Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Korea, Fear, and Harry Chapin

It’s easy to forget that traveling is kind of scary.  When we’re sitting at home, booking those tickets, we’re thinking about the dazzling quality of the sun in those foreign places, the exotic foods, the colorful markets, the peculiar interactions with locals that we’ll collect and bring home to narrate over the dinner table at parties so we can make our friends jealous. 
What’s absent from these visions is what it’s like to finally get through immigration, to gather your bags, and to step out into the airport concourse of a country we’ve never been to before, where we barely know the language, where the customs may be nearly impossible to comprehend, and where even the very air has not just a different smell but a different quality to it—to get through all of this, experience all of this, and then think “Now what?”
Part of the reason I like traveling with Ellen is that she’s very good at those first moments, very good at relishing the strangeness and moving us forward.  When I’m on my own though, particularly after I’ve had a long flight—and let’s face it:  from the States, everything is a long flight—I generally feel mildly nauseous and slightly feverish, with a weird granular taste in my mouth. 
Case in point:  I flew into Korea the other day (and boy are my arms—oh, never mind), never having been there before.  This sounds stupid, I know, but I was surprised by how different it was.  I anticipated a Hong Kong kind of place—basically clean, basically modern, only with more open spaces and more fermented cabbage.  After all, Korea is Asia’s “success story,” the little country that could, with a solid economy, an educated work force, and all the modern amenities.  And all my friends had told me what a great place it was:  “It’s like Toledo,” one of the other Fulbrighters said, “only with more Asians.  And, you know:  fermented cabbage.”
What I saw, though, on the bus-ride in from the airport looked more like Vietnam than post-industrial Hong Kong:  a dusty gray sky, semi-dilapidated houses, stooped-over women working in rice paddies.  
It was late when I arrived, so that first evening I ventured only a stone’s throw from hotel, strolling down a brightly lit alley to one of those little restaurants where you grill your meat at the table under an industrial-strength ventilator hose, then wrap it in a lettuce leaf with some coleslaw type stuff and fermented cabbage, eating it sideways like a sloppy but tasty Korean taco.  Which sounds great.  And it was, except for the fact that this was clearly meant to be a social activity.  Not only was my table round and large enough to seat a small baseball team, it was surrounded by other tables, all of them filled with laughing families and gangs of friends.  Needless to say, I was tired and dirty and a little depressed and feeling sorry for myself, so I compensated by eating my way through half of a cabbage-stuffed cow and the hind quarters of a barbequed pig.
I had the next day free.  Instead of racing out the door though, a la Ellen, I slept in late, ate breakfast, and found myself lingering in my hotel room.  I checked my e-mail, tried to negotiate some end-of-year financial complications with the Roanoke Review, posted something meaningless on Face Book, browsed the pages of a few friends.  I looked up a couple key phrases in Korean—hello, thank you, how much?, and please get your fermented cabbage out of my air space—then checked my e-mail again, just in case someone had written me something from the United States in the middle of the night in the last three minutes.  Nothing.  I packed my backpack, counted my cash, checked my e-mail.  Sighed.  Looked around the room, trying to find something else that needed to be done.  When nothing presented itself, I checked my e-mail, went to the bathroom, checked my e-mail and dragged myself out the door, heading toward the nearest subway line.
It didn’t help that the train smelled vaguely farty (this happens, I’m sure, in a country that prides itself on fermented cabbage).  I sighed, pushed some kid out of a seat, and settled in the next few stops.   Emerging into the station, I was confronted with twelve different options for possible exits.  I glanced at my map.  I wanted the Namara--something  market.  That’s not the actual name of the market, of course.  It has more letters and no dashes at the end, but the fact of the matter is every time I looked down at the map, then glanced up at the directions board, I promptly forgot the second two-thirds of the word.  Korean is weird, I decided, more like German or Russian, with all those letters and vowels:  I mean, Kamsamnida?  What kind of language requires half a sentence just to say thank you?  I longed for Hong Kong and Cantonese, and those two character-, two-syllable phrases:  Cho san!  Ngoi Sai!
I gave up.   Even with all the letters, I couldn’t find Namara—something market anywhere.  Sighing, I trudged up to street level and spent fifteen minutes poking attractive women with my finger, trying to get them to take pity on me and point me in the direction of the market, or at the very least to take me home and feed me fermented cabbage. 
When that didn’t work, I stopped a grubby old man selling what looked like frozen turkeys out of the trunk of his car, who immediately pointed me in the right direction.  “Walk that way,” he said, nodding toward a tall building with a seven-story portrait of Marilyn Monroe on the side.  “Behind that.” 
I walked.  It was hot, and it was noisy, and it was dusty.  And I wasn’t even sure why I was going to the market.  I’d been to Asian markets before, of course, plenty of them, and it wasn’t like this one was going to be any different.   Shouldn’t I be doing something more meaningful, like going to a museum, or visiting a Unesco site, or eating fermented cabbage?  Certainly, that’s what Ellen would have done, especially if she only had one day in a foreign country.  Of course, Ellen also would have researched the country before she flew there, buying a book or two and a map, and spending at least an evening on the internet trying to get a feel for things.  Me?  I’d spent every evening the week before stuffing my face at various Hong Kong restaurants and drinking beers with Joe.  Now that’s what I call traveling.
Once in the market, I felt a little better.  It was Asia in all its glorious chaos:  stalls filled with soccer jerseys and nonsensical t-shirts—Korea Legend Start Here! 2010—tables covered with brass trinkets and nylon socks.  At one point I saw a woman in a long dress trying on underwear—pulling them up under her skirt, then peeling them back down again before trying on another pair.  There was a vendor frying something doughy looking in a vat of sputtering oil—fermented cabbage donuts?—and a quiet looking lady selling long braids of bread dusted with sugar.  Those were good, and I would know, because I had six. 
When sugared bread lady finally shooed me off, I went in search of gifts for the kids.  Noah, the son of a friend, had been adopted from Korea several years ago and his mother had asked me to get him some souvenirs.  I picked up a little baby opium pipe and a set of nail-spiked numchucks, plus a couple of T-shirts:  “Number One Hot Korea Bad-Ass”; “You My Lady; Me Your Pimple,” that sort of thing.  Eventually I wandered down into a lower level and discovered an entire bazaar of sorts, booth after booth of homemade jewelry, K-pop CDs, foam padded bras, glasses, camping equipment, freeze-dried noodle pots.  I picked up a few more trinkets, wandered a bit more, then made my way back up to street level.
Drifting a long, I found a small diner, maybe seven feet wide and twenty feet deep, glass fronted.  On the door was small advertisement:  Noodle Mussels!  Spicy or Mild!  The place looked clean enough and the owner was a nice looking guy in glasses, so I stepped in and was escorted to a table at the back. 
“You look?” he said, gesturing toward some pictures on the wall.
“Just mussels.”
I pointed at the table beside mine, where two girls were piling shells on a plate.  “Mussels.”
He nodded and went off.  I sat down, took a deep breath.  An older woman with curly hair brought me a pitcher of water and a cup, then returned with a fork.  I waved it away, drawing metal chopsticks from the container on the table.  She nodded, smiled, pretending to be impressed.  I drank, and a few minutes later she returned with a small plate of kim chi—fermented cabbage.  It was good.  I drank some more and ate some more, and started to feel more at ease. 
Well, almost.  Suddenly, I felt a prickle of unease:  the sign outside had said mussels with noodles either spicy or mild.  I definitely wanted spicy.  I stood up and looked at the bowls of the young women at the next table.  Their broth was clear.  Could that mean . . . ?  I glanced at the pictures on the wall:  on the left were mussels spicy.  The liquid was red.  Further along, on the right, were mussels mild.  Clear. 
I glanced at the pictures again, then sat down.  I rubbed my face once, took a drink of water, shook my head.  It didn’t matter.  Mussels were mussels.  Besides, who knew how hot the spicy ones were?  No one wants to get sick on their first trip to Korea. 
I took another sip of water, then looked around.  It was a small place, just six table.  The walls were tiled and the tables laminated, the kind of restaurant you could hose down at the end of the day and then let drip dry overnight.  Even the pictures on the wall were covered in plastic. 
I caught the eye of a heavyset woman sitting at a table at the bottom of the stairs.  She was looking at me, frowning.  Then she looked at the pictures on the wall, looked at me again, and twisted in her chair, saying something in Korean.  The waitress, the one with the curly hair, glanced my way, then came over to the table. 
“Nothing,” I said.  “It’s okay.”
She smiled again, indulgently, then padded back to the kitchen or whatever it was by the door.  I blushed, then glanced at the woman who’d called her over. She met my gaze.  I smiled a little, and nodded.  She also smiled, just a little, and nodded back.

After that, the day was gravy.  The mussels were good, I picked out another spot I wanted to visit—a neighborhood with old, interesting architecture and a palace with a hidden garden—paid my bill and went out the door.  I found the subway right away, got on the right train, and got out at the right stop.  Ten minutes later I was wandering down glaze cobbled lanes so narrow I could spread my arms and touch the walls on each side.  I got lost a little, but it was a pleasant kind of lost, and when I came out on the other side I could see the palace just up the street. 
Admission cost $8 US, and I spent much of the afternoon just wandering from building to building, taking pictures of the intricate artwork on the ceilings and trim and trying to avoid the heat.  I’d paid to get into the hidden garden, and was a little annoyed when I arrived at the gate and learned that you were only allowed admission as part of a tour.  I like to wander.  I’m good at getting lost, and good at finding food, and good at finding quiet little gardens in cool shady places—like, say, for instance, gardens, particularly hidden gardens—in which to take naps.  This is how I experience countries. 
That said, the tour wasn’t that bad, and would have probably been even better had it been in English.  I left the garden and palace, wandering east, thinking I’d just explore some neighborhoods, see what Seoul was really like, maybe do a little home shopping for when Ellen and I moved here (because Korea was quickly becoming one of my favorite places in the world).  At one point I ducked down into a subway to get under a busy street and discovered a German bakery and coffee shop.  Two lattes and an onion-cheese bread later, I emerged into the late afternoon sun, dazed and happy and in need of larger pants.  I found a pedestrian mall populated by art shops and soap makers and jewelry and picked up seven or eight more souvenirs.  Then I headed back to the hotel and took a shower. 
Dinner that night was at the same restaurant, only this time the other US speaker from the conference was there and we spent the evening talking about family and travels and careers and how mediocre Korean beer was but how we’d have another bottle nonetheless, thank you very much.  I collapsed into bed that night feeling stuffed and content.
The next day the anxiety was back.  It was conference time, and suddenly I was aware of the fact that:  a) I had to give a serious 40-minute talk for which I’d been paid a nice bit of money plus expenses; b) I didn’t know my hosts; c)  I didn’t know anything much about Korean general education; d) I didn’t know anything much about Korea (other than the fermented cabbage thing); and e) I was an idiot. 
Here again, it’s one of those imagination versus reality things.  When you get the e-mail inviting you to speak, all that you can think is, “Cool:  Korea!”  If you give it any more thought than that, it’s probably something vague on the lines of, “Well, I’ve been to Asia before; how hard can it be?”  This ignores the fact, of course, that, though both are in Asia, Hong Kong and Korea are radically different places with radically different cultures.  Not to mention languages.  For while I can more or less get by in Hong Kong with a little bit of Cantonese and a whole lot of English, these only work with people who:  a)  speak Cantonese; or b) speak English.  Which, go figure, doesn’t cover Korea. 
Actually, that’s not entirely true.  Plenty of people speak English in Korea.  Just not as many as in Hong Kong and not quite as well.  And because the only words I knew in Korean were, “Hello,” “How much does this cost?” and “Does it always smell like that?” my ability to grease the social wheels was limited.
Which means that, in reality, I found myself feeling awkward and nervous and amateurish when we met our hosts and drove to the campus where the conference was being held.  Every one was being perfectly nice, of course, but when there’s limited opportunity for small talk and you’re kind of tired and nervous, the awkward seconds feel like awkward minutes and the mild blank glances of strangers feels like glare of disapproval. 
But then the conference began and the talks began, and it became clear that my hosts had a wonderfully organic understanding of the complexities of general education and a real intellectual and emotional investment in its success.  In the afternoon, I gave my talk and nobody booed except for this one little old granny who said I sucked and should be sent back to Yugoslavia, me and my band of baby ducks.  Not surprisingly, the moment I was done I felt a lot better.  Then my new friend from America spoke and the two of us started fielding questions.  Within a matter of minutes the whole room was caught up in an intense conversation about the differences between integration and interdisciplinarity (don’t get me started—I can talk on this for days), about the necessity—or not—for a year of foundational content prior to synthesis and application, about all sorts of things that would really try the patience of those of you who have made it this far in what is already a really long blog post, even on this blog, which is known for really long blog posts. 
It was a great conversation.  It was complex, it was thoughtful, and it was funny.  I loved being teased by the audience, loved it when they pointed out contradictions between what Natalie had said and I had said.  I loved it when there were follow-up questions and debates between audience members.  It was fun.  It was great.  It was extraordinary. 
The conference was followed by a small banquet for the organizers, speakers, and various VIPs.  Again, a little moment of anxiety as I was led to a table and seated as the sole white guy amongst a group of Asians.  But beer was poured and toasts were given and the food was good.  Someone told a story about how the government had offered dignitaries a choice of tickets to various concerts, and everyone had chosen K-Pop—fluffy Korean boy-and-girl band music. We all laughed, and drank more beer and ate more food.  There was more talk about general education and more beer and one lady who’d been slightly critical at the conference sat next to me and made sure the waitress took care of me. 
When that was over, I waddled back up to my room, packed my bags, scheduled a wake up call, and dropped instantly into sleep.   I awoke at dawn the next morning, took a shower, grabbed my bags, and headed down to the lobby where they flagged a cab.  Climbing in and buckling up, I thought about Harry Chapin.  He was killed in a car accident while riding in a cab, after all, and for some reason every time I take a taxi to the airport, I think about him.  Which makes absolutely no sense, of course—he was on his way to a concert, not to the airport—but I always wanted to be a rock star when I was little (e.g., 43), and I suppose I like to think of myself that way whenever I can. 
So I climbed into the cab, and buckled up, and sipped my water and munched on my meal bar, and thought about what would happen if I died right then.  Which is morbid, I know, but I hadn’t had much sleep and I’m kind of a melancholy dude, so this is what happens sometimes.  And what I thought was that if I died, Ellen would be probably kind of sad for a while but would then maybe hook up with that carpenter guy she has the hots for and be pretty much a lot happier for the rest of her life.  And then I thought that if I died on the way to the airport, having just flown to this new country, having spoken at this conference, having been part of this important conversation, having met these people, having eaten all of this amazing food, Ellen would probably tell people that I’d died happy, that I’d died doing the things I most loved doing.
And she would be right.