Koreans make this surprised sound a bit differently from how I’m used to hearing it. They sort of… breathe it rather than say it, and add undertones of grunts so that it comes out sounding like they’ve been punched in the stomach. It’s terribly dramatic.
I spent all day on Monday hearing this sound, having forgotten to put on suncream during the very briefest of trips to the beach before we left Boryeong on Sunday afternoon. I was there for under an hour, I was swimming and chatting, it slipped my mind, OK? Anyway, by the time I left the opticians and went to meet the others for dinner, my new skin colour had developed nicely, much like a negative in a darkroom. I skipped happily into the restaurant, marvelling at the clarity of everything around me, and was greeted by half a dozen startled expressions, stopping me in my tracks. Had I chosen some particularly unattractive frames? Had I been given the wrong prescription and mistaken a bunch of strangers for my friends?
My God, Hails, you’re a tomato, said Irish Friend One in his polite and tactful way.
When I saw myself in a bathroom mirror a few hours later, I realised that not only was I a tomato, I was a radioactive tomato. With burns. Wearing a lot of rouge. And blushing. My face glowed so brightly at me from the mirror that I, too, let a startled “Oh!” escape my lips. My taxi driver on the way home greeted me with an “Oh!” and spent the entire journey looking at me in the rear view mirror and laughing hysterically.
The next morning, I actually tried wearing some make-up to cover the horror story that was my face, but of course by the time I arrived in school after my brief walk, I remembered why I can’t wear make-up here in the summer – a combination of humidity and sweat meant that it was practically running down my face in murky beige rivers. I sighed and washed my face clean, turning to face a day of “Oh!”s.
“Oh!” said every child who came into my classroom. “Oh!” said every colleague who met me in the corridor – often regardless of whether they’d already seen me and “Oh!”ed at me. “Oh!” said the Cooking Lady, the postman, the bus drivers, and a couple of parents. I spent the first ten minutes of every class explaining to the children and their equally bewildered teachers why anyone would lie out in the sun, even if they were wearing suncream. It was exhausting.
And then yesterday morning, I was sitting at my desk drinking my iced coffee and preparing for the day ahead, when Ellen, one of my newest Korean colleagues, came in with a bag of potatoes, a cheese grater, a mixing bowl, and a tub of flour. I looked at her in the way that you’d look at anyone if they came into your workspace with a bag of potatoes, a cheese grater, a mixing bowl, and a tub of flour. These are for you, she said as if she was in fact carrying a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine, and not what she was actually carrying (a bag of potatoes, a cheese grater, a mixing bowl, and a tub of flour, in case you missed it).
With very little in the way of explanations, she proceeded to grate potatoes and mix them with the flour until she had a gloopy paste that looked not unlike vomit. Then she tucked my t-shirt sleeves up into my bra strap and spread the stuff all over my arms and shoulders. She almost did the same to my face until I protested quite strongly. It will help your burns, she said with great conviction as she produced some cling film from her bag and wrapped me up in it.
I waddled into my first Musical class with my cling filmed arms sticking out at my sides like a penguin’s wings. This made teaching dance routines decidedly difficult, and then of course all the movement made the cling film start to come loose. I first became aware of this when I slipped on something and looked down to see a trail of potato mush on the floor. It was seeping out from the cling film, dripping down my arms, and sticking to the floor, my t-shirt, my shorts, the children…
I ended up spending the last half of the class carrying a towel around to catch the potatoey gloop oozing from my shrink wrapped arms, and that’s a sentence I very much doubt anyone in the world has ever used before.
How is your burn today? asked Ellen anxiously when I met her at the water cooler this morning. I couldn’t help but notice that she had some potato-shaped objects in a bag. Oh, all better now, perfect, excellent, thank you! I lied, grinning insanely and backing away. I forced myself to hold on to the smile rather than scream in agony when she patted me on the shoulder. I cannot spend another day smelling like potatoes and covered in blobs of mush.
I am almost completely certain that this kind of thing does not happen to normal people.