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All Is Forgiven
by Thor May

..Around the trestle table is a raucous council of aged men in dark blue uniforms, with gold fillings in their teeth....

I have just come in from a 10km run, still cold in this season of mists. I head for the lifts, but before I can escape an ancient gent in a blue baseball cap blocks my path. His face is as brown as a walnut, and creased with deep lines. Two large gold fillings punctuate his smile. He has a message but we don't share a language.

No matter, he tells me anyway, in guttural Korean with lots of hand waves. There is a tent set up in the middle of the kid's playground, between the towering 18 story apartment blocks we call home here. A bit of a surprise really. In Busan, where I spent the last four years, nobody bothered much with Christmas, but I can't think of any other reason they'd be throwing a party for the security guards and cleaners. Our relationship has been a bit fraught. I arrived in Chungju on a rainy day three months ago, and hit the first prohibition. No, I couldn't take my stuff up in the lift. I'd have to pay W60,000 for a tower truck to lift it to the 8th floor. A week later the university finally delivered me a bed and a table and some chairs. They left it in the hallway outside my apartment. Things are pretty happy-go-lucky here.

But it was no time before a crotchety security guard was banging on my door. We had a non-conversation of hand signals and arm waving. The upshot seemed to be that I was supposed to pay him W10,000. Why? It smelled suspiciously like soju money. I gave him the university's phone number. They said it was a 'fee'. Well, let them pay. He got angrier and angrier. I didn't pay. It wasn't a good start, and we have been into black looks ever since.

The messenger sent to bring me to the Christmas tent isn't my old enemy. He is waiting, also in a blue baseball cap, and a little lightened by generous cups of soju. Around the trestle table is a raucous council of aged men in dark blue uniforms, with gold fillings in their teeth. The table is loaded with cold meat, tok and empty soju bottles, and half-filled paper cups.

My enemy gives no signal of past resentments. In fact this is his god-given chance to bury them. We go into an elaborate pantomime and he races off to get me a new bottle of soju and a clean paper cup. Kampai! But we must also break bread, or rather noodles. He returns a second time with a large dish of steaming noodles and a plate of kimchi. I am under inspection and instructed to eat. Nobody else is eating, but this is a ceremony. Noodles, kimchi, sweet tok, cold meat. They are all piled up in front of me. The soju flows and my head begins to float a bit. The old men banter and guffaw loudly. What's important is that we are all seen to share bonhomie, good bunuiki. Luckily, nobody expects me to understand a word.

All is forgiven. Now they won't put a hex on my bicycle in the car park, or scold me for placing rubbish in the wrong municipal plastic bag. Merry Christmas.

"All Is Forgiven "... copyrighted to Thor May 2004; all rights reserved

December 13, 2004