LETTER TO A STRANGER:
TO OLD JOHNNY
BY LAVINIA SPALDING
Your shop was smaller than our kitchen but better stocked, the shelves on both sides of its entrance packed to the ceiling with shrimp chips and kimchi, dried cuttlefish, ramen noodles, and vacuum-sealed chicken drumsticks.
It had no name, the shop—it was just that faded orange awning in front—so we called it “Orange Awning,” until one day when we’d run out of maekju or soju or oo-yu, or butter or cigarettes or change for the bus, and someone in our apartment suggested to someone else that they run across the alley to Orange Awning.
“Who’s Old Johnny?” a friend asked, misunderstanding.
So that became your name. You: the ancient man, stony and bony, who squatted day and night on a flimsy plastic orange stool inches from the cement, paying us no special attention when we charged through the door five, six times a week, our heads bobbing in greeting, all smiles and a sing-song anyonghashimnika.
Our efforts to charm you didn’t work; our novelty stirred you not in the least. Maybe you assumed—not entirely incorrectly—that Korea was mostly a playground for us, the foreign English teachers who, year after year, showed up and made temporary homes on your block.
But I wonder—I always had this feeling—that you knew what we wanted, more than beer or soju or milk: a smile, a question, a bridge, some small acknowledgment that we were trying. Trying to study your language, to show respect, to be good neighbors by not getting wasted and vomiting in front of your door too often. Still, we had no success with you. Perhaps it was pointless from the beginning.
When I returned to Gwangandong a year later, retracing the narrow, winding alleyways with their open gutters and concrete walls studded with broken bottles, I was on a quest for friendly faces, hungry for witnesses who would prove I’d really been there, lived there for years, and kept the kind of rituals that turn up neighbors. But everyone was gone, or at least they were that day: Mr. Kim, the cheerful grocer who wore a denim fishing hat and who helped us order pizza delivery before we learned Korean; Mr. Oh, the gold-toothed laundry man who knew all our dirty secrets; Mr. Shin, the corpulent video store owner who always yelled out as we walked by, even though it was a different American who had rented “Twelve Monkeys” and failed to return it.
All the places were there, fixed on the city’s grid just as they were in my memory. The stationery store where I made copies and bought poop-shaped erasers and botched-English greeting cards. The Tae Kwon Do institute where I earned my red belt—quitting right before I should have tested for black (albeit now replaced by a PC bang, a smoky room filled with computers and chairs and teenage boys playing video games and looking at porn). But what I really wanted was a person: someone in Gwangandong who once knew me.
Of all people: you. Old Johnny! There you were, just inside your doorway, looking even frailer, more wizened, but still alive. Perched on your small orange stool among packs of Home Run Choco Balls and boxes of barley tea and cold cans of a soft drink called Human Water.
“Juh ashigessimnika?” I asked timidly, as honorific as the language gets. Do you know me?
Your eyes flickered. You nodded, even smiled. You knew me. But, naturally you withheld the words I’d been wandering the neighborhood to hear: Oday-ga-mani-ayo! Oh-too-kay-jihn-ussayo? Pun-guh-way-oh! Long time no see! How have you been? Nice to see you!
It’s been fifteen years, and I haven’t returned. You’re long departed by now; you must be. Maybe the faded orange awning still hangs; more likely, it’s gone. My last memory of you is set right there beneath it.
I was about to leave for good. My Korean vocabulary had run out, and I was backing out of your tiny store, bowing deeply. You didn’t stand up, but you grabbed a pack of melon-flavored chewing gum from the shelf by your stool and handed it to me.
“Subbiss-uh,” you said, waving me away as I fumbled for coins. Service. No charge. As in, forget it. As in, we both know you weren’t coming for gum.
And so in a way, I got it—recognition, acknowledgment. Not necessarily that I’d ever truly belonged in Korea, but that I’d really wanted to. That I’d tried. Looking back, I wish I’d sought something much simpler. How could I have left Korea without it? Old Johnny: I should have just asked for your name.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lavinia Spalding is series editor of The Best Women’s Travel Writing and author of two books: Writing Away and With a Measure of Grace. She introduced the e-book edition of Edith Wharton's classic travelogue, A Motor-Flight Through France, and her work appears in numerous print and online publications. Her favorite place on nobody else's list? One of the most remote towns in the lower 48: Boulder, Utah, population 223.
Photo by Charles Law