March 18, 2010
I just got home from a night out with Ben and Jinah and it was…perfect.
Ben had flown into Korea last weekend to spend time with his fiance Jinah. I knew he was coming to Korea even before I had left the US so we had already made plans to hang out. After exchanging multiple e-mails this week we decided to hang out on Thursday night. Due to my continued ignorance of where I am Ben and Jinah made the trip up from Jinah's place to my place. I had started to become aware of how far away my place was from Seoul itself. Ben and Jinah's trip merely confirmed this fact as I found out it took an hour to get to the closest subway station just from City Hall at the center of the city and Jinah's place was even further away.
Anyway, I woke up this morning around 6:30am over half an hour before my alarm was set to go off and I couldn't get back to sleep. All I could think about was that today was the day I was going to get to see Ben. After staring at the ceiling (actually staring into my thoughts thinking about all the stuff I wanted to talk to Ben about) I got up and started getting ready for school. Now I have never really enjoyed taking showers except on a few occasions mostly when I am frozen and need to warm up. But here in my apartment I particularly don't like taking showers. It really is the thing I like least about each of my days. The water seems to have only two temperatures. It goes from man I wish I were are a polar bear to so this is what God is going to do to me after I die; that's cold and hot for any who didn't follow that or simply thought it was stupid. I am actually starting to get the hang of the shower but it is amazingly sensitive and for no apparent reason. Maybe it has to do with other people in the apartment using their hot water or maybe it is just connected to the lunar phases of the moon. Whatever it is that shower sees fit to change temperatures at any given time I am standing there. But the shower this morning went by fairly quickly as I wondered what the three of us where going to have for dinner. Ben and Jinah had said it could be anything I wanted and I admit what I wanted was “American” food. I never thought of that as a kind of food the way I think of Mexican or Italian as types of food but here in Korea I have come to see that it is a type of food and it's a type I miss. I basically ran to school stopping along the way to grab a bagel. I hurried up to my office and turned on the computer and went straight to my e-mail. Sure enough there was an e-mail from Ben. It had more details about where to meet. We had to be exact in our plan because, again, not having a cell phone made meeting up with people far more difficult and required more planning. We settled on meeting at a library near where I lived around 5:30pm. I read that e-mail at 8:12, yes I remember, so that meant I had to tolerate 9 hours and 18 minutes before I got to see Ben.
My classes today seemed to drag on endlessly. My first class of kids just appeared to have no interest in being there of course today neither did I. I don't think there was ever a stretch of more than 10 minutes passing without me looking up at the clock. I felt like I was a student again back in high school biology. After each half hour I made a new mental note of how long it was before I got to see Ben. Okay only 8 and half hours, okay only 7 and a half hours, and so on and so on. During lunch I told my co-workers about my friend coming from America and they were genuinely happy for me. They wanted to know what we were going to do and I told them I didn't know but we would probably just hang out. They all began giving me the names of places I should go many of which were actually down near Seoul. I tried to explain to them that we would probably be staying around here since they were traveling up from Seoul to see me here. They then came up with numerous shopping areas I could go to around here. I just listened and said okay knowing full well that Ben, Jinah and I were not going to end up at a karaoke bar or pool hall. Even as I was talking with them I realized that the whole day that I have been thinking about getting to see Ben all I had been thinking about was what are we were going to talk about not what are we going to do?
During my planning periods I couldn't focus at all on the things I should have been. I have an online seminar I have to get through on teaching English in Korea and it is about 15 hours of lessons and tests and it has to be completed by next week but I didn't bother even trying to do any of it today. I knew nothing was going to stick in my head with my complete lack of focus. So I spent most of the time reading sports articles, checking my e-mail over and over and playing mahjong online.
It was finally 4:30 and my 15 minute walk home only took about 10. I came into my apartment and started straitening everything out, in case they came over, by throwing things (mostly clothes) under the bed and into the draws and into the laundry room. Then I sat down at my desk and fidgeted for the next 20 minutes trying to figure how soon was too soon for heading over to the library. I finally bolted out the door 15 minutes before I was supposed to be at the library. Now the library is about a block and a half from my apartment so the walk took less than 5 minutes. Still when I got there I circled the entire building just in case they happened hidden behind a bush. They weren't so I just sat there looking out the window and waited. 5:30 came and as it passed I become more and more concerned that perhaps we had made some sort of mix up on the map and we were at different libraries or that they may have gotten off at the wrong stop or any number of things. It is amazing how little time it takes to create a list of terrible things that could have happened whether through miscalculations, misunderstandings or just mishaps. Every 5 minutes I would get up and walk around the library again to see if perhaps they were somewhere else then the front door. I did that about 3 times. Finally down the road I saw a couple walking towards the building and it didn't take long for me to realize that it had to be Ben and Jinah. They were all of 15 minutes late but at the time it felt like much longer than that to me probably because I had arrived 10 minutes early.
After exchanging our hellos we talked about what we were going to do. We decided on going out for pizza. They had looked around on the map and had seen that there was a pizza chain Jinah likes nearby called Mr. Pizza. They asked where the E-Mart was and I told them it was back from where they had come from. We kind of chuckled about it but I said we could go that way since they had to go back to the train station anyway and I would just walk home on my own. Before we went though I showed them my apartment since it was so close. Ben said it was pretty nice and Jinah thought is very well kept. Thankfully she didn't look in the laundry room. But we didn't stay long, quickly we were back onto the street and headed down the road they had just walked up. As we walked I soon found out that Jinah was not a big fan of walking and even suggested we try to get a cab. It was not simply because she was tired but also because it was cold and on that point I could not argue with her. The wind was especially piercing today. The high was only 39 degrees. Seoul was actually not that different then Denver as far as weather was concerned. It would snow and then be sunny two days later and the temperature was always in the 30s or 40s. Earlier that day I had decided to look at the weather in Pasadena. It was 65 degrees when I looked and that was at midnight there. The high had been in the lower 80s. California may be hurting financially but it is never hurting from the weather. So Ben gave Jinah his scarf (she already had one of her own so she got to double up) and the walk continued. Walking goes quite swiftly when you are talking with someone and before I knew it we were at the McDonalds, which by now had become one of the most important landmarks on my mental map. On Sunday when I went out wondering around I had come to this McDonalds and then headed east but if I had just crossed the street to the south and gone a block I would have seen the subway station. Now I knew the E-Mart was on the other side of the subway line and they knew that the Mr. Pizza was near the E-Mart so we went into the station and crossed over to the other side and started heading east towards the E-Mart. The walk seemed to be growing somewhat long (it always feels longer when you don’t know where you are going) but then we saw a Pizza Hut. Ben pointed it out and I was quite surprised. First because it was a Pizza Hut second because of how nice it looked. It was two stories with large glass windows and filled with people. Now Jinah was torn because while she did not want to walk anymore but it was clear she did not like Pizza Hut as much as Mr. Pizza. Much like being cold, food preferences are not something that has to be explained to me. So I said we should just keep going. Then when we got right next to the Pizza Hut we could see the E-Mart about another block away. So we continued but did not see the Mr. Pizza anywhere on the street. Jinah asked a few random people, unlike me she seemed to have no issue with walking up to strangers and asking for help but also unlike me she knew how to speak Korean. We soon found out that the Mr. Pizza was on the other side of the E-Mart but as we walked around all we saw was the subway line with a road going under it. There were other people walking on a path under the subway so we followed and as we emerged from under the subway back onto the side we had begun from Ben spotted the Mr. Pizza towards the west. We found that if was just a couple blocks east of the McDonalds. But I admit that I was glad we found it the hard way because it gave me a great picture of city that I just didn't have before.
As we walked into the Mr. Pizza it smelled great and just looked like any nice, simple pizza place back home. We were promptly seated and I opened my menu. The menu was in Korea but it was filled with pictures, which I know how to read. I became a little concerned as each picture I saw seemed to be of some strange type of pizza that bared no resemblance to anything I knew. There were numerous sea food pizzas like crab pizza and shrimp pizza (no thank you) and there was their extremely popular potato pizza. Now I have nothing against trying potato pizza sometime, while it sounds odd the two items together seems like it would work. But tonight I just wanted to go for something I knew something from home. So we found and ordered a New York special. It turned out to just be a supreme pizza and I had no complaints. I also ordered a Coke Zero and found out to my surprise, thanks to Jinah, that there were free refills. Really!!!!!!!!!!!?????????? I couldn't believe it and so my first glass was gone in about a minute. Jinah looked up from the menu and saw my empty glass and was shocked that I had finished it already. I just shrugged. To be fair they had also given me a lot of ice, which I also loved there wasn't a lot of ice here. Most people like warm or hot drinks not cold ones. Now back home I would try to make it somewhat obvious to my server that I needed a refill by moving my glass to the edge of the table or waiting until I knew they were nearby and move around in my seat a bit to try to catch their attention but I would rarely call out to them but this is Korea. When Jinah saw my glass was empty she called out to the closest serve (who was not that close) and got me a refill. Ben and Jinah explained that here when you want something you just shout out to one of the servers. The tables do not have one specific server who is your waiter or waitress instead it is just whoever is the closest to you. I also found out that in Korea there are no tips and you get your bill right after you order at the beginning of the meal not at the end. Sometimes it is the simplest things that seem the most odd. The pizza showed up and just looking at it was great. I recognized everything that was on it. The only noticeable difference was that they did not have any pepperoni they used ham instead but hey that's okay I like ham. And while it was not the greatest pizza I have ever had in a literal sense it was a great pizza based simply on the fact that it was the first real “American” food I had had in Korea and I was sharing it with my best friend.
The three of us talked about many things. I told them both about my job, my kids and my co-workers. Jinah asked me about how I liked Korea, how my Korean was coming along and many other questions. Her English was quite clear. But fairly often Ben and I would go off on tangents mostly humorous ones. It was weird being at a table again where I always knew what was being said. There were clearly times when Jinah did not understand what Ben and I were talking about both because of our use of English and simply due to inside jokes and experiences Ben and I have had. And while I could write a lot about our conversations I do not feel so inclined at the moment honestly but I will say every second of it was great.
After we paid the bill we headed for the door and that is when I saw the restaurant’s big sign with their slogan and it said “Mr. Pizza: Pizza made for women.” I couldn't help but laugh and Ben already knew about the slogan but still laughed with me. Now just the idea of there being a pizza made specifically for women was funny to me. Second the fact that the pizza made for women was made by “Mr. Pizza” was particularly hilarious. Lastly I loved the fact that if this really was pizza made for women that I had just eaten it and enjoyed it.
So we walked back to the subway station and I tried soak up every second knowing it was almost over. Unlike the tortuously long day at school the 3 hours we had together just vanished. At the train station Ben showed me how to buy tickets at the automated machines so I wouldn't have to talk to any of the tellers to get a ticket. Jinah just laughed at my excitement about that fact. Then Ben told me that on Saturday he and Jinah were meeting up with a lot of his other friends and I could come down and meet them if I wanted. Now part of me had said yes even before he finished the question but as always part of me was apprehensive about the idea. For this to work I was going to need to be able to figure out not only where everyone was meeting (probably near a subway station) but how many trains I would need to take and where I would need to get off at each of those trains since most of the names are in Korean. Based on their guesses about where they were going to meet it would take me anywhere between an hour to an hour and a half to get to them. Ben, aware of my anxieties, walked me through it all the while saying that it was easier than I thought and I would be able to do it if I wanted. The other minor concern I had was the weather. The forecast for that day included rain/snow and I admit long walks in the rain are just not something I enjoy but how often am I going to get to see Ben? Not only that if I go I will get to meet multiple friends of Ben's who live here in Korea. Basically I would probably make some friends. As Ben and Jinah left Ben told me he would e-mail tomorrow with all the plans for Saturday. I told him I would look at them but not to count on me being there. My worries were in control of my words at the time. As I walked away I checked the time, turned on my I-Pod and headed for home.
As I walked home I became more and more confused with myself and how there would be anyway I wouldn't go to hang out with Ben on Saturday. Each my fears, while somewhat valid, seemed so minor in light of what lay at the other end of the journey. There would be more laughs, more stories, more English in short more time with my friend. The night was not warm so I know I was walking fairly quickly but I arrived home 22 minutes after I had left the subway station so really it is not that far away. Basically to catch the subway I would just need to leave around 40 minute before it would be there. So as I sat down to write I was certain I was going on Saturday or I should say I am certain I am going on Saturday but if there is one thing I know about myself it is that the worrywart inside of me is always hiding behind the corner and could grab me at any time. So I've made my mental defenses ready but hopefully there will be no need for them. It really was the perfect night.
On a side note I have to mention the high schools here. As I walked home a little after nine the streets where not empty but rather fairly full with kids coming home from school. The other night when I had gone to Costco with my co-teacher, Choi we were shopping and around 8:30pm he said we needed to finish up and go because he had to pick up his daughter at 9pm. I asked him where he was picking her up from (I expected music lessons or dance or something like that) but he looked at me with a smile and said from school of course. I discovered that while elementary school kids had what I considered a normal day of school (8:30am-3pm) most of the high schoolers where in class from 7:30am until 9pm. Some schools even went to 10. They had both lunch and dinner at school. Further they also had school on Saturdays. Sunday is their only day off. The elementary school kids have school on two Saturdays a month, which I already thought was tough. I have explained to some of the kids the American school schedule and they couldn't believe how little we had to go to school. I couldn't help but laugh and told them I couldn't believe how much they have to go to school. I guess it is no wonder why so many Koreans go on to become so successful in whatever profession they pursue. I mean I like school but can’t fathom 13 and a half hour school days.