Squatting over an empty rice pot roughly the size of a tire, I looked up at him sheepishly. “Jeogiyo?” (Excuse me?) With a big smile he repeated back to me. He looked to the woman next to him and repeated what I said to her and laughed. It’s been seven months since I’ve been in Korea, and seven months since I started working at Saenaru every Thursday, and I didn’t know what to call this man who had been the head of the kitchen since we’d been here. At some point it got too awkward to ask. He is shorter than me and dark. His glasses rest over the friendliest eyes I’ve ever seen. His hands are worn like someone who has worked hard their entire life, and definitely someone who has gotten the kitchen to work like a well oiled machine. I’d wager a guess that he’s in his late forties, but he still playfully pushes us or bangs pots just to make us look up.
Thursday is the one day a week where all the Korean YAVs work together. When we first arrived we were pretty clueless. It was trial by fire at Saenaru and we were just thrown into the mix. We gained the scorn of the other kitchen workers when we couldn’t understand them, or didn’t know how much food to put in each section of the food tray. Over time we’ve earned the respect of the kitchen staff and gotten used to occasionally getting some kimchi juice on our shoes or on our arms when the gloves don’t quite do their job. We know how much to put in each section and know what jobs to do – from washing dishes to sweeping the floor and all the jobs in between. We got into a rhythm there even if we still sometimes get chastised for putting too much food or being too slow at serving rice. Serving soup fast enough without making a mess is a job we’re all still intimidated to do, though our friend who runs the kitchen is always happy to encourage us with a thumbs up and a, “Very good!”
A harder job has been to recognize clients faces outside of Saenaru. Many of the kitchen staff were previously clients of Saenaru, which is a community center that mainly serves the homeless and the nearly homeless. Many of the people who come for meals live across the street in tiny one room accommodations the size of a walk in closet.
Because of their housed status the government no longer counts them as part of the homeless population even though they are a very thin line away from the same. The people who come in the door are mainly older gentleman, but there are young men and old women who come as well. We see many of the clients of Saenaru around Daejeon – in the train station, on the street, under bridges – that I must confess were once invisible faces to me in Korea. Some also are clients at the homeless shelter we volunteer at as well. It’s taken some time to recognize that some of those forgotten faces are the people we see every week at Saenaru.
Recently our kitchen friend at Saenaru has been occasionally absent which made me worry that something happened to him. I can’t even ask about him because I don’t know his name! I have no photos of him, how would I remember him? The mild panic was eased when he walked through the door again after a week or two of being absent. I asked where he had been (a new thing I learned how to say recently) and he responded in Korean which I didn’t really understand. What I got was that he was making money… probably. Regardless I was glad to see him again. Caught up in how to ask what title to call him and not what his name is (it is considered rude to ask to someone older than you) I didn’t ask anything at all. So I was embarrassed but relieved when he realized I didn’t know what to call him when I was squatting over the industrial sized rice pots while he was teaching me how to clean them.
He squatted by the rice pot to be able to look me in the eye and said, “Seo jipsanim!” He explained to the woman next to him whom we’ve also grown very close to that I didn’t know what to call them, and she told me what to call her as well – “Jo jipsanim.” and she went on to explain in Korean something I didn’t quite catch, though I appreciated the care she took to say something to me. Rice paddle in my sticky hand I repeated their names and titles over in my head until it stuck. They both chuckled at me mumbling names to myself, but I won’t be forgetting any time soon.