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 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.



Anonymous said...

Happy birthday Alex!Your blog is my Sunday's treat.

Anonymous said...

Glad you had a great birthday..Loved this post...