Moony grabs hold of my arm and adopts me as her mother within a half hour of our meeting. Warm heart,” she says of me. Her mom died soon after Moony’s birth and would be my age if alive. Moony pulls family, friends, and, in my case, a stranger, around her like a shawl. A year ago, a mutual friend from the States met her at an art gallery in Daegu while exhibiting his paintings as part of a cultural exchange between countries and gave me her contact information.
We meet in downtown Daegu, several subway stops away from Keimyung University where I recently arrived to teach English and American culture. Downtown is a confusion of streets and alleys that require navigational aid; none come with street signs, and shops luring potential customers with neon, tacky plastic scrolls and tinny music blaring through speakers further crowd out sense of direction. We retreat into an upstairs café.
“You come to my wedding,” she announces after a few sips of coffee and stretches her fingers and fashionably manicured nails on the table. Everything about her, her straight black hair perfectly clinched by a bow, the rouge a softer shade than her lipstick, and the sheen of her pink dress, seemed aimed at attracting a mate. Her eyes light up when she talks about her boyfriend who she met ten days ago and intends to marry. As stand-in mother, I warn her about her hasty decision, but she’s convinced. “He’s from Daegu, my hometown.” Common geography, like blood type, determines compatibility for Koreans. When we meet a few weeks later, he’s proposed. He wants her at his side at all times.
A week earlier, a fellow professor had told me about a boyfriend’s proposal. They enjoyed frequent conversation about art and philosophy and traveled to Germany and France together. “He said that once we married, I could do whatever I want — as long as I cook two meals a day.” Preparing two Korean meals demands hours of preparation, buying the ingredients from various food stalls, cutting the vegetables and meat, steaming the rice, creating the broth, cleaning up afterwards. Two meals could easily consume the day. She refused.
Moony gladly wants to cook. “I make good jin and kimchi.”“The right man must be kind, smart, handsome, with good job,” she explains. Hers, a grad student, features three of the four, the final one of job, she hopes, forthcoming. “He work for good company soon.”
At 28, living in Seoul and working at a translation company, she recently accomplished a significant segment of her dream, owning a Louis Vuitton purse, which she purchased during a business trip to Paris. She thrusts the treasure in my hand. I look it over as if inspecting a peach for bruises, pop open the clasp, and peer inside. No one has ever described me as Park Avenue or Paris chic. I’m happy with my brown backpack and, for dressier occasions, my black mesh bag. Whenever possible, I ditch both for pockets. “Nice stitches,” I say, hoping my comment pleases her.
She accepts that I may not want a Louis Vuitton bag, the price too high, but she cannot accept that my accessories exclude a husband.
“Why no husband,” she asks. I say nothing. The mere mention of a husband is enough to rip off the small scab forming at my heart. I twist in my seat with tense lips, hoping my tear ducts remain closed, and I can avoid a public display of grief. “I find you husband: kind, handsome, smart, with good job. Do you want Korean man,” she asks as if deciding upon a restaurant or ordering from the menu.
She invites me to her cousins’ ceremony an hour’s train ride away, in Busan, a city of four million people. A few days later, we sit side by side passing one rice field after another while she coaches me on a few phrases, niceties perhaps, but I suspect other motives. “Repeat: “Meo ci seo yo.” You are nice and handsome. “Ye peo yo.” You look very pretty. “Say it, say it,” she nudges with her elbow as she introduces me to a cousin on the stairwell of the wedding hall, a monstrosity of wedding kitsch, a litter of plastic flower arrangements amid Baroque free-standing columns, and upstairs, a gallery of photos with the wedding couple in halo, every limb and chin angle angelically positioned.
“Now,” she urges when she introduces me to her father in the lobby outside the main room. He speaks no English, and after repeated stumbles on my name, the r and l an impossibility to pronounce, I introduce myself as Soo Ji, the name given me by my grad students. I withhold telling him he looks pretty or nice or handsome, but bow instead, a gesture that wins me a spot in the family photo. A professor in a marriage photo portends good luck. Best they don’t know about my pending divorce, considered bad luck, or my backpack.
Primarily a western style wedding, the bride in a rented white gown walks behind the groom in a black tux, also rented, up to the dais to a recording of “Here Comes the Bride.” A friend of the family, an elderly married professor, speaks at length about the value of children, obedience, respect, and marriage. He stands from a pulpit, his hands reaching emphatically toward the lucky couple. When he announces the couple wed, in unison they bow from the waist to their respective in-laws.
The groom then takes it further, demonstrating the sincerity of his devotion by lowering himself to the floor for several push-ups. Between the raised and lowered elevations, he shouts words of love to the ground and to anyone within hearing range. Immediately after, the family departs to the music of Elton John’s “Daniel” to begin the Korean segment of the ceremony. In an adjacent room, the nervous couple have changed clothes for traditional garb of silk, blue and yellow brocade robes. They sit on the floor at a table to partake in formal introductions and receive good wishes for the happy (read: fertile) continuation of the family (read: patriarchy). The bride’s family sits on one side, the groom’s on the other, all on silk floor cushions.
I’m not eager for a husband again, not so soon, my heartbreak too raw. The one I had changed his mind about the importance of vows.
Korea is still largely a land of tradition. Men want a woman to cook, clean, and tend to children. The woman is expected to carry out his and his parent’s wishes to the neglect of her own. A husband and wife focus on family to the exclusion of much else, the very reason several of my students intend to avoid marriage. Women with jobs outside the home, an increase to their workload, are expected to maintain their duties as wife and mother, frequently without the man’s assistance. If marrying me, a Korean man would awake from his dream of domestic happiness in a stupefying tangle with the blanket.
“Wife, where is breakfast?”
“In the kitchen.”
“In the refrigerator.”
“You prepare it?”
“We prepare it. After my yoga and meditation.”
“We? What this word mean, we?”
As an American feminist, I believe in equality and choice. I accept no man, or woman for that matter, telling me what to do, particularly if the doing is based on an antiquated tradition. Unless it’s tango.
Lilly, her chosen English nickname to help us westerners avoid bungling their given names, is a forty-something pharmacist who has invited me to a tango party, a milonga, at a conference center on Palongsa Mountain. Like many of her generation and younger, there’s a growing interest in western practices and traditions. In addition to dancing tango, she hopes to open a wine bar despite wine, a recent arrival to Korea, costing three times the price as in the States. For now, she contents herself with tango.
“Tune, tune,” instructs my first partner, a banker and singer in the band. I’m new to tango, my dance background restricted to modern and improvisational forms, not social dances, and he gladly shows me the steps. He clutches my right hand, places my left hand on his upper arm, and wraps his right hand around my back. Synchronizing motion, tuning, he explains, is paramount, like saying hello with the whole body. We rock from side to side tuning to each other’s rhythms. “The man is always in control,” he says mid-beat. “The man leads, the woman yields. But the man must give her enough room to do her own thing and dance her pleasure.”
Do you want me to cook one meal or two, I don’t ask. His close proximity and our bodies in motion appeal to me, but not my role as follower.
He steers me around the floor with his left hand. A shift in pressure pushes me to the left or right, backward or forward, all in time to the music. “Back, back, side,” he says a few times before I memorize the instruction.
The tango style is characterized by a close embrace, small steps, and quick, syncopated footwork. If my partner holds his torso firmly yet flexibly, I can maintain my axis and share his while sliding or lifting my feet. Typically couples share an open embrace for the first dance and, depending on comfort, the man pulls the woman in closer so that chest or belly or legs touch for the second and third dances.
We dance for three songs, a tercet, the expected number for each couple before the man escorts his partner back to her seat. This arrangement is part of tango etiquette as is the necessity for the woman to await the man’s invitation onto the dance floor. He leads me to a chair and thanks me for the dance. There I sit. Alone. Unexpectedly I find myself back in high school, wondering if any guy will cross the room in invitation or accept mine onto the dance floor. But word spreads that there’s a modern dancer in the hall with great balance. This modern dancer, me, is also the foreigner, the only foreigner, the object of numerous circumspect glances, eyes peeking out over the shoulder of nearby couples. My seat remains vacant the majority of the evening.
My background in improvisational dance leads me to faux tango, movements with the flair and kick of tango but not its precision. I’ve seen enough tango performances to know the feel and look of the dance, but a lack of lessons lends itself to my making numerous mistakes. My experience, too, with contact improvisation, a partnered improvised dance with weight sharing and close touching, allows me to easily connect with a partner. I fearlessly turn my body toward my partners’ and align our energies and the reach of our flesh, a relationship of equality. With tango, I follow the men’s lead, read the signals of their hands, the angle of their torso. Somehow my imitation and attempts to follow work, and we generate a rhythmic flow and kinetic connection that transports us around the room carried by a graceful Argentine wind.
The skill and comfort of my partners vary widely, and when men determine the steps, they also determine the missteps. A few partners lock me in an inflexible grid of their motion with little room to breath, let alone dance my pleasure. “I sorry,” I hear. “I sorry,” I hear again. Sometimes they smile awkwardly. I await an opportunity to do my own thing, in the least to breathe expansively, but also to pivot, spin, bend, lunge, movements that reflect my dance training and, likely, my American psyche.
Luckily I am also asked to dance by relaxed partners who provide greater leeway. They insert a foot between mine, cause a change in direction or any motion whatsoever, invite me to hook my leg around theirs or slide it away. With their firm but allowing embrace, my feet move quickly or indulge in a long, slow stretch to the side or back, or trailing up their leg.
During a rare moment of me sitting in my chair, Lily comes over. Her face is slightly flush either from drinking the wine available in an adjacent room or from dancing. She points to several people seated in front of the window. “That one, he’s a pharmacist like me. That one is an architect. That one a doctor of Chinese medicine.”
“Which one is the doctor,” I ask. My hope during my stay in this country is to write an article about Buddhism, another about shamanism, and a third about Chinese medicine. The doctor not only embodies two of the three – he’s also Buddhist – but shares my interest in dance and spirituality. It’s hard to contain my excitement. “Can you introduce me?”
We walk over to him, my body tingling with anticipation, and he quickly follows through on Lily’s introduction by asking me to dance. He puts out his hand, I take it, and by the end our tercet, he says his first word. “Again?”
“Yes,” I beam.
We dance not only a second, but also a third tercet, his signals easy to read, our transport around the floor like two sailboats on calm seas. As he ushers me back to my chair, he says, “You tangotic.”
“I would like to talk with you sometime,” I say.
He nods in a way that suggests he doesn’t understand much English.
“I visit your office,” I ask, changing my word choice.
He moves his head side to side, as if saying no, then holds up a finger, a confusing, seemingly contradictory combination of gestures. Then he pulls out his wallet and hands me his business card.
When Moony texts me the next day to find out about my weekend and update me on her fiancé, I tell her I’ve met someone. Well, not one, but many.