Sunday, January 13, 2008

Travelogue #21: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 2

<----Travelogue #20: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 1
--->Travelogue #22: Busy Season/ A Look Back and A Look Ahead

I push my way through the swarming crowd. There's brushing, touching, warmth in the sea of strangers.

But where are my friends?

Trapped, I hop, like a little kid clamoring to look at the top of a rollercoaster. I hop, shouting the most unique last name I can think of that belongs to one lost buddy: "Gozelanczyk!" I scream. "Gozelanczyk!"

"American?" asks a bemused Korean to my right.

I chuckle and say yes, informing him that somewhere, in this mess of people I don't know, are people I do.

"Call them?" he says.

Can't. No cell phone.

"Have a number?"

No. I don't have anybody's phone number. Stupid. I'm stupid.

"Gozelanczyk!" I yell, hopping again.

From the corner of my eye I spy two girls in scarves laughing at me. "Picture?" one asks, revealing her camera.

The other positions herself tentatively next to me. These ladies are making me feel like a mid-level celebrity. John Stamos, watch your back.

As I explain to these girls my problem, I learn that they speak very little English. "Jin-Ah!" one says, interrupting me. "What?" I say. "My name," she says, " your name...what is?"

I introduce myself. With demonstrative fingers they tell me their age: seventeen.

These are high-school girls.

We're jostled hard by those around us. Somehow the crowd has thickened even further. Tick-tick-tick. The new year is no more than twenty minutes away and shouting Gozalencheyk is getting me nowhere.

"Ah!" Jin-Ah yelps. She's getting mashed by adults, so I intercept her arms and lock mine into hers. Ten minutes. Nine. Pushing, pulling, the crowd's not rowdy but it's got energy. Five. Four. Firecrackers hiss and spit overhead. We're still getting mashed. Three. Two. One.

Happy New Year! Or as the girls say: "새해 복 많이 받으세요!"("Say-hey-bok-ma-nee-ba-deu-se

More firecrackers pop and sizzle through the midnight sky. A concert roars on stage below the chiming bell. The girls are jumping and I'm jumping too, our arms interlocked as we revel in the sonic boom beginning of 2008. I shout one final "Gozelanczyk!", only to be hushed by a frowning Korean man. Hushed. Literally. Koreans must really disapprove of loud foreigners, even when everybody else's volume's turned to eleven.

By 1am, the cops break down their barricade and the crowd disperses. I'll find my friends now. I'm excited to see how they'll react when I introduce them to my fresh-faced companions.

"Jovan!" I yell. "Jovan!" I'm chanting a new name but my results are the same: I can't find anybody.

"Jo-van! Jo-van!" trill Jin-Ah and her friend in helpful chorus. I wonder what these girls really think of me: do they trust me just because I smile and nod in the right way? Are they aroused by the idea of a wandering night with a facial-haired foreigner? Or are they showing simple sympathy to a confused American? Maybe they're just plain sweet.

Starbucks. My friends got to be at Starbucks. Isn't the unspoken rule of getting lost that you have to return to the last central place where you saw everybody? For us that was Starbucks, where we ducked the cold earlier. They have to be at Starbucks, right?

They're not at Starbucks.

"Oh my God," I say, digging my knuckles into my forehead. "Don't worry! says Jin-Ah, patting my back. Cell phone. Why don't I have a cell phone? Why don't I have anybody's number? Why? "Don't worry!" Jin-Ah repeats with the same tap.

She's right. I might be low on cash, but there's a convenience store nearby. I can use the ATM and take a taxi...

...but I don't want to throw up my hands and go home! Not yet. Come on! For God's sake, it's New Years! The last thing I want to do is to shlump back to my apartment like a lost child on a failed field trip. I came to this country for adventure, and if that means roaming the shivering streets of Seoul with Korean high school girls, then that's what it means.

On Jongno, the thousands of partiers are gone, replaced by headlights swishing through a late night. The girls follow me into a GS35 convenience store, where another problem arises: the ATM instructions are in Korean. Like a lab monkey I punch random buttons, but Jin-Ah's friend steps in and directs me to the PIN number menu. "Pri-vacy! Pri-vacy" she and Jin-Ah chant, shielding their eyes and turning their backs as I enter my number. Wow, these girls are sweet.

Back into the cold we go. I'm losing hope of finding my buddies tonight...unless...unless...

That's it! A PC Bang! Three feet away from GS 35! If I race upstairs and grab a computer, maybe I can track down somebody online who knows my friends' phone numbers. That's it!

I point upstairs and explain to the girls my plan. Understandably, they appear a little confused. It's past 1am and I'm a strange man speaking a different language who's beckoning them to join me in a random computer cafe. I tell them they don't have to come, but they're already tailing me up the stairs. They want to help. All I can say is thank you, my tone half-apology, half-awe.

We find a computer.

Facebook. Gmail. Nothing. Nobody. What should I do? Jin-Ah gives me her phone number, and I jot down a quick email to a few colleagues with her number enclosed. "Please call," I type.


What now? The girls answer that question by claiming the keyboard and logging onto Cyworld, the Korean mySpace.
They want me to create an account so I can talk to them. This night is getting weird. How do they expect me to chat with them online if we're struggling to understand each other now?

A Korean message pops up. "Card? Card?" Jin-Ah asks me. What's she talking about? Card? She opens another window on the computer to Google translator. Korean to English. The clattering of fingers and then:

"alien registration card"

We're losing direction, Houston. Two hours ago I was waiting to ring in the new year with friends, an hour ago I was looking for those friends, and now? Now I'm flashing my alien registration card so that I can join an online Korean social network to keep in touch with two seventeen year old girls.

What is going on?

I click on the Google translator. English to Korean. I type out a carefully worded message thanking Jin-Ah and her friend for their above-and-beyond charity, and what the hell, I also offer to buy them dinner. I'm hungry, and I don't want to let their good deeds go unrewarded. I click on TRANSLATE.

Back outside, I see the glowing golden arch of McDonalds on the horizon, but the girls nudge me to a traditional Korean joint. We share a feast and dig into it with late-night-at-the-Waffle-House-like zeal. "Dutch pay?" they ask.

"I got it," I say, insisting.

They call me a "gentleman." In between bites, Jin-Ah asks me if I have a girlfriend. "No," I say, making my fists into binoculars over my eyes, "but I'm looking!" Jin-Ah points to her friend. "Boyfriend, she has, but me looking, looking." Jin-Ah imitates my binocular move.

Her friend sneakily types on a cell phone, which doubles as a translator. She brings the phone close to me so that only I can read its screen:

adj. lone·li·er, lone·li·est

She tilts her head towards Jin-Ah.


Poor Jin-Ah.

Into the cold go the three of us again, arms hooked together like a bizzaro Wizard of Oz troupe. Music. That's what we need to warm us up. I ask the girls if they know any American tunes. "Justin Timberlake?" I ask. " Sexyback!" they say. I fight the chattering of my teeth to deliver a high-pitched "take it to the bridge!" Jin-Ah's friend takes out a camera and films me shaking my moneymaker along the crosswalk. I wonder what they'll say if they come across this video in ten years. Remember that crazy American? I wonder if he ever found his friends?

We step into Lotteria, the Asian spin of McDonalds. The girls want to buy me dessert. This time they're the ones who insist, so I accept a milkshake.

It's almost 3am. They won't go home till the subways start running at 6. That's their plan but it's not mine. As I polish off my milkshake, I realize my friends might be worried. To them, I might as well have just disappeared. It's time to hail a taxi.

It's time to go home.

No hugs. Maybe that would be too much. "Call me!" Jin-Ah says as I slide into the rear of the cab. Thank you, I tell the girls. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


Happy New Year!

"Doesn't this tell you that you need a cell phone?" my friend David says the next day.
"Maybe," I say with a smile. "Maybe."

<----Travelogue #20: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 1
--->Travelogue #22: Busy Season/ A Look Back and A Look Ahead



Alex Pollack said...

A few notes:

- The next morning I found out that my friends did return to Starbucks...but they did so forty minutes before I got there. While they were searching for me, I was stil rocking out to the New Year's concert.

- Jin-ah sent me a charming email the next day:

"hi alex .remember me ?

i am jin ah .

you arrived to the house well?

i`m worried uuuuuu.....

joyful new year is start together With you.

very very thanks you .i miss you.

mail give me please."

- I spent a lot of time on this post. Hope you guys enjoyed it. If you have the time or the desire, check out the embedded videos!

CresceNet said...

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Alex Pollack said...

Unrelated note: Two of my co-workers
have started blogs of their own! Look for the links under "Co-Worker Blogs".

Again, thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

You're so cute and kind.Talented too.

Derek Wood said...

Mate, I've just stumbled across your blog and read the Fukuoka story and now this one. I have to say I love it. Top stuff all round my friend!

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