“Roughly Translated” by C. Lill Ahrens

We swayed in unison, hip pressed to hip, thigh to quivering thigh. Limbs trembling, hands tingling, we rocked to a distant throbbing roar. I longed for release, ached for the finish, and clung to the strap on the jam-packed Seoul subway, wedged in with Mr. Chong.

The last thing I wanted this morning was to be on my own with Mr. Chong.

My first two days in Korea, my husband, Paul, had been with us. Mr. Chong, my husband’s co-worker in a Korean company, had helped us find and begin to furnish an apartment on the mountainous edge of Seoul. Mr. Chong was an excellent negotiator. So far he’d negotiated good deals on everything from forks to used furniture. There was still a lot to buy — pillows, lamps, a stove, etc. — and ready or not, we would be moving in tonight. But Paul had had to start work this morning, which left me to cope alone with the shopping list, a frazzled jet-lagged brain, and Mr. Chong, who for reasons known only to himself had never spoken to me.

I clung to the pep talk Paul had given me: “Mr. Chong talks to me, hon. I’m sure he’ll talk to you if he has to.”

So far this morning he hadn’t had to. I’d stuck to him like a barnacle as he hustled from taxi to bus, bus to subway. Now, he was still avoiding eye contact — not that difficult really, since his eyes were level with my chin.

I could see his discomfort in the prickly line of flesh exposed by the part in his hair. I could feel it through his scratchy overcoat buttoned up to the neck. He was an engineer after all, not a shopping guide. He was stuck with me too.

The train roared around a bend; the passengers leaned as one through the curve, their hair a gleaming wave of ebony. The train itself sparkled inside, but the air caught in my throat. I knew the aroma was a by-product of the garlicky Korean diet and that I’d get used to it eventually. Recalling that to Koreans, Americans smell like cheese, I began to breathe into the collar of my parka instead of on Mr. Chong.

He bought a newspaper from a newsboy squeezing through the crowd, folded it into a space-saving column-width strip, and began to read. Bleary-eyed, I passed the time trying to decipher the ads on the wall, wishing I knew Korean.

One ad pictured a woman strolling arm-in-arm with a curvaceous pillow taller than she was. The pillow had round black eyes, luxurious eyelashes, red lips, pink cheeks, buck-teeth, and a blue bow tied around a single strand of hair that stuck straight up on top. A bed pillow! So far I’d seen lots of hard throw pillows in Seoul, but not a single, soft, bed pillow on which to sleep. That ad might tell where to buy them. It also gave me an opportunity to talk directly to Mr. Chong.

“Excuse me, Mr. Chong, what does that ad say?”

He glanced up to where I was pointing, then down again to his column-width newspaper. “Mr. Chong?”

He brought his paper closer to his nose.

“That ad for pillows — please tell me what it says.”

I was about to ask again when he mumbled something.

Aha! A crack in the ice. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t understand.”

Staring fiercely at his paper he said, “O nee foe woe mon.”

I pondered his cryptic message. At least it was a start. O nee foe woe mon. Oneefoewoemon. Oh! Only for women? Koreans had his-and-her pillows?

“Excuse me again, Mr. Chong. Does that ad say where we can buy pillows?”

His cheeks turned maroon. “Not pillow!”

“We can’t buy a pillow?”

“No! That not pillow!” He snapped open his paper like a wall between us.

Not pillow? I studied the ad again, squinting to see it better. Under the picture and Korean text was a small photo insert. The realization came in a slow hot flush. The woman’s tall, round-eyed, pink-cheeked companion was a sanitary napkin.

* * *

Mutely I scuttled after Mr. Chong, up from the depths of the subway into cold winter sunshine, then into the shadows of an awninged alley lined with little shops. The shop windows displayed every kind of blender. The entire alley seemed devoted to blenders. Long tables piled high with blenders stood outside the shops, narrowing the passageway to about four feet.

A three-foot-wide push-cart trundled behind me, picking up speed. I ducked into a blender shop to let the cart pass, stepped out again and was nearly run down by a motorcycle, its hot exhaust pipe passing inches from my shins.

Instead of waiting for me, Mr. Chong was already an alley ahead and not looking back. Struggling to catch up, I felt like a little kid tagging after her mean big brother — hurt, angry, indignant, and wishing he’d hold my hand.

I dogged him down an alley full of clocks, past an alley of musical computer chip doorbells “In your Easter bonnet…” turned right at an alley of boom boxes — I held my ears — turned left at the Alley of a Zillion Watches — “Hey lady!” cried a vendor, “Rolex! Twenty dollar! Hey Lady!”

I started to run.

Out of breath, heart pounding, I caught up with Mr. Chong in the Alley of Telephones. He motioned me into a shop full of used phones and grunted — Mr. Chong’s way, I surmised, of saying, “Please select a phone.” I pointed to the nearest, a turquoise princess touch-tone. The clerk plugged it in. Mr. Chong punched in a phone number, barked into the receiver, and thrust it at me. Did he expect me to talk to the phone company?

But when I pressed the phone to my ear I heard, “Paul Ahrens here,” my husband’s beautiful bass voice, sounding at that moment like a benevolent god.

“It’s me,” I squeaked, strangling an unexpected sob. I told him that I guessed I was testing our phone.

“How’s it going?” Paul asked, “Has Chong talked to you yet?”

“Sort of. I can’t really talk about it now.”

“I knew he would. Hang in there, hon. Love you.”

Somewhat fortified, I hung up.

Mr. Chong haggled with the clerk, paid him from my envelope of won, Korean money, and must have made arrangements for delivery because he left the shop without the phone. I sprinted after him to the Alley of Used TVs. He grunted at me to point to the one I wanted, haggled with the clerk, paid him, and we moved to the next alley where he grunted, I pointed, he haggled and paid. Grunt, point, haggle, pay; grunt, point, haggle, pay — like a crude Korean conga. But once I got the rhythm of it I had to admit this was the most efficient shopping I’d ever done.

We conga’d up and down the narrow alleys, not even stopping for lunch until, in addition to the phone and TV, we had a used clock radio, two used lamps, and the biggest used refrigerator to be had in the Alley of Used Refrigerators, four feet tall. I had almost risked speech at that point, to ask if there was an Alley of Used Large Refrigerators, but then noticed the freezer compartment was just big enough to hold a half-gallon of chocolate ice cream, and let it go.

So it wasn’t until we entered a used stove shop that I finally had to break our tacit pact of silence, for we were surrounded by stacks of what looked like stainless steel briefcases with two gas burners on the lid and control knobs where the clasps would be. Yuppie camp stoves?

I uttered my first word to Mr. Chong since the incident on the subway, “Oven?”

He grunted.

“I need a stove with an oven.”

“No… oven,” he said, and since I wasn’t pointing, he picked up a stove, turned his back to me and started haggling with the clerk.

Thinking he might not understand the word, I dug out my English/Korean dictionary. It listed three different words for oven: hwadok, kama, and sot.

“Excuse me Mr. Chong, I want a hwa dok.”

He paused the negotiations to tell me, “No hwadok,” and turned his back to me again.

I tapped him on the shoulder. “Ka ma?”

Mr. Chong and the clerk stopped haggling to gaze at me thoughtfully. “You have chair,” said Mr. Chong. They resumed haggling.

I was exhausted, suddenly weak with hunger, and Mr. Chong was taking my money out of my envelope to buy something I didn’t want. I had one word left. “Mr. Chong!” I cried, “I want to buy a sot!”

The clerk clapped his hand on his mouth and shook with stifled giggles. Mr. Chong glared at me and hustled me out of the shop. What had I said?

We stood silently in the gathering dusk, Mr. Chong with his hands in his pockets, rocking on his heels, looking at everything but me. He seemed to be at a loss as to how to proceed. I decided to start over on the oven problem — this time without using Korean.

I found an old receipt in my pocket, smoothed it out on my purse and began to sketch a four-burner range with an open oven door. After a moment, Mr. Chong sidled closer to watch.

I drew a cake on the oven rack, then erased it, realizing it might cause confusion. I rendered the oven dark and empty inside, like my stomach. Tapping the sketch with my pencil I said, “Oven. I want a stove with an oven.”

“Ah,” he said, “No… used oven.”

Aha! No used ovens. A different matter entirely. “New oven?”

He sighed, “New… expensive.”

“Expensive okay!” Paul would agree it was worth the money. Feeling triumphant, I marched after Mr. Chong to New Oven Alley.

Identical cardboard cartons filled the shop. Only one model was on display. It looked just like the used stoves, only on the front of it, in between the control knobs, was a little drawer with a window in it.

Mr. Chong pulled out the drawer. “Oven,” he said.

It was just big enough for a toasted cheese sandwich. It dawned on me that Koreans didn’t bake much.

While Mr. Chong haggled with the clerk, I tried to think. Was the toaster oven worth the extra money? I could bake a potato in there, if I cut it in half first. Or a miniature pie, like I used to make in my Kenner Easy Bake Oven… but where would I get the miniature pie tin? Wait a minute – what was I thinking? I rarely baked. In fact, ever since I’d outgrown my Easy Bake Oven, I didn’t even like to bake.

Now all I had to do was tell Mr. Chong. “Never mind,” I said, “No oven. Used stove okay.”

He rubbed his temples, gave a huge sigh, and marched me back to Used Stove Alley, giving wide berth to the first Used Stove Shop.

* * *

Night fell. The awnings lit up with strings of tiny lights. At the alley intersections mysterious snacks sizzled and spit on crusted grills and crackled in black vats of oil. Mr. Chong grunted, which I translated to, “Please select a snack.” Looking forward to a feast from the Kentucky Chicken outlet I’d seen near my apartment, I pointed to three bananas, enough to hold me for the long drive to the edge of Seoul.

Mr. Chong frowned at my choice, and for himself selected a flat, stiff octopus. As the vendor passed it through a flame, the octopus shriveled, tentacles writhing.

Mr. Chong handed me my envelope, now nearly empty of won but stuffed with receipts. Except for groceries, cleaning supplies and the elusive pillows, I was finished shopping. But more important, Mr. Chong and I would soon be finished with each other. Tomorrow he would return to his life as an engineer. I didn’t know who would feel more relieved.

I followed him to the delivery truck that was loaded with my purchases. We inventoried them and climbed up front with the driver, Mr. Chong courteously taking the middle. The engine roared to life. Here we were again, wedged hip-to-hip, thigh to vibrating thigh.

Munching on my third banana, I suddenly felt grateful to Mr. Chong. He had found me a home in this vast city, helped me furnish it, and now he was taking me there to move me in. All this in three days, a feat I wouldn’t have thought possible. I shouted over the unmufflered engine, “Thank you for all your help, Mr. Chong! I love my apartment on the mountain! I will be happy there!”

His teeth gleamed in the dark. He was smiling? “You are very welcome!” he bellowed back, “but you still need to buy chicken! I will negotiate a very good deal for chicken!”

How did he know Paul and I were having chicken for dinner? Oh, Paul must have mentioned — wait a minute — Mr. Chong’s English was excellent! That faker! I choked back a laugh. After all he’d put me through, why talk fluently now? Because it was no longer necessary? Because sitting down we were the same height? Or… because I’d said thank you? Maybe it was a gesture of friendship. A parting gift. Whatever the reason, the flood gates had opened and he shouted nonstop. Parched for English, I leaned my head back and let it wash over me. He told me about the mountain village of his childhood, that he’d had to come to Seoul to make a living, that he missed the mountains back home. As he continued to shout, I fell asleep.

* * *

A couple of hours later, the driver killed the engine and I awoke, embarrassed to find I’d been drooling on Mr. Chong’s shoulder. Climbing stiffly from the truck, we took deep breaths of the crisp mountain air. Paul must have heard us drive up, for he was waiting under the streetlight in front of our small apartment building. We all pitched in, and after a few trips up and down the stairs, alternately slipping our shoes off and on at our doorstep, Korean style, Paul and I were moved in. Standing in the entry, we said goodbye and thank you to the driver. Then a special thanks to Mr. Chong.

He bowed stiffly and marched out the door. “Chicken!” he called over his shoulder, his old stern self. “I will negotiate chicken!”

Dear Mr. Chong, still offering to help. I ran onto the landing in my socks and called to him as he hurried down the stairs, “Mr. Chong!”

He stopped at the bottom, turned and glared up at me.

“Thank you so much, but don’t bother about the chicken. Paul can do it.” Smiling fondly, I waved goodbye.

He raised an eyebrow and returned a tentative wave. I wondered if he was as amazed as I that we’d become friends. I blinked back sudden tears, surprised to find I would miss Mr. Chong. Like a newly hatched gosling, I’d imprinted.

Paul went for Kentucky Chicken and I prepared for our first meal in our new home. First, the bleak overhead fluorescent had to go, so I shoved the kitchen table against the wall, set a lamp on the table, plugged in the lamp, and screwed in a negotiated light bulb. I turned it on and flicked off the fluorescent. The kitchen glowed with a cozy light, enhanced by warm yellow walls and white cabinetry.

I sank into a kitchen chair, giddy with exhaustion, relief, happiness, hunger — and enchantment — for it seemed I was living in a playhouse. My little refrigerator fit snug under the wall cupboard. My little stove sat upon its own little custom-fitted cabinet. Under the window, a little combination sink and counter unit stood on four little legs. It all looked so adorable I wanted to cry. What was it with these tears? I needed food.

Paul bounded in, singing a bass aria from “The Mikado,” and dropped a soggy sack of Kentucky Chicken on the table. Before I could pounce on it he crushed me in a hug,“Home!”

While I attacked the chicken, Paul told me about his day, his office, his private locker just for his shoes (with the toes folded up so they’d fit), and the executives’ cafeteria where he had enjoyed a huge, delicious Korean lunch.

I tossed a chicken bone aside and snatched another piece.

“My only problem,” he continued, “is the sandals. They issued me the biggest ones they have and they’re much too short.”

“I’ll try to find you a bigger pair,” I said between bites.

“Thanks, hon.” He nibbled on a chicken breast. “Were you able to find pillows?”

I shook my head. “I’ll stuff a couple T-shirts with clean underwear for now.”

“Good solution.”

A mound of greasy napkins later, my hunger appeased, I entertained him with my day, “…and then I said ‘I want to buy a sot,’ and it was like I’d insulted him or something.”

Paul took out his dictionary and flipped the pages to oven. “Hmm. I think I see the problem. You rhymed ‘s-o-t’ with ‘got.’ According to the pronunciation table it rhymes with ‘goat.’ What you said would be spelled ‘s-a-t.’” He turned to the back half of his book which was Korean-to-English. Mine didn’t have that feature. He found ‘sat’ and laughed, “It’s a Korean wrestler’s thigh band!”

I laughed too, though I didn’t know what a wrestler’s thigh band was exactly, until I felt Paul shaking my shoulder – “Hold on! Hold on!” he said. “Sat has more than one meaning.”

I blew my nose on a greasy napkin and wiped my eyes.

He was giving me a lopsided grin. “It also means ‘crotch.’”

* * *

The next morning we breakfasted on leftover chicken and cups of hot water; then Paul left for work. More than anything I wanted to crawl back in bed for a well-deserved rest, but first I had to visit the corner grocery for food and household basics. Fortunately, that was something I could do without Mr. Chong. Now that I knew what I’d said to him, how could I ever face him again?

I had just finished dressing when I heard footsteps ascending my stairs, then a polite knock. A salesman? The landlord? Clutching my Berlitz, I opened the door.

Two men in business suits and a young woman in a black wool coat stood on my doorstep, smiling, bowing and talking at me in Korean. I returned their smiles and bows, wondering if they were a neighborhood welcoming committee. While I rifled the Berlitz for a welcoming phrase, they stepped inside, slipped off their shoes and headed for the kitchen. I trotted after them, lit the fire under the kettle for tea, remembered I had no tea and shut it off.

I found the word for “good morning,” annyonghashimnika. While I sounded out the syllables, conscientiously flipping back and forth to the pronunciation guide, the men draped their suit coats over the kitchen chairs, and the woman kept talking and smiling at me as she took the silverware from the drawer under the stove, the dishes from the cupboard over the refrigerator, and stacked them on the table as if anticipating a meal.

If only I hadn’t scarfed the last of the chicken.

The men inspected the now empty wall cupboard as if surprised it contained no food. I expected them to check the refrigerator next, but instead they rolled up their shirt sleeves, whipped claw hammers from their belt loops and began to rip the cupboard off the wall. Shrieking nails drowned out my yelps. Bits of concrete wall splattered like shrapnel. Frantically I searched my Berlitz for an appropriate phrase like “Sorry, you have the wrong address” or “Is this a robbery?” while the woman chattered happily at me over the din.

As one man made for the door with my wall cupboard, the other man thrust my stove into my arms, kettle and all, and snatched the cabinet it had been sitting on. I balanced the stove on one arm, careful not to lose the kettle, and using my free hand and teeth, flipped my Berlitz to the emergency section.

They stepped into their shoes. I found a phrase: Stop or I’ll scream.

I sounded it out — “Koo mahn too jee ah noo…. m…” my on? me oan? I checked the pronunciation table: eow, like a cat, “meown so ree rool chee…” — I wished I knew which syllables meant “stop” and “scream” so I could emphasize them — “…rool tee ee — ”

The door closed. They were gone.

I stood unmoving, motes of concrete dust adrift before my eyes. Then in lazy downward spirals the dust settled on the dishes, on the kitchen table, on the suit coats draped over the kitchen chairs — I blinked. The men had left their suit coats. They intended to return.

Hope swelled. Maybe they were just replacing my cupboards. They could be coming back soon. Sure enough, I heard footsteps clicking up the stairs, my door opening. They padded into the kitchen, smiling and bowing. But empty-handed.

The kitchen sink slid easily out from under the wall-mounted faucets, because the drain pipe was just a hose stuck down a hole in the floor. I hadn’t noticed that before. Like a corpse dragged from the scene of the crime, the sink oozed a murky trail across the vinyl and out the door.

The woman grabbed the suit coats and followed it out, waving at me gaily.

The door closed.

All was quiet save for the slow thip… thip… thip… of water on the floor under the faucet. I’d have to ask Paul to ask Mr. Chong to ask the landlord to fix that drip — wait a minute; I had no sink.

The empty sink corner had a greenish, fuzzy coating. Above the refrigerator, except for the jagged gray divots where the cupboard had been nailed, the wall shone bright white. I’d assumed the walls were painted yellow, but the color was apparently an accumulation of smoke and grease.

I moved to the kitchen window, chunks of wall crunching underfoot, just in time to see my kitchen disappear around the corner in the back of a pick up. It didn’t look like they’d be returning it anytime soon.

I started for the bedroom to phone Paul but was pulled up short: the stove in my arms was still attached to the propane tank outside the kitchen window, the red rubber connector hose stretched taut. I took a calming breath, stepped back, placed the stove on the table. Then I dashed to the bedroom, called Paul at work and told him the news.

“I know,” he said.

“You know?” I collapsed to the sleeping mat.

“I was just about to call you. The landlord phoned my secretary, who asked me to tell you that people were coming to pick up the kitchen.”

“But why?”

“It was for sale. That woman bought it.”

“But — ”

“It wasn’t included in the rent, so it’s all on the up and up. Kitchens are like furniture here. Fully portable. Isn’t that interesting?”

I asked through clenched teeth, “Why didn’t we buy it?”

“Mr. Chong says you told him not to negotiate, which surprised me. I thought you liked the kitchen.”

“But I didn’t! I mean, I didn’t tell him not to negotiate the kitchen. It never came up.”

“Hang on a minute, Mr. Chong wants to tell me something.”

My face burned – Mr. Chong was right there? I cringed at the memory of my sanitary napkin and crotch faux pas.

Paul said, “Mr. Chong says he can help us get another kitchen on Saturday.”

“No. Not Mr. –”

“Hold on.” Muffled voices, then Paul said, “Mr. Chong wants to talk to you.”

“No! Not Mr.—”

Mr. Chong came on the line. “I am most very sorry. I thought you tell me ‘do not bother.’”

I forced a light tone, “When was that, Mr. Chong?”

“Last night. After you move in. I say ‘I will negotiate chicken,’ and —”

Chicken?” I shut my eyes recalling the scene, and moaned softly, “Oh no…”

“Oh yes!” he said. “I thought you say ‘Paul will do it.’ My mistake. So sorry.”

I didn’t speak for a moment, because I wanted to respond in a way that would not make him feel worse than he already did. So I clamped my lips together while tears of laughter streamed down my cheeks.

When I could safely talk I said, “No, no, Mr. Chong. My mistake. I thought you meant the other chicken. For dinner? Kentucky Chicken.”

Mr. Chong didn’t answer.

“You know — the bird? Bawk, bawk…”

Just heavy breathing on the line.

I flapped an elbow. “Bawk bawk ba-CAWK?”

Mr. Chong grunted. His way, I hoped, of laughing.

– end –


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