When we arrived at Insa-Dong I was astounded at the volume of shops present. Everywhere I looked I saw a shop. Many were similar in nature; textiles, hand-pressed papers, dried and seasoned fish, and an abundance of trinkets and ornaments. Between all of the shops were street performances, pansori. My muscles ached as we walked through the streets. At the same time my hand numbed with each stride. After some time of walking aimlessly through the market, I approached an older gentleman behind one of the booths. The man had a thin long beard protruding off his chin, wore thin-framed circular glasses low on his nose, and had a black beret on top of his head. I examined the contents of his table. On it was beset a plethora of abstract shiny metal structures, vases, and small painted rocks. I picked up one of the rocks, which was painted white with a black Korean inscription. Some of the characters were emboldened in red paint. Sooncheon took the rock from my clutch.
“I’ll get it for you,” he said solemnly.
Sooncheon’s gesture was warm and kind.
“No, no. I can’t accept that, Sooncheon. Thank you for the gesture, but you’ve already helped through your hospitality,” I countered.
Sooncheon’s face bore no expression. He stood resolute in his decision, closing his eyes, waving his hand in a ‘no’ format, and tilting his head in rejection.
“It’s okay,” he replied, before continuing, “as a soofenair from Seoul.”
Sooncheon considered his words and spoke again, “and because of the fire ant and Gyeongbokgoong.”
I knew any attempt at arguing Sooncheon’s decision was frivolous, so simply thanked him. I brought my hand to my mouth and nibbled a loose nail off a finger on my good hand. A quiet shameful sort of feeling crept in as Sooncheon exchanged some won with the merchant and handed the rock to me. I forced a sheepish smile and awkwardly patted him on the shoulder. The puffy red jacket compressed. I slipped the rock into my backpack.
As we continued making our way through Insa-Dong, Sooncheon piped up at the sight of Korean BBQ.
“Oh, now’s our chance! Korean BBQ! You want some?”
Sooncheon pointed gleefully at a smaller booth up the street. It was covered with thinly cut meats, steaming vegetables and sticky rice and produced a charming, magnetic smell. I was quite hungry after all the walking and time without eating. I happily accepted the idea, handing Sooncheon some won to cover the cost. When I offered to pay for both of us, Sooncheon refused; his face dismayed like something foul had invaded the air. I put a small strip of beef in my mouth. It melted upon impact in an unnaturally satisfying way, like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was nothing like the makgeolli. The beef was so tender I couldn’t remember ever eating anything softer. A baby could have eaten it, I thought. It had amazing flavour, a sort of tangy zest that scattered across the mouth. It was simply the best beef I had ever eaten. I exhaled deeply as I ate another strip, tilting my head back and looking up at the sky.
Sooncheon smiled bashfully in my direction. “Good, right?” he insisted.
I nodded emphatically as I ate more. Later, my stomach began to rumble, like a tiny amusement park was opening for the first time inside my stomach and all the tiny rides were activating, churning about. At first I thought nothing of it, but the sensation grew and began to take over. Soon, my arms and chest were perspiring and dampened my clothing, creating a shiver. Then my throat began to narrow. I forced breaths.
Sooncheon turned around abruptly and faced me. It was at this moment that he brought his hands to his mouth, covering his gaping expression. What was wrong?
“Your face,” Sooncheon stammered.
I brought two fingers from my numbed hand to my face, sensing nothing out of the ordinary.
“What?” I hissed between the breaths of air.
Sooncheon stood stoically in front of me and replied flatly, “it’s all swoll and red all over.”
A firework went off in my chest. I intuited that I was having an allergic reaction. My knees quivered and I strained to hold back a dry cough, glaring at Sooncheon.
“Epi-pen,” I instructed.
I’m not sure if Sooncheon didn’t know what an epi-pen was or simply didn’t know its translation, but I didn’t care.
“Yes, epi-pen! I’m having an allergic reaction to the beef, can’t you see?!”
White foam foamed in the corners of my mouth and my body began to shake like a stiff tree in a windstorm. Sooncheon snapped into action, fearful but dogged. He called the ambulance, or, googeubcha, to assist. I began to convulse. Spit drooled out of my mouth and my eyes watered. My body was hot like fire and drenched with sweat. Somehow out of flux though, a cold sensation shot through it like a frosty arrow. Minutes later the googeubcha arrived and forced an epi-pen into my thigh and, for at least a few moments, relief came. Hundreds of passersby looked onwards at the escalating situation. It was like a repeat of the previous day’s Gyeongbokgoong incident. The onlookers only served to heighten the terror I was experiencing. It wasn’t long after that a medic hurdled me onto a stretcher, pushed me into the back of a van, and rushed to the Seoul National University Hospital. Sooncheon scrambled behind. When I got to the hospital, the ER doctor began inspected my hand, thinking it was the cause of the anaphylactic shock I was experiencing. By the time Sooncheon arrived I had received four epi-pen injections. A series of medical tests were conducted in the time following. Sooncheon sat curiously next to me, marveling at the intricacies of the machinery in the ER department of the hospital. After some time, the novelty of the machines wore off and he retreated to mindless games on his iPhone while I stayed in recovery. I remained there for several hours. By the time I was discharged it was 9:30pm and it had cost me another 5,000 won. A fog had set over the city as we walked to Sooncheon’s car at the far end of the parking lot.
“You want to go to Seodaemun-gu? It’s a bubble tea place not far from here.”
I looked at Sooncheon to assess his expression. This had to be a joke.
“No I don’t want some fucking bubble tea. I’m DONE Sooncheon! Take me home please. I’m done with Seoul! Fuck Seoul!” I yelled.
Sooncheon’s eyes enlarged momentarily and a lady on the far side of the parking lot stopped playing with her keys to look up at the ensuing altercation. Visions of fury crowded my thoughts: a smashed phone, two public embarrassments, a one-in-a-million fire ant bite, anaphylaxis, the list went on. Sooncheon stopped his walk and stood silently like a mouse in a lion’s den. He faced me, studying my expression, wondering how to react. Then his head drooped in defeat like a puppet dropped from its string.
“Okay,” he murmured dejectedly under his breath.