[Actual Date: August 9, 2009]
I am somewhat of a disaster here. I don't know the proper way to speak, eat, or go anywhere by myself. I'm trying to learn the most significant words in the language, and the Korean phrase for “thank you" is endlessly useful. However, I pronounce every incarnation of the words slightly differently, so that sometimes the syllables come out in the wrong order or occasionally, I drop a syllable altogether. To compensate for these discrepancies, I mumble my “thank you's” and bob my head up and down several times in a frantic bow while simultaneously clasping my hands together in a prayer-like supposition, so that I must at least appear grateful if also, most unfortunately, a bit slow.
The other word I know is for my place of residence. When I'm out alone at night and decide to go home, I'll hop merrily into a cab and begin:
"Pook moon, poke moon, poke mun," I start to chant.
"Pook man, pokemon, pacman," I continue.
"Book man, backgammon, poke poke," I often finish in desperation.
Typically, between pokemon and pish posh, the cabbie will grunt and nod, satisfied that somewhere in the jumble of sounds, I've communicated a legitimate address.
Eighty percent of the food I'm eating, I can't identify. The other 20% is rice. That being said, the food here is delicious. Except when it's inedible. A point in case would be the delicious-looking side dish that appeared on my table during my first dining experience. I used my chopsticks to spear, kabob-style, several large slices of succulent yellow pineapple, only to discover after cramming them into my mouth that they were really sour radishes. Yuck!
At breakfast one morning, I must have been delirious with hunger, for I wandered down the street and into a small restaurant that was not only without any English menu, it had no menu of any sort. It also lacked the ubiquitous food photos that 95% of all restaurants here seem to include as a utilitarian part of their décor. The only form of menu appeared to be a few words of Hangul and prices written above the front counter. By the time I realized this, I'd already wandered to the back of the restaurant and the owner had come out to meet me and take my order. The only food item I can pronounce is “bulgogi,” which I know is not a breakfast food, so after desperately looking around the restaurant, I merely mimed the action of eating. The owner looked quizzically at me for a few seconds and then also mimed eating. Perhaps he was hungry as well.
This pantomime was followed by a staredown which lasted a good two minutes. Neither one of us blinked. Finally, the owner motioned for me to take off my shoes and sit on one of the cushions. I complied and arranged myself cross-legged at one of the low Korean tables. Within just a few minutes, the owner's wife presented me with a platter of food. Seven dishes in all, if you count the small side dishes. There was fish, rice, kimchi (which I routinely ignore), and the most delicious soup I've had since arriving in Korea, as well as four mystery dishes. As an aside, all of the food was delicious. The grand total for breakfast was about $4.
COMMUTE TO WORK
My second day in Seoul, I got lost on my way to work – in a forest. To fully appreciate the absurdity of this, you must remember that Seoul has a population of over 10 million people. It's hardly a rural environment.
My first day in Seoul, Jake drove me to work. That night, one of the teachers gave me directions for the quickest walking route to Yonsei. The teacher did not give me any street names, but that was only reasonable because most of Korea does not name streets. Not just no name in English. The streets have no names. At all. So, instead, I carefully wrote down, “turn right, walk uphill, take the staircase, turn right at the top of the stairs, turn left at the fork, etc.”
The next morning, I turned right out of my dorm and walked uphill. There were no stairs that I could immediately find, but after carefully scoping the area, I saw a rough-hewn staircase, assembled from large gray stones, leading up the mountain behind my dorm. Of course, that seemed like an odd path to work, but everything seems odd to me right now, I reasoned. So, I clambered up the stone staircases, passing by a tiny waterfall and an old man who was breaking stones just a few feet off the path. Eventually, the stone stairs led to wooden stairs which led to a dusty mountain path.
I climbed higher and further into the forest. After a short while, I saw Buddha. He was slightly larger than a life-sized man. His left hand was extended, thumb and middle finger lightly touching and his right hand raised, palm facing outward. Festooned on yards of string crisscrossing in front of the Buddha were bright-pink lanterns that looked like overgrown strawberries. “Curiouser and curiouser,” I thought as I continued down the path.
The path began diverging into different paths. I followed the directions I'd written down and trailed further and further into the forest. Occasionally, I ran across men with long trekking poles and women in walking shorts and visors. As it was my first full day at work, I was dressed in a floral skirt and was wearing lipstick pink pumps. I tried wedging the point of my heels into the dirt path for greater traction, my own mini-version of trekking poles. I saw no one who was American (judging by appearance), and I was too shy and frightened in a wordless, wandering manner to speak to any of the Koreans I encountered.
After about 40 minutes of trekking, I found my way to the edge of the forest and popped out onto a street – a real street with cars – but I did not know where I was, and in typical Korean fashion, the street was nameless. I saw a young Korean woman walking down the sidewalk. She was dressed in Western-style clothing and carrying an i-pod, so I hazarded a guess that she could speak English.
Not only could she speak English, but she was also a college student at Yonsei. She led me most of the way to the FLI and then pointed out the final street. It must have been out of her way for I saw her turning and going back the opposite direction after she'd safely deposited me.
During the middle of my Yonsei University tour, Whitney pointed out a woodsy area that was filled with stone benches and well-spaced trees.
"This used to have a lot more trees," she stated in her typically serious manner, "but many of them were chopped down because so many couples use the area for kissing."
Whether she told me this as a fact, a suggestion, or a potential reprimand, I still cannot determine.