Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Kev Trek '15: The Voyage Home

It was with great relief that I obtained my new passport, spent my final Friday at my brother David's house, then rode out to Dulles Airport on Saturday morning. I had spent several days feeling as if I had overstayed my welcome, and I was anxious to get back to South Korea, where I'd be less of a burden to others.

David dropped me in front of the United Airlines entrance at Dulles. I went in, happily carrying nothing but my Walmart-purchased carryon bag, and stalked the kiosks and counters in an attempt to figure out whether I needed to interact with a person or with a machine to obtain my boarding passes. Finally giving up, I asked a roaming attendant what I needed to do, informing her that I had no check-in luggage. She pointed me to the cluster of computer terminals—the "kiosks" in question—that mushroomed out in front of me.

I dutifully waited in line behind an older couple who were obviously struggling to understand how this confounded contraption worked. Another grim-looking older gentleman slotted in line behind me. After ten minutes of waiting, he groused loudly to the attendant, "I'm very disappointed with United. No one knows how to work these things. No one's helping. I've been standing here for ten minutes, and the line hasn't moved an inch." I'm sure this speech didn't help the mental state of the elderly couple in front of me; they had already apologized to me twice for moving at such a crawl through the ticketing process. I had responded with a pleasant "No problem at all" because it truly wasn't a problem for me: I was at the airport three hours in advance of my flight, so there was no pressure to speak of. Alas, assholes are a fact of life when you travel.

I ended up helping the elderly couple with the final third of the ticketing process, gently guiding them to hit the proper buttons. I understood their confusion: even though I grew up with computers, I often feel, these days, that the evolution of technology is happening far too speedily for me to keep up with it. I still prefer to learn how to handle tech on my own, but in situations where I have no time to move placidly along my learning curve, I get just as flustered and confused as these grandparents did. And if it's this bad for me now, imagine how I'll be when I'm seventy and trying to interact with some 3-D nanotech Disney character capable of natural-language processing but speaking in weird computerese.

My own turn at the kiosk went quickly. The only hitch occurred when the computer asked me to verify my passport. I had to hit "edit," which led to a "please scan your passport" screen. Luckily, I was able to follow the video instructions for how to do the scanning, so the grim-faced asshole behind me had no reason to complain.

Now armed with boarding passes all the way to Seoul-Incheon International, I went through security and boarded a tram to get to my gate. At that point, it was a matter of whiling away the remaining hours before my flight. I hooked up with Dulles's shaky Wi-Fi and sent off some goodbye messages. I also stared ruefully at my ticket: the kiosk had cruelly placed me in a center seat—my least-favorite place to be (it offered no seat preferences, as some kiosks do). Ideally, if I can't fly first class, I'd prefer to be in an aisle exit-row seat. These days, however, seats with slightly more leg room actually cost you extra if you want the "privilege" of sitting in them. Sighing, I resigned myself to my fate.

Soon enough, it was time to board. They use "groups" now: I was in Boarding Group 4. I understand that airline companies often rack their brains trying to figure out the ideal plane-boarding algorithm, but no one yet seems to have hit upon that magic formula, so we're still stuck with the messy, halting traffic jam of people trying desperately to stuff their carryons into the overhead bins so they can get out of the way and allow other passengers to squeeze past them. Being in Boarding Group 4 meant absolutely nothing to me. The boarding experience was no different from any of my previous boarding experiences.

To my dismay, the window seat was filled by a hulk who was easily as large as I am. I was about to get a fourteen-hour dose of my own, physically imposing medicine. He seemed friendly enough, Hulk did, but when I fly alone, I'm never inclined to talk, so I said almost nothing to him the entire trip.

Sure enough, the long flight to Tokyo-Narita was hell. Hulk, it turned out, was a big-time manspreader. If you've never heard the term "manspreading" before, it refers to the male tendency to slouch into a posture where one's knees are spread wide apart. This is considered, especially by various feminist critics, to be rude and possibly even assaultive. I had been inclined to scoff at complaints about manspreading, but now that I've been the victim of it, I may have to change my stance. Hulk spread his legs out far and wide, invading my personal space in a big way, forcing me to retract my fat self as much as possible to avoid touching him. In the end, I had little choice but to submit to thigh-to-thigh contact, which left me with a sour grimace on my face for much of the flight over. Had I been more confrontational, I'd have told Hulk to respect the boundary between our seats. He seemed like a well-intended dude, so he might have taken such a complaint in the right spirit. Then again, he might have been the type of guy to say "Okay" in response to my complaint, then go right back to manspreading once he fell asleep again.

Somehow, I endured. During the latter half of the flight, I watched "Ant Man" (review pending, I think). I had thoroughly emptied my bowels before getting on the plane, so I ate and drank only what the cabin crew served me, with no fear of gastric emergencies. One flight attendant, a large and stern African-American woman, muttered in exasperation about how the passengers never remembered the two meal choices she had announced, thus forcing her to repeat the choices, over and over, to every forgetful passenger. When breakfast service came around near the end of our flight, I almost laughed when she got on the horn and said:

"We will soon be commencing the breakfast service. Your choices today are eggs or noodles. Eggs... or noodles. EGGS... or NOODLES."

Yup: she really did say it three times, and what's even more hilarious is that, despite her noble efforts, there were still people who didn't know what the fucking choices were. It's a miracle she didn't whip out an AK-47 and go to town on all of us stupid sheep.

After "Ant Man" and my E G G S, I impatiently awaited the plane's descent so I could escape this minor circle of hell. I spent much of the trip imagining design improvements for the seating: sliding barriers made of hard plastic that could snap into place and prevent passengers from touching each other, cleverly staggered seats, etc. The whole thing was such a shame: I used to enjoy flying when I was a kid. Now, it's just a damn chore.

Everything got better once we arrived at Narita. It was good to be back in Asia. I gratefully escaped the plane I was on, gladly stood in line to pass through another layer of security (it was good just to stand), then enjoyed the long, long walk to Gate 37, where I was to board Flight UA 79 to Seoul-Incheon. Narita's not a visually impressive airport, but it has the virtue of being well organized. I went up to the gate's counter to ask an employee about changing my center seat (damn that Dulles kiosk) to an aisle seat. A few clicks on her computer, and I had my aisle seat. This did wonders for my morale.

The Narita-Incheon flight was only three hours. I kept falling asleep and drooping rightward into the aisle. Must've looked like an idiot to the passengers who saw me listing drunkenly to the side. Not that I cared. When you fly nearly twenty hours, you pass far, far beyond the threshold of caring.

So we landed. Another tram to the main terminal at Incheon. Another long walk. Passport control. I explained to the passport-control officer, in Korean, that I had lost my original passport and was now carrying a new one. She said I'd need to inform Immigration of this fact; my buddy Tom had texted me the same caution when I was in Narita and siphoning off the airport's free Wi-Fi. So I'll be doing that in the next few days.

After that, I walked past the baggage-claim area, sneering at all dem suckaz with baggage. I handed my declaration form to another attendant and strode into the main airport. My wallet was empty of cash, so I had no money to exchange. I went to a Shinhan Bank ATM and pulled out W50,000, took a triumphal shit, bought myself a limousine-bus ticket to Daechi Station, boarded the bus, and struggled not to sleep again as we chugged into Seoul proper. By the time I got off the bus about a block away from where I work, I was too tired and achy to consider walking to my apartment. I was going to grab a cab or take the subway, and the subway won out. When I got to Daecheong Tower, I went to the ground-floor concierge's desk and asked whether a package had arrived for me. One had indeed arrived... but it turned out to be for a woman—a Savannah Something or Other, who must have lived in my apartment. My own package is still languishing in Seoul Customs: last I'd checked, the box had definitely arrived in Korea.

Thanking the guard, I made my way upstairs and saw that one of my lights was still on. I guess I must have left it on all week. It's a fluorescent light, though, so I doubt my electric bill is going to be that severe.

And that was it. I was home again. I had work the following day, but I didn't get to sleep until after 3:30AM. My time in America had screwed up my rhythm, but I hadn't been in the States long enough to completely adjust to US time. I was, instead, stuck in some sort of time-zone demimonde—not quite Korean time, not quite US east-coast time. Not to worry: I'm sure I'll be back to normal by next week.

I've got photos from the trip—a lot of photos. I'll be showing some or most of them to you over the next few days. So stay tuned.



John (I'm not a robot) said...

Welcome back! I paid the extra $176 each for exit row seats for my trip next month. I can barely endure the flight anyway, going through your hell would likely make me lose what's left of my mind. The airlines should just be honest and call it steerage class.

Ah well, first world problems I suppose.

Good luck getting back into rhythm.

Bratfink said...

Glad your trip is over! Here's to getting your rhythm back. :)

Charles said...

As far as reporting the new passport goes, you can just do that the next time you fly--there's an immigration office at the airport, and it's a lot easier to allocate an extra five minutes or so to that at the airport than it is to waste half a day on an entirely separate trip to immigration. (This is what I did when my old passport expired and I got a new one.)

Kevin Kim said...


No "report within 14 days" requirement like with changing your residence?

Charles said...

Nope. You only really need your passport when traveling abroad (that is, they only run the check that turns up this issue at the airport), so as long as your other documents (e.g., ARC) are up to date, there shouldn't be a problem. The woman who told me to register the passport even said that I should just hit the airport immigration office before checking in next time.

Kevin Kim said...

Do you think the airport immigration office is open on Saturdays? If so, I can get this over with on a weekend. I'd like to take care of this sooner rather than later.

And... will it really take only five minutes? And finally: does reporting a changed passport cost anything?

brier said...

Great write up, of a great holiday!

John from Daejeon said...

Kevin, the airport immigration office is open all the time from what I have seen (and had to get done there) over the years. They always need officers on hand to deal with immigration related criminal matters and those needing to pay fines before fleeing (err...leaving) the country at all hours.

Still, I'd call to verify that those aren't their only jobs as they may not process regular, ordinary status changes there, but I can't see why they wouldn't.