Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Korea? No? Well, here's the story.
About a month or so ago, I boarded an airplane to South Korea. I'd decided that I wanted to visit a college friend who was also teaching English. There was really nothing to the trip. I was just going to spend 10 days touring a little bit of the country, relaxing and catching up with an old friend. I'd just finished leaving my job in Japan and before I started teaching lessons again, I wanted to take a little vacation.
So I hopped on an airplane and took a two hour trip to Incheon International Airport. On the airplane we were fed a small meal consisting of a sandwich (I don't know what kind of meat was in between those two large buns), some potato salad, a pickle, a green salad and some orange juice. I usually try not to eat on flights for fear of getting sick, but I was a little hungry and decided not to be snobby about it. When I arrived at the airport, I followed the herd of people to customs. When it was my turn at the counter, the lady who spoke very good English said, "Passport and declaration paper." I handed her the documents. She typed something into her computer and asked, without looking up, "Is the friend you're visiting Korean?"
"Um, yes," I said. "Well actually, she's Korean American. She's just teaching English in Korea." The lady, who was not in the least bit interested, handed me my passport and began typing on her computer. I waited around for a moment and then assumed that she was finished with me. So I began to walk off. Then, on second thought I backed up. She didn't say, "Okay, thank you!" or "Have a nice day!" or "Welcome to Korea" after all, so maybe she wasn't finished.
I stuttered out, "Are you . . . uh . . . Can I go?" The lady looked up from her keyboard, gave me a nasty glare and waved me off. I walked past a huge sign that said, "Welcome to Incheon International Airport . . . Where Korea Greets the World." This was my first sign that I should have just gotten the heck out of the country. Either way, I took a monorail, and walked down a series of halls and escalators until I reached the main lobby of the airport. When I found the bus area, I bought a ticket and was greeted with the same kind of nasty attitude as the lady at customs (and the guard at the monorail station.) The odd part about it was that it didn't bother me. Not at all. I knew those ladies. I'd experienced them somewhere else, in another place and time. In fact, they felt like part of a familiar song that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
It would be 2 hours until my bus arrived so I sat down and got on the internet, attempting to "name that tune." And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. These rude people were the same as the cashiers and clerks and nasty attendants that I'd come into contact with in my own country. I'd been in Japan so long that I'd gotten used to good service and politeness. It was only when I arrived in Korea that I remembered that usually people in service positions (in ghetto terms) "don't know how to act." It was like I'd gained my bearings. Wakatta!
So with the newfound knowledge that I wasn't crazy, I walked toward the bus stop and chuckled to myself as the guy rudely snatched my bags from me and threw them into the compartment area under the bus. It's important to note, however, that along with this level of rudeness comes a certain amount of impatience and nervousness. So unfortunately, I began to feel rushed and excited, similar to how I felt in the U.S. at times, stuttering and unsure. But in South Korea I was at a much greater disadvantage. I didn't know a bit of Korean and the only thing I had going for me was a Lonely Planet book that my friend Bob gifted me with the day before. The book had a few phrases in the back, but they didn't prove very helpful amongst my impatient Korean brethren. I found my brain desperately grasping at random Japanese and Spanish words in an attempt to communicate with the people around me. Of course, my Japanish made absolutely no sense to them. Either way, I sat on the bus listening to my iPod and staring out the window. The air outside was bitterly cold, and there was snow on the ground here and there. The mountains in the background looked slightly different from Japan but I was too tired to identify why. The bus rattled and shook, stopping every so often to let passengers on and off. All of the signs were written in Korean script, which consisted of a series of circles and lines. There was no way for me to identify where I was.
After the second hour, I began to panic a little. Does my friend really live this far away? The driver stopped at what looked like a convenient store parking lot to let people off. He got out of the bus to take bags out and give them to their owners. I stood up and walked down the stairs looking for the nerve to ask the driver where we were. He yelled at me in Korean to "sit back down, this isn't your stop." I was thankful that he knew where I was supposed to get off, but a little embarrassed to get yelled at. Either way, I turned around and found my seat, a small part of me hoping that he would let the pathetic foreigner know when to get off the bus. So two more hours passed and the night got darker and darker. Finally, the driver parked the bus and actually turned off the engine. He walked over to the lower compartment, opened the latch and then walked away to go smoke a cigarette outside of the nearby department store. "I guess this is my stop," I muttered to myself as I pulled my bag out from under the bus. I found the Starbucks that my friend told me to stay at and waited with a cup of coffee. After 30 minutes, I pulled out my computer and decided to try my luck at getting wireless internet.
Now the wonderful thing about Korea is that wireless internet is EVERYWHERE. This is the opposite of Japan where, surprisingly, the concept of wireless internet is still a novelty. So I was able to contact my friend on Skype and sure enough, she showed up 20 minutes later wearing a long Kim Jong Il coat and a big, beautiful smile. We hugged, chatted a little and then headed for the bus station. As soon as we headed out the door, the cold air smacked us in the face. Although, I have dark skin, my face was as red as a cherry. It was the kind of cold that penetrates all layers of clothing and makes it hard to breathe because the cold air fills your lungs and makes you want to cough it back out. I moved around attempting to get the blood pumping throughout my body. My toes were a lost cause, however. By the time we arrived at her apartment, they were a different color.
Now the bus ride to her apartment was something different in itself. As soon as I dropped my money into (the wrong) slot, the bus took off, speeding through the snow and slush, swerving around corners and coming to quick stops like a stunt car. The way I wrapped myself around the pole, I looked like an overdressed stripper. It was extremely crowded as more and more people got on the bus. At one stop, an elderly woman began her descent down the steep stairs toward the snow filled street. My friend and I watched with baited breath as the bus began to pull off while the old woman held onto the bar attempting to gain her bearings on the road. It was a horrible sight to see. Fortunately, she was not dragged by the bus. Although, I'd hardened my emotions to certain things, I don't think I could have handled seeing an old woman dragged to her death on my first day in Korea.
That's all I got for now . . . stay tuned for Part II where I talk about delicious chicken.