Note - this post is kind of a throwback. I wrote it months ago for "The Point" and I meant to run it here sometime in 2010, but forgot about it until this week. If you know me or if you're a wehg living in Korea, this may appeal to you. If not, I wouldn't blame you for giving this one a miss. Just be sure to come back next week, I've got a real humdinger in the works.
So you Johnnys out there in Northeast Kansas and points less awesome may ask yourself how all this Asia shit began. How did it come to pass that a run of the mill Replay barfly like myself ended up traveling around the great cities of Asia and living a comfortable, rent-free life with minimal work?
The “how” answer is a bit lame and dull - I started the same way you met your girlfriend and sold your old iPod - I answered a Craigslist ad. The “why” answer I can’t really give either, that would require years of intensive therapy. I can, however, answer the “what” - my Asian origin story, which strangely I’ve never written.
In late September of 2006, I flew from my then-temporary home in Baltimore to Chicago on a United flight. After a day of seeing friends and family and a night of boozing at my favorite Chicago bar, I headed for O’hare the next day. I checked my bags and smoked my last cigarette for 14 hours and headed to the United 777 that would take me to Tokyo. My final meal in the US - a couple of Snack Wraps from the O’hare McDonald’s. Weak, I know.
The flight from Chicago to Tokyo was, predictably, horrible. I watched "The da Vinci Code" and "Mission Impossible 3." Then, I started watching bad movies. I drank 13 or 14 Kirin beers. I was on the aisle and in the third to last row, so eventually I started just walking back to the galley to order another beer. Somehow, I never got remotely drunk.
We landed in Tokyo. We had to go through a small amount of security to reach the Narita airport departure lounge. The security checkpoint was staffed by a small army of slim, young, cute Japanese women dressed like stewardesses and wearing red berets. Something on my person set off the metal detector. One of these Japanese security stewardesses asked me in deliberate English “Can...I...touch...you?” I liked Tokyo Narita airport immediately.
I made a rush for the smoking room. These Asian airports know how to operate. I smoked two cigarettes in under 3 minutes. The first was awesome. After the second, I suddenly felt top-10 level hungover despite never feeling tipsy on the flight. I was parched and disoriented. I stumbled around and found a money changer so that I could change a fiver for yen, then started indiscriminately throwing the yen into the nearest vending machine to buy water. I guzzled a couple bottles, then went to smoke 3 more cigarettes. Thus ended my first experience in Japan.
My connecting flight to Seoul lasted only two hours. Like halftime at a Belgian soccer game, I drank coffee. I landed at Incheon Airport early on a Thursday night. I’d left Chicago on Wednesday afternoon. Up until bit ago, the the sun had never set.
I was met at baggage by a man holding a sign that read “Tobb.” He spoke no English. I had no clue where we were going. I was totally unaware of how Seoul was set up, or where my school would be in relation to Seoul, or if we were going to my school or elsewhere.
2006 isn’t so long ago, kiddies, but back then, there was no way to find out these kinds of things. Google Maps only covered details of American cities. Wikitravel and Google Earth didn’t exist. In this regard, 2006 is further removed from now than it is from 1983.
My monolingual driver and I drew closer to the lights of Seoul. I had to laugh at how many freeway and road signs made use of the word “dong.” At some point, the driver’s cell phone rang, and it was for me. Somehow, this made sense. It was my recruiter, telling me that I was being driven to a hotel, and that I should call my school’s director the following day. After getting the director’s number, I wondered how I would go about calling her as I had no phone.
We left the freeway and drove down a major thoroughfare. We were in Gangnam, and the lights were impressive, the buildings tall, the pedestrians formally dressed, and the traffic bumper to bumper. I knew just enough about Seoul to know that Gangnam wasn’t downtown, but it sure as hell looked like it.
We went down a back alley to my hotel. The driver set me up, as the proprietor also spoke no English. I went to my room. It was easily the smallest hotel room I had ever seen. I flipped through the channels, and discovered two of them were porn. Pixilated, but porn nonetheless. I also noticed various massage oils and a couple of wrapped condoms on my dresser. I wondered what kind of place I was in.
It was late. I was jet lagged like never before. Of course, I went out. I was in a new city/country/continent. I couldn’t just stay in and watch pixilated porn. I was pretty sure it would be there later.
Having failed to convert money at the airport, I had exactly $0 in local currency, $2 in Japanese Yen, and $40 or so American. I went to a 7-11 to withdraw money. No dice. I was paranoid that my US bank had put a hold on my card. Being broke in a new country wasn’t part of my plan. I bought a pack of gum with my debit card to see if that would work. It did. My card wasn’t cut off. I tried out some other ATMs. Again, no luck. This could be bad. After trying 5 or 6 ATMs, I happened across a Citi Bank branch. Last shot. It worked. Armed with local currency, I headed for the bars. All I found were some overpriced suit bars. After a couple of $10 Heinekens, I was ready to crash.
The next day, I tried to call my new boss. I was in over my head trying to use a Korean hotel phone. I conveyed what I needed to do with the hotel proprietor, and he dialed the number from the front desk phone. After a few gestures and grunts, I learned my first Korean phrase from the hotel owner - kamsa hamnida, “thank you.”
I headed off for lunch. I could not figure out the process of eating local food as I was under the (sometimes true) impression that it is always shared, I ended up having my first Korean meal at... Burger King. Sad, I know. I was amazed at the small size of my fries and Coke, and that the Coke came in a solid plastic glass that can’t be taken to go. I found the nearest “internet cafe,” i.e. PC room in Korea, where I was shocked by its cheapness and its lack of smoking restriction.
It was time to go to my new school. I knew from talking to my boss that I had to walk to Gangnam subway station and then take the subway one stop. I met the boss there, and we caught a bus for the short distance to the school. She graciously paid my 90 cent fare. Later, I figured out that she could have taken a taxi to my hotel, picked me up, and driven me to the school for $3.
I met the guy I was to replace, Josh. Josh walked me through the general way a class works on paper. He then walked me to his apartment, which would become my apartment the next day. It was smaller than my hotel room. This should have been a red flag too, but I had seen exactly zero Korean apartments to compare it to. We returned to the school for my training. Unfortunately, Friday was listening day for Josh’s classes. The lesson largely consisted of listening to a CD over and over, then answering questions. There wasn’t a lot of live training Josh could do. I stuck around for a class.
I went back to my hotel and took a nap, then returned to the school at 10 pm, closing time. I met a few more teachers, most notably Julie, my soon-to-be across the alley neighbor, whom I would be able to yell at through my window like Rocky.
We went to a nearby bar, The Barrel. I never did have dinner. The bosses left early, and things got silly. After everybody was sufficiently trashed we went to Itaewon, the “foreign” district of town. Jet lag was beat.
The next day, a Saturday, I woke up at around noon. I had to leave my hotel and get a taxi to my new place. I arrived “home.” Hungover like a banshee and completely unaware of my new surroundings, I immediately returned to the familiar environs of the Gangnam Station area. I’d been in Korea 42 hours and eaten once. Near Gangnam Station, I found what I desperately needed. I scarfed some greasy McD. Lame, I know. I felt mildly human and ran some errands.
Later on, Julie called me Rocky-style. She and our other coworker Leah were going to Itaewon for dinner. I certainly didn’t have any other plans, so I joined them for Egyptian food. We decided to drink at Leah’s apartment later on with other coworkers, as she had roof access. She also had a couch and an apartment 4 times the size of mine. Palazzo We all over again.
I hadn’t had Korean food yet, but the drink of choice at Leah’s that night was soju - my first dalliance down that road. She recommended that I mix it with pomegranate tea, but I misjudged the bottle she was pointing at and instead bought Milkus - a strange Korean Sprite/milk soda mix. Soju and Milkus was delicious.
Leah’s rooftop deck had several cheap plastic chairs on it, the type that could be found at low rent bar patios the world over. As these $4 chairs were more comfortable than the metal folding chair that my school had provided me, I stole one. Life would become 8% more comfortable.
Comfort, Madden 07, and soju would be the order of the next day. I ventured out to my local PC room and to check out the local grocery store, but I largely sat at home playing Madden. I kept my window open should Julie decide to call, but I had no way to actually contact anybody that I had met in the last couple of days. Ultimately, the night ended with two bottles of soju and my DVD of Airplane. I started work the next day. No Josh. I would be operating without a net.