No, We're Not
Copyright 2006 by Mary E. Whitsell
I’m still not quite sure how it came about, but I once ended up travelling around Korea with three Japanese men and two Pakistanis. I was on my third trip to Japan at the time, and had already spent three years there. My Japanese visa needed to be changed, and I had to go to Korea to do it. I decided to take the overnight ferry from Shimonoseki to Pusan.
Most of the other passengers seemed to be middle-aged Korean men who were suffering from sea-sickness. The Japanese boys and their Pakistani friends stood out almost as much as I did, and we all got to talking about seasickness (none of us had it, for which we were heartily thankful) and Japanese-Korean history (unfortunate, to say the least), and somehow the fact that we all had a lot to say on the same subjects and spoke Japanese to some degree kept us together as a group even after we got off the ferry.
It turned out that none of us had firm travel plans let alone reservations. All we had was a vague idea of tooling around Pusan, maybe heading up to Kyongju, the ancient capital, to look at burial mounds and temples, then up to Seoul for museums and shopping, and back down along the coast to Pusan again. We planned to stay in Korean inns – yogwam – and if that wasn’t possible, we were sure that youth hostel rooms would be available. The fact that we didn’t have any reservations or carefully planned itineraries didn’t bother us in the least: we all agreed that travelling was a lot more fun that way.
The three Japanese men were several years younger than I, and all law students. Deeply aware of Japan’s history of aggression in Korea, they were keen to learn Korean and start having meaningful interactions with ordinary Koreans as soon as possible. The two Pakistanis, Abdullah and Mohammed, were cousins. I didn’t much like Abdullah: he was a flash, shallow fellow who bragged excessively about the fast-and-free lifestyle he had been enjoying in Tokyo for the past two years. He had a two-pack-a-day smoking habit and a penchant for Scotch whisky. His Japanese was so garbled and haphazard that we all had trouble understanding him, but he made not the slightest effort to slow down or monitor his speech. Mohammed, his cousin, was serious and quiet. He had only been in Japan for two months, so his Japanese ability was minimal, but he spoke so slowly and carefully that we tended to understand him better than his cousin.
I got on Abdullah’s nerves right from the start. He was thirty-five, I thought I heard him say, and because he had a few white hairs and a certain rather worn, haggard look to him, I did not question this, even though the shallowness of his conversation did suggest a certain immaturity. Later in the evening, I made some reference to his comparatively advanced age and he was all outraged denial. Not thirty-five! he spluttered. Twenty-five! Watching him polish off a large bottle of duty-free whisky and brag that he drank this much every night, I made a mental note never to drink the hard stuff again. Mohammed sat quietly and watched his cousin, a sad, pained look on his face.
It was summer, and swelteringly hot even in the morning. Stepping off the ferry, we were hit by a blast of hot, exhaust-laden air. As we tried to find our bearings, the smell of kimchee – Korean pickled cabbage with a strong garlic component – was easily as overpowering as the heat. People smiled at us in a good-humored way; they elbowed each other as if to say Ah look – foreign travellers – let’s be kind! We passed women selling watches, students clutching book-bags, businessmen in suits. In that oppressive heat, I really felt for the businessmen in suits. Straight away, we made the decision to save Pusan for our return trip. We would take a bus up to Kyongju first: perhaps it would be cooler.
It wasn’t. Not only was Kyongju just as hot, the two-hour bus ride there was exhausting and my window wouldn’t open. We all wanted to save money, so instead of taking an air-conditioned express bus, we opted for the cheaper one. I personally didn’t mind the heat as much as I did the cigarette smoke. Every single Korean man on that bus had a cigarette in his mouth and if he didn’t, he was either lighting one up or tapping one out of a packet. Amazingly, none of the Japanese boys smoked and neither did Mohammed, but Abdullah more than made up for the rest of us.
On the bus to Kyongju, we learned that Mohammed had been sent by his family to try and encourage his wayward cousin to return to the straight and narrow path – and to Pakistan – so far with absolutely no success whatsoever. Abdullah’s Japanese visa had expired and, like me, he’d decided to get it renewed in Korea. Mohammed felt that he had no choice but to follow his cousin wherever he went and do what he could to try and keep him out of trouble.
It was while we were waiting for a bus to take us to our yogwam in Kyongju that my Japanese friends and I realized just how profoundly different the two cousins were. We were standing in front of a shop, on a corner, when Mohammed suddenly looked ill and passed his hands over his face. ‘What is it?’ we asked, concerned. Mohammed kept one hand over his face and gestured weakly with the other. We saw that we were standing in front of a butcher’s shop, the display case full of hanging carcasses. Pork. We reckoned it was pork because of the pigs’ heads: at least eight of them leering out at us in pale rubbery pinkness. Abdullah was scornful of his cousin’s squeamishness. He’d seen plenty more pork than that, he exclaimed, and it didn’t bother him a bit. He’d even eaten it. Big deal!
At the reception desk in our yogwam, a Japanese backpacker gave us the eye. ‘You’re not all together are you?’ he wanted to know. Manabu, one of the Japanese boys, acknowledged that we were. ‘Her too?’ the backpacker queried, pointing his chin at me. ‘Me too,’ I confirmed. The backpacker puffed out his cheeks and stared at us all again before posing his next question. ‘I don’t suppose you’d tell me, but you’re not with the Japanese Red Army, are you?’ We shook our heads, but over the next few days it was obvious that the backpacker thought we were. He would take discreet peeks at our reading material and nonchalantly wander by as we were talking. We must have been a huge disappointment to him: I was working my way through a Japanese girls’ novel for junior high students and the rest of my companions confined themselves to Korean phrase books or newspapers. No little red books, no Communist manifestos or even mild socialist literature, and although we did talk about politics, our language limitations meant that our conversation was never on a very high level.
Despite the fact that I made a point of keeping to my own room, Mohammed clearly disapproved of me – a single woman travelling about on her own, a Westerner with bare legs and arms. He spoke very little to any of us, in fact, as he doggedly trailed after us. At night he would sit miserably nursing his glass of barley tea while his cousin ordered bottle after bottle of beer. During the day Mohammed went with us to museums, burial tumuli and temples, dutifully reading the inscriptions and explanations, but you could see his heart was not in it. He didn’t want to be in this country; he took little interest in his surroundings. All he wanted to do was get his cousin straightened out and go back to Pakistan.
Hiroshi, Shu and Manabu, the Japanese boys, sat with their Korean phrase books and practiced for hours on end. How much is this ink stone? they recited together. Might I have some more kimchee? they chorused. Abdullah had no intention of learning any Korean. ‘If they can’t speak English, I’ll find someone who can!’ he scoffed.
On our last night in Pusan, we all went out for a big meal together. We ate meat (not pork) and garlic roasted over a grill with plenty of kimchee and washed it all down with beer and cold barley tea. While we ate, we talked about what we had done and seen. Manabu and Hiroshi were happy that they had managed to have meaningful conversations in Korean and made interesting contacts with a variety of people. Shu was satisfied with his progress too: he’d found a book on Japanese colonial history in Korean and, with the aid of a dictionary, was slogging his way through it. I had bought two brightly-colored Korean cushions and was proud that I had managed to count my money out in Korean. Abdullah, however, made it clear that he had other things on his mind than language-learning.
‘Tonight I will find a woman,’ he announced. ‘I have heard that there are many, down by the harbour, and they like real men, men with hair.’ Here he gestured proudly at his bony, but indisputably hairy, chest, and discretely looked around to make sure that all three of the chest-hairless Japanese boys had heard. ‘I have heard of a place where the woman are very beautiful, very cheap –’ he continued, completely oblivious of the looks of shock and embarrassment on all our faces. I stood up at this point and announced my intention to retire for the evening. I fixed Abdullah with my sternest, most school-marmish look and told him to finish his sentence after I left the room.
All the way back to Shimonoseki, Mohammed was my firm friend and ally.
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