[Author's Note: Another one from the vault, this is a dispatch sent out following a brief trip to Seoul, South Korea, November 1-2 of 2005.]
From: Andrew Reilly
Sent: Thursday, November 3, 2005 4:57 AM
Subject: Heart and Seoul
First of all, thanks so much for the kind inquiries about my pursuit of the beautiful Korean actress that I was going to marry. I kept my eye out for her but apparently she doesn't hang out in seedy back-alley markets, Burger King, or at tacky souvenir stands. Typical.
Seoul was a blast as expected. The flight touched down bright and early and the first stop was...okay, I'll admit it, the first stop was KFC. What can I say? I slept almost the entire flight and was not in the mood to start experimenting with my diet. I was all excited for my number 6 meal until I realized that none of the staff understood a thing I was saying.
Me: "A number six please."
KFC: "You want at 6:00?"
Me pointing at a picture of the meal: "I'd like one of those."
KFC: "We no have that."
You can see how a young man might feel defeated after a few minutes of this, so it was off into the city I went.
Why do people assume that if you're a white young man travelling alone in an Asian city you are either a soldier or completely clueless about how to get where you're going? Of course, like an idiot, I answered no when people asked me about either of those. Sure showed them!
Through some accident of good fortune I made it to Gyeongbokgung Palace, situated nicely in one of Seoul's downtown business districts. The palace grounds were bordered by mountains to the east and the rest of the city to the west. I won't even try to describe how awesome the place was; hopefully the attached pictures can show you what my feeble writing can't.
Walking out of the grounds you come upon Insadong, one of the traditional market areas of the city. You know those scenes they show in any major movie involving either Asian cities or an Asian neighborhood of an American city and the crazy back-alley scene complete with haggling, ripoffs, counterfeit goods and live chickens running around? That's what Insadong is like. Well, I didn't see any chickens but then again I wasn't looking very hard. I picked up some clothes for myself and some things for a few people reading this email. If you want to feel like you've lived, try dealing with one of the saleswomen in the area.
Saleslady: "Who you buying for?"
Me: "I don't know yet, it depends what I find I guess."
Saleslady: "Here this, very good for girl. Very pretty, this all mean good in Korean, success and happiness."
Me: "It is nice, I'll take it."
Saleslady making all-knowing faces at me: "You give this girl she be loving you, you be happy man!"
Me: "I suppose so."
Saleslady making ultra-suggestive hand motions: "She be 'wow let me show you how I like this from you!'"
[awkward laughing by Andrew]
Saleslady: "You be smart, you do good with this one, she lucky to love you so much, you good to love."
Me: "It's for my sister."
Saleslady: "Oh this good, you good sister."
[more awkward silence]
Saleslady: "So you still buy ok? Gift wrap over here."
So it was off to the hotel for some junk food and a few more hours of sleep. Midnight and it's back outside, this time to the bars. I didn't really go too far this time, not because of the language barrier but because after a few minutes out in this particular part of town I started to figure out what "hostess bar" really means. Again they see it: young white man, travelling alone, far from home, middle of the night, shady part of town...you get the picture. Some of you asked if I met any women in Seoul, and to you I answer yes, but that's only if your definition of "met" means "had extremely lewd offers and propositions made to me by." Sorry ladies of the night, I'm saving my money for postcards and bookmarks!
Tuesday was a field trip to Olympic Park where the 1988 summer games were held. They actually did a nice job of keeping the place usable even damn near twenty years later. I took a walk around the grounds, soaked in the views, thought about how this might be the best layover I've ever had (Previous champ: 46 minutes in Atlanta. So sue me for not flying much.). One of the more popular uses of Olympic Park is for schoolteachers to take their kids on recess-type excursions. And once again, there I am walking through this crowd of five- and six-year-olds and trying not to be a spectacle. Say it with me: young white man, travelling alone, far from home. I was spotted.
But instead of trying to rip me off or sucker me into an alleyway brothel, the kids wanted something simpler: they wanted to practice their English! One would start out saying "hi!" until I'd say hi and wave back. Suddenly they all see this and break out almost in a chorus. "Hi! Hi! Hi!" And another would try "What's your name?" until they got it right, and I'd say my name. The third part of what they teach these kids must be to ask how old you are, because I haven't had to keep saying how old I was to that many people since my last birthday.
Little kids: "Hi! Hi! Hi!"
Little kids: "What's your name?"
Little kids: "Hi Andrew how old are you?"
Little kids: "Hi Andrew twenty-six!"
So what's the lesson in Andrew's trip to South Korea? That even ten-thousand miles away from home, little kids can still be so much cooler than everyone else.