There’s a little convenience store across the road from my school, and I go there on the way home from work if I need some small essential like milk or juice or kimchi.
The woman who works there was in awe of me at first, going on and on about my beautiful face and beautiful hair and beautiful eyes until (somewhat to my disappointment) she’d seen me enough times for me to cease being the exotic foreigner and just become a regular customer. I’m still something of a celebrity there, though – perhaps because she’s very excited and proud to show off to other customers that she knows a non-Korean.
I get free stuff almost every time I go in. Sometimes she’ll throw a big pack of sweets into my bag; other times she’ll give me an extra one of whatever I’m buying. But the amusing thing to me is that even the other customers shower gifts and attention on me.
For example, I went in the other week on a very cold day, tired from work and coughing thanks to the sore throat that had been bothering me for days. The shop was, as it often is, packed with people – it’s almost like a little social meeting-point, with a table and chairs squashed into one corner of the tiny space. Teenagers were chatting and buying sweets, and the usual old men were sitting at the table eating gimbap and playing Go-Stop. Nothing unusual about any of this, except that when I opened the door and came in, there was a sudden hush and everyone went “Oh-wah!” in unison. This is the Korean version of “Wow!”. Erm. I didn’t quite know how to react, so I just smiled graciously and bowed slightly in greeting, feeling a bit like royalty. Every eye followed me as I wandered around and picked out my purchases.
When I made it through my crowd of admirers to the till, an old man was waiting patiently with a bottle of honey water, warm from the special heated cupboard they have for drinks in the winter. For your throat, he explained in Korean, it will make your cough go away.
I solemnly accepted the gift, with much bowing and kamsahamnida-ing, and waited as he paid the shop woman, who was looking a little put out. Not to be outdone, she gave me a free packet of throat lozenges. Another old man became visibly anxious as he observed all this kindness, and looked around frantically for something that he could buy for this unexpected celebrity guest. Bizarrely, he chose a packet of roasted seaweed, which he purchased in a very serious, dutiful manner and presented to me as if it were a gold trophy. I accepted with the appropriate OTT gratitude, as if he had in fact given me said gold trophy. When I left, the jingle of the bell at the door was drowned out by a chorus of goodbyes, the entire population of the shop bowing and waving as I backed out feeling a tad overwhelmed.
Sometimes I feel like I should run out of the shop with my hands in front of my face, shrieking “I just want to have a normal life!!”. But honestly, I think I’ll be quite hurt when I go back home and find that I have to leave shops without someone showering me with compliments or buying me a gift…