The night just wouldn’t end. The siren song of the toilet was irresistible and constant, the small step inexplicably architected in the middle of the room causing numerous stumbles and stubbed toes. In my fever-induced mania I grew claustrophobic, desperately trying to the find the window I’d seen Liza magically make appear from behind the faux wood panelling. Frustrated, I took a sleeping pill, which worked, thankfully.
Was it morning yet? Our windowless cell of swirling neon colours compelled me to have another crack at finding the window. This time I succeeded, sunshine and air flooding into our discothèque of slumber. I accidentally knocked over the bag of promotional goodies the hotel had left on the window sill, the spilled contents creating a ticker-tape parade of condoms, spermicide, lubricant, cheap cologne, and mysterious feminine products on the unsuspecting pedestrians below.
I got a look at Frank Lee, asleep, white as a ghost. Was he breathing? Yes. I let him sleep and went out to get whatever form of breakfast I could muster.
Frank isn’t fit to move, I thought to myself, although my own thinking was none too clear. Passing the front desk, I paid another $120 to the clerk. He did not speak a word of English, nor me of Korean, but my understanding was that it would buy another day of Luxury & Sexy.
I returned twenty minutes later with a bag of baked goods (which were really good, by the way, the Koreans can bake). The front desk clerk extended an overly long and animated greeting, arms waving like a Hindu god. I smiled and nodded, returning to our room.
The phone rang as I entered, waking Frank, who was dazed. I grabbed the phone to find Liza on the other end. “There’s been a miscommunication,” she began. “The money you paid doesn’t get another day, just another twelve hours. Another whole day – yet another twelve hours – will be another $120 dollars.”
There was no way in hell I was going to pay $240 for a day in this dump no matter how sick Frank was. A confused series of phone calls followed, the upshot of which was that Liza negotiated a noon checkout and a $120 refund. We’d be sacking out with Vincent and Liza for the next few days. Given how sick we were, that made a lot of sense.
Except, we had to get there.
We packed up feverishly, later discovering that we left much behind – our deodorant, electric razor, and sense of self-respect, amongst lord knows what else. Frank was unsteady, so I took the big bags – it was only a fifteen-minute walk. Outside, the temperature had soared, and five minutes along we were struggling. But we made it back to Vincent’s apartment building, and boarded the lift.
As we arrived on the 21st floor, Frank gasped “I’m feeling worse…” I frantically removed his backpack as he lurched forward, slumping against the elevator buttons. I caught him as he crumbled to the floor, the doors opening as if on cue, enabling me to drag him off the lift, laying him gently on the hallway floor. Instantly, he regained consciousness and started to rise, muttering “I’m OK, I’m OK…”
“NO YOU ARE NOT, LAY DOWN NOW!!!” I commanded, my left hand pressing his chest to the ground, right foot in the lift door, right hand grabbing the luggage. Hearing the commotion, Vincent appeared, instantly assessed the situation, and fetched a glass of water. Now seated on the floor leaning against the wall, Frank drank the water, collecting himself.
“He fainted.” I explained, barely believing it myself. “In the thirty years I’ve known him, he has NEVER fainted.” We carried him on our shoulders into Vincent’s apartment and into bed. Liza, admirably unfazed by our tumultuous arrival, served some medicine that Frank consumed with an electrolyte-rich sports drink branded Pocari Sweat (yuk).
The plan had been to go for a hike that afternoon. There would be no hiking today. Frank’s pallor improved quickly, but he slept for twenty hours. In the meantime, Vincent, Liza and I chatted endlessly about all sorts of things one doesn’t discuss in polite company. But this wasn’t polite company, this was family. The people you want, indeed, need around in a crisis – and Vin and Liza came through with flying colours.
This unplanned “down time” was a welcome break in an otherwise busy itinerary. It got me to reflecting about our previous visit to Korea, from which I had come away convinced that Korea is one of the strangest and most unpredictable places on the planet. You’ll forgive me as I draw on the memory banks to put my view of Korea into perspective:
Six years ago we planned to visit Seoul to see an intrepid friend who was there teaching English to youngsters. After we had paid for the travel arrangements but before we arrived, she packed her bags and fled, months earlier than planned. Despite her being the talkative type, I never did get the full story. She made it clear that her early exit was motivated partly by the misogyny and xenophobia she faced on a daily basis. But I got the sense there was more to it, possibly involving stalking, maybe even physical abuse or worse.
Nevertheless, all paid up, we made like Ike and went to Korea. Then, as now, Seoul was surprisingly familiar. Seoul is quite a modern city. Even the poorer, off-the-beaten-track neighbourhoods we stumbled into have all the current day conveniences. This I would expect of Tokyo or Hong Kong or Singapore, but I thought we’d find the back streets of Seoul more third-worldish, like the hidden parts of Kuala Lumpur or Shanghai or Bangkok. That is not the case.
Try as I might to do otherwise, as an American I tend to view Korea through the prism of the “Korean Conflict”. That war paused for an armistice in 1953 that called for “a complete cessation of hostilities … until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” Sixty years later, Korea still awaits the “final peaceful settlement”. This is not history, it is current affairs.
Landing at or taking-off from Incheon I am mesmerised by the labyrinth of islands and inlets, shallows and bottlenecks that surround it, the sight of General Douglas MacArthur’s most brilliant stroke of dumb luck in 1950. Personally, I am unable to forgive Dougie’s attack on his own downtrodden brethren (the US veterans’ “Bonus Army”) during the Great Depression, so I consider him to have been an upper case Asshole. Yet his military acumen and contempt for democracy deserves at least as much credit as that given Chairman Mao in the Hall of Great Men Who Were Assholes.
The demilitarised zone (DMZ) is often called the tensest place on the planet. It is less than an hour’s drive from Seoul, providing one of the region’s premier and most bizarre tourist attractions. The narrative struggles to explain the Koreans’ love/hate relationship with their northern cousins: love the people, hate the government. In 2008, we toured one of the four known tunnels dug by the North to facilitate an invasion of the south at the rate of 30,000 soldiers an hour. To put that in perspective, consider that the USA maintains a total force in Korea of about 30,000 (or so they admit).
The South’s relationship with the North perennially overshadows Korean politics. While the people are nonchalant about the nuclear capability of a demented dictator 35 miles to their north, I have little doubt that this sustained stress takes an emotional toll.
Certainly, Korea’s continuous war footing of the most recent one hundred and fifty years has taken a cultural toll. Some Koreans have come to view themselves as a small peaceful country frequently pushed around by bullies — Japan, Manchuria, Mongolia, China, Russia, America — and there is a good deal of truth to that. But for ten thousand years, when a foreign army wasn’t invading, Koreans fought with each other — compiling a record of no wins, no losses, all draws.
This reality has left its marks upon Korea, which has absorbed some aspects of each invader into its own unique culture. One can see the chaotic flamboyance and calculating determination of China simultaneously with the ordered cleanliness, discipline and technological nous of Japan, augmented by the soulless commercialism and evangelical optimism of America. A heady mix, indeed.
I found Seoul more Americanised than I expected, which, thinking about it, I should have expected. After all, it has been occupied by tens of thousands of American troops for over sixty years. The language barrier presents only minor hurdles, partly explained by the Korean obsession with teaching English to their kids.
Familiar brands abound. I expected to find Starbucks, but did not anticipate there’d be Dunkin Donuts, too. Today, the street below Vincent’s apartment has three varieties of terrible American fast-food chain franchise pizza (Papa John’s, Dominoes, and Pizza Hut).
On that prior trip, we trekked over to the Olympic sports district to experience the Korean brand of baseball. Played at major league level, the game nevertheless was a hoot. The box office wouldn’t sell us the good seats – we presumed they were sold out — so we ended up out past third base. Inside we saw most of the good seats remained empty, with the area behind home plate a virtual ghost town. Corporate ownership perhaps? Our section was crowded with enthusiastic fans being led in regimented chants by a male cheerleader during the inning, and by entertainingly unregimented, scantily clad female cheerleaders between innings. After the fifth inning, we moved over to the first base side, where the home team’s male cheerleader was cuter, oddly effeminate (white gloves!) leading chubby female cheerleaders.
After the game, I witnessed a series of events that left an indelible impression. On the subway I saw a man in conversation with a woman, presumably his partner, sitting side-by-side. With no apparent reason or provocation, he leans forward and slugs her. Slaps her right across the face, only it wasn’t an open hand slap, there was knuckle in there. This was a reasonably crowded train — people were standing, including us (that’s why I saw it), and nobody blinked. I am disturbed; I don’t know what to do. The woman is ashamed, her face in her hands. They get off at the next stop.
A few stops later we got off in the nightlife district just north of Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Stream. Two minutes after reaching the street, we see a woman prostrate on the sidewalk across the street, apparently drunk, with a man screaming at her, slugging her repeatedly. This was in front of dozens of people, but they were surrounded mostly by men who seemed to be encouraging the slugger. Had I known how to contact the police, I would have – but I didn’t even know what the civil police looked like, much less where to find them or how to contact them. We went to dinner.
We wandered out of the restaurant about midnight into a tangle of narrow neon lit streets, about 2 km from our hotel at the time. Finding the main drag, it was straight shot back to the hotel, with City Hall halfway, so we decide to walk. As we approach City Hall, things started to get even stranger. Police buses, dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, clad with armour and covered with grates, were parked bumper-to-bumper such that we couldn’t climb between them if we wanted to. Then we saw formations of policemen, lined up like marching bands, tightly packed, ten by twenty or so in each band, a dozen or more of these formations. I would call them riot police, attired in black uniforms with reflective white trim, masked helmets, shields, with weapons at the ready. The officers were quiet, disciplined — and, I feared, eager.
At City Hall Plaza we discovered we’d caught the start of what the newspaper later referred to as the “student riot season”. Three thousand demonstrators, more or less, were having a candle light vigil. Somebody had had the presence of mind to set up the kind of infrastructure you’d expect at a rock concert – portable toilets, a stage with elaborate lighting, information booths, and a first aid tent. It was a rather genteel and ordered riot, if this was their idea of a riot.
It was very reassuring in an odd way.
Then a police bus moved into view — and sure enough, some of the vigilant had things other than candles in hand and vigilance in mind. They ran after the bus, caught up to it, first throwing things, then rocking the bus as if to overturn it. We did not stick around to see how it turned out.
Later we learned that the year’s riot theme was stopping the importation of beef from the USA, which had recently been approved by a teetering government. The students, convinced both the beef and the government were mad-cow infected, camped out in their thousands in the city centre, surrounded by police in equal numbers. I marvelled at the students’ energy level, noting that beef import regulations would not have gotten me out of my university dormitory bed. But I suppose it may be Seoul University’s social event of the season, and I imagine more than a few of them got laid.
Speaking of getting laid, the following night we headed for the nearby gay area in the Itaewon district, popular with ex-pats and hard beside the walls of the US military base. We took a public bus, the ride being a highlight of the trip. A map indicated the bus route was a huge circle, suggesting the worst case scenario was that we ended up back where we started; try again. So I’m in a strange city on a bus wending in and out of strange neighbourhoods, going through tunnels under unknown obstacles only to emerge on the far side in places obscure. I loved every minute of it, soaking up a parade of oddities, new sights, my head hanging out the window, eyes darting and tongue wagging like a dog in a pick-up truck.
Eventually we found the tiny gay street on “Hooker Hill”. Maybe three metres wide, the street had about six bars, three on each side: a hi-tech disco, a lesbian bar, a gay men’s cruise swamp, a wrinkle room (40+ crowd), a twinkie room (quaffed under 25s), and a sex club. Something for everyone!
When we arrived it was too early to know which bar was which with any certainty, as there were very few patrons of any description. Frank found an outside table from which we could watch the lot. Soon we discovered we had chosen the lesbian bar.
Eavesdropping, we realised that Seoul’s Gay Pride March had been that afternoon. In Seoul, like most anywhere else, the evening after the march is party time. Before long, something of a street party was underway before us. After a couple gin & tonics, we struck up conversations with women at the tables adjacent. They, and their male friends who wandered by, all western, all agreed: there are no Korean gays. Of course, this is tongue in cheek — the point being that the culture is so unaccepting of it that they have their own sub-sub-culture, which remains a mystery to westerners — or so sad that even lesbians would rather not speak mockingly of it.
A uniformed patrol of one American MP and two South Korean Army equivalents walked slowly past, eyeing each establishment carefully enough to stop any trouble if they saw it, but not so closely as to recognise any face. Great to see those guys Out for the Street Party! It was a puzzling irony in a puzzling place filed with puzzling people. We took it as our cue to head home.
One last story that infects my impressions of Korea was that of a young man I interviewed for a job in Melbourne. He identified himself as a Korean with permanent residency in Australia, yet I detected a distinctly American accent. Curious about this, I asked how he had come to end up in Australia. He explained that he was born in Seoul but moved to San Francisco at the age of four, where he remained until he turned 18. Then he returned to Korea to fulfil the mandatory military service obligation borne by all male Koreans. Upon completing that, he landed a plum position in Samsung’s procurement department. He explained:
“We worked in a line facing our computers at a table against the wall. The manager would walk up behind us, and whoever he was mad at that day, whoever had displeased him somehow, he would bat on the back of the head with his clipboard. Hard. No explanation. It was a daily event. I had to get out of there.”
You may begin to understand why, on this current trip, I arrived believing Korea to be a bizarre place. It fascinates me. I see that Korea has had a very violent culture for a very long time. It seems they only stop being violent to each other long enough to defend themselves from foreign violence. I observe the relatively recent overlay of American culture has not served to curb such violence. I hoped I’d seen Korea at its worst.
Now, maybe, I could see it at its best.
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