The poor child is probably going to associate ginseng with brown skin for the rest of his life now, and not in a favourable way either, if the horrible way he scrunched up his face after his mother popped it into his mouth is a hint to go by.
He was a good sport about it for a few minutes though. Young enough to get excited at being given candy, by a foreigner at that, but also old enough to know that it’s impolite to spit out candy so cheerfully and generously gifted to you by a nice, glowing brown-skinned girl from who knows where.
Playfully gifted too, I might add. Feeling especially benevolent after finally succeeding in securing a charming apartment in a pleasant neighbourhood close to the school, I had, uncharacteristically, responded to the shy curiosity I sensed coming from the little boy half-hiding behind his mother in the shop.
She sat on a stool at one end while her husband, shirtless in the heat, fixed shoes and reproduced keys at the other. Usually, having had my fill of indulging curious children all day long at school, I haven’t the energy for more of it by the time I venture out into the city. I was halfway through my restful vacation, however, and as mentioned before, also on a cautious high after a long morning of bargaining and translating had concluded in a one-year lease being signed.
So instead of just handing over the candy to the little boy, I first hovered the open bag in the air, suggesting with my various facial expressions that he come and help himself. All I got for that was giggles and further mommy-hiding. So I took one individually wrapped piece out and placed it on the counter, which stood about a little more than a head taller than the boy. Immediately, he recognized the game I was up to and stuffed himself further behind his mother, although his giggles now suggested that he would be ready to come out and play, given a bit more nudging. So I placed, two, three, and four candies in a line along the counter, by which point he just couldn’t contain himself anymore. Dashing out, he scooped them all out and hurtled back to the safety of the corner where mommy, fully enjoying the show, sat laughing.
Taking my cue from him, I unwrapped one candy and popped it into my mouth. Immediately, I knew it was going to be disaster from then on. All that remained to be seen was whether the kid would keep up the front or spit that nasty thing – an insult to all candy – out right away, as I wished to do. Together, though, mirroring each other’s grimaces of horror – me magnifying my reactions for his benefit – we kept trying to like the candy as his dad, amused but busy, worked at reproducing my new apartment keys.
By the time dad finished his work and I was paying up, though, the poor kid couldn’t take it anymore. Not only did he finally relent and let mommy’s hand receive the loathsome rock from his mouth, but he couldn’t let me leave without returning the rest of its’ offensive wrapped cousins to me. He did so with as much energy as he’d scooped them up, dashing out to the counter and slamming them down, finishing off the gesture with a shove of the small pile towards me. There were laughs all around, of course. Even without language we all understood that I had meant well, but this really was not candy. It’s what adults call “candy” to make themselves feel better for having to pop all kinds of miserable-tasting herbal remedies into their grown-up mouths to benefit their ailing organs.
We’ve all been children once, of course, and if my memories serve me right, incidents like these – and this one having such an unforgettable sensory marker – stay with you for life. If the kid never touches ginseng again, I will be the last one to be surprised. I just hope he remembers that, just as he did, I too tried to be a good sport about it. As he shoved the refused candy back towards me and I guiltily but smilingly collected them back into the bag (which I trashed less than an hour later), one straggler got left behind on the counter. I pretended not to notice it as I walked off with my new set of keys among the general smiles, waves and “xie xie”s.
Maybe he kept that one piece, as a memento of an encounter with a brown foreigner, if nothing else. Maybe mom tossed it in the trash, being instinctively angered that her little boy should suffer any of life’s unpleasant surprises so early on. Maybe dad gave it a go, his body being no doubt already a little achy from the hard work of supporting a family and so perhaps needing the extra boost of ginseng energy.
I’ll never know. What I did know, though, was that there had to be something wrong with the candy if your future landlord gives you bags of it, even as he claims it to be a Korean specialty. An indication of future relations? I hope not. I for one could do with a few less surprises in my life.