Saying a lot with a little
It had been 12 years since we'd seen each other, and two long minutes since her flight had landed. I was beginning to think they'd never let the passengers off the plane.
Although I wasn't sure where we'd begin, I knew that words -- or rather, lack of words -- wouldn't get in the way.
During the two years I'd lived next door to Mrs. Lee and her family in Korea, I'd taught her all the English she knew. Unfortunately, that isn't saying much.
Teaching English, it turned out, was not my ultimate calling. But Mrs. Lee had graciously overlooked that and thrown her soul into the 100 or so nouns and verbs we eventually mastered. She was a magnificent mime and together we developed our own vaudevillian language, depending upon big, broad gestures and lots of heart for all our communication.
Mrs. Lee was also a natural teacher, and with only a couple of adverbs she showed me how to boil a respectable pot of rice and how to mince garlic without sneezing the house down. With pantomime, she helped me plant cucumbers, launder permapress blouses, and barter my way through the vegetable stalls of East Gate market.
As a reward for learning my housekeeping lessons, there were surprise adventures. Mrs. Lee would regularly appear at my back door to tell me to "make" my backpack because we were going to "make" a holiday. Sometimes we'd hike into the mountains to climb spectacular rock formations by day and sleep at isolated Buddhist temples by night. On other trips we'd catch a train to the southern provinces to explore ancient tombs of gold-crowned kings.
I never knew what to expect or how to ask questions, and this trip was no exception. We'd been inviting her to visit us for eight years, ever since she and her family had emigrated to the United States, and a week ago her daughter-in-law had written to say that Mrs. Lee was coming.
If only they'd let her off the plane!
Finally the doors to the arrival lounge opened and we surged forward with the rest of the waiting friends and relatives. We were still looking for her diminutive figure among the towering Americans when she spotted us. Wielding a single suitcase as wedge, she parted her way through the crowd and arrived at our side in a matter of breathless seconds. She bowed to my husband and said in carefully rehearsed English: "I'm very exciting to meet you."
We were pretty exciting to see her, too.
Mrs. Lee and I had tried to keep in touch over the years with letters and occasional long-distance phone calls, but without her irrepressible zest our exchanges had fallen pretty flat. As we caught up on family news on the way home from the airport, it was great to see her wide-eyed exclamations again. I was also intrigued by the American vocabulary she'd picked up -- "Kentucky fried" and "egg McMuffin" -- in spite of the fact that she and her husband lived in an exclusively Korean community on the West Coast.
As we got nearer home, she began to notice the roadside historical markers that told about our town's early settlement. She'd studied for her United States citizenship test with the same enthusiasm she brought to every project, and to hear her comments on the Pilgrims was to be transported back to 18 th-century village greens and summer festivals.
She was thrilled with our antique house but less than thrilled with my lack of progress in the kitchen. Before I could get the squash in the wok she'd grabbed my chopsticks and was patiently explaining, once again, how to fix tempura. This time she had a new illustration: the squash, she said, should first put on its"undershirt" (flour), and then jump into its "pullover" (egg batter). I think I've finally got it!
To save me further embarrassment, my husband suggested on the following night that we eat out for a treat. But the word "treat" only got us into a new predicament. Mrs. Lee wanted the dinner to be her treat, and kept telling the waitress so. Only after my husband had wrestled the bill to his side on the table and paid it did she give in. She was, she said, "thankful," but added with a sad stage frown, "my credit card is crying."
As the week progressed, we learned a lot from each other.She discovered that "washing up" before dinner meant a quick trip to the ink, not a full-scale bath; I learned to judge the exotic food she'd brought us by flavor rather than literal translation ("sea fungus" tasted much better than it sounded).
We were just getting fluent in word as well as gesture when it came time for her to leave. On our last lazy vacation morning, she set out to explore the creek in our back woods while I watered some plants out front.
Suddenly she came streaking around the corner. "Snak-uh!" she cried. "Bush-y!"
She had me stumped there. "Snak-uh! Bush-y!" could not possibly mean what it sounded like ("Snake! Bush!"), so there must be an easy explanation, a simple confusion of words. I was still trying to figure it out as she dragged me around the house and pointed to our flowering mock orange.There, nestled among the fragrant white blossoms, was the biggest -- and only -- snake in a bush I've ever seen.
Mrs. Lee certainly could come up with the right words she neede d them!