My first thought upon leaving the airport at Incheon was that I had made a large, rather intractable error. While I had previously been aware that Koreans spoke Korean, I had somehow managed to convince myself that this would present only a minor problem. Literally millions of Koreans had already managed to learn the language by 2007, and though I recognized their superiority in mathematics and sartorial splendor, I was fairly certain that, if some of my acquaintances ability to speak “Enguhlishee” was any barometer, their capacity for language acquisition was somewhat lower than my own.
But riding in the back of a taxi and trying, unsuccessfully, to memorize the Korean name for the adjacent Han River (“is it the ‘ganhang’ or the ‘hangang?’”), I was wondering if I hadn’t made one too many decisions in the haze of late night dorm-room conversations. The script on all the road signs looked to be a series of pagodas, circles, and top hats, and the preferred form of communication appeared to be guttural caterwauling. I was surrounded by towering, indistinct apartment buildings. My first thought upon arriving in Seoul was that I would do well to leave a trail of breadcrumbs if I ever wanted to take a walk.
My close friend and boarding school dorm-mate Paul, who had been busy studying for the SAT, asked his mother to come and meet me at the airport. I’m still not sure how she found me, as I had never met her. Somehow though, the girl with whom I had been sitting on the plane ride introduced us, having ascertained that the two confused individuals at the gate were likely looking for each other.
My friend’s mother, fortunately, had done part of her mathematics dissertation (as previously implied, the stereotype is not unfounded) at Purdue, and as such spoke relatively clear English. Fortunately her English wasn’t any better than it was; otherwise I might have conveyed my paranoia to her (“I’m going to have to learn how to read that!?”). There were, after all, confusing pictograms in place of proper road signs, and an ever-increasing number of Asian individuals surrounding me. For some reason this did not appear to faze the Koreans, but I wasn’t sure that the fourteen-hour plane ride did justice to the real distance between my home and this country.
Paul’s apartment, where I would be staying for my first few nights in the country, was located in Sindorim(신도림), a section of Seoul which, in my opinion, has remained more Korean than many other neighborhoods, if only by virtue of lacking a clubbing scene for foreigners to enjoy. It isn’t far from the social center of the city, but is sufficiently distant to allow for a bit of autonomy from surrounding districts.
Among the many things I had underestimated, the effects of jetlag were beginning to set in as we reached the apartment. I lay down on the floor mattress that had been laid out for me and promptly fell asleep. Jet-lag sleep, for those who have not experienced it, is somewhere between a nightmare and a godsend, strangely vivid and surreal. One’s surroundings become confusingly intense, and one wonders, sometimes aloud, when it will all be over.
I awoke to Paul standing over me, who, under the inebriating effects of travel, appeared to be a Korean version of the Jolly Green Giant. Paul is, unlike his family members (and frankly, unlike his fellow countrymen), a big boy. I was happy to see him, though it might have been better if he had crouched down to say hello. Hoping to get a better idea of what awaited me in this country, Paul took me on a walk (I thought a leash might be appropriate under the circumstances but he assured me, after much threatening on my part, that he wouldn’t lose me). Turning right onto the main road by his apartment complex I expressed concern that I would never be able to learn Korean. In an effort to assuage my fears, Paul told me about an American Catholic priest who had come to Korea, and become somewhat proficient in the language. Having been somewhat relieved, he then added that the priest, confusing the Korean words for “egg” and “marriage (“kye-rahn” and “kyol-hohn”),” had once mistakenly told several members of his congregation that one of the things he enjoyed most was “marriage.” Although at the time I didn’t know enough Korean, I too would one day make such mistakes, including, but not limited to, accidentally asking a waitress on a date, and telling a grandmother that I had learned a new Korean word: “fucking (I had thought the word meant “large meeting of youth”).”
It appeared that, in addition to treading the proverbial waters a bit carefully, I would also do well to take care while walking on the streets and sidewalks. Watching a delivery-boy run a red light at a four-way intersection, I began to suspect (as I would later confirm) that traffic laws in Korea are more guidelines than rules.
While I wanted a guide of some sort, given my inability to communicate anything other than “hello” and “you have lovely eyes,” on my second day in the country I was forced to navigate the city on my own. Paul was studying for the SAT in a cram school on the other side of the city, and both his parents were working, so it was determined that I would take the subway into the heart of the city and meet with another boarding-school friend, who would then join Paul and me for lunch after the cram school session.
This particular friend, a cartoonishly tiny guy, who we’ll call J, was in retrospect not the safest choice of guide. We walked around the Han river for awhile, and then decided to rent bikes so that we could go see “Seoul Forest,” a park which I had previously assumed would be comparable to New York’s Central Park, but which in reality is an overblown petting zoo. Unfortunately the kiosk from which we rented bikes was out of regular bicycles, and so we had to settle for a tandem.
Returning from Seoul Forest J offered to show me a part of the city, popular with the college set, called “Rodeo.” Naturally I agreed that it would be nice to see an area in which I might later socialize. And it would have been a good idea, had we not been riding a tandem bike, had the social district not been located across one of the busiest intersections in Seoul, and had J, who was navigating, noticed that the pedestrian crossing light was blinking red and that there was in fact no such thing as a “diagonal” pedestrian crossing.
After reuniting with Paul for a lunch of “kimbap,” the Korean version of sushi that substitutes land animals for creatures of the sea, J left and Paul and I embarked on a trip to “Namsan,” a mountain located in the financial district of the city. I thought it odd that such a large city could be so mountainous, but Paul explained to me that there really wasn’t any better option on the peninsula for an urban environment: “Korea is seventy percent mountains, and thirty percent apartment complexes!”
The mountain was at one point a fortress used to defend the city from the constant invasion to which Korea was subjected, but is currently a radio tower and tourist attraction. The area immediately flanking the mountain is one of the few areas in the city that lacks modern plumbing, which explains the smell that comes from what Paul called “the shit truck,” which collects, well, the inhabitants’ shit. I assume that it was a bit of a slight to the Chinese when they were given a consulate in the area.
One can reach the summit of the mountain on a tram for around seven dollars, but I wanted to hike. Paul, not one for what he deemed unnecessary exercise, pushed heavily for the tram, but as stairs had been constructed on the mountain, his complaints fell on deaf ears. The hike is a short one, interrupted by frequent vistas and, to my surprise, workout stations. These workout stations are ubiquitous in Seoul, and while much of the equipment is standard gym fare, there are always several items that must work some part of the body that only Koreans have. My personal favorite is a round disk that one stands on and rotates; this particular machine is frequented by middle-aged Korean women wearing sun-visors and fanny packs.
The hike was pleasant enough, although the peak view of Seoul was clouded from pollution (most likely the result of fumes from “shit trucks” across the city). Truthfully, I had been generally disappointed with the lack of nice visuals in Seoul in the day since I had arrived. I suppose I expected to see beautiful temples, pagodas, perhaps some kung-fu-practicing sword-wielding Buddhist Monks mingling with commoners wearing various impractical forms of traditional clothing. Up to that point though I had mostly seen bland apartment buildings and traffic.
The food, at least, seemed decent. I had a brief love affair with the aforementioned “kimbap,” shortened by an unfortunate encounter with the food the morning I left for Yonsei University, where I would begin my Korean language studies. I was later told that one shouldn’t trust the quality of what basically amounts to “beef sushi” during the sweltering summer months, but as a high-school graduate that should have been sufficiently obvious.
Yet that mistake would hardly prove to be the worst of my mishaps, misunderstandings, and failures throughout my first year in the country. In many ways though, I’m glad things turned out as poorly as they often did. The unhappy results of many of my actions were often opportunities to learn, and when not, still opportunities to regale my friends with stories. It is my hope that through some of these stories one might gain some understanding, albeit an increasingly biased one, of what Korea looks like through the eyes of a twenty-some year old Caucasian college student/recent grad from North Carolina. Korea is in many ways an odd nation, but it is also one that I have come to love since my first visit to the country, and I hope this blog properly conveys that.