Korean Happy Birthday

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By Wendy Hodge

Today is Thursday. The plant where I work is busy, as always. My co-workers, local and Korean alike, are going about their day as usual. Because it’s only a Thursday. It also happens to be my birthday. Don’t ask me how old I am – it’s not polite. I will tell you, though, that I’ve had a ton of birthdays by now; this is the first Sept. 24 in years where I have not been greeted at work by some combination of balloons and singing, or flowers and gifts and cards. And I like this for a change. This is what I wanted – the anonymity of a job where I keep my head down, do my work and leave promptly at 4:00 every afternoon without a backward glance.

That’s not to say I don’t like the people here. As I’ve written before, my co-workers are polite and work hard. There’s no work tension, no cliques or “mean girl” behavior. Everyone is far too busy for any nonsense. We greet each other and high five occasionally, but that’s really all we have time to do. A manufacturing plant is like one big machine – always rolling.

My trainer, Que Soon, goes solely by Croissant now. My nickname for her has taken hold. Today she seems a bit withdrawn. A nod is all I get in lieu of a “good morning.” The twinkle in her eye is absent. I am worried about her.

But as I said, the machine rolls on, so I power up my station and get to work. The morning rolls smoothly. Working with my hands in a fast-paced routine allows my mind to focus on something else entirely. That’s another bonus to this job – I have written articles in my head, come up with new craft project ideas and made countless mental to-do lists, all while my hands do their work.

Around mid-morning, I leave my station and ask Yeo Sun, another Korean trainer, if I could please have a new pair of work gloves. Mine are covered with glue and getting a bit threadbare in a couple of spots. She looks up at me from all of her four-foot nine-inch height and says (rather gruffly), “No. No. Ah-gloves given only two weeks. Too soon!” And she hurries off to handle a new group of trainees.

This surprises me. Yeo Sun is not as chatty as Croissant or the other Korean women here, but she’s never been so abrupt. I walk back to my station, with my yucky old gloves and feeling slightly less delighted with my day. I think of all my past birthdays and how they’ve changed over time. Most were wonderful, a few were not; but I am grateful I’ve had them all. At this moment, I feel a wistfulness for the old days: for a desk where I could arrange some pictures and my little bamboo plant and where flowers or a card might have been waiting for me this morning.

The lunch chime rings. We don’t have bells or alarms here; instead there are beautiful chimed tunes that play for the start of the day, for break times and lunch, and for the end of the day. I think they’re lovely. On my way to the break room, I see Croissant standing by herself. Should I keep my head down? I can feel my leftovers and my longing for anonymity calling me to walk on by, but I can’t help myself. She looks up as I approach, and above her mask her eyes are filled with tears.

“Croissant?” I say quietly.

“Ah-Winnie,” she says. “You see I am crying?”

“Yes, I do see that. Are you okay?”

“I okay but not great okay.”

I wait a moment, afraid to push too far. Croissant, and her Korean counterparts, are genuinely kind but they are not open and forthcoming with emotion. It feels like a risk to try to get closer to her, but I take the chance anyway.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

She hesitates, but then says, “I miss my home. Not been to Korea in so long time.”

I can’t imagine what she’s feeling. All I know to say is this: “Tell me what you love about your home.”

And it is like a floodgate has opened. She tells me of her home in a small town where her family has lived for generations. She has a beloved grandma who sits in a rocking chair and brushes all the grandchildren’s hair while telling stories of the honor of their ancestors. The Korean word for grandma is “halmeoni.” When Croissant says it, it sounds like a sigh – full of love and longing. Croissant misses the sounds of Korea, the sound of her own language being spoken everywhere. She misses Patbingsoo and cheese Galbi, banana milk and bungeobbang. I have no idea what these dishes are and promise myself to Google them later; but just talking about them makes Croissant’s stomach growl.

“And most of all I miss my husband,” she whispers. “I have not seen him for so long. And today is his birthday.” I hold my breath for a second or two and then tell her that, “today is my birthday too.”

“Today?” she says, her eyes brightening a little.

“Yes. Today. I am officially a little older today,” I say, and we both laugh.

“You go have happy lunch, Ah-Winnie.” And she is off, hurrying away, seemingly on a mission.

While I eat, I try to imagine what it would be like to be on the opposite side of the world from where you belong with so many miles between you and the people you love. Suddenly my dingy gloves and my work station with no birthday balloons seem like precious things. I have my best friend waiting for me when I leave here today, just a few miles down the road. He is cooking my favorite dinner and will welcome me home with a hug and I will be exactly where I want to be.

Eager to finish the day, I go back to my station. Perched on top of my work basket is a shiny red apple and a new pair of work gloves. I stand there a moment, just looking at them, and then I hear singing. Croissant, Yeo Sun, several other Korean trainers and the company president, Mr. Kim, gather around my station. Have you ever heard the Happy Birthday song in Korean? It will make you smile – you won’t be able to help yourself. Some of my co-workers pause to sing along, the American and Korean words tumbling over each other. When the last note fades away, the high fives begin.

Finally, the group disperses and work resumes. Only Yeo Sun and Croissant stay behind. “For you, Ah-Winnie,” Yeo Sun says. “New work gloves. One week early.” She reaches for my right hand and places the gloves across my palm. She pulls her mask down to smile at me. “Happy birth-ah-day.”

“And this is from me.” Croissant places the apple in my other hand. “Because you are ‘head of class.’” Her eyes are clear and shining again. “Thank you for making heart happy on this birthday.” And they are gone, back to tend to their jobs and to their own thoughts of birthdays and husbands.

So this is what 53 looks like: new gloves and an apple … and new friends and old ones … and so many reasons to hurry home every single day. Now I’ve gone and done it – I’ve told you my age. So much for being polite. And so much for my newfound anonymity. I think I’m good with that.

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