Monday, July 17, 2006


A Cramped but Warm Welcome

My latest trip to Korea occurred at the start of July and was somewhat longer than the expedition I took last year, perhaps because those who booked my flight sought to give me a quick catch-up course me with spaces designed for someone a half-foot shorter than me. Therefore, my airplane ride involved a 90-minute trip from Nashville to Dallas, an 11-hour trip from there to Tokyo, a three-hour flight to Seoul, and then a more-than-two-hour bus ride from Seoul to Chuncheon.

Though my airplane companies had Yank-friendly names like “American” and “United,” attempting to sleep in their seats while simultaneously being a Western male of above average height pays minimal dividends. Losing consciousness on an airplane may result in fewer moments to occupy reading, watching in-flight movies or trying to re-establish blood flow to the glutes, but one thing not accomplished in the process is actual rest.

Therefore, I arrived in Korea on a Saturday night after spending more than a day’s worth of time either a) sitting on air planes, b) waiting in air ports, c) getting frisked by Japanese women. Actually, that last item occupied a minute fraction of time of my trip, but those three-four minutes were far more memorable than the 900 I spent in undersized seating conditions watching reruns of “Frasier” and trying to figure out what the in-flight meal actually was before I put in my mouth.

I did not go through a metal detector when I arrived in Tokyo, but after I presented my plane ticket to the attendant at the United Airlines desk I had to go through what I assume is that country’s standard safety procedure: 1) you present your carry-on luggage for inspection, 2) you take off your jacket, 3) you stand on a short stool while they scan you with a metal detector, 4) a Japanese woman lifts the front of your shirt to check for signs of danger, 5) she looks there a second time, 6) she touches your stomach and sighs deeply.

All this time I wondered if my problems with the opposite gender were my fault; I’m now convinced that they’re the fault of every woman on the eastern side of the Pacific.

At any rate, I arrived safely in Chuncheon (which in Korean translates into “overpopulated city located somewhere in the middle of the country”), not to be confused with my previous residence, Suncheon (which means “overpopulated city at the southern tip) where I had stayed for eight months. Both of these cities have populations of about 250,000 people, which by Korea’s beehive-like standards is a small town.

However, I left Tennessee before arriving in the Far East, and in my home state, 250,000 people is the greater-Chattanooga area. Many times I have been asked the name of my hometown, to which I usually reply “A small town, I’m sure you’ve never heard of it.” The next question is almost always something akin to “Small like Suncheon?”

“If by ‘like’ you mean, ‘Similar to what your town would be like if eighty-three percent of its occupants fell into the Yellow Sea’ then, yeah, just like it.”

Despite its density of population, Korea and its municipalities hold great appeal to many foreigners. When I arrived in Chuncheon I was greeted by the teaching coordinator at my institute, a South African man named Martin who has lived in this country four years. Martin and his wife have their own place, their own Korean car and an eight-month old son who was born in Korea. He tells me that he and his family intend to stay there as long as is possible.

And yet, the next day when they took me out to lunch I could tell that some things in this country never really make sense through Western eyes.

“Why is he throwing stones at that little girl?’ Martin wondered aloud as we drove past a family restaurant in Chuncheon’s outskirts. Indeed, in the makeshift creek outside the restaurant a family was gathered, and an older man was smiling all the while he was throwing pebbles at the young girl in his presence. She didn’t seem to care, or even notice.

“Maybe he’s without sin,” I speculated.

I may be in Korea another year, so maybe I’ll have time to figure out why they do more of the things they do. If I’m not successful, the Tokyo airport seems welcoming enough.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Ramen, Changes and Dead Amphibians

When a person who grew up in a particularly Caucasian environment for his or her whole life finds his or her self in, for example, Asia, the first few weeks are a haze of dark hair and a barrage of sounds that bear a vague similarity to what we know as a language. This particularly suits the naturally adventurous, as every trip from work to one’s apartment may be one wrong step from a detour that might end in, say, a former Soviet republic, which would make it hard to get back to work on time the next morning.

However, after a few weeks patterns are discovered. For example, in Korea where I’m staying, a walk that takes 10-15 minutes will bypass — at minimum — three convenience stores where one can buy everything he (there’s a reason I don’t say “or she” here) needs to survive: milk, cereal and ramen*.

Having achieved the bare minimum needed to keep one’s self going, newly confidant Caucasians can begin making rounds of increasing circumference, until they find entire grocery stores, places to buy paper and pens, and seven-eight more ramen-stocked convenience stores. The language barrier is still in effect, but there are ways to amble around or over it. One strategy is to learn a few key words or the native language, such as “please,” “thank you,” and “restroom.”

However, there is an inherent risk involved with learning too much of the native language. For example, one may get into a taxi, speak in a complete sentence such as “Take me to the grocery store, please,” and the cab driver may assume that you are a bilingual, cultured visitor he can engage in high-minded discourse.

“Do you think of the idea of holding multilateral talks with North Korea is going to bear fruit?” he may ask.

“Uhm…” the foreigner may stammer, before shrugging to feign ignorance, thus giving the cab driver the impression that this Caucasian happens to know two languages but is otherwise as knowledgeable as a dead salamander, thus chipping away ever more at America’s reputation abroad. And quite frankly, we’d prefer you just stayed home rather than embarrass us overseas trying learn new things, okay?

So, if you are going to attempt to communicate with the locals, it is best to merely learn words of the please-thank you-restroom variety, and be sure to scratch your head thoughtfully even before using those, in order to give them the impression that this brief burst took a considerable act of brain power to muster. When done right, this method will help the locals to discern what you want without encouraging further attempts at conversation that will elicit comparisons between you and deceased amphibians.

The other approach is to simply communicate with hand gestures and the inarticulate but easily understood sounds made by those such as Chimpanzees, primitive cultures and those on the current roster of the Minnesota Vikings. The way this works is to simply enter the convenience store of choice, place the milk/cereal/ramen on the counter and wait for numbers to appear so that you can pay the price and get on with your life.

“Will that be all for you?” the cashier would ask in her native tongue.

“Mmm-hmm,” you would say.

“That will be 2,800 won,” she would then say.

“Mmm,” you would respond and then produce three 1,000 won bills.

“You have no idea what I just said, do you?”


“You have the IQ of a dead salamander, don’t you?”

“Mmm-hmm,” the foreigner would then say, while nodding in complete agreement.

If you are eating enough to survive, successful at your job, and getting to meet new people, this is all you have to do. The rest of the country may be a blur of dark hair and something resembling a language, but that one-mile radius of the country makes perfect sense to you.

Unless, of course, you move to a different part of that country, in which case you’ll have to start all over.

*Ramen noodles are the unofficial milk blood of the low-income college student, especially male, who is struggling to get by. However, I’d never been a heavy consumer of ramen until I came to Korea, where the noodles are accompanied by a series of spices which have an effect on one’s sinuses that is not dissimilar to some of the US military’s stronger explosives.

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