One more time I’m going to copy something more or less straight out of my journal. I’ll probably write a little bit more of something fresh afterwards, so you aren’t always just getting reheated stuff that I really wrote with only myself in mind as an audience. For some context, this is a trip we took because we have a couple days off for what’s probably the biggest holiday of all in Korea, Chuseok, a three-day Thanksgiving harvest celebration where everyone goes to visit their families and ancestral hometowns and eat delicious food.
I left my journal behind when we went to Seoul yesterday, so here’s what happened over the last two days.
We got on the bus and rode for two hours. When we got off, we were faced with Seoul in the afternoon and had no idea what to do, except for Amanda. Amanda knew she wanted to go to Myeongdong to shop. Russell, Sean, and I said sure and came along fo the ride.
Hilariously, she went to Forever 21. Apparently they don’t have that in England, so she didn’t get the joke—that she’d come all the way to Seoul in order to partake in something so very Western, in this case American. We guys went in briefly and I’ve never seen a clothes store that crowded. So instead we checked out a bookstore across the street, but it turned out to be a Christian bookstore, not a place where I could find a Korean-English dictionary. I was so focused on looking at all the books to see if they were dictionaries that my eyes swept completely past the Jesus statues and the crucifixes, and I had no idea it was a Christian bookstore until I asked the attendant upstairs if they had dictionaries, and she told me, “Christian books.” Sean and Russell found this quite funny. Eventually Amanda came out with a jacket or something, and we moved on down the street. She stopped again at H&M (“Haitch and Em” if you’re English) and I think she got a jacket there too, or maybe something else. For all this she was positively bleeding money, but I guess she enjoys that. She and lots and lots of Koreans, it seems. I don’t get it.
We stopped in at a fancy coffee shop and had expensive comestibles and sat and talked. Sean and Russell both figured out how to get in touch with friends, though in Sean’s case the friends were Amanda’s, and he was a conduit because he has a phone and she doesn’t. We wandered a little, and Amanda peeked into more shops, and then we took the subway to Seoul Station.
We got off the train and made our way out of the cavernous building and waited awhile on the steps there, admiring the enormity of this huge round station with a department store inside it, and after a while we found Amanda’s friends: Ken (flat cap), Christina (quiet), Kate (hair dyed red), Jason (musician), and Rich (forty years old). At some point, Russell’s friend Connor (Tennessee) also joined us. And then we all got taxis to Hongdae to begin the night.
First, burritos, then taking care of our sleeping accommodations, then barhopping. Aimlessly, we looked for good bars, each one trying to be louder and more neon than the rest, and with our walking made a struggle by the tremendous clots of Koreans and Westerners both, all looking to drink. Somehow we found the worst bar around (me and Sean watching the group start to fracture but then follow a herd mentality into this basement bar, saying to each other, “This sucks”). We caught a glimpse of some people from orientation, but didn’t have time to say hi before they disappeared and we descended to a place where the music was too loud to exchange more than five words at a time with your neighbor, and those by shouting in his ear. I bought a Pepsi because just the thought of beer was at that point making me queasy for some reason. The can of Pepsi cost 3000 won ($3). I decided not to give any more of my money to Hongdae. I could go broke in a place like this.
Soon we all got the hell out of that bar and looked for a better one. Instead we found a free outdoor music festival, which I thought was awesome. But the crowd around it on the raised pavilion was so massive that people were standing in the bushes at the edge, and the bands were totally invisible, so we all just stood next to a vendor’s cart—he wsa selling ridiculous electronic trinkets, like a dancing stuffed monkey—and jabbered. Most people got slowly drunker, though Sean and I stayed about the same. I reluctantly gave up hope of liking some of the people, although I didn’t really have the chance to get to know most of them. Kate in particular told me a long, unprompted story about her college’s wine-tasting course that she took, and every time she seemed done she’d keep going, about how it was so great, and you’d think it was easy but it was actually so hard, and they got to take a tour of Illinois’s wine belt, and the college is such a beautiful place, because there’s a forest on campus, and you walk through it on your way to most classes, and she was going to go to a different college but this one was so pretty. I wished I could sit and watch the bands while talking to someone with interests besides drink, but that was all that was on most people’s minds here, except Sean and me, and we already knew each other. I guess some parties are like that.
It turned out that the show Jason really wanted to see wasn’t the live show outside, but another live show, this one punk rock instead of whatever the pavilion show was (I couldn’t hear it), and located in a club nearby with a $15 cover. We split into smaller factions when some people balked at the price. Sean, Amanda, Christina, and I went to a club called Gogo’s that a friend of Sean’s was at. (We never found the guy.) This place turned out to be much like the first awful bar, except that the music was actually pretty good stuff, and even louder. I had a shot and tried to talk, but gave up eventually. After a while we all emerged. We started heading for another bar, but Sean and I reconsidered and decided now would be an ideal time to just disappear, since neither of us was keen on drinking and being unable to talk even more tonight. We saved on a taxi by just walking back to the motel, and claimed the bed so the other two guys (Russell and Connor) would have to sleep on the floor. They did, when they got in at 6:00 in the morning, but they were also past the point of caring, so it worked out okay.
Sean and I woke up in a disorganized fashion from 9 until 11. Finally we looked up directions to the English bookstore in Itaewon. We would’ve left Russell and Connor to sleep, but they arose and wanted to come with us, somehow not incapacitated by their hangovers as I probably would’ve been, so we all went. Amanda and her friends were less well off and we let them sleep so the maid could deal with them instead of us doing it.
Itaewon isn’t too bad a place—it’s the Little America, or Americatown, of Seoul. We found the bookstore and before going in satisfied our hunger with some McDonald‘s (the only restaurant nearby—still gross, but in a reminiscent sort of way now). I found what I was looking for—a Korean-English dictionary at last—and browsed a lot. They have a great selection. Eventually we finished and left to take the subway to Chuncheon, where we could get buses back to our own towns.
This was my idea, but I didn’t realize we’d have to stand the whole way—maybe because it’s Chuseok and everyone’s traveling. Well, three hours later we made it. Connor got a ticket to Inje where he lives, and we got ours, and we waited in E-Mart—the local sort of Walmart thing—until it was time. I was bemused to find an enormous cowd of military men waiting for our bus, all in front of us. Sure enough, they all got on it. I’ve never been on a bus with standing room only before. It was a special experience, but everyone seemed sad or tired, I couldn’t tell which. It was a relief to arrive in Sachangni, especially for Sean, who had to stand the whole time.
That’s where my journal entry ended. Lest it sound like I’m just complaining about partying, let me say that certain parts of the whole Seoul experience were pretty nice. For instance, I finally found some indoor shoes that I can actually use. This has been a concern of mine. Korea subscribes to the same apparently pan-Asian custom that Japan does of not wearing outdoor shoes indoors. So in the school I’ve been wearing the biggest pair of sandals that they had in the little cabinet next to the door. They’re tiny, they feel like they’re made of cardboard, and also if I walk with any gait other than a worried-looking shuffle, they just fall off. So now I have a pair of rubber sandals that are still too small for me, but not so direly, and they also stay on for gaits all the way up to a cautious jog.
Also, I got to eat a burrito, which was much more comforting than I ever imagined. It’s true that I’ve really taken to Korean food, and it’s a good thing I have, because it’s hard to find anything else around here. What I didn’t realize, however, was that having nothing but Korean food nearly caused me to forget, on some visceral level controlled by my taste buds, that I even used to live in America. A burrito is American food, you had better believe, even if it has a name that is also a word in Spanish (the word means “small burro” and does not sound particularly appetizing to many Spanish speakers, or so I have heard), and when I had that burrito it brought memories of my temporarily abandoned life back to my subconscious.
So, on the whole, I may not have had all that much fun with the clubbing, but it’s not like I had zero fun, and despite how much money I spent, I suppose I’m still glad I went. I’ve just been reading a book that Sean lent me called Vagabonding. It’s all about putting yourself in the right sort of mindset for doing serious, long-term traveling that not only gets you to see The Sights but also gets you to really talk to the people, feel the rhythms of life in the place you’re visiting, and come away actually feeling like you know the place. One of the things he says, and one that lines up just about perfectly with other aspects of my own life philosophy from before I even knew the book, is that even the stuff you didn’t enjoy at the time gives you perspective. Though I wasn’t hanging out with Koreans while I did this big expedition, they were all around me, and now I know what it’d be like, as a Korean, to go to Myeongdong and frantically try to get that perfect jacket or those really cute pumps before the rest of the swarm cleans it all out from the American clothes shop. Not to say that I’m going to forbid myself from complaining forevermore, but everything new is interesting, and I’m going to make a point of bearing that in mind.
So that’s that story. But there are more. Today I climbed a small mountain or large hill with Sean, and tomorrow we’re all going to see a waterfall. I’ll let you know how it turns out.