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.

"Maybe he's without sin"...

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