Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Showdown

It starts as I’m standing by the broccoli, even though I still have three more stops (garlic, mushrooms, eggs) before I get to her.  I look up and she’s there, standing by the giant refrigerator case of tofu.  Alone.  Waiting for me.

Oh, she looks sweet enough, an apron tied around her petite frame, thin wire-framed glasses perched on her nose, and shiny black hair cut into a neat bob.  When our eyes meet as drawn to each other, she smiles at me — a calculating smile? a victorious one? both? — and in spite of myself, I find I’m smiling back.  And then I know: she’s already got me.  

I look away quickly (awkwardly) and get back to the work of obtaining my groceries at the store that is sort of central to my life here in Busan, not unlike a Super Target in the States.  I even throw in an extra stop for carrots just to show her.  Not today, tofu lady!  Not today! No she will not have the power over me to get me to buy the tofu that I hate.  

I don’t always cook with tofu (even though I’m vegetarian), but when I do, I like it to be firm.  After months of going through the myriad options in the tofu case, I finally found the right one.  But every flipping time I go to the store, this woman is standing there with her little table loaded with a deal on tofu.  And like any good Korean salesperson, she will not let me leave the store without my amazing, money-saving deal.

The problem is, this tofu is the opposite of what I want.  It completely falls apart, even as I’m getting it out of the box.  It’s watery and slippery and everything that makes non-vegetarians think vegetarians eat gross food.  I don’t want to pay anything for it.  I would rather it not exist.  

My eyes narrow and my grip tightens, one hand on the stroller handle, the top of which is already balancing a big bag of apples and a bunch of bananas, and the other on the basket loaded with vegetables.  I square my shoulders and the self-talk begins.

“Okay, fine, you smiled back at her.  But that was just being polite to soften the ‘no’ you’re going to give her.  It doesn’t mean you have to buy the gross stuff.”  With every step, my inner voice gets louder and bossy like a drill sergeant.  “Put on your big girl pants!  You’re a grown woman!  You’re about to turn FORTY, for crying out loud!  You are strong!  You are capable!  You have endured!  She has no power over you!”

And now we are face-to-face.  We greet each other yet again with polite “Anyeong-haseyo.”’s.  I’m still smiling, but ignoring her tofu.  I won’t, I won’t, I won’t… If I just reach around her… wait, where is the one I usually get?  With deepening horror I realize: it’s SOLD OUT!  Meanwhile she’s making the sales pitch she always makes, and I shake my head and cross my arms in an X saying, “Anniyo.”  No. Just give me a minute.  I will find it!  My inner voice sounds just like the six-year-old me shouting at my big sister, threatening to become my actual voice, “YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!”

Then I hear myself countering in English, like I always do, “Thank you, but I like the firm one.  That one falls apart.  No good.  I want firm.”  She acts like she has no idea what I’m saying.  Clearly, she thinks I flush dollar bills down the  toilet for fun. “Why would anyone in their right mind want to pay extra for tofu?” she says to me (at least that’s my version of it).  I briefly consider typing “I want the firm one” into Google Translate on my phone, but given its track record especially with food items, I just know it would turn that into something dirty and inappropriate.  Where is the tofu I want?!  Nowhere.  Not today.

I feel like I’ve shrunk a few feet as I humbly take the tofu from her, plastering a smile on my face as her cheery voice calls after me, “Gomo woyo!”  Thanks.  “You’re a coward,” my inner voice hisses at me. 

On my way to the cash register, I grab a big bag of toilet paper. It will look a little funny perched on top of the stroller, but hey. You do NOT want to run out of T.P.  All is just fine till the cashier scans it.  She looks up at me.

“One plus one,” she says, then repeats herself in case I didn’t hear, “one plus one!”

I smile nervously.  I was already trying to figure out how I would get this much toilet paper home with my other groceries and the stroller.  No way can I get another one!  Besides, where would I store it in my apartment?  “Oh, that’s okay,” I say (yes, in English), “I can’t take it home right now anyway.”

She is astounded.  “One plus one!” she says with urgency.  She points back the way I came.  “ONE. PLUS. ONE!”  The people lined up behind me are murmuring amongst themselves, obviously questioning my sanity, and one of them even says, in case I didn’t understand, “One more free!”  

Okay, fine, here’s my white flag.  No way, I realize, am I leaving the store without my second huge bag toilet paper.  I race back to the aisle and grab it, then balance the two like a toilet paper tower on top of the stroller.  The cashier and other people in line smile, relieved to see that I’m not so crazy after all.

After a delicate and wobbly walk home, I take this picture in the elevator and send it to Matt who is away on a trip and say, “Well, the good news is, if we all get the stomach flu or food poisoning for a month, or decide to get colonics, or want to TP like seven huge houses, we are SET.”  

I believe that you should, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  And you absolutely should not buy things you don’t actually just because they’re a good deal.  Except...  sometimes you’ve just got to surrender to the bargain-loving ways of the people around you. When life gives you a 1+1 deal, smile, make lots of tofu scramble, and enjoy the free toilet paper.

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