Thursday, January 18, 2007

Indian Giver

A few weeks ago with a fresh paycheck burning a whole in my pocket I walked down the street to pick up some holiday cheer things for myself and for others who might need some cheering. It was a nice brisk end of the year sort of day and I was feeling all kinds of good about myself. And hey, why not, end of the year and all what better way to end it then feeling good about oneself and paying money for something to bring a smile to my face.

As I was on my way I walked past a small little shop that I'm rather fond of, a chain of sorts that sells Indian imported goods. Yeah, being in Korea isn't nearly exotic enough, I have to buy imports from India; I'm just that cool. I start outside the little shop that is jam packed with so many India goodies and treats that it takes a few minutes to take it all in. I enjoy the warm colors, red, yellows, and organges. Body colors and heat colors, things that warm the mind and soul a bit more then the often overpowering primary colors or far too subdued pastels of some Korean traditional pieces.

Please don't misinterpret here, I love a lot of Korean traditional pieces; have in fact made two beautiful silk blouses out of Korean silk, not to mention lining my coat with a purple and black Korean silk that I found at the local market. I have all kinds of Korean trinkets in my place and on my person, including a Korean Kut power sampler special that I bought at the local Buddhist/shamnist shop on a strip somewhere. I have Korean ceremonial bells and a beautiful set of ritual casting knives to help me tap into the magick of Korea. I love Korean things but sometimes, after five years of living in Korea, something exotic is just a nice change of pace. New colors, new trinkets, new things.

I browse at first looking at the shoulder bags and lamp covers, and small little poster rolls, umbrellas, wind chimes, all things outside the store that catch my interest. I enjoy the smell of things. I lift them to drink in the scents, desert smells, dry and full of spice like some seasoned far off land. My mind drifts and the store door opens with a twinkle and the prettiest Korean girl smiles wide at me. She has bells on her ankles and an embroidered wrap skirt tied round her waste. She wears a vest that is also heavily embroidered but the colors match beautifully and carry across her arms ending at wrists that dangle with beads and silver rings. She smiles with full lovely lips that are tastefully over rouged, and in perfect step with the rest of her costume, finished with eyes lined with dark kohl for the desert and a bedazzled bindi graces her third eye. She smells like cinnamon, clove and vanilla, scents that I am intimately familiar with, and the fragrance provides a perfect counterpoint to the jingling songs of her bracelet and ankles.

"Anyounghaseyo" she says to me, which translates almost literally to "Peace be with you" to which I respond most properly "Anyounghaseyo" which in context is similar to saying "And also with you." She throws the door wide and invites me into her shop which shimmers invitingly with a subtle magick of it's own. I cross the threshold and lap up the ambiance, the colors, everywhere, piled Persian rugs, embroidered bags on poles meant to hold up the place, walls covered with the most lovely jewelry made form various stones, silver rings to decorate the ears, the nose, the lips, and fingers sparkle and all of it reverberates with the most subtle Indian vocals coming from some sound system hidden under scarves farther into the store. I let it overwhelm me because I want to be overwhelmed it's the end of the year after all and this is like a quick trip out of Korea. A vacation in twenty minutes with a lovely girl who has converted herself into a Tawaif for my amusement and pleasure.

I let her take my hand which is cold form standing outside so long in her warm one and lead me over to the jewelry. She takes my bags out of my hand drops them to the floor, very casually releaving me of my burdens. I let her do it and just relax and go with the flow. She doesn't speak English which is fine by me, when I'm out of my apartment or the bars I frequent I prefer Korean, and so we default to Korean with her laughing at me in a "Oh, silly Waygook" manner if I mispronounce. She corrects me patiently showing me the shape of her mouth and tongue and I repeat as best I can, as she laughs and shows me something else. I ask the name of a piece, I ask how much something is, I ask her where she is from and what her school name was. She asks me how long I've been in Korea. She puts an earring in my ear and calls out "Eepieyo, eepieyo." Pretty, used for children and those that are thought to be cute. I'm flattered and I smile. She tells me my face is very small. This is a high compliment in Korea and I take it with grace. She strokes my eyebrows and shows me some bindis that I might purchase later.

The store is not very big and the two of us standing together in the front of it, now surrounded by my bag on the floor, are taking up almost all the room and yet there is some narrow space to negotiate a little further back to her smiling compatriot who has been sitting the whole time and watching us play like old school friends. She is decorated to match her sister seller and she waves and beckons me to the back of the shop with a smile. She calls me over in English and I realize she has some basic skills and I'm happy to oblige to answer some of the questions she might ask, but keep the conversation simple and switch to Korean as necessary. She stands in front of a shining buzzing case full of silver rings and I know before I stand in front of it the game is lost because I'm going to end up buying something from that case and there is just no help for it.

The two girls stand and pull my hands forward over the case and pull out rack upon rack of silver rings dressing me up like a doll, touching my face and hands, all polite and very innocuous. Casual touching in Korea is quite culturally acceptable and I admit that the amount of time I've spent in Korea has made me very relaxed to it. I don't mind when the girls grab my arms to walk arm in arm down the street, or the petting of hair and body, you just get used to and adapt to these sorts of things. It becomes natural, no more sexual then changing with a sister, and yet because I'm an outsider there is always a thrill of acceptance with it. The girls know I won't shy away from their touch which is why they do it, where another foreign woman might quickly put back in place the western rules of personal space. I just don't care, I enjoy the camaraderie and the secret joke that I often share with my Korean girlfriends. It's just not that big a deal.

The girls work in tandem to dress my hands up in silver and every so often I might ask a price for something and my heart skips a beat when they quote for me. Ah, yes, these would be the high end racks full of beautiful things that I want but can not afford. I let them know politely in Korean that it is a little out of my range and ask for something slightly more on the line of a teacher's salary. As more racks appear I find a glittering piece among them that I recognize and sure enough it is the exact match of a ring I bought in college and lost about two years ago in Korea. I had picked up the original in a place called Horsefeathers that is perhaps the long lost progenitor of this very shop. The rings shines at me and looks like it might be perhaps two people intertwined but only if you look closely and even then maybe the light is playing tricks on you. It is beautiful and brings me back so many memories that I know I will buy it now matter how much they ask. What better omen for the end of the year then to begin the new one with a replacement for so many memories lost? Fortunately the price is within my teacher's salary range and so I buy the ring and wear it out that day.

The girls and I talk for a few more minutes; they ask where I work and why I'm still in Korea. They ask me if I have ever been in love. We talk and idle away the time and I realize that I've spent close to a half hour in a shop that I had originally intended only to enjoy at a distance through the window. I smile and motion that I need to leave and the second shop keeper, the one who speaks the bit of English, looks at me in all seriousness and asks me, after taking a moment to think over the words, "Do you like…cannabis?" I pause for a moment convinced that something odd in either her accent or my ears has perhaps misinterpreted this subtle vocalization and turned it into something else. I ask politely back "Pardon me?" and she repeats much more imploringly now, "Do you like cannabis?"

Being that I'm a foreign teacher in Korea and being that I'm a foreigner in general there is only one correct answer to this question. I might think of a dozen answers to the question depending on who is asking it, but the cloying sweet incenses have suddenly taken on a heavy weight and are pressing down on me and I'm wondering if somehow I've been trapped by some lovely Kali incarnation in this pretty store. I ask again to clarify just one more time, but then answer the question correctly with a sound no.

She looks a bit sad at this revelation and I realized that I, brutish foreigner, have missed something discreet here but I'm not sure what it is exactly that I have not caught, and I'm not sure if it can be explained. She looks up quickly and speaks in breakneck Korean to fast for me to follow and I feel my eyes getting wide with further confusion as she continues. I finally respond in my best little girl Korean voice that I don't understand and she holds up in her hand a box of incense. The box is covered in pictures of the prettiest little Mary Jane leaves one could hope to see this far from Jamaica and there on the side in big red letter surrounded with a bright yellow outline is the word "Cannabis". I finally get it, she was offering me "service" something free with my purchase and I had very uncouthly turned her down. I smiled now, understanding my faux pas and said that yes of course I liked cannabis and happily slipped the incense into my bag.

I walked to the front of the store and waved goodbye and as the girls stood together to watch me go and wave me out. A silver ring, a warm happy feeling, and marijuana scented incense in my pocket. What better way to start a new year?

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