There were a few moments, during my hectic preparations for Korea, that I wondered whether I was doing the right thing. Should I really be jetting off for a foreign land? Wouldn't it be better to stick to my home turf and keep pounding the pavement?
In the end, the answer to that question was a resounding "no." I was bored stiff. I felt like I could hardly breathe. I'd been back in the States long enough. I'd wasted two years of my life—almost three—in that hellish deathpit. My girlfriend, my parents and my friends were the only holes in the All-Consuming Black Nightmare-Cloak of Despair.
Having been back in Korea for the better part of three months, I realize that I made the right choice. Don't get me wrong—I do miss California sometimes. The beaches. The mountains. Those wide highways. But I know I'm happier in Korea. I was bored stiff in the desert, remember? Something's always going down in Korea, whether it's virtual golf, a basketball game, a ping-pong tournament, a movie night, a dinner party, a hoedown, or a pub crawl.
Take this weekend, for example. It didn't start out very auspiciously. I spent Saturday doing nothing more exciting than trying to find a Costco store.
...in the middle of Seoul.
...which meant another ride on the jam-packed geumhaeng.
My first attempt, made in the early afternoon, was abortive. Turned out I had the wrong subway stop. Even more humbling, I was on the wrong subway line: I wanted the Yeongdeung-po Office station on Line 2, but I got off at Yeongdeung-po station on Line 1. Simple case of mistaken identity, really. But it resulted in me wandering around a grungy, gritty neighborhood, riddled with grimy metalworking shops and a deserted greengrocers' market, for two hours.
As I strode down the sidewalk, head on a swivel, I passed a homeless shelter run by the Order of St. Thomas. Several burly soup cooks and a demure Korean nun were standing outside a small building, waving scruffy men in stained clothes through the door one-by-one. I tried to stop and take a picture, but one of the burly cooks walked over and warded me off, his tone of voice indicating that I should have known better. Even so, I got a consolation prize a few alleys farther along:
But I could not find Costco. I even stopped and asked someone for directions. On the far side of a four-way intersection, I spotted a sullen-looking Korean man leaning against a post outside one of the ubiquitous metal shops.
What the hell, I thought. I'll ask him.
I walked up to him. He seemed to be a fairly unexceptional blue-collar working man, and a normal Korean in every way, except for the thick black hairs protruding from his right nostril. He didn't even look at me until I started speaking.
"Shille hamnida, hyeongnim," I said, brokenly. "Koseuteuko eodiyeyo?"
("Excuse me, bro—where's the Costco?")
He blinked slowly and confusedly, and then asked me to repeat the question. I obliged. He mumbled a few lines in Korean which escaped my comprehension. He made a vague gesture to the south, across the intersection, at a right angle to the direction I'd been traveling. It seemed promising, so I thanked him and moved on.
Twenty minutes and a few more right turns later, it was rapidly becoming apparent that this new direction was anything but promising. I had stumbled into an area of high-rise apartments and tiny mom-and-pop corner stores. Oh, and more metal shops. They were everywhere. The sidewalks were littered with iron filings. I had to keep my eyes straight ahead I wouldn't be struck blind by the white-hot glow of acetylene torches. Just before I lost faith in Mr. Nosehair's directions and turned back west, I saw another weird sight.
Korea has this odd habit of letting its hospital patients out of their beds—still clad in their gowns—to go roam around the neighborhood unsupervised. There's a big university hospital just a block or two down the road from my apartment building. I can't count the number of times I've seen somebody in bright white hospital pajamas standing on the corner, waiting for the crosswalk, wiggling their toes inside their slippers, hand resting on their IV stand, ready to push it across the street. Sometimes they'll be in wheelchairs, and one of their harangued relations will be pushing them about like royalty.
This dude, however, was all by his lonesome. Either he was having difficulty getting off the street, or he was attempting to let himself coast down the hill. Either way, he was failing badly. He'd laboriously shove the wheels of his conveyance until he was facing down the road, then let himself roll for two or three yards. Then the natural slant of the asphalt surface (leading to the gutter) would catch his left wheel, and he'd start to careen toward the curb. My heart would leap into my throat, especially if he pulled this stunt in front of an oncoming car (which he did, twice). Always, though, he'd clamp his left hand shut on that inbound wheel, yanking himself to a screeching halt. It was a wonder that he did not blister his hands or toss himself out of the apparatus. He repeated this process over and over again until he gained a four-way intersection and was able to hoist himself up the ramp and out of harm's way. Apparently this was an usual sight, even in Korea. I noticed other folk staring at him as well: an old lady in a pink parka and a perm stopped and gaped at him from the sidewalk's edge, and a sweet young thing in leggings and miniskirt spared him a perplexed glance as she flounced across the road.
I was getting tired of these monkey-shines. I turned west at the intersection and walked until I saw a sign for the Mullae subway station. Mullae, I knew, was on Line 2 of the Seoul subway system. Had I possessed the three ounces of brain matter requisite to remember to bring a map or a smartphone with me, I would have been able to deduce from this information that my real destination—Yeongdeung-po Office—was a single stop away to the north. I had no way of knowing, however. I was tired, hot and footsore. So I bought myself some peanuts, a piece of triangle gimbap, and some bottled water at a convenience store, and plunked myself down on a wooden bench. It was time to regroup.
My mission was twofold: I was in the Yeongdeung-po neighborhood not only to locate Costco, but also to find the Starium, a massive cinema multiplex in possession of the third-largest movie screen in the world. (Here's a description. This article lies barefaced and says that the Starium's is the largest movie screen, but there's screens in Spain and Australia that are bigger. Still, you get the idea. Sight and sound, it'd be a blast.)
My search for Costco was getting me nowhere, so I decided to abandon it and focus on the latter part of my mission. I found the Starium with careless ease. It was hard to miss. I had been orbiting the building in a large, misshapen circle the whole afternoon. I ducked inside the humongous building and began worming my way through it to locate the actual CGV cinema itself.
I was wandering across the broad expanse of the white-tiled main floor when something else interesting happened. There was a largish crowd grouped around a couple of flamboyantly dressed men, who were themselves standing in front of a black, boxy sort of tower thingy with the Samsung brand label stamped upon it. When I say "flamboyantly dressed" I mean that this Korean man and his sidekick—I later learned that they were a rather famous comedic duo—were wearing military uniforms. The sidekick looked like an MP and the comic himself could have stepped right out of a guard post at the DMZ, with his olive-drab wool coat and a fur hat. It was some sort of promo. I paused to look. And that's when this Korean comic looked through the crowd (or over them, as it were) and saw me. And beckoned to me.
What the hell, I thought for the second time that day. Why not?
Shameless attention whore that I am, I went.
I stood next to him on a sort of circular pedestal a few inches high. He showed me off to the crowd. I threw my hands up and twirled like a fashion model. We rapidly established that I spoke no Korean. That didn't faze this comic (whose name I won't reveal in defense of his privacy, and to conceal the fact that I don't know it). He asked the crowd if anybody spoke English. One, a chunky fellow in a blue shirt, raised his hand. His English was excellent. Through him, the comic conveyed to me that he was hawking the amazing new Samsung air conditioning unit (the shiny black tower device I had descried earlier). He asked me where I was from, and made a few jokes at my expense. Then, with the help of our interpreter, he taught me how to say "Open sesame!" in Korean. He handed me a squat black remote control and instructed me to say the magic word. I did.
As if by magic, the doors of the A/C tower swung open, and cool air began to blow on me. The A/C unit was voice-controlled. The comic asked me if they had any A/C units in the U.S.A. that were vocally activated. I had no bloody clue, but just to puff up the Korean national ego, I said "nope."
Then the real magic happened. The comic spoke a few words to our interpreter, and the interpreter told me "This A/C unit has the power to grant wishes. Anything you'd like?"
Believing that world peace would be a bit of a stretch, even for the amazing new Samsung air conditioning unit, I said "How about an ice cream cone?"
Apparently ice cream cones are a bit of a stretch for Samsung as well, but water and gift-wrapped parcels sure weren't. With a clink and a wheeze a cold bottle of water and a mysterious package came tumbling out of the machine's nether regions. The comic handed these to me and bowed me out of the ring. He and the interpreter then proceeded with the demonstration, as I boarded an escalator with my new-found wealth. The water was fortuitous, as I had been dehydrated by my fruitless perambulations earlier. I resolved to unwrap the package when I got home.
I found the theater, priced tickets for The Avengers (opening April 29th in Korea), and hustled back to the subway station. After a short, stuffy ride, I was home. The package proved to be an insulated tumbler, suitable for brewing tea. At least it's something useful, I thought.
After a break and bit of map-consulting, I was back on the subway and headed to Yeongdeung-po Office. I found Costco, surveyed the scene, reported back to Miss H, then turned in and went to bed.
Sunday was basketball, as usual. Only it wasn't. We went to Hosu (Lake) Park, right on the border between Bucheon and Incheon, a 30-minute walk from our apartment building. Hosu is much larger than Jungang (Central) Park, and has a sort of pond-like thing in the middle with fountains. But it also has basketball courts—proper courts with three-point lines and baskets in good repair. We had to practically start a rumble to get half a court to ourselves, but we managed it. Flushed with the success of our 3-on-3 warmup, we challenged some fit-looking teenagers at the other end of the court. This proved to be a ghastly mistake. We were taken to the cleaner's. The score resembled a casualty list from some lopsided martial skirmish: 4 to 73 or something. Not content with basketball (and getting somewhat sunburned), we adjourned to Gusan Middle School in Incheon, adjacent to Lake Park, where we had a rousing Frisbee toss on the dirt pitch. Martin, Peter and I engaged in a game of...um..."headers and volleys," I think. Two men on a team and one in goal. The two men try jointly to score, but they can only do so by kicking the ball before it hits the ground, or heading it in. If they miss, they go in goal. First goalie to have ten points scored on him has to bend over in the goal and let the other two take shots at his backside. Peter got off with a light graze to his calf.
Then it was back home to the apartment for some delicious fettucine alfredo and another wrestling match with my novel (the major rewrite is proceeding nicely, thank you for asking).
If every weekend in Korea is as full—and fulfilling—as this one, everybody ought to come and live here.