There is a light drizzle of rain, but I can’t be bothered opening the umbrella. Instead, I spot an available cab and flag it down. We tell the cab driver our location as we climb into the back. He thinks about it for a few seconds and suggests a route slightly different from how we usually get home. Jeeun is too tired to argue, so whichever way he wants to go is fine. We both sink back into the leather seats, briefly searching for the absent seat-belts, while hoping sobriety will catch up with us before we get home. It is late, so we just re-cap the soap-opera lives of our friends — I can’t believe she said that, I couldn’t believe he did this, and so on.
“So where is he from?” asks the cabdriver in a coarse voice, assuming that I don’t speak any Korean. I’m fine with that. That means I don’t have to deal with it. “Canada?” he suggests, which is basically a polite way of asking if you’re from the US.
“No. My husband is from Norway.” Jeeun replies, consciously pointing out our marital status. This has proven to be a mood-enhancer when speaking to older Korean generations. Our driver falls well into that category with his tough and weathered skin, resembling that of an old fisherman. He has a few patches of grey hair, and hands that have seen their fair share of manual labor.
“Norway… Is that in the US?” the cabdriver continues.
“No, it’s a country. It’s in Europe.”
“But Canada is close to the US, right?”
“Yes, it is right to the north of it.”
He nods and stays silent long enough for us to switch back to our conversation, runs a few red lights, performs an illegal U-turn, and jumps onto the freeway.
“The soccer coach. Where was he from?” He is referring to Gus Hiddink, a Korean national treasure since the 2002 World Cup.
“He was from the Netherlands” Jeeun replies politely, cutting our conversation mid sentence.
“So…Is that in the US?”
“No, that is also in Europe”
“Close to Norway?” the cabdriver wonders.
“It’s a little further south. Norway is next to Sweden and Finland. Up north.”
Another nod confirms that he has now firmly placed all these countries on the obscure map in his head.
He pulls out a pack of cigarettes, and asks our permission to light one. His voice screams ‘throat cancer’, and his big ‘No Smoking’ sign in the front seems oddly out of place, but Jeeun tells him to go ahead. We get to squeeze another few sentences into our conversation before he cuts in again, pointing out his planned route is blocked off and we now need to figure out an alternate way.
“Do they speak English in Norway?”
“No. They speak Norwegian. They learn English in school, just like we do here in our country”.
“What about the Netherlands?” he continues. “Do they speak English?”
“They speak Dutch, but they also learn English in school”.
“So where do they speak French?”
“Uhm… In France” Jeeun suggests.
After a short pause spent digesting all this new information he turns on the ceiling light.
“But he looks American”, he says, looking at me through his rear view mirror.
“Well, he just looks Caucasian” Jeeun suggests. “To us they all look very similar, just like they have trouble seeing the difference between Asians.”
“So they can’t tell the difference between a Korean and a Japanese?”
“That’s right. They can find it very hard.”
“But in Japan they speak Japanese, right?”
“Yes. That’s right” Jeeun concurs.
Finally, he got something right. The conversation is fairly simple, so I’m following along with most of it. I admire Jeeuns ability to keep a straight face. We go in and out of tunnels, overpasses and small alleys, with the fluorescent green city of Seoul flying by our windows.
“So where do black people come from?” he wonders.
“Mostly from Africa” Jeeun replies.
“They are not slaves, …are they?”
“No, they’re not.”
“They are so dark” he points out. “ I have a hard time telling when they have washed their faces or not. But some of the black women are very pretty” he adds.
“Yes, they can be very pretty” Jeeun agrees.
Realizing he has taken us on a small detour, he turns off the meter a couple of minutes before we finally pull up in front of our apartment. We pay him and stagger out onto the curb while Jeeun translates the latter part of the conversation. It has stopped raining, and we let the crisp evening air fill our lungs as we laugh our way upstairs and into bed.