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Gavin Meet Garrett, Hmong

August 12th, 2014  |  Published in FEATURE, LITERATURE & VOCAB

955 pm. It’s 2005. Fall. Or was it spring? Evening classes end on Pyeongchon’s Hagwon-ga. Rows upon rows of buses (some like Greyhounds, others like mini-vans) are lined up against the curb. Drivers are standing around, smoking cigarettes, wishing they had cigarettes, bumming cigarettes. They’re there to wait. Wait for…it.
Hagwon-ga Pyeongchon
Within minutes, hundreds of bodies pour out onto the broad sidewalks on either side of a long street populated by seemingly hundreds of privately run institutes providing educational services for anything, absolutely anything.

Volumes of screaming. I think it’s joy, but maybe it’s relief. Arms flailing. Some singing of K-Pop I can’t stand. A vast number of the students dart for the vehicles that will take them home after a long, long day made up of mostly no free time. The remaining older kids that take public transit head for any of the following:

(1) the middle-aged man or woman in the magazine/newspaper shack
(2) a nearby 7-11, Family Mart, Mini Stop or other branch of convenient store chain
(3) one of these bakeries: Crown Bakery, Paris Baguette
(4) some sit-down fast food place: (a) kimbap place (b) pizza place (c) burger place
(5) a random spot on the street perfect for standing around and whatever
(6) any one of the following street-food vendors selling: (a) ddeokpokki, deep fried randomness, and soondae (b) chicken on a stick (c) odeng (d) bread in the shape of fish filled with red bean paste or some kind of custard they called “fresh cream” although it was more like custard, not cream (e) pancakes I could never have the pleasure of eating because of my stupid peanut allergy

This is not an exhaustible list.

As all this is unfolding, I’m packing up my things, preferring to wait for the relative calm that is to come in 10 minutes.

The walk from the institute to Pyeongchon or Beomgye station is maybe 20 minutes. Comfortable weather. Gave me an excuse to check out a new eatery.
hagwonga1  journeyofshwa.files.wordpress.com

At a street corner waiting for a light, a middle-aged man is saying something to me in Korean. Words are coming in fast. No idea. I use my crutch: “Uh…han-gung-mal jal mot-hae-yo.”

“Oh! You ah not-eu Korean? You looks-eu Korean.”
“Yeah. I’m…not.”
“Ah. Whay-aw from?” (Where are you from?)
“Oh! Uh…Canada-saram ibnida.” Does that sound right? I wonder. Why didn’t I just say “Canada”? I think I’m trying to fit in.
“Ah. Canada!” said with emphasis on the first and third syllables.
10 seconds of silence. Light changes. Smiling and nodding as he walks away, “Have a goo-niiiigh!”
“Nae. Jalja.”

That was the third time today I found myself in that exact same situation with pretty much the same dialogue. And I learned later it’s pretty weird for a stranger to say “jalja” to a middle-aged man.

Keeping on. My left: New York Hot Dog. Hmm…

Open door. Bell rings.

“Oh hello.”
“Just a second.”
“Sure. Of course.”

Decisions decisions. Seconds tick. Tick. Tick. Just pick. I pick.

“Hey, your English is pretty good.” There was another customer in there along with me that I absolutely ignored when I walked in. That was him talking.
“Thanks. Yours too.”
“Haha. Let me guess: “Hagwon-ga. English. Young-aw sun-saeng-nim!
“Hah. Naaaae….
“That’s all I got.” I would soon find his Korean was worse than mine. In about 2 years he would be fluent. I would remain basically monolingual with French not good enough for a government job.
“I’m not much better. You a ‘teacher’ too?” I do finger quotes.
“Infotainer. ‘Teacher.’ Yup.” He does finger quotes.
“You CBC? ABC?”
“You know CBC? Hah. Yeah, CBC.”
“Ooo Canadian.” He sang it like that’s how the anthem went. And it doesn’t.
“American. San Francisco.” Or was it Sacramento?
“Oh. ABC?” I just threw that out there. I actually had little idea what his ethnic background could be. A part of me thought he might be mixed. He kind of looked south-east Asian, but not really Filipino, not really like any Indonesians I’d met. I threw out Chinese anyway. 1.2 billion plus the diaspora. Seemed like a good bet.
“Nah, man. I’m Hmong.”
“Hmong. It’s a people. Human beings.”
“How do you spell that?”
“Well, not the way it sounds.” He spells it out.
“Oh. Interesting.”

So we talk. He explains the Hmong story. From the way he was talking, I got the feeling this wasn’t the first time he was explaining himself to someone like me: a grown-ass man, university degree, and still largely ignorant about the world. It really made me think I had to start getting out more. Well, I moved to the other side of the world. I figured that was a step in the right direction. He went on to explain Hmong history in China and the Vietnam War, refugees in the US and how a lot of them that came over found themselves in random pockets of the country like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

One thing leads to another and I find out he’s also big on Asian American film and film is what he did back home. We talk about the scene in LA and what we thought of Asian diaspora media. We talked about Better Luck Tomorrow and what that meant for culture back in 2002.

Meeting Garrett was really one of those small but big life-changing events in my life. It’s in my list of top pleasant surprises and there’s some good company there: Transformers for the first time, discovering the secret of grilled cheese sandwiches is buttering the outside of the bread, mayonnaise. It was cool knowing another Asian outsider in the city. Little did I know that the longer I would stay in Seoul, the more diversity I would encounter and realize there was far more to that city than what was in those TV shows and music videos.

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