February 27, 2000
Last night, the maintenance guy came to fix my heat. I was so glad! I was rolled up in the fancy bedspread I’d dragged into the living room. I was watching TV–mostly CNN, but also a Korean game show that featured kids being given clues by adults, and a very strange English lesson that repeated a dialogue: “Why are you in a hurry? Because I’m late for work. Why are you late for work? Because I couldn’t get up. Why couldn’t you get up? Because I worked late last night. Why did you work late last night? Because I was late for work yesterday morning.” The people were British or American, but their intonation was unnatural, robotic. The man who was late for work looked like a chronic alcoholic, complete with red, blotchy face.
There’s English and Korean music TV, maybe even French. One show features dancing that looks Indonesian. And there are several sitcoms in Korean, which I don’t understand at all. I watched an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito movie dubbed in Korean–if you can imagine! Later, an old black-and-white British movie in English with subtitles in Korean hangul.
But back to me, and my problem of freezing to death in my apartment, not wanting to bother Dan. (He might be drunk or get mad; I’ve seen his temper flare up; no thanks.) I didn’t want to bother Professor Park either. But I was thinking I was going to get sick, maybe get pneumonia and die in Korea.
So I’m rolled up in the bedspread in front of the TV, thinking maybe I can survive the night this way. I think of campers, of Jack London. I’m an adventurer! But then, tomorrow’s going to be another day of freezing; why do I have to wait?
I start dozing off, falling forward. I’m in two straight-back office-type chairs, one to sit in, the other for feet. It’s my only living-room furniture. The phone rings. It’s Professor Park! She’s calling from her home near Seoul, to ask if everything is okay. No, I say. It’s cold. I’m afraid I’m going to get sick.
Oh no, she says. What to do? What to do?
Maybe nothing can be done, I say, regretting my words immediately.
Oh no, what can we do, she continues, thinking out loud. And by the way, her English is perfect. Then she comes up with a plan. Find Korean people in the building (oh my God). Knock on doors upstairs and down until they answer. She even gives me the exact words to say in Korean, “Munjeh-ga itsumnida.” It means “There is a problem.” She’s terrific! She tells me to get the man of the house to come and look at it.
Are you sure? I say skeptically. Yes. Then call her back.
Gingerly I go downstairs, ring bells. No one answers. I come back to my next-door neighbor. I’ve never seen who lives here. A woman answers. She seems nice, lets me in. I give my message. She calls Park.
This woman is studying or working. She appears to be a professor. Everything is neat and square in her place–stacks of copies on the table, bed, bookcases, and books, almost all in Korean. These don’t seem real to me, somehow. But of course they are; I just have no clue what they’re about.
She comes over in her slippers, calls someone, calls someone else–on her little cell phone; I guess everyone here has one.* She has a little address book with pictures. She writes down for me, Min Ju Baek, with a number.
I thank her and she leaves. I think he’s coming but no one comes. Was I supposed to call him? I call Park. In the middle of our conversation, he comes. Knock, knock, knock. “School!” he says.
“Min Ju Baek?” I say, opening the door. He responds with what appears to be the Korean equivalent of yeah.
He is a far cry from the maintenance men I know at home, with their torn jeans, dirty caps and swaggers. This guy is well dressed, for one thing. He wears clean, brand-name-embossed sweats, pure white sneakers. Also, their is no indication that he might be on drugs or hung over. And he is in such good shape! He jumps onto the heater with an animal grace. He moves to the floor where the heat is supposed to be, works sitting back on his heels, then stands up in one graceful motion. He zooms around my apartment, paying me no mind. He sings to himself a little.
We communicate with very few words, me throwing a couple Korean ones at him, he using some English, some Korean. It’s amazing that we can talk in this way. When he lapses into Korean sentences and paragraphs, though, I lead him to the phone, and Park.
Everyone is happy–especially me; I finally have heat. And Ji Yeon Park is very relieved. She’s so nice, sweet, smart–and a really good problem-solver. I’m so lucky to have her.
* In the year 2000, very few people that I knew in the U.S. had cell phones. In South Korea, everyone did–except me. But I had a land line in my apartment.