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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