One night, after working out at the gym, I walk into the newly opened coffee shop nearby in search of fresh fruit juice. The lights are dim, and the chairs are hanging upside-down, legs in the air, off the tables big enough for only two or four people. Two women, one old enough to take the role of the mother, the other young enough to play the daughter, pop theirs heads up from behind the counter. I stumble for words. Because I’m in Korea and I think they won’t understand me. After a moment, I say, “You’re closed? Finished?” Synonyms help, and Koreans seem to be more familiar with the word “finished.” But the women give no answer. I glance around the small room, ready to leave, then I see the young boy sitting on the only chair with its legs in the proper place at the table near the window and door, where I’m standing. A workbook lies open in front of him. He’s 10 or 11 years old and doing homework at 10:30 at night while his family closes up shop. His doing homework this late is normal here, so normal I’d never think twice about it. He looks up at me and says with the confidence of a native English speaker, “Yes. Finished.” The women behind the counter smile and laugh quietly. I smile, too, and say to him, “Thank you. Bye.” As I turn to leave, the mother says, “Annyeonghi ga-seyo.”
No fresh fruit juice, but I walk home in the cold, grinning all the same.