It was pouring in Mok-Dong. The streets were empty, except for the squids in their tanks, sitting in front of restaurants, waiting to be summoned by an undiscriminating customer, and Steven and me. We were walking back to our apartments in the rooming house we stayed in. Our rooms were barely bigger than the tanks those squids floated around in. When it rained we’d have to close the windows, but the rain wouldn’t cool the heat, and the air in our rooms would boil.
“Do you know where we are?” I asked Steven. He had a better sense of direction than I had, and he typically led when we walked.
We must’ve looked preposterously out of place. On a rainy night that kept everyone else indoors, we were two white men roaming the streets of Mok-Dong. It was the summer of 2009 and I’d been in Korea for only a few weeks. The neon lights from the storefronts kept everything bright. There were no cars on the streets, and the soft glow of neon reflecting off the rainwater made the concrete look wet and clean.
In the near distance, an elderly Korean woman came wobbling towards us. She moved awkwardly, as if she was on stilts. Later I’d learn the word for older Korean women – aujumma. It really just means “Mrs.” The term has a negative connotation, though, and hearing it from time to time might be, I guess, why aujummas are consistently in a hateful mood.
“Think she’s drunk?” I asked.
Steven shook his head. “Women don’t get drunk in public,” he said. “I think she’s just…I don’t know…old.”
Getting nearer, I squinted to get a better look. She was heavy and wrinkled, her fat fingers wrapped around the neck of her umbrella. Her eyes looked straight ahead. She was only about ten paces away, but she never once shifted her pupils to take even the slightest glance at us.
As we were about to pass each other by, the aujumma lost her footing and tumbled off the sidewalk. Her umbrella fell from her hand and her face bounced hard off the street. Steven and I stopped, watching while she lied there on her belly. She flipped herself over and sat up. I could see a thin stream of blood coming from her forehead and running down her face.
“Jesus,” I said. “Should we help her up?”
Sitting in the street, her eyes still refused to acknowledge our presence.
“No way,” Steven said. “She’ll seriously freak out if two white guys start grabbing at her.”
The old woman tried to rock herself to her feet but couldn’t. The rain drenched her short black hair.
I watched her and waited. Why wouldn’t she look at me? I wanted her to reach her hand towards me, to tell me it was okay to help her up.
“We shouldn’t keep staring at her,” Steven said. “She’s probably scared.”
By the way she kept her face tilted down, I knew he was right. We looked around for help but couldn’t find anyone. Then we turned and started walking back in the direction we thought our rooming house was in.
The last time I looked back to see her, she was still sitting there. She looked peaceful, perfectly content to be sitting out in the rain, alone.