Number One Son and Girlfriend-in-law have landed in the Windy City. They proudly send me photos of their apartment as it comes together. Girlfriend-in-law gets a job at a pizza joint within 24 hours of her arrival. The boy is busy furnishing the apartment. He is like me in that way, fussy about how things look and needing to act on every idea immediately. We are hoping that the idea of employment emerges shortly as the Bank of Mom and Dad is out of business. I do miss our lively dinner conversation and watching movies with them. Girlfriend-in-law is nimble and creative in the kitchen and Number One Son smokes a mean salmon. Himself is, of course, companionable but has no interest in domestic matters and no patience for chit chat. When it's just the two of us, Anderson Cooper usually joins us for dinner.
Last week is spent converting the boys' basement dungeon into a space suitable for a teenage girl. I hang prints of old fashion magazine covers, add jasmine scented softener to the washer when I launder the linens, provide ceramic containers with q-tips and cotton pads and arrange a big bunch of roses. I think I remember every detail, and then some. The only hitch is that the full length mirror I order arrives shattered. The final step prior to our foreign exchange student's (I will call her Ji-Woo—a popular Korean girl's name, but not hers) arrival is a thorough cleaning by our bi-weekly cleaning crew in order to remove carpentry litter and any schmutz I've overlooked. I send the cleaning boss a text asking her to pay extra attention to the basement bedroom and am eager to see the results when I get home. I scurry down to the basement and discover that it hasn't been touched.
When the kids are home the space is so hopeless that I have the cleaners either do a cursory sweep and dust or nothing at all. Apparently my text is unnoticed and when the cleaners ask Himself about the basement he instructs them to leave it alone. We've been married so long that we rarely bother to summon the steam required to get angry at each other. I make an exception. I beg the cleaning lady to return, which she does, without crew, and insist that Himself pay her. The money of course comes from our joint account but replacing it will require Himself to either figure out how to use an ATM machine (unlikely) or ask me to get him some cash, which he knows will remind me of his remarkable lapse in judgment.
Ji-Woo has been with a family in Glendora while attending Citrus College. I know that she is nineteen years old. I try to get a little information from the current host family but they only share that she dislikes carrots and celery. She arrives with a retired couple who have hosted foreign students for years. They look around the house and notice a menorah, which I guess, as they've been corresponding with the Murphys, is a big surprise. It turns out that they are Jewish and Ji-Woo has had Shabbat wine and challah with them. I assume that the woman is a bit older, bigger and louder than (at least as I perceive myself) I am but I would imagine we would be considered the same “type.” In that only about 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish I wonder how this might skew Ji-Woo's perception of Americans.
Himself says that I come on too strong and risk overwhelming the girl but I've been ruminating for weeks about this stranger from a strange land who is to join our family and am insanely curious. After Ji-Woo unpacks I offer to take her for a ride around the neighborhood, which I presume is more interesting than Glendora, where she's been. After I worry that her English might be minimal she explains that she attended a Catholic high school in Utah where she boarded with a Mormon family. I ask her if there's anything she needs for her room and without hesitation she requests a full length mirror.
We purchase the item at Target and walk around the Galleria and the outdoor Americana. I note that the only shopping I do is on-line and explain how she can get to the shopping center herself if she's interested. From there we go to a nice Korean market. She confesses that she dislikes kimchi. Fortunate, for while I am indifferent to the stuff I know that the aroma alone would be Himself's undoing. She helps me select some products and patiently corrects about fifty times my botched pronunciation of “panchan” (little side dishes accompanying a main course).
Not only does Ji-Woo hate kimchi, she has no interest in science or math. She's gravitating now towards psychology and is sure that the major she eventually chooses will definitely be in liberal arts. Her familiarity with western culture is scattershot. She loves Adele but hasn't heard of Elvis or the Beatles. Number One Son has an affinity for Korean films and texts me the name of some favorite directors. He mentions that Hong Soo is the Korean Woody Allen and Ji-Woo notes that Hong Soo is currently out of favor for cheating on his wife. She hasn't heard of Woody Allen but when I explain that he married his stepdaughter she knows immediately that it's the Korean girl Soon Yi.
Ji-Woo likes musicals and says that Grease is a favorite. I show her Bye Bye Birdie. The art direction and costumes and super-saturated Technicolor are as I remember and she likes the film. On a whim, and as it's considered one of the best American comedies, I show her Animal House, which I haven't seen myself in years. I am surprised at what a big unbearable mess it is, more Three Stooges than cunning farce. The Fawn Liebowitz and dead horse business are still funny but I am embarrassed at how few and far between the other laughs are.
By chance, on another L.A. tour I take her on, we pass a number of Korean mega-churches. I have already sussed out that Ji-Woo is a Buddhist and am relieved that she has no mandate to convince us to accept Jesus as our personal savior. After the forth giant church, Ji-Woo confesses that the Korean evangelicals really get on her nerves. She's not crazy about Mormons either. She thinks that people should keep their religion to themselves.
When we cruise through Silver Lake Ji-Woo notes that she likes little neighborhood shops better than big chains. She even asks for a good place to score used clothes. I realize that my kids would like her but it will be awkward for them to come home while she is staying in their room. School for Ji-Woo doesn't start until Monday. She's been lolling about the house, watching TV and YouTube. I tell her that she can help herself to anything in the pantry and she's not shy and our reduced provisions indicate that she's indulging in some bored eating.
Ji-Woo's outstanding English is a relief. While I teach ESL I just don't feel like taking on that role at home. I admit that my other trepidation was fomented by stereotype and I feel like an idiot that it didn't dawn on me that not every Korean loves Kimchi, algebra and luxury retailers.
When I announce to the kids that we're hosting a foreign student the first response of both is, “You always wanted a girl.” I know that we're still in the honeymoon period and that it's inevitable that at some point a nineteen year old will get on my nerves. For now though, she loves flowers and musicals and is excited when I teach her to bake chocolate chip cookies. The bonus is that this relationship is not likely to be as fraught as real motherhood. Nevertheless, I like Ji-Woo and I think she likes me. With Number One Son and Girlfriend-in-law thousands of miles away I am fortunate to have a low risk outlet for my maternal instincts. Perhaps foreign exchange students will be what tides me over until grand-motherhood for which there is absolutely no hurry at all.