I said I would be talking a lot more about my trip to Korea. As promised, I want to provide some insights on my first impression on just getting around that I've finally been able to process to now share with all of you. Primarily, a big concern a lot of adoptees have about going back to Korea is their concern about the natives coming up and talking to them. Yeah....your fears are completely baseless. At least, that was my experience. The most amount of interaction I had with the locals was alarming looks they would give me because I was walking around Seoul in February without a jacket. I was the only one not bundled up and I didn't have the heart to tell these pansies I currently live in Texas where it is in the 70s in February. The fact I didn't feel the need to walk around bundled up was my patriotic moment of being an American and therefore way tougher than a typical Korean. Murica! Definitely don't mess with a Texas Yankee! The sad thing is upon further reflection, I interpreted it to be obvious I was an American because I was tougher than the cold. However, I now think Koreans figured I was American because I was too stupid to put on a jacket. Either way, I didn't have to wear Vanilla Ice Star Spangled Banner parachute pants to loudly broadcast I was from the good old US of A. Okay kids, Vanilla Ice was a mistake white people made in the early 90s where they thought they could also "rap," but realized the only way it was possible was to rip off Queen's “Under Pressure.” You're welcome. Who needs Wikipedia when you have Uncle Derek?
Do you want to know just how American I am? The first night I was in Seoul, I had to run to Itaewon. Anyone who wants to experience the authentic Seoul and Korean experience just rolled their eyes at this statement. And, you know what? I totally don't blame you. But, in my defense, I HAVE NEVER DESIRED TO GO TO KOREA. Back off the judgement train and understand I just needed to hear some English. Itaewon is the expat neighborhood of Seoul. It's also the place where they have Irish bars that don't sell any Harp, Caffrey's, Smithwicks, or Beamish. Or, New Zealand bars that don't sell any Steinlager. In Itaewon, I discovered two very interesting facts. First fact: it's a lot of fun to eavesdrop when people have no clue you speak English. To the expat eye, I'm just another Korean native. Granted, a dumb native who isn't wearing a coat, but inside an establishment I'm just another Korean trying to be cool at foreign bars. I feel a lot of these bars are either run by the absolute laziest foreigners who have no interest in providing a truly authentic experience, or by Koreans who decide movies are 100% accurate in portraying the feel and vibe of the theme they are trying to replicate. It's like if you opened up a bar based only on watching episodes of Jersey Shore….and then called it Bar Fresno. That's pretty much all of Itaewon, except Canucks. That Canadian bar was kinda awesome. I got to hear oodles of very interesting conversations. I have concluded we, as a species, are actually devolving at an exponential rate, but that's for another post.
Second fact: Koreans are fucking liars. Almost every Korean will tell you they don't speak English. If you are annoying enough and persist in trying to communicate with them, they will start speaking in 750 SAT score English, except taxi drivers. Those bastards really don't speak any English. Apparently, they don't read Korean/Hangul either. I estimate 19% of my entire 2 weeks in Seoul was spent getting in taxis and then getting out of taxis when the driver would shake their head they didn't know where my hotels, Eastern Social Welfare Society, and the airport were. I feel like I've figured out by now how to be a taxi driver recruiter. The basic criterion is: A. Do you hate people? Perfect. B. Do you feel the need to wear gloves in all temperatures? Fantastic. C. Are you functionally illiterate in all languages? Amazing! D. Do you lack the ability to read a map? My god, you were born for this profession. Last question before we start your new hire paperwork: E. Could you please learn to forget the name of any restaurant, bar, store, and other common destination? You can? You have trainer potential, or management fast track opportunities ahead of you! Okay, now in all fairness, I have to explain something. You're going to have to do some things to prove this point. You will need a blank piece of paper and a magic marker. Go get these things now. We can wait. Okay, you're back? Did you bring me a Diet Pepsi? Why not, you jerk! Telling stories is thirsty work! Fine. Take the magic marker, pretend you are Michael J. Fox getting electrocuted, and start scribbling away. Congratulations! You have just made an accurate map of Seoul. I learned they finally converted all the Daigon Alley streets littering Seoul from land lots to actual street names. You're talking thousands of streets that now go by a name. Even people who live on these streets don't know how to get home now. Apparently, Naver (What Koreans use) and Google have not gotten around to updating their maps with all the street names yet. I frequently give up and try navigating the subway system.
You know what would be a great business opportunity? Subway station taxis. I'm talking about cabs only operating inside the subway stations. Holy shitballs these stations are enormous. It's a discouraging feeling when your transfer line signs are measured in kilometers. This isn't I-95, folks. These stations are so big they have shopping malls in them. Like, it's a long enough walk you can get distracted by purchasing a riding lawn mower. Who the hell buys underwear at a subway station mall? You know who? Koreans. But, if I see a sign with an arrow, I'm expecting the location to be right around the corner. Not the Bataan Death march consisting of enormous distances both laterally AND vertically. Here's a little tidbit for you. Koreans love stairs. I thought I had huge calves because I worked really hard at developing them. Nope. I have huge calves because nothing makes a Korean happier than climbing 400 steps to get to the next train transfer. It's all genetics people. Do you know how Popeye has huge forearms? Well, Korean calves put those to shame.
Now I'm in a rush trying to catch the next train with my arms laden down with boxer briefs, a 2-year lease on a Husqvarna 0 degree turn radius lawn mower, kimchi cufflinks, and 14 black market DVDs of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Hey Derek, Solo hasn't come out yet. Yeah, I know, smartass. That's how amazing these subway station malls are. I might get my Lasik surgery at the Dongdaemun Cultural Center Subway Station Mall. I'll still have enough won leftover to buy some kimchi pancakes. What's very handy is there are lockers at stations you can put your wares, so you can have your hands free to hold your phone and ignore your fellow passengers on the train. I get to display more of my American badassery by refusing to hold on to the handles as the train is in motion. No one else is doing this, so I guess there were no New Yorkers in Seoul the entire time I was there.
As I have no clue where I am going, what it looks like, or why I'm going there things could have gotten very frustrating. Two absolutely wonderful aspects saved me from enormous amounts of aggravation. First, everything has Wi-Fi. The public bathrooms have 5G connections. I can Google/Naver where the hell I am and how to get where I need to go. Second, there is a Starbucks every three blocks, and every single one has someone who could be a Palm Beach private school English teacher. One venti caramel macchiato every ten minutes is well worth not wandering around like Moses in the desert. That's pretty much how I got around Seoul. Five failed attempts to take a taxi, going into the subway system, buying merchandise I didn't know I wanted, and consuming copious quantities of caffeine to bribe decent directions from Pulitzer Prize winning baristas.
I think not being able to prepare for this trip allowed me to experience Korea in the most ideal way. I didn't have the ability to develop preconceived notions. I was literally adapting on a nanosecond basis. Nothing surprises me anymore. I have never felt more alive than not knowing what the next minute would bring. It allowed me to take the news about my family in stride. I have cousins you say? Bitch, I just had cheesecake flavored ice. I have a grandfather in Taejon who wants to meet me? Let me show you this gas station pouch of kimchi I just ate. Oh, the grandfather is actually the grandfather's younger brother? Allow me to show you how comfortable subway station leather jackets are. If you want to have an incredible experience in Korea, let me know. I'll show it to you my way. And, the good news is we can ride around on my riding lawn mower instead of walking everywhere. Apparently, it's an Owners Choice lease, so it's mine now. But, you're buying the gas station kimchi. Deal?