It’s amazing what a little hair dye can do.
A few days ago one of my favorite students discovered a small paper directory of some sort lying on the stairwell of one of Korea’s ten thousand vast apartment buildings. As we glanced through this magical tome together, it turned out to belong to the one and only “Gyeongju Best Church”, and contained the names, pictures, phone numbers, addresses, and, most importantly, the ages of (apparently) everyone who has ever attended a sermon there.
Sensing the gravity of our find, I quickly appropriated the document in question from my student, pushed him down the stairs, raced to the street in an elevator, and sprinted at top speed for approximately twenty minutes until I reached my apartment in a state of near total collapse. I burst inside, flung the book on a table, threw it open, and then flipped through every page—discovering a fact which has completely altered my weltanschauung:
The Ajummas And Ajoshis Running Around Outside Are At Least Twenty Years Older Than I Thought!
There are men and women in this text who look a hell of a lot like the men and women I see every day. I had implicitly assumed that these people had all been born after the Korean War, or that they were, at the most, young children during this conflict. The black hair dye and curling nearly every elderly Korean uses confused me to no end, as well: once these people pass the age of fifty, it becomes more difficult, at least for me, to tell how old they are exactly.
Or let me put it another way: people whom I assumed to be in their sixties, at the very most, are actually in their eighties and nineties. Born when Korea was under the Japanese, and when the policy of cultural extermination was intensifying. Forced to speak Japanese at all times and take Japanese names. Teenagers or even young adults when the war broke out. In their thirties during the lean days after partition. In their forties when Bak Chung-hee forced this country to become an obsessive-compulsive powerhouse. And then in their fifties, their sixties, their seventies, their eighties, and even their nineties—when I came along and found them, still here after all this time.