Monday, December 31, 2007

Travelogue #19: Disconnected on Christmas

<----Travelogue #18: Korean Snowball Fights on my 23rd Birthday
--->Travelogue #20: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 1

Christmas Eve. 10:20pm. With three high school students I sit in a darkened classroom, lit only by the black-and-white flicker of Laurence Olivier's Hamlet from a MacBook screen. It's the last class of the night and I probably should be listening more intently, for I cliffnoted this play in high school and now I have to teach it. It's hard to pay attention.

I'm working on an evening I usually reserve for sinking into a sofa and watching Real World marathons. There are a few minutes left till my day off...where my plans are to eat dakgalbi and bum around the Internet. Maybe I'll lie in bed and listen to iTunes, letting the Sunae lights spill through my window.



Maybe I'll download Home Alone 2.


Maybe I won't. Every option sounds like a good one for a holiday to be celebrated in pajamas.


The class-ending bell doesn't brring shrilly; instead, it hums with a Christmas carol. Sweet. I clap shut my laptop. Closing time. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

I scramble for my things, not wanting to forget my learn-Korean book I got from my office Secret Santa. There's a buzz in the air with the other teachers, who wait for me to join them for the group trek back to the apartments. "Okay," I say, joining the tribe. "I'm ready."

We walk home. Nothing unusual happens as I step into my apartment, until I realize -

Shit.

I left my MacBook at school.

So I run back. I want my iTunes. I want my Home Alone 2. I want my MacBook, tormented history or not.

Unfortunately, the doors to SLI are locked.

What's the big deal? you might be asking, It's a friggin' computer. You can survive a day and a half without your computer, Alex.

That sounds fine in theory, but that night I felt naked, and I'm not talking about lack of access to movies and music. I'm talking lack of access to anybody beyond the three-block radius of my apartment. My corner in this enormous, connected world suddenly felt significantly smaller and less connected. I had no webcam to communicate with my parents or sister; I had no AIM/GMail to communicate with my friends. I had no blogger to communicate with those I know and those I've never met. In a way, I was reminded anew of the fact that I was in South Korea, and aside from my job, the new friends I've made, the new foods I've tasted, and the routine I've developed, a large chunk of my world remains reachable only through the Internet. Without it, that world is temporarily lost.

Christmas Day. After joining a group of teachers for a delicious dakgalbi feast and dessert at a hip yogurt joint, I decided to explore a PC Bang. These are Korea's versions of Internet cafes, albeit with more of a focus on online gaming and snack food rather than email and coffee.



The photo above is not my own, but I posted it here to give you an idea of the vibe. Picture me uncomfortably cocooned in one of these cubicles, except surrounded with dimmer lights and a packed house of pimply-teenage Korean boys on holiday, clicking madly at StarCraft and CounterStrike, running up a multiple hour tab. The cost for using the computer was a very reasonable $1 an hour, but I didn't stay too long. One reason is that I abused my reclining leather chair privilege, for I happened to bump into another chair or another person every time I would lean back. My neighbors flinched but didn't say a word.

I felt like more of a foreigner here than I do at many Korean eateries, for in the restaurants, I feel a certain degree of affiliation with strangers because we're all eating the same food, whereas in the PC Bang, the young Koreans zapped aliens while I skimmed Drudge Report.

So I went home and napped. When I awoke, I tried watching Korean television.

(Here is a seventeen-second-video of what I was watching. Watch not only for the clip, but also for my reaction.)






Then I read some of Suki Kim's The Interpreter, a melodramatic downer of a novel. I cleaned my floor. I looked out the window. Korea. I was still in Korea!

Sometimes when I'm in my apartment and on the Internet, immersed in a conversation with a friend or the stutter-step pop of Spoon's "The Underdog", I almost forget that I'm so far away from Germantown, TN and Atlanta, GA. It's a little scary to know how much I depend upon a little white cube.



On the 26th I retrieved my MacBook. That night I webcammed with my mom and my sister. I listened to my favorite music. I read about the struggling Grizzlies on Yahoo! Sports. I was connected again.

Living abroad must have been a whole different animal in the years before the net, when home wasn't just a click away. We have so much access now that it's easy to take it for granted.

I won't.

<----Travelogue #18: Korean Snowball Fights on my 23rd Birthday
--->Travelogue #20: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 1
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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Travelogue Extra: My AroundSeoul.com WaBar Article

<----Travelogue #18: Korean Snowball Fights on my 23rd Birthday
--->Travelogue #19: Disconnected on Christmas

Just a quick word: I'm looking for additional writing outlets in my stay in Korea, and I might have found one in AroundSeoul.com. This upstart site posted my article about a neighborhood drinking hall frequented by a few of my friends and colleagues: WaBar. I had fun writing this piece, but I don't know how many more of these essays I'll be asked to contribute to the site.

In short, don't call me Zagat yet.

<----Travelogue #18: Korean Snowball Fights on my 23rd Birthday
--->Travelogue #19: Disconnected on Christmas
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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Travelogue #18: Korean Snowball Fights on my 23rd Birthday

Snowflakes, fat and full, flutter sideways through the midnight sky. From a wide window I watch them fall, fall, fall... powdering the illuminate walkways below.

Inside, it's warm, cozy, and perfect. I'm at Bier Garten, sipping a tall brew in the corner booth with my buddy Jerry. I'm twenty-three and it's snowing on my birthday.

Life feels right.

"Last year? I couldn't come close to imagining I'd be here, in this moment...with snow," I told Jerry. I was awe-struck all over again. It's a recurring feeling I get, how right when I feel as if I've developed a routine in Korea, I find myself clocked in the face with an epiphany:

God, I'm living a life I never predicted. Every step now is a new one.

Self-awareness. I have enough of it to realize that my blog posts often conclude on the same "rah-rah-rah! Whoo-hoo, Korea!" note. I don't mean to repeat this theme, but I haven't found a legitimate reason to rant. Besides, the last thing I want to be is a cynic or a critic...especially on my birthday.

That night I wander home late, my brown shoes mashing carefully through the snow. It's 3am. Technically my birthday hasn't even begun; the "real" celebration is set for Saturday. (David covered that evening here.) But I'm still in good spirits, a twinkle of alcohol in my gut as I anticipate the cozy embrace of my room -

"Hi! Where you from?"

I'm waiting at a crosswalk when I hear this greeting. It comes from the lips of a jovial young Korean man surrounded by friends, male and female, women giggling, men playfully punching each others' elbows. They're apple-cheeked in their winter coats, and they got that buzzed night-out-in-the-town look on their faces, the kind that says yesterday and tomorrow matter in the long run, sure, but all that matters now is tonight.

"U.S.A.," I say.

"U.S.A.? U.S.A.!" says the jovial man, turning even happier. "And what are you doing...in Korea?"

"I'm an English teacher - "

"Ah! I'm going to Australia to study English!"

The light at the crosswalk blinks so we walk ahead. I nod approvingly. English in Australia, sounds cool, man -

"She thinks you're handsome!"

One of the women giggles shyly.

"Thanks," I say, thinking. "She's nice, too."

As we make it to the other side of the street, I learn the jovial man is not the sole English speaker in the group, for there's also a 29 year old dental technician who can gab in bursts of English. This man, taller, more of an adult, shakes my hand warmly and also grabs my elbow. He wants to know where I live and what I do. I think he approves of the English teacher business. "You are very handsome," he says.

I mention this neither to serve my ego nor to question this man's, um, reasons for complimenting me, but rather to point out the touchy-feelyness prevalent in Korean culture. Whether you see a man or a woman, an adult or a child, chances are good you'll see a heterosexual same-sex tandem being physically affectionate. Hands around each other's shoulders, arms locked in arms, whatever. It's just the way they roll. I doubt Seinfeld's no-hugging rules apply here.

Anyway, I figure my encounter with these friendly Koreans will be short-lived. I prepare to cross the bridge and head back to Sunae, only to have the jovial man stop me with an offer:

"Alex? You want join us? Snowball fight?"

We're standing on the border of Bundang Central Park, which is now a strikingly bright field of snow. It glimmers like a nightlight against the black sky.

"Arghhhhh!" one of the Koreans grunts, scooping up jumbo chunks of snow from the ground. "Arghhh!" he yells again, racing towards my direction. Like a headless chicken I stumble away, shouting back, "ARGGGGH!"

This conversation continues in more or less the same fashion, with the "arrgs" interrupted by slivers of snow either shot at my cold face or slithered down my coat-shrouded back. "Alex," the jovial guy says, "You like Korean girls?"

I gasp for breath. "Sure, they're nice, they're good...they're nice."

"Because," he continues with a smile, "U.S.A girls? I like! You and me, we do exchange? Korean girls and U.S.A. girls?"

"Sure, yeah, yeah!" I say.

In the end nothing is swapped except for smiles and snowballs. I let it slip that it's my birthday, and so the game ends with a group of Korean strangers singing me an accented verse of "Happy Birthday to You" on a snow-blanketed park at 330am.

I grin sheepishly. I've found warmth in the night's serious cold. I wish I'd brought my camera, but hey, memories don't always need to fit into picture frames, do they?

I know I'll never forget my 23rd birthday.








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Monday, December 17, 2007

Travelogue #17: A "Routine" Day in Bundang, South Korea

<---Travelogue #16: Flirtation, Painful Massages, and Language Barriers in South Korea
---->Travelogue #18: Korean Snowball Fights on my 23rd Birthday

Routine scares a lot of people.

Who wants to be that guy with the fluorescent-bulb job and ham-and-cheese life, that guy who considers double-clicking exercise and YouTube a night out?

Some of us embrace such an existence, others explore first and settle for it later, and still others keep searching, searching, searching...or doing: work we hate, work we love, work we love to hate. The traveler might think the cubicle worker's an insular-worlded sap, while the cubicle worker might consider the traveler an avoiding-responsibility sap in his own right. Is the very idea of "routine" one to be embraced as adult and mature, or is it merely a straitjacket to true freedom?


Viva Revolucion?





Last summer I became sick of driving the same route to work everyday, sick of the same roads, the same bookstore shifts, and the same fast food. Wendy's Spicy Chicken Fillet lost its romance. The act of driving bored me, as did the CDs in my car, a steadily bleating soundtrack to an in-between chapter of life, one where all the subplots had either ended or not yet begun.

Dammit. I was bored.

And then came Korea. I was going to Korea. Good-bye, railroad tracks lining Park Avenue. Good-bye, Nora Hess books. Good-bye, Memphis. Farewell, same-shit different-day!

In my first week or two in Bundang, I had no recognizable routine. I was the new guy, tagging along the veteran teachers, accepting advice on how to politely say "I want something" ("chuseyo") and how to ask for water ("mul chuseyo"). Meals and drinks were ordered for me. Others' nightly plans became my nightly plans. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I'd usually say, "Hey, I'm just going with the flow."


The head teacher Mike told me that he still didn't have much of a routine, even after spending almost a year here. "You don't want one," he said, grinning widely. "It's better that way."

I could see his point in this sense: wouldn't having a routine run contrary to the adventure of dropping everything and moving to Korea? What's the point of replacing one routine with another?

As it turns out, I wasn't running away from the idea of routine; I was only running away from a particular lifestyle I had experienced during the summer of 2007. In Bundang, my weekdays have fallen into a certain structure, with enough variables thrown into the mix to keep things fresh.


10:45AM My iTunes alarm wakes me up. I roll up the blinds. Good morning, Korea.

11:00AM-noon- Gmail. Facebook. And webcamming with my mom. I'm impressed by my mother''s know-how when it comes to the webcam, even though she happens to shove her upper forehead towards the monitor, giving me a good look at a close-up of her eyebrows.

noon-1pm- I work out at the Royal Palace Housevill gym. The place is almost always empty, with a boombox in the corner blaring a curious mix of K-Pop and Norah Jones. Nothing pumps Koreans up for benchpress more than "Don't Know Why." Meanwhile, my iPod mix rocks out Justin Timberlake, Bloc Party, and Spoon. Yes, Justin Timberlake. What was once a guilty pleasure is now a staple in my workout mix. I even snap my fingers to the beats. It's okay, because the only thing watching me is my image on the mirror.

1pm-3pm Lunchtime and Slingbox. Late-night American television live on my laptop in Korea. In the middle of the afternoon. Cool.

OR

10:45AM-3PM- A bus trip into Seoul.

Palaces. Or mountains.


Or bowling?



3:20pm I walk to work.

4pm-11pm- Three recent highlights from my classes:

1) "Teacher, you look different," said Mikey, one of my mid-level students. I shaved before the class, so Mikey had a point. "How do I look different?" I asked him. Without hesitation, he answered:

"You had face surgery!"

2) Higher-level class. "Kevin, do you know anybody who's running for president in the U.S.A. for 2008?"

"Um, a woman?"

"Good, do you remember her name?"

"Roosevelt!"

3) I taught a poetry lesson to a mid-level class. Their homework was to write a poem. This would be a challenge, for these students had never before crafted a poem in English. To my delight, Jay was up for the test.

She plays with toys

Then she plays with boys


She made a lot of noise

So her mother gave her rice


She eats rice in silence.


"Wow," I said, "That's deep." I was honestly impressed. "So, it sounds like maybe the mother was upset about her daughter playing with boys...maybe she screamed at her before they ate the rice in silence? I don't know, but I like it, Jay. So what would you say the poem is about?"

Jay hesitated, his eyes wobbling behind his glasses. "Rice," he said, "rice is delicious."



Rice is delicious? I asked Jay to title the poem and he scribbled one down:

"delicious rice"

I shook my head and laughed. When he's right, he's right. Rice is delicious. There's your poetry.

In-between classes- Dinner. Within walking distance are several great eateries. As is the custom, I peel off my shoes before I enter the dining area. I sit Indian-style atop a little pillow. Chopsticks have practically become extensions of my fingers.

Sometimes we eat dak-galbi, the warm-and-fuzzy favorite among my co-workers. Dak-galbi is a golden-orange concoction of chicken bits, onion, little eggs, spices, and pork bones. The owner is always toothily smiling and sweaty and shaking our hands. His name is Mr. Park. When I told him I like tennis, he mimed the swing and said "Sampras." "Alecs," he said, repeating my name, "Like Rodriguez?"

Another culinary favorite of mine is the restaurant that serves daeji-galbi and bulgogi, with which we're served more than half-a-dozen complimentary sides: creamed corn, crab legs, and radish rectangles to name a few.



When I don't have enough time between classes, I might run to "gimbop lady" and buy a roll of delectable seaweed-wrapped squares.

Also in-between classes: CO-WORKER #1: "You need to listen to yourself more."

CO-WORKER #2: "But, you see, I try, you don't understand - "

CO-WORKER #1: "You're not doing a good job of making me understand!"

This is just a sample, but I never know when I'll find myself accidentally eavesdropping on a deep conversation between my colleagues in the middle of the office. I suppose that's the product of having a workforce mere months or years away from college: as I've said before, dorm room conversations have sunk into working hours.

I kind of dig it.

11pm- Maybe I'll go play darts with the fellows at the local Western-style bar,
or maybe I'll go back to my apartment for the night, where the heating rises from the floors. In Korea, it's called andal. Keeps me warm and cozy for the winter.

As long as I have the free will to choose my own, I'm not scared of "routine" anymore.

Good riddance.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Travelogue #16: Flirtation, Painful Massages, and Language Barriers in South Korea

<---Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play?
---->Travelogue #17: A "Routine" Day in Bundang, South Korea


Time: Summer-Early Fall 2007


Location: Optometrist's Office or Hair Salon or Grocery Store


KINDLY STRANGER: You graduated? Know what you're doing yet?

ME: Right now I'm working at a used bookstore, but I might go to Korea to teach for a year.

KINDLY STRANGER (grinning like he's got a secret): Korea? I bet you're coming home with a Korean wife!

ME: Ha yep, that's what I keep hearing.

(KINDLY STRANGER turns to my MOM.)

KINDLY STRANGER: He's coming back with a Korean wife! And some little babies too!

Mom (smiling glibly): That's what we keep hearing.

The story was old even before my mom and I heard it: American boy meets Korean girl, makes her his wife, chuckle-chuckle, and brings her back to the Red, White, and Blue. Each jokester seemed to think he was the first to imagine this twist in my Korean adventure, though in reality, many people made the exact same smiley-faced prediction.

But could I blame them? Not really. We'd all heard the true tales of cross-continental love: anecdotal but no less factual. Sometimes, an American man did indeed go overseas and return with an exotic wife. But me? I didn't see myself joining that club, for my goal in coming to Korea was not to embrace a lifelong commitment, it was to independently embrace the newness of the other side of the world. If I'd make an exception, the woman would probably be another English-teaching Westerner who looked like Jennifer Love Hewitt did in 1999.



Don't get me wrong: many Korean women are unquestionably attractive. But the issue to me was more about language: what would we talk about?

What would we talk about?



"You look like...Jim Carrey!" she told me, her friends giggling along with her. It was a Friday night in Seohyeon at Beer Gardin, where brewskies are served in gigantic goblets fit for medieval knights. I was halfway through my goblet and sharing smiles with this woman who thought I looked like Jim Carrey. Let's call her Soo. Soo is a work friend of David's significant other, EunJin, but unlike EunJin, who's a fluent speaker, Soo is a beginner when it comes to English. She forms sentences tentatively, taping nouns and verbs together as if they're loose beads in a necklace. As for my grasp of the Korean language, I know hello, thank you, and the names of a dozen foods. So:

What would we talk about?

Since she said I looked like Jim Carrey, I brainstormed a celebrity to whom she could be likened:
"Jennifer Lopez!" she said, posing pouty-lipped.

"Yes," I said, though I didn't quite see the resemblance. "Yes! Jennifer Lopez!"

Thinking...thinking...thinking.

"Do you like to play any instruments?" I asked. "Music?"

She mimed playing the piano.

"Piano? Ah, Piano!" A little tipsy, I asked her, "Do you like Ben Folds?"

One of my co-workers muttered come on man, as if to say that Ben Folds is not the king of Korea and that Soo would not know Ben Folds from Ben Kinglsey.

No matter. I pressed on. Soo and I kind-of-sort-of discussed the fact that Justin Timberlake is from Memphis and so am I! From across the table, EunJin helped translate a word or two. "She thinks you're very kind," was the translation. Cool.



A few nights later, things got more intimate. David was performing open mic night at Dublin's Irish Pub, and I just so happened to be sitting across from Soo at the end of a dimly lit table. From her bag she unearthed an introduction to English book. "She wants to improve," Eunjin explained, "so she can ask you more questions."


Up popped my warning antennae, pulsing invisibly in the air. I'd heard of Korean girls who deliberately sought out English-speaking males to develop their language skills. Was Soo one of these girls? Was she fluttering her eyelashes in the name of God-honest flirtation, or in the name of her ABCs?


I was probably being unfair. She struck me as a sweet girl, not one with a "master plan." I shifted my fingers across the pages of her book, finding a line-up of questions in Korean followed by the same questions in English. I chose one: "Do you play the piano?" I asked boldly.


"Yes," she said. "Other night. You ask me. Same question."


She was right. I had repeated myself. Not a good sign for the future of our give-and-take. The last time I'd asked the girl the same question twice was Liz Lodholtz in eleventh grade, when I asked for the name of her favorite radio station, only to ask again hours later. Her answer was Rock 103. Liz and I haven't talked much since.


Anyway, Soo and I regained our footing at the Norebang, where we doot-doot-dooted to Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life." She was a bit shy but I wouldn't take no for an answer; I would only accept "doots" during the chorus.




"She says thank you for encouraging her to sing," Eunjin said, again helpfully translating. I nodded a no problem. With David and EunJin canoodling in one corner of the starbrite-burst of a room, Soo offered to give me a massage. Hmm...I wasn't too comfortable with her yet, but when a pretty girl offers you a massage, it's hard to say no.

Ouch! God! Ouch!

What the hell was she doing to my back! I let out a Bambi yelp but still her hands clawed deeper and deeper into my sides. The words of Michael Scott flashed through my mind: "The Japanese have this thing called shiatsu massage, where they dig into your body, very hard. And it is very painful. And apparently, some people throw up. But the next day they feel great. I’ve never had one. They sound awful."



Was this Korean girl giving me, an American guy, a Japanese massage? If so, the cross-cultural wiring was making me feel more distant from Soo rather than more connected. I buckled away from her grip, and her eyes twinkled in apology. In a typical situation I'd feel like an ungrateful snot, but this time, all I could think about was my back. Hurting.

After mumbling through her Karaoke selection of Usher's "My Boo," I joined Soo in her car. She had generously offered to drive David, EunJin, and me back to our apartment.

"So that's the Tanchon River?" I said, pointing out the window at the water lapping beside the road. "I need to take a walk there."

"You haven't gone to the Tanchon yet?" David asked.

"I haven't, but I will," I said. "Consider it done."

"Consider...it...what?" Soo wondered.

"Consider it done!" I said with a bad Bronx accent.

I speak in idioms. Many idioms. And sometimes I try to artificially create new ones for the sake of humor. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I flop, but on this night, I did neither. On this night, I merely confused.

Soo began to jabber with EunJin in Korean. "She is not sure what you're saying," EunJin explained, "she is asking if you are inviting her to walk with you on the Tanchon River?"

"Umm," I said. David chuckled in the backseat. He was enjoying this.

I steered the conversation back to what "consider it done" meant, but I was not scoring As for clarity. "Consider it done!" I said, "you know, like they say in the Mafia, when somebody is supposed to be killed, and consider it done, so even if they're not killed already, they will be killed. Consider it done..."

Through this explanation, I may have mimed murdering Soo. "Okay," she said uncertainly.

The night closed with Soo and I alone in the car. She's a nice girl, but I couldn't help feeling plainly uncomfortable in the face of our language barrier. I touched her elbow; I think she touched mine. We said good-bye once or twice, or maybe even three times. And then I left the car.

In my recent history of travel, I've written frequently on how members of different cultures can communicate through more than language: they often can understand each other through pop culture, food, or even tennis. But in my time with Soo, language stood as an obstacle between us, at once obvious and surprising, forcing us to exaggerate hand gestures and nod and smile even when we didn't know what the other person was saying. According to David, later that evening, EunJin spent fifteen minutes on the phone with Soo explaining the meaning of "consider it done" and how nobody was making fun of her for not knowing it, that David and I were just laughing at the curiosity of the situation.

I don't think I'll marry Soo. I don't think I'll marry any just-now-learning-English Korean woman. If you call me closed-minded or call me impatient, you might be right.

I don't know what Soo wants, but I want a woman who can play with my words and fire them right back at me, a woman who can twist my clumsy idioms into conversational quips all her own. Or at least, that's what I think I want...

One day I'll make it happen.

Consider it done.

Related Post: Travelogue #26: My Rocky Introduction to Korean Dating

<---Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play? -

--->Travelogue #17: A "Routine" Day in Bundang, South Korea


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Friday, December 7, 2007

Travelogue Bonus: Bike-Riding in Chuncheon Remix

For two years I wrote backpage columns for Emory University's The Hub magazine. After I graduated, I maintained contact with some of those still involved with the publication.

I convinced Steven Stein to let me remix one of my blog entries for inclusion in the December issue of The Hub. If you're interested in a shorter, cleaner version of my bike-riding epiphany, check this link out. Even if you're not so interested, check out the rest of The Hub. It's a damn good mag, even if I'm a little biased.
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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play?

<---Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving
---->Travelogue #16: Flirtation, Painful Massages, and Language Barriers in South Korea


Two days before I left for Korea, I played tennis back home with my friend Matt. For an hour and a half we swapped strokes all loosey-goosey and casual...until things got serious. "This will be the last time I hit a tennis ball in America until, like, November 2008," I said a little too earnestly. "Here's to some good luck in Korea." (Yes, I really did say this. I'm the kind of guy who likes defining the moment as it's happening rather than waiting patiently for perspective on what said moment means. But that's a topic for another entry.)

So I began the rally. Back and forth the ball skipped across the net. I didn''t (and don't) believe in omens, but I would happily make an exception if I could leave the United States on a trail of Federer-like authority. I wanted to win the point.

Snap!

Matt laughed, and it wasn't because I'd sprayed the ball well beyond the baseline; it was because I'd snapped my racket strings. On a could-be omen of a shot, my strings split apart.

Oy.

I chose to leave my rackets at my parents' house rather than take them to Asia. This decision had nothing to do with superstition and everything to do with luggage space. Besides, I had no real expectations of playing tennis in Korea: Where would I find a court? With whom would I play? And wouldn't I be too preoccupied with work and the whole adapting-to-a-new-culture lifestyle to find time to hit balls?

As anybody who's ever felt passionate about sport can tell you, the itch never quite goes away. I'd heard murmurs of courts in Bundang, but because I'd never seen the facilities, I concluded the murmurs were badminton-related. Oh well. I figured I could survive a year without tennis. Maybe the popped strings were a warning after all. Or not.

Heyeon was a Korean teacher at my school until she quit three weeks ago. She's now preparing for a January move to Atlanta,GA U.S.A., home of my Alma mater. She's become a friend of mine. The reason for her inclusion in this tennis-focused essay?

She knows where to find tennis courts in Bundang.

On Wednesday, Heyeon was kind enough to walk me to these heretofore-only-murmured -about courts. To my delight, they were much closer to my apartment building than I had imagined: an eight minute stride from the lobby of Royal Palace to a wired gate, and behind it, three clay courts.

Heyeon and I walked down to them and turned right into a pro shop of sorts, a small shack-like building with rackets hanging on spikes and Korean ladies chatting to each other, some adjusting visors on their heads, others sipping mugs of coffee. That's when Heyeon sprung into action, using translation skills that would make a U.N. interpreter jealous. The chat between her and the Korean ladies went fast and furious. "They're saying the usual fee is $300 lifetime and $20 a month to use these courts," Heyeon told me, "but I told them you'll be here for one year, so they said maybe you can work something else out." I nodded along to the beats of their conversation. "They want to see you play," Heyeon said. "Now? I asked. I was wearing jeans, reasonably nice shoes, and a sweater. I was not in tennis attire. "Yes, now," Heyeon said. I looked at the ladies and their smiling faces. They were motioning towards the courts. "Okay," I said. "I'll play."


It was on: an impromptu showdown between one of the ladies and me. She bowed slightly to me and I bowed slightly back. She started the rally. What happened next was probably the worst shot of my tennis career: a long, loping home run of a forehand that landed about a dozen feet long. I heard giddy cackles of laughter from back in the pro shop. I stretched exaggeratedly, as if to assure the crowd that hey, I'm not that bad. I swear I'm not that bad!

Once I calmed my God-I'm-playing-tennis-in-jeans-and-I'm-doing-it-in-Korea! nerves, I began to redeem myself. Before I knew it, I was playing doubles, two Korean women versus another Korean woman and, well, me. These women could really play! They were far from podunk fairweather players; they were competitive and skilled serve-and-volleyers. My partner and I lost the set but I couldn't stop smiling through every single point, no matter the point's outcome. Heyeon cheered from the sidelines, saying she could tell I loved to play, that it was written all over my face. Awesome.

"Come back tomorrow?" said the captain of the league. "10:30?"

I came back solo the next morning and the morning after that one. None of the women spoke much English beyond "nice!" and "good shot!" I asked the captain if the league continued play through the winter. I did my best folded-armed impression of a man who goes brrr, but she still couldn't understand me. What I discovered was that while the women spoke Korean and I spoke English, we both spoke tennis.

15-30. Deuce. Out. Forehand. Hit to the weaker player. I did not need to vocalize these moments and strategies with my partner, for all we needed to communicate with each other was a nod, a fist pump, and the occasional supportive hand slap after a big point. A grunt after a bad shot means the same thing whether you're a thirtysomething woman from Bundang, Korea or a twentysomething man from Omaha, Nebraska.



By my third morning of play, I'd finally shook off my rustiness and was playing pretty well. My "nice shots!" and fist pumps and hand slaps increased in volume. I was playing tennis in Korea with ladies who a week ago would pass me on the street without a word. We weren't quite singing "we are the world," but we were bonding over rackets and balls. Tennis in Korea. It is on.

Forget about your omens.

<---Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving
---->Travelogue #16: Flirtation, Painful Massages, and Language Barriers in South Korea
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Monday, November 26, 2007

Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving

<---Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.
--->Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play?

It's Thanksgiving weekend in Korea, which means it's an ordinary November weekend in Korea.

Friday night marked my one-month anniversary here, and I celebrated by chomping on nyum nyum chicken. "Nyum nyum" is spicy chunks of bird slathered in a mysterious sticky red sauce. A runny nose is a typical consequence of its flavors. Mike offered to order us the grub and have it delivered to my apartment. Since he was working late, it would be my responsibility to greet the delivery guy.

A half hour later, the guy rang and his image appeared on this panel on my apartment wall.


I opened the door. He smiled, bowed slightly, and handed over the box. "Hot, spicy!" he said.

I nodded and gave him a thumbs-up. "I like spicy!"

It's funny how the rule in Korea is not to tip, while the service via restaurants and delivery has often been warmer and more generous than the service I received back in the states. (This hasn't always been the case, but poor service in Korea so far has been the exception rather than the rule.)

Turning towards the kitchen with the goodies, I heard an "Ah! Ah!" behind me. What was it? I returned to the door and found the delivery man pointing down to where I had dropped my change. Another smile, another slight bow, and goodbye.

All I had to do was wait for Mike's arrival so the two of us could feast. That's when the panel chimed again, this time with a different guy on the video screen. Huh?

Now would be a good time to reveal that I don't really know how this video panel system works. You see, the apartments at the Royal Palace Housevill don't have peepholes; they have video surveillance systems, which would be cool, assuming I knew how to work the thing. I decided it'd be easier to just go to my door and talk to the guy there. One problem: he wasn't at my door.

I returned to the panel and clicked the button to hear the new guy's voice. Apparently the video was beaming from the lobby, where he was waiting to be let in. He then said, "Korean word korean word korean word question mark nyum nyum?"

Nyum Nyum! I understood Nyum Nyum! It was time to pull out some trusty Korean from my satchel. Since this night marked my one-month anniversary, you might imagine that I've absorbed an impressive amount of key words and phrases.

"Ney," I said, the Korean word for yes. "Ney."

He countered with more Korean words and "chicken." What did he want? It didn't look as if he was holding anything in his hands, so I guessed he had come to check if I had indeed received my Nyum Nyum chicken.
"Ney," I said again. "Chicken."
"Chicken!" he replied.
"Chicken," I said. "Ney."
He paused. Then he said more Korean.
"Anio?" I said, which means no. What I was telling this man was a steady, enthusiastic stream of, "yes yes, nyum nyum chicken, yes yes. No?" I also gestured with my hands, which was a little odd considering he couldn't see me.

There's a button on my panel to allow him through the doors into the elevator area, but I didn't know which button to select. If I'd press the wrong button, an alarm would blare. I was stumped.

I opted to do it the old-fashioned way: talk to the guy in person at the lobby door rather than through a multi-buttoned video system.

He had vanished.

Twenty minutes later, Mike arrived from work. I took the Nyum Nyum down to his apartment. "Get ready, man," he said, grinning as he opened the box.

The grin left his face. "This isn't what we ordered," he said.

Uh-oh.

Mike's Korean friend sprang into action; she phoned the restaurant and sorted out the miscommunication. The story was that the second guy had come to correct the first order, but he gave up when my cluelessness prevented him from entering the apartment.

The pieces of the great Nyum Nyum puzzle of Thanksgiving 07' fell into place, and after some verbal jousting, Mike's friend convinced them to send the right chicken, free of charge.

And so the first guy returned, apologetic, bowing, smiling. An hour and a half after the initial delivery, we had the food we ordered.

Though my idealization of the perfection of Korean service ran into a couple real-world problems, I couldn't feel anything but thankful:

Thankful for waking up every morning excited to start the day, for rolling up my blinds to see the big Lotte building and at its feet, a busy sea of pedestrians shuffling to and from bread shops and quick-Korean food joints. Thankful for a job that not only excites me but makes me laugh, a job where I can teach the meaning of various slang words and phrases and hear one of the kids playfully telling another to "hit the road!" and another joking about "B.O," words they hadn't heard much less understood prior to our lesson. Thankful for the smiles I get in the hallway from the Korean secretaries and for the reality-show-esque mix of personalities in my co-workers, which leads to deep conversations I haven't heard since I've been in a dorm room lounge. Thankful for David Ogles sending that random message on Facebook in July inviting me to Sunae-dong, Bundandg-gu, Korea. Thankful for my family and friends back home, and for the webcam/Gmail/AIM we use to stay in touch from opposite ends of the earth.

And I'm thankful for Nyum Nyum chicken, because it was delicious.

My nose didn't even run.

<---Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.
--->Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play?
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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.

<---Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong
--->Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my mild frustrations in remembering Korean names, whether they be of foods or folks. Little did I know what would happen after that posting.

Flashback to two Sundays ago. Me lazy and hungry, wanting to eat, and wanting to do so immediately. I could have called Ogles or one of the other fellas, but I was in the mood to be independent. My only prior solo eating experience had been at the hands of the odang lady-vendor, so I was ready to enter a real restaurant, to present my Omaha-born self to tables and tables of Korean natives.


Simple, right?

I remembered noshing on this dish once before; it was spicy chicken with rice and it tasted delicious. No need to worry about spitting clumsy Korean while ordering, for all I had to do was point at the image and smile. I could handle that with aplomb, thank you very much.

So. I selected the menu item and then I pointed outside. "Take-out?" she asked. "Yes," I said, excited. "Cum-som-knee-dah." (Thank you.)

I brought the windfall home.

I ripped open the carefully saran-wrapped bags of rice and chicken. Good lord this was going to be tasty.

Oh.



My.


God.

What the hell was this? This was not spicy chicken; this was SpongeBob Squarepants in a bowl. I misread the picture. Badly. If I saw this meal on my parents' kitchen table, I would probably make the same scrunched-up disgusted face that my sister has imitated successfully every Thanksgiving since the mid-1990s.


But. I said in the beginning that I came to Korea for new experiences, for new "things." This, whatever it was, was definitely a new thing.

So I went for it. Chomp, squish, squish, squish.

Not only was the taste foreign, but so was the melody of my chewing, which sounded like basketball sneakers skating across a gymnasium floor. Rubbery. But still. I was hungry.

I chowed it all down, every single piece of whatever "it" was. Weeks later I discovered what I had eaten was, in fact, octopus. Octopus, that eight-legged creature you see in middle school science books.

This story might not seem remarkable to you, but I'm a guy who once upon a time ordered his tacos and hamburgers plain, and now I'm eating octopus.

Only in Korea.

<---Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong
--->Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving
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Monday, November 19, 2007

Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong

<---Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party
--->Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.

Wednesday November 14 2007


Three weeks down in Korea and forty-nine to go.



Maybe that's not the best way to phrase things, for it makes it sound as if I'm ticking down the days till my contract is over. Nothing could be further from the truth. Moment by moment I'm feeling more comfortable here, more at ease. Short days and long nights have changed into long days and shorter nights, meaning I've been spending my time not orienting myself in a beer-soju aftermath, but rather hiking mountains and walking yellow-leave splattered streets.



On Tuesday I join Emily and Jerry for a visit to Namhansanseong, a.k.a a place where we're the only non-Korean people in sight. Seriously. The three of us feel like celebrities, gawked at by kids, stared at by grown-ups. Jerry might very well by the only black person Namhansanseong has seen in months, and I might be the only Jew they've seen in years.




Our mission in Namhansanseong is to hike; I'm not much of a hiker. I did climb Mt. Masada when I visited Israel, but aside from that, my experience is limited. With that being said, Emily leaves Jerry and me in the dust. She keeps going and going, up and up and up and up along the trail, leaving Jerry and I pacing. I suck down a lemonade I bought from a quick shop. Lemonade has never tasted so good.



I contemplate how bad it would be if we somehow tumbled down the side, where all we see is haze and trees and a deep, precipitous slope. "Well...we are on a mountain," Emily says. Thanks, Emily.

Along the way we see a temple. Buddhist. I decide not to walk in. I feel like it's not my place; if anything, being at a sight somebody else considers holy serves principally to remind me of my own faith. I'm a Jew, not a regularly practicing one by any stretch of the imagination, but a Jew nonetheless. When I visited Israel I felt a sense of belonging; a traveler still, but something more than a tourist. I can see how a visitor would feel a similar connection to this temple, but that visitor is not me.

Clearly, this is no ordinary mountain. Full-scale workout equipment is arranged neatly along our path. Older men work the weights; older women twist wheels. The equipment presumably stays here through the winter. I wonder how it looks all covered in snow.
So we walk on. More huffing, puffing. I need to get into better shape. We enter a grassy expanse where women do the hula and a man with a New York Yankees cap sits on a bench eating gimbop, a sushi-like treat featuring rice, meats, and seasoning wrapped in seaweed. This man waves his chopsticks to Jerry. Jerry nods to him, and then nods to us. We walk towards the man, who silently offers us chopsticks. He points to the gimbop and grunts.


We maneuver our chopsticks around a piece here and a piece there, but he motions for us to continue.


While Jerry and I don't hide our hunger, Emily is a bit more shy. She says no thank you but she doesn't have a choice, for the man thrusts a piece of gimbop towards her mouth. She eats it. He repeats this twice more. She's slightly uncomfortable. Here we are, with this kindly Korean stranger feeding a twentysomething American girl gimbop amidst the haze of Namhansanseong on a November afternoon. We don't say much as we eat. Probably for the best. His little English and our little Korean brings me to the conclusion that food is our shared language, and there's nothing wrong with that.

This is not the only time we're offered grub, for later, a man with a smile offers us banana bread. Score. Being foreign in Namhansanseong = free food.

We conquer the mountain. Whew.


Back in the world below, we wait for our train to Sunae. I gnaw on hatuk, a delicious chocolate-peanut flavored patty bought off the street. A wrinkled old man approaches me and mumbles something in Korean. I smile, "hatuk!" I say. Without warning he seizes my wrist. Emily and Jerry just watch me, Emily smiling as if to say silly you, Alex. What? All I said was hatuk. Is he trying to arrest me? Why is this stranger's hand on my wrist and why is he gently turning my body around?

After realizing my perplexed expression, the stranger relents with the body contact. He says something to Jerry, and then he wanders off.

If only he'd offered me food, we would have understood each other.

<---Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party
--->Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.


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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party

<--- a="" href="http://www.alexpollack.com/2007/11/travelogue-10-best-explanation-of-spam.html">Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind
--->Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong

November 10 2007

On HBO's Jerry Seinfeld: The Comedian Award, the sitcom master claimed a peer-applauded prize for a lifetime of comedic success. "I really don't want to be up here," Seinfeld said in his acceptance speech, "I want to be in the back, over there somewhere, saying something funny to somebody about what a crock this whole thing is."

That's exactly how I felt in the precious moments before "The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party." A party named after me? Who the hell am I? I love being the observer, the watcher, but to be the main event? Will they want me to make jokes? When I try to "perform" outside my natural, conversational element, I flop. For evidence ask my mom, who endured my 2006 Kira Pollack Roast, where I used a remote control in lieu of a microphone to make anything-goes jokes at my mother's expense. I was merciless. "Mom, you're so short, " I said preparing for the sting of the punchline, "that you are practically a midget!" She sighed. "Alex, why?" I put the remote control down.

I was bad. Really, really bad.

But I digress. Let me explain the genesis behind "The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party." On Facebook, I received a random message from a stranger known only as Freddy Finebloke:




"I hope you're free this Saturday night. Be warned, a lot of people are going to give you free alcohol and you'll meet a lot of girls. I guess it's hard to be you these days..."

I checked my Facebook Event invitations, and there it was: a hundred or so people invited to a welcome-to-Korea party for, well, me.

"Do I know Alex Pollack? No. Do you know Alex Pollack? Probably not. Does Interpol know Alex Pollack? I sincerely hope not. Is Alex Pollack a cool dude who doesn't mind the fact that I've just thrown a party in his name when we haven't even met and everyone there is going to be a stranger?... I thought to myself, man it would've been great to have just arrived in Korea (as my facebook stalking of profiles has informed me of Alex) and had someone throw a party for me to meet people. That's what we do here at the Bundang Social Club, we make dreams come true."

So there it was. I didn't know what to expect, but I was ready to party.

Until I got a cold.

Aleve. Cold medicine. More Aleve. More cold medicine. Long naps. Saturday afternoon. Damn. Was I in any mood to party? This shindig was in my name; what would happen if I just plain didn't show up?

I gathered myself together. I would go, though I was in no physical shape for sweat-drop-down-my-balls partying.



The event was at Barbosa's, and I came flanked with ladies from work who offered to be my "hoes" for appearance's sake. If only I could wear Kanye's ridiculous shuttered glasses, I'd really be set for a silky entrance.

Strutting into Barbosas, we found a long table decked with strangers and pitchers of beer. Freddy Finebloke (whose name actually is Daniel, but I guess Finebloke reveals his true Aussieness) gave me an enthusiastic handshake. I started to greet his friends, a mish-mash of Canadians and Australians. "Is this Alex Pollack?" they asked, incredulous. Yes, yes it is. I shook hands and heard names that I forgot by the next handshake. There was a Korean girl in the mix, and the fellas tried to convince her that I was an American pop star, that my face was plastered on posters and billboards. She smiled shyly but they kept going. One said I was responsible for the lyrics of "Hey, Jude." Thanks man.

I met more people and shook more hands. When a pitcher was served, the mild hubbub of my arrival subsided and I was back to being me. Observing. Watching. Listening. A good conversation here and there. It was intriguing to hear how these Canadians ended up in Korea. One used to teach Taekwando in Vancouver. Another used to be a grocery store manager in Toronto. They came because they wanted a change and they figured...why not? A reason not so dissimilar from my own. Cool.

The grocery store manager ended our conversation awkwardly, shaking my hand and saying nice to meet you when neither one of us was really going anywhere. I almost felt like I was rushing a fraternity, ordered to meet and greet and impress strangers. But that feeling too vanished eventually.

I guess my point is that, like Seinfeld, I like being in the back of the party, thinking up wisecracks about whoever's the center of attention. When the Canadians argued passionately with an American about the virtues of the two countries ("We got hockey and healthcare!," said the Canadian. "We got better sports!" said the American), I sat back and watched, grinning.

I didn't need to be Kanye to have a good time.

<--- a="" href="http://www.alexpollack.com/2007/11/travelogue-10-best-explanation-of-spam.html">Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind
--->Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong
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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind

<---Travelogue #9: Bike-Riding Through Chuncheon
--->Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party

November 10 2007

My second full week of teaching is over and I feel as if I'm officially part of the fraternity.



Every day has been its own rite of passage. On Tuesday, I raised my voice for the first time. I'm talking RAISED IT. The reason for my volume was Bill, this crazy little booger with an oblong head and a propensity to shout, "It's-a-me, Mario!" in the middle of class. He's ten, maybe eleven. Kid can't stop turning his head around and around, like a Korean-kid-version of Linda Blair, looking at the desk behind him to talk to Daniel, another booger who thinks it's funny to peck his head as if he's a rooster. It's not funny.

I teach this class twice a week, and both times I've had to move Bill to the front of the room. On Thursday, I catch him eating Pepero, this cookie stick. He slips one to me and I accept it, until realizing, wait, he shouldn't be eating in class. Why am I turning into a character that would be the evil teacher in Dead Poet's Society? Because this class gets rowdy and won't pay attention, that's why. I tell Bill to stop eating, but right at that moment, he stuffs about seven candy sticks into his mouth. I tell him to spit it out into a wrapper. The class laughs, disbelieving, waiting. He coughs up the evidence.

I let him take his soggy cookie sticks after class ends. Until next week, Wild Bill.



In another class I teach, the kids are a little older, thirteen or fourteen. Last week we go over internet-related words and definitions:

"Alright guys, does anybody know what "spam mail" means?"

Kevin raises his hand. He's got the typical middle-schooler half-mustache, a trend that apparently transcends oceans. He's big-boned and serious-looking. I like him; he participates the most among a very subdued class.

"Spam mail is...factory that creates kind of ham and..."

"What?" I ask. No way is this happening. No way.

"It is factory that creates kind of ham, and mails advertisements about kind of ham to customers."



I can't help it. I try covering my mouth. I try to look somber. I can't. I laugh. I laugh.

Luckily the other kids don't really get on Kevin's case, and Kevin himself smiles good-naturedly when I explain the difference between spam mail and spam meat. Before the bell chimes, he articulates the different definitions. Well-done, man.

I will never look at spam the same way again.

<---Travelogue #9: Bike-Riding Through Chuncheon
--->Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party


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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Travelogue #9: Bike-Riding Through Chuncheon

<---Travelogue #8: Come, Norebang with Me
--->Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind


Note: This article was featured in the Autumn 2008 edition of Emory Magazine.

November 7 2007

I haven't successfully ridden a bicycle since "Hanging with Mr. Cooper" was on TGIF. That's fourteen years. Maybe fifteen. I'm not sure, but I do know it's been a long time since I've pedaled outside an exercise room.




When I was eight years old, I powered up and down the sloped driveways and curvy cul-de-sacs of suburbia. I lost the training wheels but I didn't get cocky. No twisty-tire tricks from me, just steady-eddie riding before mom would call me back for chicken nuggets.

It was fun, but there came a moment when I just, well, stopped riding bikes. I think it happened sometime after my next-door neighbor kicked me in the testicles while scrambling for a football. The nut-kick was a cheap shot; I remember how his eyes narrowed and how his leg swung towards my groin like a dart to its target. He meant to kick me in the balls. That's how I feel to this very day.

Once upon a time he had been my bike-ridding buddy. We'd round the neighborhoods, sometimes just us, sometimes with his family. But after that kick, I didn't really want to hang out with him anymore. With that, biking gradually slipped away from my life, replaced by Taekwondo, soccer, basketball, and later, tennis. I didn't think too much about it until years later, when older and supposedly wiser, I was ready to hop a banana seat and ride with a pack of friends to Baskin Robbins.

But there were problems.

The seat felt high, the brakes felt impossible, the steering felt unpredictable. I dragged my feet against the ground. What was happening?

"Dude, you don't forget how to ride a bike."

"Nobody forgets how to ride a bike."

They were wrong.

I had forgotten how to ride a bike.

So I ran to Baskin Robbins. My friends rode bikes, and I ran. They beat me there by fifteen minutes, and my buddy's dad drove me back.

Not my proudest moment.

More years passed. When I told people I didn't remember how to ride a bike, they would gasp, as if I'd just told them I had six toes. "You don't know how to ride a bike?" they'd ask, eyes wide, jaws dropped. I'd try to laugh it off, but they'd be reluctant to laugh with me. Did they think I was a freak? Did I need to start a support group of brothers and sisters for We-Can't-Ride-Bikes Anonymous? Forget pink ribbons; we'd sport pink helmets.


Now I'm in Korea for a year. New foods, new people, new sights, new sounds? I'm ready for all that, but the last thing I expected to accomplish here was re-learning how to ride a bicycle.

Until Sunday, when I went to Chuncheon.


Chuncheon is a small, mountainous town in the Korean countryside. This time of year its landscape calls to mind east Tennessee, all lush greenery and dense slopes, but come winter, it's a hotspot for skiers and snowboarders. The town's a few hours outside Seoul, so I made the trip by train, bus, and car with a group of female teachers from work. The plan was to ride ATVs and bikes. Obviously, my plan was to ride an ATV, but the girls had other ideas.

"Alex, you're going to ride a bike," Janet told me, surrounded by four other teachers, their hands on handlebars, waiting for me at the side of a moderately busy country road. "Come on, guys," I said, waving them off, "I'm fine riding this."

The "this" I was speaking of was not an ATV, but a bizarre buggy-style machine from another century.

I'd decided to pilot these clunky wheels and I was cool with the decision, though I had to pedal like mad to reach a speed of 2 miles an hour. Cars buzzed by me and whatever poor soul who joined me at the passenger seat; incredulous Korean faces gaped at us from car windows. Yes, we were crazies riding a 19th century buggy through Chuncheon.

"Alex, get on the bike!" she repeated. With years of embarrassment and petty rationalizations seeping from my mind, I left my perch on the buggy and wandered towards the bike. Was I really going to do this? In Korea, of all places? This was not a straight multi-laned shoot to Baskin Robbins; this was a winding, unseen foreign road.

I got on the bike.

The girls were patient, supportive, but insistent. "If you fall," one said, "fall into the bushes, don't fall into the traffic. That would be bad."

Thanks.

"Keep pedaling," they said, "faster, faster!" I felt myself give way so I braked. "It's okay, keep going!" I appreciated their unironic words. While my male friends were all "Dude, just ride it, man," the girls were literally teaching me how. I felt like their little brother but I didn't mind, because, somehow, I was doing it.

Faster. Steering. Faster. The girls laughed at me because while they soaked up the gorgeous mountain scenery, all I could stare at were my handlebars and the pavement in front of me. "Stay steady stay steady stay steady," I muttered as I weaved around a hand-in-hand walking couple. When cars hovered behind me, I braked at the side. Whoo. I was doing it! I was riding a bike!



I felt like a little kid struck with the pang of a new discovery. I broke from the group and spent several minutes riding alone. I peered up at the mountains. The cool air nipped my cheeks. Usually I'm the kind of guy who analyzes a moment too much, who thinks of it too hard, who weighs it down until it can't breathe on its own. But this time, with the green mountains on the horizon, with me pedaling and staying steady, all I could think was: wow.

Wow.

<---Travelogue #8: Come, Norebang with Me

--->Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind


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