Written on March 21, 2010
So Saturday night was, well…perfect. I know, know I said that about Thursday night and truly what are the odds that two perfect nights could exist within 2 days of each other? I just don’t know but perhaps one of the great things about perfection is it does not so much need to be fully understood as fully experienced and fully appreciated. And so it was…again.
On Friday I was once more playing e-mail tag with Ben trying to get all the information about where the group was going to be meeting up. Now the group that was going to meet up was made up of many of Ben’s friends and they did not all know each other. That meant there was going to be a lot of new introductions, not just me. It also meant that people were coming from all over the Seoul metropolitan area so Ben was trying to figure out a good place to meet that everyone could get to and was somewhat centrally located between everyone. As I mentioned in my last blog the city I am living in called Ilsan is not located very closely to Seoul so I was one of the one's making it difficult to find a good spot but once all the decisions had been made Ben sent me an e-mail with all the information. Ben also provided me with links to an English version of the map for Seoul’s subway system. Using the English version of the website I was able to chart the course I would need to take from Ilsan to the subway station we were all going to meet at. According to the website I would need to make two transfers (meaning ride on three trains) to get to the station the group would be at and the approximate time of the trip would be 67 minutes.
Now the meeting time at been set for 6pm that night still Ben said the group would wait until 6:15 just in case anyone missed a train or two. So taking into account the 20 to 25 minute walk to the closest train station plus the 67 minute trip on the trains I would need to leave my apartment no later than 4:30pm. Now I’m not the type of person who assumes everything will go smoothly so I usually insert a little extra time into any of my travel plans. But on top of my normal cautiousness I was also going to a place I had never been too on a transportation system I had never used. So there was no way I was going to be leaving my house at 4:30pm. Now if I were completely rational I would have likely left around 4pm giving myself an extra half hour in case I missed a stop or missed one of the trains. But I am not completely rational, even if I would like to be, so I left an hour and a half early at 3pm. Basically, I gave myself enough time to make the trip twice. I remember my first trip on the Metro system in Los Angeles and my first ride on the Light Rail in Denver and even there it was not always simple to know where your were and where you we supposed to get off and how to transfer to a different train. So here I was convinced that it would be even more difficult as I would be taking more trains then I even had to in either LA or Denver and because most of the signs and announcements were in Korean. Ben had told me that they also made announcements in English but I still wanted to give myself an unnecessarily long amount of time to get there.
I spent the early afternoon reading, specifically about Buddhism and some of Buddha’s teachings. And yes that time was part of the perfection that was Saturday but that is a topic for another blog. So around 2:45pm I got fidgety and started just watching the clock. It seemed that once I had decided that 3pm was when I needed to leave my mind then wanted to leave a little before 3 since I always leave a little earlier than I need to. But I held off until 2:55pm and then I bolted out the door. Now I certainly did not speed walk to the station but I walked as one with an intended destination. I got to the station in about 25 minutes and walked right over to the automated ticket machines, which Ben had shown me how to use Thursday night. Just like he promised I did not have to speak to anyone to get my ticket. It actually is not a ticket but a plastic card, like a credit card that you have to scan to get through the gate and then scan again to get out at the chosen destination. I walked swiftly to the turn stiles and placed the plastic card where I thought it went and slammed right into the unmoving turn stiles as a loud noise sounded off and a red light flashed. Uniformed men across the gallery heard the noise and began to come towards me but then a woman next to me took my hand and showed me how or I should say where to scan the card. A green light flash and the turn stile moved. She laughed a little as she showed me or I felt like she was laughing but either way her kindness spoke clearly and I thanked her. At least I hope I thanked her. There seem to be numerous ways to say thank you and for some reason more than any of the other phrases I have learned so far it Thank You is the one I am always the most fearful to use. I always feel like I am saying it wrong and of course it is the phrase that I want to use most often when I am around others. So right off the bat my confidence took a bit of hit. I tried not worry about it as I walked down to the platform. Then I saw the signs listing the stops that the trains were headed for. They were written quite large in Korean and then with a smaller font in English. I had printed out the map from online in black and white but all the lines are color coded as well as numbered. I used markers to color my own path hoping that it would help. After triple checking my map I stood on the side of the platform I thought was right.
The train pulled in fairly quickly after I had arrived and as I entered I found that it was not as crowded as I thought it was going to be. I found a seat easily and sat down. As the train moved on I looked around and found it to be a very nice train. It had electronic signs informing you of the next stop and an electronic map displaying the entire subway line and showing you exactly where you were on it. And just like Ben had said the announcements were made both in Korean and English and they were made loud and clear. My confidence steadily grew. After about 25 minutes I came to my first transfer station. I was ready to get off because at each stop more and more people had boarded to the point that I had a man’s crotch in a place I would consider far to close to my face. Part of me really wanted him to turn around but I wasn't sure if having his backside in my face would be any better. I quickly made the decision that I would not be sitting down for the rest of the trip.
The transfer station was quite large and had multiple lines going through it. First I simply followed the heard out of the train and up the stairs but then similar to an airport I was surrounded by signs in various colors all pointing in different directions and displaying different destination cities on them. So as an example there would be two different signs for the orange line pointing to a different set of stairs with different destination points listed on them. I came to find that the destination points that were listed on the signs were not the next stop but rather one of the larger stops or sites that came much further down the line, often being the last stop of the line. I had my map of the subway system so figuring out where I needed to be was doable but not easy, at first. The real difficultly was trying to figure out a speed that I could walk, which would allow me to read my map but also make it appear like I already knew where I was going. I tried to keep the map low to my body, often holding it under my I-Pod so I could pretend I was merely looking at the I-Pod and not reading a map. And if you are wondering why I would care at all if people saw me looking at a map I honestly can’t tell you why. It is all connect in some weird way in my fear of looking dumb or ignorant. I did similar things in the US when trying to find my way around but in the US I had the advantage of everything being written in English and no body looking at me simply for being a white guy with blond hair.
*On a quick side note I think I am starting to get used to people staring at me whether they are looking at me from their cars while I wait for the light to change or watching me and everything I pick up as I walk through a store or having every head rise as I walk by them in a restaurant. My coping mechanism is that since I have had fair amount of my kids say to me or write in their English journals that I am handsome/pretty I have just told myself that my good looks are the real reason everyone is staring at me. I am just that attractive and I must be looked at…right?
Back to the trains, I got on my second train and the first thing I noticed is that the electronic map was gone and that the announcements about the upcoming stops were far more difficult to hear. There was still a sign that had the next stop showing so I didn't really worry about it that much. True to my previous decision I did not sit down though when I entered there were only a few scattered seats all of which were in-between other people and those did not last long. But as I stood I soon found a new problem. It was very difficult to find anywhere to stand without myself becoming the man whose front or backside was in someone else’s face. I found this to be almost as uncomfortable as actually being the one with the pelvis of another person being far to close to your eyes, nose and mouth. The advantage being that while standing I was able to just look up and pretend like I didn't realize someone was so close to me that they could read the word Dockers stamped on the button of my fly. I quickly got off that train despite having to fight my way through a crowd of people who were not getting off the train just to get close to the door and find myself battling a new wave of people streaming into the train. It was like trying to swim against a strong current but worse because I didn't want to touch any of the water (people). Moving through the next station was easier than the first as it was set up fairly similarly and I was getting the hang of it. I found my train and got on. As I looked around I found that this train had nothing electronic in it at all. There was no map or even a sign telling you what the next stop was. Further the announcements were impossible for me to hear both because they were not as loud as in the other trains and because it was so loud in the train car from all the people. I stood in this train like the last but did not have my mid-section near anyone else's face instead I was stuck in the middle of the car completely surround by people who, as I had been warned, had no hesitation squeezing up against me and sharing airspace that I had previously thought to be mine alone. I was on this train the longest, lucky me. But I finally got to my stop and gladly jumped out of the train. I looked at the time and it had taken just over an hour and a half to get there, closer to an hour and forty minutes. So this put me there almost an hour an a half early.
Now Ben said we would meet at the bottom of the stairs on the way out to the street at exit seven. Now when I got there I looked at the map of the station itself and I soon found that there were four sets of stair cases that lead up to the main station with 8 different exits to various streets. So I got a bit nervous about where I was supposed to be because what I had not understood was that when Ben said meet at exit seven that was a number for one of the staircases leading out to the street. I had simply thought the train station itself was exit 7 (exit from the train). But I had an hour and a half so I just sat down and practiced my Korean alphabet. Once it was about 15 minutes before 6pm I started pacing round the platform trying to figure out a way I could see all the staircases at once hoping to see Ben if he got off the train and went up one of the staircases. But there was no way for me to see all the staircases so I just started pacing around. I had gone up all the stairs but they all lead to places where if I exited I would not be able to re-enter. So I thought my best chance was to walk around the platform and keep my eyes open. As each train came floods of people would exit and run up the stairs and I could never see more than two staircases at any given point. It was not long before it was 6pm, then 6:05 came and I was truly starting to worry, then 6:10 and then by 6:15 I was in full panic mode. I knew I had missed something that I wasn't where I was supposed to be but I didn't know where to go. All I could think about was that I was going to end up having to buy a new card and turn right back around and miss my chance to see Ben again.
I had to exit to buy a new card so I just decided to leave the platform. I ran up one of the flights of stairs and placed my card on the scan point but the gate did not open. The right light flashed and the electronic gate said error. I tried four different gates but I could not get through any of them. No one stopped to help this time. I thought about just jumping over but I didn't want to get into to trouble especially since I knew I wouldn't be able to explain myself to anyone. So I ran back down to the platform and up a different set of stairs to a different set of exit gates. The same thing happened but I just didn't care this time and cut through and moved along as quickly as I could. Then right as I came around the corner to the closet exit I saw Ben and a large group standing there. My panic/anger simply vanished. I couldn't believe that he was there. At this point it was 6:20 but they were waiting for me. I found out that Ben and Jinah had come there early and where walking around outside so they were never on the platform at the same time I was. Ben then explained to me how each set of stairs in the main station after exiting from the platform was numbered 1 through 8 and when he said exit 7 he was taking about one of the street exits not the station number itself. I was so glad I had found him that I didn't really worry about feeling as silly as I did.
I was soon being introduced to multiple people. Soon I met Joe and Sarah. Now I had exchanged e-mails with Joe a few times. Ben had connected us because they went to the same church back in LA but we had not met yet. Now before I met Joe I assumed he was from Korea but when I met him the second he spoke he had no accent and was speaking English as clearly as Ben or I. I quickly found out that his parents were Korean but he had been born in the US and while he had lived many places in America he considered LA to be home, mostly because it was the city he had lived in most recently. Sarah was Joe’s friend. Ben did not know her before Saturday. Now Sarah had been born in Korea but her family moved to the US when she was six and she grew up in LA. I found out that both Joe and Sarah had only been in Korea for a month. Joe works in graphic design and Sarah came to teach English similar to me. She works in what is called a Hagwon, which is a private academy where kids go specifically for English training. As the night went on the three of us (Joe, Sarah and I) talked more and more while the rest of the group talked about other things. There were 10 people and we went to T.G.I. Fridays. I ordered the cheeseburger without any real hesitation. As the waiter took our orders most of them got things off the menu with a more Korean bent to them but both Ben and I, the two white guys, just ordered cheeseburgers. There were some laughs. And just like at Mr. Pizza, I was able to get free refills so I downed 5 or 6 glasses of Coke Zero. It had an odd lemon after taste as if the glass had just had lemonade in it before the soda. But I know that was not the case because every soda he brought me had the same after taste and it didn't stop me from drinking it so who cares.
Joe, Sarah and I talked a lot about our impressions of Korea and the things we missed about the US, in particular LA. Sarah and I then talked quite a bit about our schools and the kids we were teaching. Unlike me Sarah speaks Korean but many of the kids she teaches don’t know that because in the Hagwon they do not want any of the teachers to speak Korean, it is English only. Similarly I have found out that my school does not want me to say even the few phrases I have learned in Korean. I am only to speak in English. My co-teacher has been showing me the plans for the upcoming weeks and basically the idea is that the teaching is supposed to shift from predominately being done by him to being predominately done by me. Anyway Sarah really wasn't sure she wanted to be here and I admitted some of my reservations as well but one thing we both knew and agreed about was the pay was great. We didn't exchanged salary information so I have no idea what she makes but I know for me the money I am getting paid here coupled with the low living costs give me a net income far higher than anything I have ever had in my life. I might actually be able to pay some of my bills.
Soon we talked about lighter subjects like American movies and TV and just a bunch of random stuff. Both Joe and Sarah were hilarious and I found myself laughing more than I have in months. Not to say that previous months have been bad or particularly sad or anything like that but just that I had not had laughed out loud this much in a conversation in a long time and the fact that is was with people I just met was amazing. Similar to Thursday with Ben and Jinah the night passed far too quickly. We had arrived at the restaurant right after 6:30 and before I knew it, it was almost 10 and people had to start leaving. We all walked back to the trains and I discovered there were two groups going two different directions and they just happened to be the exact same groups that had developed at the table. Joe, Sarah and I were going one direction while Ben, Jinah and everyone else were going to other direction. I said good-bye to Ben and told him how great it had been to see him and then boarded the train with Joe and Sarah.
We continued talking and enjoying ourselves and then at one of the stops all the lights in the train went out and suddenly everyone was exiting the train. Joe explained that they did this sometimes especially as it got later. It meant the train was being taken out of the rotation and going to be serviced. We were about half way to the stop where I had to get off and transfer while they were going to be staying on the same train. Now the train we were on, the green line had an odd quirk in that at one point the track splits into two going different directions but both are still considered the green line. So if you are not careful you can get on the wrong green train even through it appears to be headed the way you want to be going. So as you can probably guess we got on the wrong train and before we knew it were had gone 3 or 4 stops the wrong way. I had been looking at my map and told Joe I was a little confused then he looked and heard the announcement, he also speaks Korean and he knew what had happened. So we jumped off at the next stop. Now I thought the solution would be as easy as jumping on the train back and getting the right one but we quickly found out that the station we got off was not one with a platform in the middle on which you could catch either train. Instead at the top where you bought your tickets you had entrance gates at two separate sets of stairs one going the direction we wanted and one going down to the direction we just got off from. This meant we would have to exit the station and re-enter. When we got to the top of the stair we saw the problem. Now the card you pay for knows what stop you paid to get off at so if you try to go somewhere else it won't work. I immediately got tense and looked at Joe and Sarah asking what we should do. Now they both had only been there a month and Sarah had never been on the subway before so we were all kind of new to this. But Joe looked and saw that there was a handicap entrance. It was merely a gate that swung both ways. He looked around and said, “Quick.” So we ran through without anyone noticing. I sighed for about a second until I realized we had to do it again to get down the other staircase to the train we needed. Again Joe looked around and then pushed open the gate. We slipped through and ran down the stairs. Now while I was worried I was far less worried then I would have been if I were alone. First of all they both spoke Korean but also for some reason it is just easier to do certain things, like break the law, when you are in a group. Soon we were on the right train and laughing again.
Then it was over. I actually enjoyed the mistaken side trip just because it gave me some more time with Joe and Sarah. So I said good-bye and got off the train. I already had Joe's e-mail and I got Sarah’s so I told them we would have to get together again. The rest of the ride home was simple and contained few people. I got to the station and walked home. It was about a quarter to midnight and the wind was bitterly cold. So unlike my first walk to the station this walk was far more expedient. I got home in about 16 or 17 minutes and walked in just after midnight. I jumped into my sleep wear sat on my bed and just thought about the night. I almost got on the computer to write but I knew that would take a long time and I wasn't really up for it. So I just sat and enjoyed the day I had had. It was late but I was not tired at all. So after just lounging for a while I threw on a movie and tried to fall asleep. Instead I ended up watching the Fugitive from beginning to end. As the credits rolled I looked over and found it to be 3am. I still didn't really feel that tired so I actually took some sleep aid pills and laid back and finally fell asleep.
It really was the perfect night…again.