Sunday, June 27, 2010

Travelogue #59: It's Not Surreal. It's Real.

I'm sitting on a concrete ledge outside Sunae Station near the red-white McDonalds sign.

Please excuse the graphic imagery, but a light breeze is tickling my leg hairs. I hear the chicka-chicka crunch of skates; a twelve-year-old boy is gliding by me into the marble gloss of the Lotte Department Store. Then: the I've-got-some-place-to-be clip-clop of high heels- a young woman in a blue blouse making her way up the subway steps. This is a summer afternoon in Bundang, South Korea. It's gray, and it's busy.

I smell something baked, maybe bread from the nearby Tous Les Jours, the do-we-sound-French? bakery that's in a years-running turf war against Paris Baguette for who can be the Frenchest-sounding bread shop in Korea. Or maybe I smell something fried, from one of the ubiquitious Korean fried chicken joints that will first satisfy you and then roil your stomach into a red-sauced glaze. Now, five schoolgirls in curtainty black bangs are passing by and singing, "Annyong, annyong" like a playground melody. They are arm-in-arm.

I wonder if it's going to rain.

An older woman is wearing a fisherman's cap and a flowerprint shirt, embroidered with light pinks and dark greens. Her pants are very white. I'm looking at her and she's looking at me. She is Korean; I am not. But both of us are here.

Ten minutes ago I was walking through my old apartment building. The last time I'd walked its hallways, it was 4am on a cool October morning almost two years ago. I never thought I'd be back, but there I was in the lobby, which looked exactly how I'd remembered, save for a new clock atop the elevators. I saw a shadow of my reflection in the gold doors. Did I look older? Did I feel different? Kind of, I thought. Kind of.

Fifth floor, I stepped out to see a familiar face. Someone I knew, or someone who knew someone I knew. I'd seen this guy in friend's Facebook pictures but I couldn't remember his name. He's teaching where I had once taught, living where I had once lived.

"Hey, do you work at Leadersville?" I asked, knowing the answer but making conversation anyway.

"Uh, yeah, used to," he said, confused in a do-I-know-you? way. "But today was my last day."

"Do you know Chris?"

"Yeah," he said. "He lives down the hall." The someone who knows someone I know still looked confused.

"Cool," I said.

And that was that.

I walked towards where I remembered the laundry room to be. For some reason, I wanted to see if it was still there.

It was.

Postscript: I haven't been updating this blog weekly as I intended. The reasons are several: one, my institute has me working like a madman. Two, many of my experiences so far have mirrored the ones I tracked on this blog two years ago. I want to be careful not to rehash stories I've already told. That being said, if you are reading this because you're curious about making the leap to teach in Korea, I do plan to update my FAQ for 2010.

Thanks for reading!


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Travelogue #58: South Korea, My Ex

---> Travelogue #59: It's Not Surreal. It's Real.

When I left her in October 2008, I didn't think I'd ever see her again. It felt like not only the end of a chapter, but the end of a book. Close her up. It's over. Done. But South Korea wasn't a set of pages to be turned; no, she was my one-time girlfriend turned ex. I knew it from the way I talked about her with strangers or with friends, the way I'd share my year of anecdotes through a nostalgic nod, as if to say, "The telling is a tease. If only, if only I could show you."

Dear reader. I can see you threatening to roll your eyes, or maybe you've already rolled them. You can accuse me of lapsing into melodrama, but let me explain: for three hundred and sixty-five days, she was with me. I'd hear the chime of her subways, I'd see the silver mist of her faraway mountains, I'd sound out the uh's and yo's of her words and, haltingly, speak the names of her foods. I'd eat her foods, so spicy they made me sweat and smile. My favorite: dak galbi, which Wikipedia salivatingly describes as, "stir-frying marinated diced chicken in a gochujang (chili pepper paste) based sauce, and sliced cabbage, sweet potato, scallions, onions and tteok (rice cake) together on a hot plate."

I'd even smell the kimchi in her trash cans: sour, but mine.

She was with me, my everyday reality. And then, like that, she was just a memory, captured in photographs and videos and blogs. And then, she was a story from a memory, repurposed and retold, a copy of a copy. Where'd she go? Pictures didn't do enough; neither did videos. Talking about her with friends who'd once lived her was close, but damn it, I missed her. Thinking I'd never see her again lent my nostalgia a special ache.

In February I found a Korean restaurant in Maitland, Florida called Seoul Garden. I ordered jayookdopbop (spicy pork and rice) and the Korean server, an older woman ajumma, nodded at me. Jayook was one of my favorite dishes in Korea, partly for its sweat-inducing spice, partly because it would fill me up for $3. I enjoyed the Maitland version; it singed my tongue. The taste was like a kiss I'd forgotten. Then the check came: $20. I wasn't in Korea anymore.

If you've ever read my blog, you know there were things I didn't love about Korea. A year was a long time to be away from my family and my country; in other words, don't count me as one of those Dude-America-sucks-I-don't-want-to-live-there dudes. America is my home. But this summer, from June 9th to August 14th, I'm going back to South Korea. I'll be living in Seoul, in the neighborhood of Yeonheedong, which is sandwiched between the neon-splashed districts of Hongdae and Sinchon. I'll be teaching SAT English, and hopefully, continuing to find cultural experiences to chronicle in this long-dormant travelogue. (I plan to update on the weekends.) My reasons for going to the wild, wild East have changed: In 2007, I went to work and write, yes, but I also went to run away from a lack of clearcut options in the U.S. This time, I'm heading to Korea to save money for my second year of the MFA program at the University of Central Florida. That's my practical meat-and-potatoes reason for going back.

But my romantic, rice-and-kimchi reason? Her, whom I leave with this: South Korea, I know it's been two years, but relax. Don't get creeped out by me. I'm going to hold your hand.

Annyong. (Hi.)

---> Travelogue #59: It's Not Surreal. It's Real.