Around Christmastime each year, I email my friend Arujei to share my holiday greetings and catch up. Because of the way our dynamic works, we tend not to converse much throughout the year, but are always happy to hear from one another around the holiday season. Early this year, one of the topics we touched on was his recent trip to Japan — as Arujei visited the foreign country for the first time, he would share his adventures on social media. Reflecting on his experiences, I recall conveying my apprehensions about visiting a foreign land where I could neither speak nor read the language. Still, I hoped to one day take the plunge like Arujei and feel brave enough to traverse such a place as an outsider — a true adventure. Arujei of course reassured me with his email replies in the typical levelheaded manner that I have come to associate with him and as I considered his words, I wondered if I would someday get a chance to see the world for myself.
I recently had the opportunity to visit both South Korea and Japan, and I largely credit Arujei with instilling the confidence within me to approach the experience in a way that made me feel I could still enjoy myself even without the ability to hold a conversation with others. The fact that I was heading to first-world countries possessing modern infrastructures and means to access an important lifeline — the Internet — also reassured me that I would never truly be lost, vulnerable, and without the means to ask for help. As I prepared to venture into another country for the first time since I became an adult, I could not wait to find myself on the other side of the coin — after having worked with foreigners many times over in the cultural melting pot of urban Houston, in entering the borders of countries with cultures and ethnicities far different from my own, this time I would be the foreigner.
Since my flight out of Houston was scheduled to depart at 06:30, I left my house around 03:45 to account for parking, check-in, and any other mishaps that could delay me from safely reaching the boarding lounge. Although I had quite a bit of time to spare due to my favorite parking service, The Parking Spot, being efficient as ever, I made the mistake of heading to Terminal E for international departures. Although my flight would indeed ultimately have me cross international borders to set foot on the Korean peninsula, the first leg of my Air Canada flight would have me land at the airline’s Calgary hub before crossing the Pacific Ocean. This was a domestic flight. As I quickly realized my mistake, I took the terminal’s elevator to the underground subway so that I could board the tram heading for the opposite end of the airport, Terminal A, for short-haul flights. Despite this brief detour, I was still able reach the gate with an hour to spare and enjoyed watching my small twin-jet CRJ900 Bombardier prepare for flight — the fascination from bearing witness to the incredible marvels of engineering allowing for such immense machines to soar through the sky has never once left my heart.
The flight to Calgary was brief, and thankfully so, as the tiny cabin had begun to grow uncomfortably bright with daylight from the morning’s sunrise filtering in through the windows. The clock read 09:30 in the new timezone, and my bleary-eyed appearance fit right in with the scores of travelers heading through Customs. As the verification process did not take long at all, I was soon waved into an elevator granting me access to the airport’s terminals — one that could only be operated by a security agent after providing proof of identity — and I immediately set off in the opposite direction from most of the crowds to instead access a secluded glass elevator with its only destination denoted by a singular button that was blank save for a small picture of a martini glass. The elevator’s gentle ascent took me to the highest level in the terminal before two large doors bearing the word Aspire. With roughly three hours before I could embark on the all-important long-haul portion of my flight, I was grateful to be granted access to the exclusive reception before me.
Aspire is Calgary International Airport’s private departure lounge. Since the next portion of my flight would be embarked as a First/Business Class passenger, I was free to utilize the facilities available at the exclusive lounge; as someone who had never flown outside of the Economy Class cabin, the availability of such amenities was completely new to me. The lounge itself was very modern, tastefully secluded, and had glass walls that provided a view down to the bustling terminals below. Additionally, there were a number of day beds generously provided for travelers expecting a lengthy layover, as well as shower facilities for ultimate relaxation. Given that the domestic flight from Houston provided no meal service, I was particularly appreciative of the buffet-style breakfast that was being offered alongside the wide variety of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages available for patrons. After selecting a few light breakfast snacks to munch on, I sat myself in one of the plush black chairs adorning the area and idly turned my attention towards one of several large television screens broadcasting local channels (which surprisingly seemed to discuss American matters quite frequently).
As the time for my departure approached, I bid the attendant at the head of the lounge farewell. Although I could I have stayed a little while longer, I wanted to head to my gate early so that I could watch the immense Boeing 767-300ER that I would be taking prepare for its approximately eleven hour journey across international waters. As boarding commenced, due to my status as a Business Class passenger, I was ushered into the priority queue and was quickly allowed into the aircraft cabin. Per my ticket, I was assigned Seat #7, a private pod in a reverse-herringbone configuration ensuring that I had both a private window as well as aisle access. While the small shelf next to the window held a leather personal amenities kit and a pair of slippers, the seat itself held a complete set of bedding, highlighting its ability to lay flat into a bed configuration. After I stowed the items under a small cubby at the opposite end of the pod, I hardly finished placing my baggage into the overhead compartment before I was approached by a flight attendant named Karen. In fact, Karen was not simply just a flight attendant, but she was also the lead attendant in charge of hospitality. Karen went around to each Business Class passenger to personally welcome them by name and to introduce herself, stating that her personal goal would be for us to remember her name by the end of the flight (which, as you can see, was accomplished nicely).
Before the Economy Class had even begun to board, I was brought a glass (made of actual glass) of sparkling water, as well as a menu for the lunchtime meal that would be served once the plane was in the air. Even once the flight was underway, the attendants were extremely attentive as the twenty-four seats comprising the Business Class cabin were serviced by no fewer than two members of the flight crew at any given time and Karen too could frequently be seen making light conversation with passengers about the snow-topped Canadian mountains visible outside. Once lunch was finally ready to be served, the attendants went around to each passenger, meticulously laying down a table cloth before setting down their dishes. The prawns, olive salsa verde, tomato confit, marinated artichokes, and roasted garlic aioli presented before me made for a delicious plate that, in true gourmet fashion, was absolutely bursting with flavor. Although the provided garlic bread and salad greens also complemented the dish splendidly, I distinctly recall finding the overall meal to be somewhat on the small side, attributing its scale to apparent cost cutting measures that airlines have become infamous for. Seemingly on cue, once I finished and the dishes were quickly cleared away, I realized the error of my judgment when the attendant brought by another set of tableware; what I had just finished was the first of a full course meal. I was provided with salmon and prawn Thai coconut bouillabaisse and, as quickly as I would finish them, I would be brought the next course. After a number of courses including those with palate cleansers such as fine cheeses, the meal concluded with a brown sugar tart and milk tea. Needless to say, by the time lunchtime was over, I was quite thoroughly filled and was ready to sit back to relax as the flight continued on its way.
The cabin lights very quickly dimmed to a subdued greenish-blue hue once mealtime concluded. I found the apparent suggestion to turn in for the “night” a tempting one and the artificial darkness proved to be a valuable asset as the plane traveled West towards the Asian continent. Due to the direction the aircraft was flying, it would be crossing the International Date Line so as to flip the calendar date over to the next day, but the plane would also be chasing daylight in the process — I would not be seeing the night sky for the duration of my 10.5 hour flight. Thankfully, the darkened cabin proved to work just as well and I took pleasure in configuring my seat to lie-flat mode before topping it with the (surprisingly soft) set of covers that had been provided. In all honesty, I had an incredibly satisfying sleep aboard the flight; there was something about the dampened sound of air reverberating inside the cabin, the steady rumble of the 767’s turbofan engines, the privacy of sleeping within the confines of an enclosed seating pod, and the ability for me to completely stretch out under a cool pile of covers that granted me absolutely blissful repose. Resting among the clouds as I lay on my side, alone and thousands of miles from home, I was at utter peace.
To simulate a sunrise, the lighting inside the aircraft slowly transitioned to a red-orange tint before fading to a luminous white. Unsure of how long I slept, I swung out my display monitor to check the flight map and saw that we would in fact be entering Japanese airspace soon. I was also admittedly a bit hungry — after washing up at the lavatory, I asked Karen for a light snack so as to not inconvenience the flight staff while they were no doubt preparing for descent. Contrary to what I expected, Karen actually encouraged me (relentlessly so) to pick out more items from the appetizer menu, all of which were provided in unlimited amounts at no cost; in the end, the two skewers of grilled garlic chicken, fruit platter, and bowl of ice cream she ended up bringing almost constituted a meal in its own right. As passengers continued to wake up around me, I could now see pockets of sunlight peeking into the cabin as curious flyers opened their windows to watch as we approached Japan’s Honshu island mass. I recall straining to examine the ground beneath me; I had flown so many times, yet human civilization always appeared more or less the same from the clouds. I struggled to remind myself that I was gazing at a foreign country, with a completely foreign culture from what I was used to, on the other side of the world from my home.
Once the plane touched down at Narita International Airport, it did not take long for me to deplane as the Business Class cabin was naturally located at the front of the aircraft. With a couple hours to spare before my Korean Air flight to Seoul, my final destination, the opportunity to wander around Narita quickly brought to light a curious sense of trepidation on my part: I felt nervous in approaching people.
I am not typically an anxious person when it comes to speaking with others and I have always felt confident in my ability to converse with people in a clear, amiable manner. Yet, all of a sudden I no longer had my most coveted asset, my command of the English language, available for use — the people around me spoke a different language. It is true that I had attempted to familiarize myself with helpful phrases prior to my trip, but I was far from fluent and would doubtlessly mangle my delivery in attempting to converse with the locals. I truly did not want to impose too heavily on others as it was I who was the foreigner who could not speak the predominant language — it would be arrogant to expect that others speak English with me. The length of my layover however proved useful as the airport offered a uniquely multinational bubble within the otherwise largely homogenous country; the airport staff was well experienced in dealing with foreigners and my apprehension was put at ease by the time I boarded my final flight, reassured by the smiling attendants greeting their passengers in Japanese, English, and Korean.
Compared to my luxurious experience aboard Air Canada’s long-haul flight, Korean Air’s domestic offering felt dated, particularly with respect to some of the aircraft’s design choices which bore a somewhat anachronistic resemblance to preferences popular in the ‘90s. Curious as it was, the flight itself was comfortable enough to suit its two hour duration and by the time I was landing at Incheon International Airport, I was finally able to catch a glimpse of the evening sun making way for the night sky. There was something simultaneously fitting and disquieting to have the end of my journey denoted by nightfall; as the airport grew quieter in the absence of the daytime bustle, I was acutely aware of my own solitude amidst the society before me. Thousands of miles from my home, I had to adapt and keep up with my new surroundings.
This was something that I had been preparing for however. See, South Korea required some unique preparation prior to visiting. As someone who has grown up with and relied on Google Maps for even the shortest of trips, I originally found it disconcerting that South Korea barred exportation of its map data due to concerns of it being accessed by North Korea; this had the effect of ostensibly wiping out the capability for mapping apps to provide directions for navigating the country, and Google Maps was no exception. After some research, I found a few open source solutions that offered lower quality, but usable, maps for the region and I prepared ahead of time by marking a series of waypoints between areas that I would frequent, such as the airport, my hotel in Sinchon, and the nearby Ewha Womans [sic] University. I also made it a point to note down some of the more useful bus routes to get me to these waypoints so that I could safely navigate Seoul even in the event that I lost map access. Lastly, so that I could finally embark on my journey outside the confines of the airport, I had identified which shops in the terminal could provide me with the all-important “T-money card” that provided access to the city’s transit system. Surveying my location within Terminal 2 and glancing at the time, I figured my best bet would be GS25, a popular convenience store chain in South Korea.
“There are moments in life when you can be with someone with whom you have nothing in common . . . and then something happens: a moment of shared experience, or shared laughter, and it just changes the playing field. And it doesn’t mean that you become friends afterward, it doesn’t mean that you’ve broken through to a new level of understanding that’ll be with you for the rest of your lives. But something has changed. It’s a bonding moment . . . They’ve started to see each other as people.” — Ira Steven Behr, executive producer of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
GS25 happened to be located near the departure lobby for the airport’s bus terminals, which saved me from having to walk too far. Even so, the characteristically tiny little convenience store was located on the other end of the floor as one of its few inhabitants that was still open for the day. Walking past a number of shuttered ticketing counters whose staff had headed home for the day, my footsteps echoed audibly across the floor tiles. Truly, the emptiness was felicitous — almost poetically so — and, save for an elderly lady briefly exiting past me, I quickly found myself alone in the store. No one was around for me to mimic in an attempt to follow their example, and no onlookers were present to watch me. Whatever interaction I was about to have would solely be experienced between myself and the figure at the counter, who I had quickly hid from upon entry. In my uncharacteristically timid state, I had hoped to minimize my interaction with the store clerk by finding a T-money card on the store shelves and simply presenting it at the counter for purchase, but I had no such luck. I would have to inquire at the front. With a deep breath, I approached the counter and without even sparing a moment to take in the situation, I hastily rambled off a diffident “annyeong!” (안녕!), completely forgetting to append the expected “haseyo” (하세요) portion of the greeting to denote it as a formal one.
There was a beat as the person at the counter turned to look up at me. She was a young girl, college-aged, with sparkly pink hair tied in loose pigtails. Since she had been idly browsing on her phone up until a few seconds ago, she appeared to have been taken by surprise, but her expression soon relaxed to one of gentle amusement.
With her attention now on me, I opened my mouth for a moment to grasp for words, and, having at this point thoroughly established my lack of mastery over the Korean language, finally supplanted the awkward pause with an equally graceful question. “Um… T-money card?”
Though the glimmer of amusement never left her eyes, she smiled, having understood what I was attempting to purchase. Reaching beneath the counter, she pulled out a laminated display flyer and placed it on the counter in front of me, seemingly watching my expression expectantly. The flyer appeared to display the various T-money card designs the GS25 offered, all of which depicted cutesy Doraemon and KAKAO FRIENDS characters plastered over garishly colored backgrounds. Somewhat charmingly, I was then reminded that although language barriers exist, facial expressions are universally understood and, ever the expressive individual, my own state of nonplus at the choices before me was undeniably picked up on by the clerk.
Her friendly smile broke into a grin, followed by a fit of giggles. I can only imagine how she saw the situation — here was, before her, a foreigner with luggage in tow, dressed in professional clothing, attempting to purchase a bus pass to undoubtedly attend some sort of business function. Yet, none of the cards she had to offer particularly excelled on the professionalism front and in fact appeared better suited for stowage in a middle schooler’s pencil bag. Resigned to the comicality of the situation, I simply could not help but look up and laugh as well, sending the girl into even more fits of laugher. Beaming, I finally pointed to a design that seemed the least strange to me and handed her ₩40,000. After a brief quizzical pause, the girl understood my intent and handed me my T-money card, charged up with funds and ready for use! Thanking her (in English) with an appreciative half-bow, I bid the clerk farewell as I turned to head back towards the bus terminals.
In many ways, my accomplishment of this small task set the tone for my interactions abroad; I felt grateful that even in placing myself at the mercy of others’ patience with my stumbled attempts at communication, there were those who would help me and I could still function despite my illiteracy. Moreover, I was honestly happy that I had delighted the clerk — there was something so… human about the way the two of us had to step back and absorb the humor of the situation — something in that moment transcended language barriers and, in that instant in the empty convenience store, stood two people trying to communicate. It made my heart swell with the anticipation of meeting new people all around me.
Now, it would be a little too optimistic of me to claim that all people are receptive to dealing with foreigners in this manner of course. I noticed the older Korean population was less patient, particularly the bus drivers, but in general, my obvious appearance as a foreigner was met with polite attempts to guide me on my way. True to the itinerary that I had mapped out earlier, it was Airport Limousine bus 6002 that would take me to Ewha Womans University Station, placing me within a three-minute walking distance from my hotel. In fact, I couldn’t help but marvel at the itinerary — as the bus traveled through the moonlit darkness, I could make out traces of the scenery outside, such as the immense Han River, just as my route indicated on paper. Once the bus reached its destination, I stepped out onto the platform serving as a median separating the busy Sinchon Road (신촌로) and found myself surrounded by a swarm of people enjoying the vibrant nighttime atmosphere. With my map in hand, I was able to follow the crowds to the heart of the Sinchon district and finally reach my accommodations for the night — a “premium business hotel” high-rise advertising itself as the Sinchon Ever8 Serviced Residence.
Even as I stepped into the small lobby, I could feel the fatigue from my travel catching up to me. Check-in thankfully went quite smoothly given the fact that the receptionist was fluent in English and it did not take long for me to locate my tiny room on the thirteenth floor. Although the room was impressively bland in its decor, I was more than happy to finally set down my bags and unpack. Now that my travel was at an end, as I stood alone in the room with only the cool night air and the sounds of traffic from down below filtering in from the window screen, I was at peace. Making only minimal use of the (equally minimal) facilities before me, I quickly changed into a set of sleepwear — having travelled to no fewer than three foreign countries in a span of less than 24 hours and finally experiencing nightfall, it was definitely time to call it a day.
I have typically found that jet-lag is a non-issue upon reaching one’s travel destination; one is often too full of adrenaline and excitement to be bothered by the sudden shift in time zones. As such, I woke up at 05:00 and pulled myself out of bed to seat myself at the small wooden table placed next to the tiny window in my room. Below, the empty Seoul morning streets were visible and, with little traffic to offer much noise, the whirr of the LG external air conditioning fan audibly filled the room given that I had neglected to turn it off due to its remote being completely in Korean. As I gazed across at the skyline to take in the sights, sounds, and smells from the streets below, I could not help but feel nostalgic. It is actually said that our sense of smell is most evocative of even our oldest memories; something about the vague smell of pollution tempered with refuse discarded along the streets, the cramped shopping alleys, and the seemingly perpetual hint of dirt covering most buildings brought back memories of my brief experiences as a child visiting the Middle East. Yet, I found this unexpected parallel oddly comforting — it was a world I had long since forgotten.
With the opportunity to finally sightsee, I decided to make one of my first destinations the first place that comes to mind whenever I think about South Korea, which, ironically, is North Korea. United States citizens are forbidden from actually setting foot into the hermit kingdom of course, but Seoul Station actually offered a train route into the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the Koreas that was available to tourists for guided tours. Interestingly however, due to diplomatic agreements between the two countries, South Korean citizens were actually restricted from entering certain parts of the DMZ. For this reason, the predominant languages found among the tourists visiting the site happened to be English and Chinese — both of which were accommodated by guides fluent in each language.
In getting to the rail station, I was pleasantly surprised by the user-friendliness of the bus system, particularly given the fact that each stop was clearly announced in both Korean and English. I had expected this of airports and major transit centers — Seoul Station was no exception — but I had not expected inner city buses to accommodate English speakers as well. In the case of the immense Seoul railway station, a dedicated tourist office was actually present to assist in the booking of various sightseeing routes. The availability of friendly English assistance came as somewhat of a reassurement given that I considered the possibility of somehow getting stranded in the DMZ a less than favorable scenario. With my ticket in hand, I explored the station (which mostly consisted of outlet stores by the ubiquitous LOTTE Corporation) and its surrounding areas while I waited for my train to arrive.
As the scheduled time for departure approached, I joined the obvious group of tourists that had gathered at the designated platform. There was in fact some confusion initially — although we had opted to stand at the portion of the platform as denoted by the ticket, a more informed traveler pointed out that the trains rarely bothered following the boarding markers and that the train would actually stop at the other end of the platform. Though our clueless bunch shuffled back and forth in uncertainty for a bit, the train eventually arrived (away from its designated spot as predicted) and we were able to board. In the process, I happened to meet another English-speaker, a talkative man sightseeing with his family, and instantly a camaraderie of sorts was struck. Having introduced myself as being a Houston native, the moniker ended up sticking and the man ended up calling me “Houston” whenever he would refer to me. In lieu of this fact, and the fact that I cannot remember his name, I will endearingly refer to the New Zealand native as “Kiwi”. Kiwi worked hospitality back home and owned an inn where he got to meet people from all around the globe. His children, both of which were younger than twelve years old, had already visited no fewer than fifteen countries as Kiwi believed in the importance of experiencing the world’s numerous cultures. As the only fluent English speakers in the group, we shared conversations often and, before long, Kiwi more or less began to lump me in with the rest of his family (a gesture that had his wife appearing apologetic at times).
The “DMZ Train” interior was decorated in a prism of colors, dotted with symbolism emphasizing peace and reunification. Aboard the train, the attendants passed out identification badges as well as waivers to sign prior to official entry to the DMZ. Although the waivers were entirely in Korean, a quick glance with Google Translate’s lens function revealed a fairly standard waiver with… regrettably appropriate paragraphs absolving the company of international incidents and/or death. Shrugging this off, I signed the form and, as the train continued towards the countryside, we were joined by soldiers from the Republic of Korea (ROK) Armed Forces who had to accompany us into the neutral territory between the nations. Once the train passed into the actual DMZ, the attendants could be seen frequently making rounds to perform head-counts. When the train finally came to a stop, our group disembarked at Dorasan Station, the last station on the route before Pyeongyang Station, to which there was no outbound service given the political climate.
With the terminus of the rail line, the rest of our journey was undertaken by bus. Compared to the lively atmosphere in Seoul, I was struck by the disquieting silence within the DMZ. Every once in a while, ROK soldiers could be seen outside manning guard stations and the eerily barren roads were interrupted only by the occasional military vehicle rumbling by. Per our carefully curated tour itinerary, we made a number of stops at peace memorials, museums, and historic sites. Of particular interest was the “Dora Observatory”, a facility built overlooking the North Korean border with telescopic lenses powerful enough to view the bordering country’s “Peace Village” (기정동). Although proven otherwise with the advent of modern technology, “Peace Village” was designed as a prosperous facade of North Korean life with the intent of luring outsiders to defect to the communist country; the city has long since been shown to be devoid of life, with the building windows lacking glass and electrical timers providing illusions of activity within the meagerly lit residences. At the other end of the vista proffered by the observation deck, one could see the North Korean flag fluttering atop a towering flagpole and an equally immense structure proclaiming the demarcation of South Korean territory on the opposite end of the border — per the tour guide, the two Koreas were caught in an endless battle of showmanship with each constantly attempting to build their flagpole higher than the other’s.
Politics aside, the undisturbed foliage down below stood lush with vegetation and wildlife, isolated from the outside world. It was fascinating to imagine that, in my lifetime, the DMZ may one day cease to exist and that it truly was a privilege to set foot in such a hallowed region of today’s Earth. Over lunch, Kiwi and I discussed this at length, particularly given that his wife was not interested in geopolitics and his kids had preoccupied themselves at the gift shop neighboring the tiny mess hall our fleet of buses had taken us to.
“Ugh, I can’t stand the smell of Korean food — disgusting…” Kiwi muttered out loud as the characteristically odorous scent of fermented Korean cuisine wafted from across the plainly decorated room.
I had to laugh — he had so tersely and inelegantly expressed my own inner thoughts regarding the smell, though I had at least been reticent enough to not voice the fact. In the end, we decided to purchase some prepackaged food available at the gift shop to munch on the steps outside the hall — Kiwi purchased a bag of dried fruit while I, ever the champion for healthy habits, picked up a bag of Cheetos as branded and marketed towards Korean regional tastes by LOTTE Confectionary. Outside, away from the rest of the group, Kiwi and I talked about the manner in which actions committed years ago, such as the Cold War, can have implications affecting the lives of entire peoples even decades later. Discussing in the DMZ the manner in which the Koreas were pulled apart by two opposing world powers, along with their vastly different ideologies, somehow felt very appropriate; the zone around us told a cautionary tale, imploring its inhabitants to seek common ground, not war, when encountering new cultures. While his children were still young, Kiwi sought to expose them to all manners of civilizations to help grant them this perspective regarding the world in which we live.
Once the tour concluded and the train was back en route to Seoul Station, I felt surprisingly fatigued as I sat back in my seat. Yet, after parting ways with Kiwi’s family and wishing them a safe flight home, the buzzing of society that had been completely absent from the DMZ swept me back onto my feet to explore some more. The square around Seoul Station was rife with activity; amidst the scurrying commuters bounding in all directions, leisurely crowds could be spotted enjoying both the bright summertime weather and the array of shops dotting the plaza. And then, above the street level, one could spot the Seoullo 7017 — a linear park built atop a former highway overpass that now provided an unexpectedly tranquil offering of foliage in the midst of metropolitan Seoul life. As fortune would have it, I was actually able to stroll about the reprieve just as the sun was beginning to set; a splash of vermillion fell over the Seoul skyline, and then the buildings all around. In lieu of this, I decided to grab some dinner, and being around the Seoulites must have done something to me because I decided to seek out Korean dining. Though I still had no intention of venturing towards some of the more pungent dishes, I figured that it would be a missed opportunity if I did not at least try some authentic Korean food during my stay.
I have always found it charming how many countries tend to build upwards rather than outwards given their vastly more limited real estate space compared to the enormous United States and I quite enjoyed visiting different eateries on different levels to see if they could suit my needs. I must say that I was heavily tempted to gravitate towards more familiar food — there were a number of restaurants themed after international offerings that were far more familiar to me, but I was determined to locate something that was both Korean and appetizing to me. After careful deliberation weighing the availability of picture menus, the ratio of English depicted on such, and the smell emanating from the tables, I settled on a place that specialized in “topokki” (떡볶이). Topokki is a sort of stir-fried dish consisting of thick rice cake noodles so it was not too outlandish of an offering for me to try. Thankfully, I was also provided silverware so that I could eat my seasoned chicken topokki without trouble — no matter how hard I tried, I never could manage to use chopsticks with any sort of success.
My meal was not bad at all and by the time I left the restaurant, night had fallen. Instead of risking getting lost by taking an unfamiliar bus route, I decided to walk the streets to a more familiar bus stop so that I could head back to my hotel. Once again, in doing so, I took in my surroundings — tiny shops were shuttering themselves for the day, numerous external air conditioning units buzzed outside in an effort to keep building inhabitants cool, and the streets of Seoul were alive with nighttime traffic. Having oriented myself by reaching the appropriate departure point, it was no trouble at all to reach Sinchon and I treated myself with a small orange-flavor drink at a nearby coffee shop near my hotel.
In all honesty, I had been lured by the cafe’s elegant interior — in which the overhead lamps were designed like little top-hats — though unfortunately for me, the menu seemed devoid of any helpful English lettering. After considering my options for a moment (and the fact that Google Translate may have to factor heavily in my decision), I had the idea to take a photo of a drink I had seen on an advertisement that had caught my eye outside. To my delight, the amiable clerk at the register was more than happy to try and figure out which drink I wanted, along with my desired size, and I quickly had my orange-flavored drink in hand. Leaving the shop, I wandered the Sinchon area some more around the hotel, and soon turned in for the night, excited for my next day abroad.
I have to say that the weather during my stay in South Korea was impeccable — it was the definition of summertime. After having spent the majority of my time as part of a tour group the day prior, the next day, I enjoyed strolling around Seoul at my own pace. This particular morning, I decided to visit the Ewha Womans University campus, one of the most prestigious universities in South Korea and the site of the year’s Global Congress for Qualitative Health Research. Given the proximity of my hotel to the university, a simple bus ride (a process that I had now become quite comfortable with) brought me to the campus in a matter of minutes.
The Ewha Womans University grounds were reminiscent of the older architectural styles found at Ivy League schools — the grounds were impeccably kept and the buildings, although outwardly gothic in appearance, included aesthetic touches hinting at a level of modernity expected from the urban Seoul. I have noticed that higher education in any country looks much the same and, as I walked around catching glimpses of lecture halls, the student union, and student dormitories, I was reminded of my own time as an undergraduate student living on campus. The quiet atmosphere was peaceful, yet all it took was a quick glance in the opposite direction to see the skyline and be reminded that one was, in fact, still in Seoul. And perhaps it was because of this serenity, along with my own leisurely pace towards the alleyways of the Sinchon area, that I noticed something when I stopped at a nearby Hollys Coffee for a refresher.
As I sat next to the window in the little second-floor coffee shop, I watched the pedestrian traffic down below. Idly lifting my gaze to watch the cafe patrons as well as the cleaning staff, I realized why I had been feeling a nonspecific sense that something was off: everyone was Korean.
I had to laugh inwardly at myself, recognizing the lack of profundity behind the realization, yet at the same time, I could not help but admire its significance; as I sit writing in a coffee shop at this very moment in the United States, I can count at least five different ethnicities sharing this room with me. Having lived here all my life, I forget that America is the exception — most countries (particularly Eastern countries) are quite homogenous. For this reason too, I stuck out quite noticeably wherever I went and (I am told) my reception by the Korean locals was much improved because of it. Nevertheless, I was pleased with my increasing comfort in living alongside the Koreans and even began to expand my vocabulary — to express my appreciation for the various helpful interactions that had so guided me through my time in Seoul, I attempted to communicate this with my use of the Korean word “gamsahamnida” (감사합니다) — thank you.
Indeed, whether someone was offering me their seat on the bus, helping me select a proper BTS-themed souvenir in Myeong-dong for my friend back home, or serving me familiar Western food at Paris Baguette (after my appetite had unceremoniously been subverted upon noting a local shop was selling chicken feet for consumption), I was pleased to at least predicate their consideration with a proper thank you. At one point, as I asked a local directions to Yeouinaru station on my way to Hangang Park, I was thrilled to see my uncertain use of the phrase “Yeouinaru station uhdi issuhyo?” (여의나루역 어디있어요?) yield results as a woman gladly took the time to point through various bus route maps in an attempt to help me reach my destination. I beamed at the manner that her face had lit up once she understood my question, and I felt accomplished in my fleeting communication with the woman, even if it had exhausted the entirety of my knowledge of the Korean language.
I spent the remainder of my day taking in the beautiful juxtaposition of greenery, urbanity, and the immense Han River bordering the Hangang Park. On my way in from Incheon a few days prior, crossing the Han River had granted me entry to downtown Seoul — and the next day, I would be crossing it yet again on my way back to the airport. As I bussed back to Sinchon and took my time strolling through the various streets, the open-air entertainment venues, and the numerous shopping districts, I stopped at a GS25 to top up my T-Money card ahead of my departure the next day. Returning back to my hotel for my final night in Seoul, I turned in early to rest up for the next day.
I woke up, packed my stuff, and checked out without any hassle the day after. By 06:15, I had already made my way to the bus station to catch the Airport Limousine service back to Incheon International Airport. Standing at the bus stop amidst the quiet early morning with my luggage in hand, I could not help but feel a little sad; although my stay was decidedly brief, I was going to miss the time I spent exploring Seoul. Once the bus was on its way to Incheon, I took in the scenery that I had not been able to see when it had been covered by nightfall during my arrival. I made it through the airport security screening (the process of which is far less restrictive than the one utilized by the TSA) and to the departure terminals in record time. With the time I had until my flight, I amused myself at the airport’s so-called “PR Zone” which touted Incheon International Airport’s capabilities through a display of electronic exhibits. One that caught me off guard was a VR ride-film inviting travelers to learn about the airport’s baggage management system — skeptical of the entertainment value of such a premise, as I pulled on the VR goggles, I very quickly realized that I would be experiencing the tour not as a traveler, but as actual baggage! This reason alone was enough for me to enjoy the somewhat humorous concept, but I truly did enjoy learning about the airport in this manner.
As the time for my Korean Air flight’s 10:10 departure to Tokyo ticked closer, I decided to grab some breakfast to tide me over. Merely wanting something quick and prepackaged, I settled on a little sandwich shop close to my gate and sat down to, well, type up some notes about my trip thus far. Yet, somewhat serendipitously, I did not get far as I soon noticed an English-speaking woman apparently having trouble ascertaining the nature of some of the Korean ingredients in some of the sandwiches. Most notably, she appeared to be struggling with the term “bulgogi” (불고기) and thankfully, having picked up some of the terminology over the days, I was able to provide some insight to help her order properly. The woman’s name was Angel and once she received her meal, she sat down next to me to introduce me to her family.
Angel was traveling from America with her husband Scott and her eleven year old daughter. I found the parallels to my encounter with Kiwi curious — Angel’s family also believed in the importance of experiencing foreign cultures and were passing through the country in a layover. Just as Kiwi and I discussed the nature of politically charged cultural differences over lunch in the DMZ, Angel and I found ourselves caught up in a fervid discussion about the cross-cultural capacity for human kindness over breakfast at the bustling Korean airport. I found Angel’s thoughts to be quite insightful — as an American from the midwestern middle-class suburbs where, as she put, “everyone is the same,” she shared her belief that cultural complacency poisons one’s ability to believe in the intention of goodwill in others. She explained how ethnocentrism makes average undereducated Americans naive in their potential to learn from others and, in fact, causes them to approach unfamiliar cultures with fear and judgment. Fully aware of the abject tunnel vision so ignorantly prevalent in the midwest, I agreed with Angel about the importance of seeing beyond one’s own familiar society — there are some that spend their entire lives without stepping out of their home countries.
But then the conversation turned to discussing human kindness. I spoke of my own initial feeling of helplessness as I stood in Korea unable to read the language, unable to speak Korean, and completely at the mercy of the assistance provided by others — an immensely humbling feeling. This, Angel explained, was what she wanted to teach her daughter; not only can cultural barriers be overcome, but there are also humans that can be found willing to do so. To illustrate her point, she told the tale of a dear friend who, during a sightseeing trip to India, had the entirety of his belongings misplaced — passport and all. Though the police were of no help, it was actually through the kindness of others that he was able to return home. Not everyone was willing of course, but through the assistance of the people he met along the way, he was taken in by family after family until he was finally able to fly home two months later. A year after his harrowing experience, he traveled back to India to thank every last person who took him in their care.
It is impossible to care for a stranger in such a manner unless one believes in the good within them. It is difficult to believe in such goodness if one clouds their perception of others through bias and ethnocentrism. Of course there will always be cutpurses and those who seek to take advantage, but obscuring the capacity for human kindness through pessimism makes one lose a part of their own humanity as well.
I thanked Angel for our chance encounter and as I once again left for my departure gate, I thought back to my own experiences in Seoul. Somehow, my reflections with Angel provided me with a perfect segue to my next destination — with my chapter in Korea at an end, I was ready to experience Japan with a clean slate and an open heart.