got was this—the mother realized I didn’t like one of the side dishes, a small bowl of yellow liquid flavored with a few pinches of floating pepper, which you’re apparently supposed to quaff after you eat to help with the spiciness of it all. I never touched it and eventually she stopped giving it to me. That was how well she knew my tastes.

The Gupo Market, just a few stops down.

My wife got to know her a bit as well, and on our last encounter, just a few weeks ago, I can remember her nodding slowly and significantly to me, and staring into my eyes as if I am revealing some kind of prophecy to her, though I am speaking to her in Korean, and therefore could not possibly be saying anything a child of three years of age is incapable of saying. I don’t remember what the conversation is about: just that sweaty, nodding, tired face, exhausted from a lifetime of slaving away over steaming pots of soup: that’s what sticks.

There was the crazy traffic lady I wrote about earlier, a woman at an awful meat store who told me I shouldn’t jaywalk though in such cases ich bin der Geist der stets verneint!, a nice young man who shook his head once very vigorously and said “ahhh no!” when I asked him if he had Suhtah Tuhlekuh at his video store, the owner of “Best Shoopah” who also owned “Busan Deejaiyan” just down the street and couldn’t be bothered to walk there but always had to buzz and honk away on his gray scooter which was colored like his gray windjacket which he never ONCE changed out of in the two years I lived there and I saw him every day, the young woman with the swaying ponytail whom I set my clocks by and who drove a truck collecting beer bottles at every 5:40 in the afternoon on the dot, the old smoking near-homeless woman who ran in through our apartment building’s door whenever she could to steal our recyclables, the family of three children who spent the weekends yelling at each other on the street outside my window, and the youngest who was a helpless baby when I first saw him and a toddler running around on loud squeaking sneakers with his older sisters by the time I left, the wailing of the horny cats, and the creaking of el secreto aljibe from within the walls, and a couple of bent-backed grandmothers whose aged decrepitude defied anything I had seen before.

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