My middle-aged, ajumma Korean landlord has more energy than the girls who promote sales at beauty shops in Myeongdong, bouncing up and down in knee socks and repeatedly shouting the same phrase into a microphone for hours on end. She is never in my building, so she comes to my school once every three months to collect my maintenance fee. Each time, she’ll bring me sweet bread from Paris Baguette and distribute church flyers to the entire office. For several months, the gym teacher used his flyer as a coaster.
Summer was approaching in Seoul, and my air conditioner was leaking. My co-teacher helped me explain the situation to my landlord, as she doesn’t speak English and besides, “Aircon gojangnaseoyo,” (my air conditioner broke) I didn’t know what else to say. She stopped by later that evening to check it out.
After skillfully kicking off her shoes, she scurried into my apartment, followed by a burly man wearing a tool belt. As he examined the water stains on my peeling wallpaper, she decided to look around.
She motioned toward my refrigerator and asked if she could open it. “Sure,” I replied, fiddling with my necklace as she curiously analyzed the contents inside.
“Ohh, kimchi,” she said, eyeing a container that my co-worker had given me as a gift.
I giggled uncomfortably as she continued rummaging through the contents on the bottom shelf. After examining a crate of eggs and some cherry tomatoes, she opened my freezer and abruptly closed it after only seeing trays of ice.
She walked across the room and peered at the photos taped on the wall. “Is this your mom?” she asked, pointing to a photo of my parents at the Statue of Liberty.
She continued pointing at various photos, inquiring about the people in each one. “Who’s that?”
“That’s my sister.”
“Oo-ah, you look alike,” she said, tilting her head and studying my face, situated mere centimeters away from her own.
The maintenance guy was scribbling something on a piece of paper when my landlord loudly called his name and began pointing at the photos. “Look, this is her mom, and this is her boyfriend!” He glanced at the wall and nodded, clearly not interested.
After the maintenance worker finished scribbling his notes, he began rambling about which tools they would need to fix the air conditioner. My landlord decided that they would return on Sunday.
“I won’t be here,” I said, explaining that I had already planned to stay at a Buddhist temple for the weekend. She asked me to write my key code on a piece of paper, which I thought was strange, but my co-teacher later informed me that it was completely normal.
On Sunday morning, I returned to my apartment around noontime, exhausted from my 3:30 AM wake up call and desperately in need of a shower. As I opened the front door, I found the maintenance guy fiddling with the air conditioner and my landlord lying on my bed like she owned it.
“Hello,” I greeted, frozen in the entryway, watching my landlord comfortably roll over. She jumped up and scurried to my refrigerator, taking out a plastic container filled with a squid side dish she’d made me.
She smiled, put the container back, and returned to my bed, sprawled out on the mattress, watching the maintenance guy finish his work. I tried to occupy myself for the next few minutes, arranging spices and oils on my kitchen counter, and tidying the notebooks and pens scattered on my table. For the next ten minutes, she remained on my bed, rapidly texting someone on her smartphone.
Ajummas, I thought. They sure keep us on our toes.
-Text by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.