"Cabs are here! Cabs are here! Cabs are here bro!"
-DJ Pauly D
The summer before my senior year of college I interned in Hong Kong. This is a different country (or “Special Administrative Region,” at the least) from Korea, but not as far as my grandmother and her friends were concerned:
“Will you be able to speak Korean with the people in Hong Kong?”
“You mean with the Koreans who live in Hong Kong?”
“Well, whoever lives there.”
“You mean the Chinese people?”
“All I know is you had better steer clear of that North Korea”
But while I spent the vast majority of my time in HK, I did manage to make it to Korea twice that summer, once as part of the internship and once on vacation.
The first trip began inauspiciously enough, but quickly took a turn for the worse. I had been coughing frequently and generally feeling sick in the weeks leading up to my arrival in Seoul, but I just assumed that eventually this would pass. About four days into the trip though I had a peculiar dream, in which I dreamt that I needed to solve an integral using differentiation by parts. For those of you who need a calculus refresher:
The reason I so desperately needed to solve this integral was that the problem’s completion, I logically reasoned, would lead to the cessation of pain in the lower part of my chest cavity. Still in my dream state, I plunged forward with the math.
As I began to regain consciousness, I realized that solving this problem was hardly “integral” to the sensation of being stabbed repeatedly in my right lung. Taking a piss didn’t seem to help much either, so after a few minutes of wavering I called the front desk to ask for a doctor. They didn’t have one, but sent up a bellman to help take me to the hospital. I thought this a bit much but by the time he arrived I was having trouble standing up, and by the time I reached the hospital I was getting to be delirious.
As it turns out my problem was not mathematic incompetence, but pneumonia. While that sounds like a complication eradicated in the 19th Century, it can be quite serious if left untreated and so I stayed in the hospital for the next few days until my flight back to HK (though the doctor had suggested I stay longer, and in retrospect, that might have been a good idea). My stay was comfortable enough. A few friends came to visit, and the elderly cohabitants (oscillating between three and five in number) were interested to hear why a caucasian twenty-two year old a) was interning in Hong Kong, b) spoke Korean, and c) ended up in Korea just long enough to become hospitalized. The nurse was a binary “one,” which further assisted in rendering my stay bearable.
My second trip to Korea was, with the exception of one event, markedly more enjoyable. I spent most of my time traveling around the countryside with a college “hubae (후배),” or younger classmate, and the remainder catching up with friends in and around Seoul. This hubae, however, does not live in Seoul, but rather the city of Incheon (where the egomaniac MacArthur famously succeeded with what was by all accounts a boneheaded decision). Incheon is sufficiently close to Seoul, however, to warrant its incorporation in Seoul public transportation. One day, deciding that I was short on time for an appointment in Seoul, I hailed a cab instead of taking a bus. When I told the cab driver to take me to “New World Department Store, at Express Terminal (신세계백화점, 고속토미날),” he told me that I would make better time taking the subway. When I got down to the station and looked at the map I realized that he must have made a mistake. The train would take nearly an hour, while I had done the cab ride before in less than thirty minutes. Going back up to the street, I hailed another cab.
I had been certain that I was on the right side of the street, but the second taxi driver told me that he would have to turn around. I was confused, but assumed that he must know where to go. Despite feeling somewhat compassless I had a thoroughly enjoyable conversation with the cab driver. We talked about life in Incheon compared to Seoul, about the “trot” music on the radio, and, per usual, why in the hell I had ended up in Korea. After thirty minutes or so, the cabbie announced, “Here we are! New World Department Store, Express Terminal!”
I looked outside.
“Right over there!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yep, this is Incheon’s Express Terminal!”
Apparently both Seoul and Incheon had “Express Terminals” with a “New World Department Store.” Realizing that I was at least an hour away from where I needed to be, I exited the car, took my copy of The Economist and hurled it against the sidewalk with enough force to draw the attention of passing shoppers. The cabbie blamed it on me, I blamed it on him, but at the end of the day it was essentially a misunderstanding to the tune of two hours and seventy dollars.
I’ve had other memorable experiences as a passenger, from the cabbie showing me a picture of his daughter and soliciting my views on her attractiveness, to the bus driver gyrating oddly while shouting “Fuck! I’m always tired! Always! (“시발! 항상 졸려! 항상!”).” The oddest ride, however, occurred during my first year in the country. The cabbie, having ascertained that I was an American, excitedly began to tell me a story, which at the time sounded to me like “Soldier…fish…wedding….death.” A normal story in my native American South, perhaps, but not in Seoul!
A high school hubae, who I had been riding with, translated.
“He says that there was an American soldier who witnessed a wedding between two Koreans. The groom took a fish to hit the bride’s feet, symbolizing that she is ready for marriage [re: sex], and the soldier, perceiving this as domestic abuse, killed the groom.”
“Ah,” I replied. “I don’t think most American soldiers are like that.”