Wednesday, October 12, 2011
The Ladies of Park Tower
Every afternoon, the comfy chairs and tables in the lobby of our apartment building are taken over by a group of between 3 and 8 elderly Korean women. These women are, for the most part, tiny, wizened, grey-haired ladies who must be in their 70s and 80s, old enough to have lived through the horror and privation of the Korean war and now undoubtedly enjoying a comfortable retirement, cared for and revered by doting children and grandchildren. Around 2 or 3pm each day, probably after a delicious lunch prepared by a dutiful daughter-in-law, they begin to totter out of the elevators, some using walkers or canes, one in a wheelchair pushed by a friend. These women - who, in Korean culture, are treated with the greatest respect - spend each afternoon ostensibly playing mahjong, but, I imagine (if my friends and I are anything to go by) mostly just talking, enjoying each other's company, and keenly observing the comings and goings of their fellow apartment dwellers through the glass walls of the lobby.
A few days after school started this year, Son #2 commented to me that, each afternoon as he came home from the school bus, the ladies stared at him through the glass lobby walls as he walked into the building towards the elevators, and that it made him feel uncomfortable. We had a little talk about cultural differences (Korea is a fairly homogenous society, and, as such, foreigners are still very much an anomaly; it is not unusual at all for a Westerner to be stared at openly and with frank curiosity) and why the ladies might be staring at him. I also pointed out that the ladies would probably welcome a polite bow or a smile as a friendly gesture. In typical 14-year-old fashion, he greeted this suggestion with rolled eyes and an inquiry about what there was to eat, and the topic was dropped.
About a week ago, there was a school holiday, and Son #2 and I happened to be returning home together in the afternoon. As we approached the building near the lobby, I could see the mahjong ladies looking at us, and, as we got closer, I noticed them begin to smile, wave, and nod in the friendliest way. As I bowed back and began mentally composing a motherly treatise on the importance of friendly manners, intercultural communication, and general kindness, I realized that the ladies were still in a flutter of smiles and waves, and they were clearly not directed at me. Puzzled, I glanced over, and realized that it was Son #2 who was the object of their attention. He was bowing, smiling, and waving, and it was obvious to me that this was a regular occurrence, because the ladies were clearly delighted, nudging each other, nodding, waving, and smiling back at Son #2 as we made our way through the lobby to the elevators. Son #2 took all this in stride, entering the elevator and pressing our floor button with a final wave to his doting geriatric fan club as the doors closed behind us. When I finally regained speech, I - naturally - asked him about this little exchange. He explained to me that he had been greeting the ladies for over a month, ever since our conversation, and that it had become a daily routine.
I thought this was wonderful and told him so. He confessed that he'd felt a bit silly bowing and waving at first, but that he looked forward to it now. "You know, Mom," he said thoughtfully, "not to be conceited or anything, but I think they're really happy to see me."
You know what? I think they probably are, too.