An Unlikely Friend
© Copyright 2018 by Spencer Shaak
December 29, 2015
In Suseong-gu’s neighborhood of Daegu in South Korea, the PC Bang room chattered with gamer’s sighs, clicking mouses, soju popping, and lighters snapping. I drowned out the sounds and focused on typing out a lesson plan for my students at the elementary school I was working at.PC bangs are the local hangout for lunch break Academy students in the afternoons and ajusshis (older Korean men) getting their gambling fix at night. If you manage to stay there for an entire day’s period, you can witness the swapping of youth with age like a life cycle.
“Trying to learn Korean?” An ajusshi said.
“Sometimes,” I said.
“I teach Korean. You teach English-ee me,” he said.
“Ok,” I said.
I learned during my time in South Korea that many Koreans tend to add ‘e’ to the end of words because it is part of their own grammar.
“Good, my name is Shim Sik,” He said.
“Bangapsuminda, I’m Spencer,” I said.
“ You like ping-pong? Taggu?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Meet me across Beomeo Library tomorrow morning at ten at Smile Ping Pong room. Shim drew a detailed map on my notebook with his pencil.
“Ok, sounds good,” I said.
When tomorrow morning arrived, I found the ping pong room just as Shim had mapped out. On the building the letters read 스마일탁구교실, Smile Ping-pong Room Classroom.
“You made here, great,” He said. “Coeppi?
“Sure. Kamsamnida,” I said.
“Kamsahamnida, ‘ha’ You need ‘ha’.. Kamsahamnida,” He said.
“Kamsahamnida,” I said.
“Very good. Yes,” Shim said.
Shim and I drank the steaming crystallized Kanu coffee. Afterward, we began playing ping-pong. Shim beat me by a couple of points. After we finished playing, we sat down in the sectioned-off kitchen area.
“So what do you do for a living?” I said.
“Retired. Use to work for Hyundai,” Shim said.
“Any family?” I said.
“Wife, son and daughter,” Shim said. “Son is in Usan, daughter is in Seoul.”
“Did you get to see them this holiday season?” I asked.
“No, next time,” he said. “What do you for fun?”
“Reading, running, playing harmonica,” I said.
“Harmonica? I have one,” Shim said taking out his harmonica picking up a guitar.
“I brought mine too. My friend from the Navy shipped me one from San Diego,” I said.
“Want to play Hey Jude? I’ll play guitar, you harmonica?”He said.
“Why not?” I said.
Shim knew the song by heart. He sang and played the guitar while I played the harmonica. We sounded pretty decent and earned the praise of some of the other table tennis players in the room. We made the Saturday hangout at Smile Ping Pong Room a routine for three months till one day something changed.
“Next Saturday, see you here?” I said.
“No, I have operation. Lung cancer," he said.
“I am so sorry. I’ll be praying for you,” I said.
“Thanks,” Shim said.
We exchanged a hug, and then I left to go back home. I was never a religious person but on that day and the days that followed, I prayed for Shim Sik.
You wonder how people are doing when you haven’t seen or heard from them in some time. After Shim’s chemotherapy for lung cancer, I thought about how he was doing and feeling.
After not hearing from him in a month, I sent him a text message: How are you doing? He was quick to respond: “Weak after surgery.
Feel better. Play ping-pong want to, but can’t. Church-ee tomorrow. You go?
“Sure. Can’t tell you the last time I’ve went to church,” I said.
“Good. Then you go. Meet me at PC Bang at 10am. We go to church-ee. Name of church-ee Amen. Easy to remember,” Shim said.
I met Shim outside PC Bang a week later. He wore a nice blue checkered collar shirt, tan suit, and dress pants.
“Ready?” Shim said.
“Ne,” I said.
We walked towards Beomeo Library and made a left past Daegu KBS Broadcasting Station, the biggest South Korean television broadcasting network.
“Church-ee is right next to KBS. You never miss,” Shim said.
We walked inside and sat down. Shim said his annyeonghaseyo’s to all his church friends.
“Boy, you’re popular,” I say.
“Daegu ping-pong champ, remember?” Shim says.
I never did pay much attention when I attended church back in the United States. But at Amen Church I listened and remembered every word Pastor (Mok-san) Chwi, said. Shim handed me a Korean-English Bible and pointed to me the songs in English we were about to sing.
The Chorus, dressed in aqua blue robes outlined in gold silk, sung the songs beautifully in Korean. Hangul words displayed on a film screen above the chorus.
After the service, Mok-san Chwi walked around the aisles and handed the church youth members questions about his sermon. He handed me the questions and paused.
“What’s your name?”Mok-san Chwi said
“Spencer,” I said.
“Shim friend?” He asked
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Wait one minute,” He said.
Mok-san Chwi walked back to his pulpit and wrote English translations on the question sheet. He came back to me.
“Spencer, here you go,” He said.
“Nice pastor, isn’t he?” Shim said.
“He didn’t have to do that for me,” I said.
I answered the questions. Before I knew it, the service was over.
“How you like Amen?” Shim said.
“Good,” I said.
Shim and I ate a lunch full of kimchi, seaweed, and chicken with a couple of his church friends. Every following Sunday, we went to church together. We crossed paths every morning as we both biked on the same street leading to Amen Church Sunday mornings. Fruit stands with umbrellas lined the sidewalks on our way. While biking, we’d talk to each other in both Korean and English to see how our weekdays went. I didn’t completely understand it at the time, but Amen Church became home for Shim and me. Years later, when lung cancer took Shim from me like an invisible demon in the night, Amen Church still remained our home. It remained my place to write:
Why I Miss Shim Sik
Because he tapped me on my shoulder in the PC Bang and said, “Do you want to go to ping pong room tomorrow?” Because I said yes and because in the ping pong room we talked over crystallized coffee, played Beatles music together, lived.
Because he asked, “Do you want to go to Amen Church with me?” And because I said yes and sat with him in Amen’s chapel pews reciting Korean from his aged Bible. Because he showed me his friends, culture, way of life. Because he gave me something to do on Sundays when I was alone. Because one night he said, “Grilled duck, let’s eat.” And, because I never had duck in another country, or soju to wash it down with.
Because he slapped my back when a bone got caught in my throat. We watched it fly out in front of us like it a shooting star, mesmerized by its origins and travel. Because we couldn’t stop laughing about that.
Because he showed me pictures of his son and daughter who were married and have families in Seoul. Because he’s still a proud father and inspired me to be like him, perhaps with a little less late-night gambling, soju, and cigarettes at PC Bang.
Because I hugged him before I left South Korea. Really, because it’s so damn hard to hug people these days.
Spencer Shaak is a MFA graduate from Rosemont College who is currently an ESL elementary teacher in Daegu, South Korea