Saturday, April 27, 2013

close encounters

Some reflections from this week about the people I've met.


This past Thursday, my day of shopping, one of my errands was to the grand mansion of my friend Sperwer, who has had the good grace to store a pile of my boxed-up possessions for the past five years in his basement. Yes, that's right: Sperwer's living in a house large enough to have its own basement—something of a commonplace in America, but quite significant here in real-estate-strapped Korea.

I took the subway to Gyeongbok Palace Station, then grabbed a cab from there to the district office, near Sperwer's home, that served as a landmark. Sperwer asked me to wait at the Starbucks across the street from the district office; he planned to pick me up, probably because he knew that the hike up to his place was a hellaciously long and steep uphill trudge.

It was gloomy and rainy. Sperwer arrived in his limousine-like luxury car, and off we sped. His neighborhood is something of a mountain aerie; as I mentioned previously, he lives a sniper-shot away from the Blue House, the South Korean equivalent of the White House. The upward road was winding and narrow, reminiscent of European streets; it slalomed side to side, undulated up and down past various large and expensive properties, and eventually led us to my friend's impressive house.

Sperwer himself looked great—trim, fit, powerful, and alert. Over the past few years, he has dedicated himself to bodybuilding, and in just a few days, he will be participating in the Mr. Seoul bodybuilding competition. Despite the fact that he's 63, Sperwer seems much younger. It could well be that his dedication to constant training has reversed many of the normal effects of aging. I'm reminded of how, in 1987, Sugar Ray Leonard gained fifteen pounds of muscle, and reversed his own aging, to be able to fight the larger Marvin Hagler (Leonard won that bout by split decision). Sperwer was undeniably in fighting shape.

I followed my friend down into his basement, where I saw an old, familiar pile of boxes: my 2008-era supplies, books, and knickknacks, waiting patiently for me to review them. I took out a knife, sliced through packing tape, and started looking through box after box; Sperwer would periodically heave up yet another heavy container for me to inspect. I joked that I was tempted to take everything with me right then and there; Sperwer laughed good-naturedly. But reality constrained me: I knew I should take only what I absolutely needed for my month in Seoul. Sperwer, a practicing Buddhist, got a kick out of witnessing my pain as I sadly said "no" to item after item, tearing myself away from my attachments.

In the end, I took only four items with me: three small books having to do with linguistics and literature, and a metal rice bowl with interesting resonant properties. We put the boxes back into their pile, then retreated upstairs to hang out for a bit in the kitchen/dining-room area. Sperwer introduced me to fresh, unfiltered pomegranate juice; it was startlingly delicious. He talked about his bodybuilding regimen and the upcoming Mr. Seoul (and, eleven days later, the Mr. Korea) contest, and then he gave me two containers of Herbalife protein and nutrient powder (one is more of a protein booster; the other is more of a meal substitute), probably in the hopes that I would get my lazy ass in shape faster. I have to congratulate my friend on not having become a boorish proselytizer: Sperwer could easily have taken the self-righteous route and loudly preached the gospel of healthful living and bodybuilding at me, but he showed remarkable restraint. Thank goodness for that.

Our brief time together ended when Sperwer, on his way to pick up his daughter, drove me back down the mountain so I could take a cab to my place. As we discussed Seoul's geography, it became apparent to Sperwer that my current digs were closer to his place than I had originally reckoned: I'm a very short cab (or bus) ride from that nearby district office and the Starbucks where we rendezvoused. There was never a need to take the circuitous subway route that I had taken. Ah, well: live and learn, right?

I wish Sperwer well as he faces his upcoming challenge on May 5. I'll likely be there to cheer him on as he competes in what he joshingly calls "the geezer division."


This past Friday—yesterday—turned out to be a busy day. First, I had arranged to meet my old Sookmyung Women's University supervisor, whom I'll call Lokie (for her Korean initials LKI, and since Loki is a god and not a goddess, I've added an "e"), at noon on Sookmyung's campus. Next, I had planned to meet up with my friend Tom for dinner at my buddy Charles's apartment on the HUFS (Hanguk* University of Foreign Studies) campus.

The subway ride back to Sookmyung brought back memories, as did the ten-minute walk from the subway station to the campus's two main gates. I took note of how much had changed: quite a few old shops, services, and restaurants had disappeared, including, sadly, a landmark bakery called Bbang Ggoom Teo, which used to sit at the intersection of my residential street and Sookmyung's main drag. What a shame, that: BGT made the best baguettes this side of France. A cosmetics shop stood in its place. Up the street, a Paris Baguette chain bakery still held its ground—a fixture from my days of teaching at Sookmyung. I stalked inside, sweating from my uphill hike, and bought gifts for Lokie and Charles.

Lokie used to be my supervisor, but she had changed offices a few years back and was now across campus in the Administration Building (haeng-jeong-gwan). I walked the final, steep path to her building, found the elevator, took it to Lokie's floor, and stepped into her office.

The office turned out to be wide, open, and quiet. Lokie herself was hunched over some paperwork when I peeked in; she didn't notice me at first. When she finally looked up, she brightened. We leaned awkwardly across the massive desk between us and gave each other "shoulder hugs." Lokie, ever the ajumma, tartly noted that I had gained weight since my walk: she had followed my walk blog and had seen the pictures of my massive weight loss. I sighed and admitted that I had indeed regained the weight I had lost during that 600-mile trek.

We stepped out into the bright sunlight and began walking downhill. Since I had joked with Lokie about eating expensive French food, she suggested an Italian place close by: La Lieto (which probably should have been "La Lieta," the happy woman). The place turned out to be a second-floor restaurant that served Italian food in the typical Korean style. We ordered a "couple set," i.e., a prix-fixe menu for two: Lokie got the spicy penne all'arrabiata, and I got the salmon Alfredo pasta. Koreans are an onion-loving people, which makes life difficult for us onion-haters. They adore adding massive amounts of onion to their Italian cream sauces, and I knew that that's what I was in for. We shared an insalata mista with buffalo mozzarella, as well as a not-bad plate of bruschetta. The pasta plates came out later on (yep: lots of onions) and, true to Korean form, so did the small dishes of sliced pickles, serving their humble function as a kimchi analogue. That's what I mean by "typical Korean style," you see: in a Korean-style Italian restaurant, you can be sure to get way too many onions and a side of sliced pickles.

We talked about staffing changes at Sookmyung. Most of the Korean English-language teachers that I knew from my 2005-2008 stint were now gone, and all of the Western staffers were new. Many of the Korean ladies from the floor below me, who taught Korean, were still there, though. We reminisced about some of my former Western coworkers—the nutty ones, the ones who had problems with punctuality, and so on.

Lokie has a daughter named Hyeon-chae, a name whose hanja (Sino-Korean characters) etymology means, according to Lokie, something like "gathering/collecting brightness." Hyeon-chae is four in Korean age, but only two-and-a-half in Western age.** I asked Lokie about how motherhood had been treating her, and she said that that was all she ever did these days: work at the office, then go home and be a mom. No time for anything else, except maybe for a bit of reading on the subway on her way to work. Yeah... babies are a definite time sink, and it's never easy to balance motherhood with a career.

We also talked about our respective moms. Lokie's mother had been misdiagnosed with a form of Parkinson's disease; it later turned out that the Parkinson's-like symptoms were the result of certain medication she had been taking to relieve abdominal distress. I told Lokie a bit about my experience of taking care of Mom during her nine months of brain cancer, but I didn't want to dwell on the topic and make lunch into a mawkish weepfest, so I kept my reminiscences brief.

So we caught up a bit with each other's lives. Lokie had been a good supervisor back in the day; I liked her. It was pleasant to see her again. We dug into a single, tender slice of tiramisu, left the restaurant, and bowed our goodbyes to each other on the sidewalk. I promised I would drop by to see Lokie one more time before I left for the US.

It was 1:25PM. I walked downhill toward the subway station, seeking out a Wi-Fi-capable coffee shop. I soon found one: a bright, spacious, white-tiled establishment called Cocobruni, whose name immediately evoked Carla Bruni, wife of ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. Like most Korean coffee shops, this one was based at least partly on the Starbucks business model, providing customers with a relaxed atmosphere and a welcome place to crack open their laptops and surf the Net at leisure. I bought a small, frou-frou slice of cake and a way-too-expensive glass of lemonade from the delicate lady-boys behind the counter. At first, I was unsure how to get into the cafe's Wi-Fi service since the connection required a password, but in a flash of Zen insight I realized the passcode would be written on my receipt. I looked at my receipt, and sure enough, there was the code. Login was simple enough, and within seconds I was once again plugged into that pulsating, planet-spanning nervous system. I contacted Tom, who had texted to say he was close to the Chongno district. Tom and I had originally arranged to meet at 3PM in front of the building that used to be the old hagwon (cram-study institute) that he and I had worked at from 1994 to 1995, but he had arrived early, so he wanted to change our meeting time. "2:15? Email me," I emailed back. Texting, emailing... on a smart phone, what's the difference?

Ultimately, I decided not to wait for Tom's reply; I struck camp and headed to the subway. It was a short trip from Sookmyung University Station to Seoul Station, then from Seoul Station to Jonggak Station. While I was en route, Tom texted that he was in a "Starfucks" near one of the Jonggak Station exits. I found the place with little trouble and settled down next to Tom, staring out a first-floor vitrine at all the crisscrossing humanity. Tom and I ogled some miniskirts; my own aesthetic sensibilities had not yet recalibrated to Korean proportions, which made it hard for me to be wowed by Korean women's asses. I tend to favor more curvaceous dimensions, which makes Korea something of a desert for me: it's the flatlands here in Seoul.

Tom had thought ahead: knowing I'd need to recharge my phone and computer, he had selected seats that were near electric sockets. I gratefully plugged my phone in and got it charging; I was a bit more cautious about plugging in my laptop, given that Koreans use 220 volts as opposed to the American 110 volts. The big question was: did my MacBook's plug contain its own voltage converter? As it turned out, it did. Tom had given me a black box that served as a universal adapter; I plugged my Mac's plug into that, then plugged the black box into the Korean socket, and... no circuitry started frying, so I knew we were OK.

Logging into Starbuck's Wi-Fi proved problematic, however. I was unable to use my passport number to register myself; the web page simply wouldn't allow me to key anything in. Tom had the idea of using his own name and the foreigner ID number on his ARC (alien registration card), and that turned out to work just fine. As always, Korea may be one of the most wired countries in the world, but it's not ready for international prime time: Tom's login worked because it was data that was more fully integrated into Korean databases; my passport number was not. Tom asked me whether I needed to record his ARC data should I ever find myself in another Starbucks. Rather unwisely, I said no, assuming that I was unlikely to find myself in a Starbucks again anytime soon. (I normally avoid the hideous mermaid.)

In terms of tech, that Starbucks session with Tom proved educational. I verified that my Mac did indeed come with its own voltage converter, and thanks to Tom's black-box universal adapter, I now knew I could power my laptop at any Korean electrical socket. It was simply a matter of obtaining a decent Wi-Fi signal to be able to surf the Net.

So we hung out. Tom made me watch two YouTube clips from Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke": the first clip was about Chong passing Cheech a gigantic blunt made from dog shit: the dog in question had eaten Chong's pot stash, so Chong followed it around for a day, collecting its droppings in an effort to recuperate his lost pot. Cheech then accidentally ingested a huge amount of Chong's coke; the two were soon accosted by police and brought into court. The second "Up in Smoke" clip was about the lady who snorted Ajax (an abrasive household cleaner), thinking it was coke. That was kinda funny, but I'm not generally a big fan of stoner humor (unless we're talking Harold and Kumar).

I, in turn, made Tom watch the preview trailer for the upcoming Superman movie. The trailer features American actor Michael Shannon in full-on rant mode as the new General Zod; after that, I made Tom watch the Funny Or Die video of Michael Shannon's hilarious dramatic reading of a crazed email from a sorority president to her sisters (watch it here). I followed this up with a slew of Dane Cook's recent Vine videos, in which Cook has a solipsistic, Gollum-like exchange between his good and evil selves, but judging by Tom's "meh" reaction to those clips, I think my friend is ready to join the legions of Dane Cook haters.

And thus we whiled away the time: talking, watching videos, and sucking down our expensive drinks. I tried to get Tom to say something clever, something I could immortalize on the blog, but that didn't work out so well. Over the years, I've tried to sell Tom on blogging, but he's just not biting.

Right as I was thinking of texting Charles to give him an arrival time, Charles texted me to ask when we were coming. Since Tom and I had met up early, and since Charles had previously said we could come early and just hang if we wanted, I texted that we'd be at his place around 5PM. Charles texted with a counter-proposal: how about 5:30? The Missus would be getting home from work at 5, and she wanted to give the apartment a final once-over. I shrugged and texted that that would be fine, so around 4:50PM, Tom and I set off from Starbucks for Charles's place. Charles teaches at HUFS, as I mentioned; the HUFS campus was just off Line 1, which was a straight shot from Jonggak Station.

Tom and I found the place with no problem, but when we got to the campus's main gate, I hesitated, having only a vague memory of where Charles's on-campus apartment building was. Tom suggested that I ask the lady minding the exit gate; she told me to go left and find the last building. That accorded with my shaky memory, so off we went. The next hurdle, once we had arrived at the apartment building, was figuring out which elevator to take. I remembered hazily, from my previous visit to this place years before, that the most obvious elevator wasn't the one we needed to take. So of course, Tom and I stepped into the most obvious-looking elevator in the lobby and hit the button for Charles's floor... then nothing happened. We went back into the lobby; I stopped in a ground-floor faculty office to ask how to reach the foreign profs' domiciles, and was pointed to a hidden elevator, tucked out of sight from the general public, that led straight to the asked-for apartments.

A knock on Charles's door summoned Hyunjin, Charles's lovely wife, who greeted us with a smile and beckoned us inside. Charles was in his apron, every bit the chef, prepping bread and lasagna. The apartment was redolent with the aroma of tomato sauce. It occurred to me that this was a revolutionary moment: although Tom was my close friend, and Charles was also my close friend, Tom and Charles had never met each other. I admit I was, initially, a bit worried about how well Tom and Charles were going to hit it off; temperamentally, Charles and I have a lot in common in terms of our overall worldview and scholarly approach to life's problems and mysteries; Tom and I, meanwhile, share a rather regressed sense of humor and, on occasion, a mercenary, ethically dubious pragmatism that is most decidedly un-Charles-like.

As I wrote to Charles later on, I needn't have worried. Tom and Charles got along famously, connecting as old Korea hands (both have lived on the peninsula for around two decades, making me, with my eight years in country, very much the freshman member of the group) and as people who have traveled to Southeast Asia. Most of the ensuing dinner conversation was, in fact, focused on topics that were beyond my own experience: travel in Cambodia and the Philippines figured largely in the exchange, and when it became obvious that both Tom and Charles were disciples of beer, conversation shifted to yet another topic on which I had pretty much nothing to say (longtime readers know I'm a teetotaler). That suited me fine; in group settings, I tend to be quiet, anyway. No one has ever accused me of being the life of the party. I'm more vocal in one-on-one contexts, but feel little need to keep up my end of a conversation when others seem to be doing just fine. Hyunjin had a lot to say, especially about her experience with Charles in the Philippines; it was the most English I had ever heard her speak, and I was impressed by how well she spoke it. Normally, when it's just Charles, Hyunjin, and me, conversation tends to be in Korean, with Charles reverting to English when it's become obvious that I'm not understanding the gist of what's being said. I often think that Charles and Hyunjin's use of Korean around me is just a way of mocking my poor Korean ability. A form of torture, if you will.

Conversation was desultory. It even included some show-and-tell elements, as Tom showed off photos on his cell phone from his time in Cambodia, and Charles brought out Cambodian peppercorns, the gustatory experience of which had opened his eyes to new vistas of culinary possibility. Talk wandered over to the topic of North Korea, which Tom had visited on a group tour some years back (and had written extensively about in a series of Korea Times articles); it was an easy segue from North Korean totalitarianism to my memories of a 1989 visit to a depressingly gray East Berlin, barely a week after the Berlin Wall had come down. Charles brought out some East German money for us to ogle at. Tom talked about some of the larger-than-life people he knew, Jim Lundberg and Scott Fisher among them. (Scott, a fluent Korean speaker who also went to North Korea, is the author of Axis of Evil World Tour, available on Jim, meanwhile, is an intimidating linguistic genius, world traveler, entrepreneur, and irrepressible ball of energy.)

Dinner, entirely homemade, was fantastic. Charles was worried that I might offer a bad review if the amount of lasagna proved to be insufficient, but I ended up well-nigh stuffed. Charles's baked bread (baking is a hobby of his) was excellent—much better than anything store-bought, and well conceived, too: he had made "garlic bread," but in this case he had laced the dough with actual garlic. Little bits of it were visible inside the bread, which needed only butter to complete the picture. The lasagna was a Meisterwerk of epic proportions: when Tom and I arrived, Charles was in the midst of building it, layer upon layer, until it had become a veritable ziggurat of pasta, meat, cheese, and sauce. Because Tom hates vegetables, Charles had mindfully constructed a sort of DMZ—a de-mycological zone, i.e., a zone free of mushrooms. Upshot: the lasagna was huge and heavy when it went into the oven at 6:40PM, and was overpoweringly seductive, like the world's sexiest fat lady, when it emerged from the oven a little after 7PM. I had fantasized that Charles was simply going to cut the thing into four gigantic pieces, one massive hunk for each of us four diners... and by Jesus, that's exactly what he did. My piece was delicious, from the top layer of cheese all the way down. Charles later admitted that he had added onion, but had ground it up finely. I thought the Gestalt tasted magnificent; Charles said that this recipe was closer to his father's (and by extension, his grandmother's) more American-style version of lasagna.

Hyunjin contributed a light, well-constructed salad with various greens, cukes, tomatoes, bell peppers, and cheese. It was a great follow-up to the lasagna; some time later, she brought out succulent oranges and plump grapes, a more Korean way to end a meal.

The night went well. After we had said our goodbyes, and Tom and I were in the elevator, Tom turned to me and said without a trace of sarcasm, "That was fun." I think he had discovered a new friend and drinking partner in Charles, and it was obvious that Tom was ready to repeat this night all over again. I got the sense from Charles that the feeling was mutual. In that spirit, before we left, we all agreed that we should meet up, sometime before I leave, at Braai Republic, a South African resto about which Charles has written. So it was that, tired, stinky, and happy, I made my jolly way back to my apartment, proud of my taste in friends.

*Sorry, Charles, but I can't bring myself to romanize it as "Hankuk." Sounds too kooky.

**By Korean reckoning, you're one year old the day you're born because you've gestated for ten lunar months (that equals nine solar calendar months). When the lunar new year comes around, you automatically turn two, and that can happen within just a few months. After that, according to tradition, your age ticks upward by one every lunar new year (although in practice, many Koreans do the Western thing and celebrate birthdays according to the solar calendar). Upshot: the difference between a person's "Korean age" and "Western age" can be up to about two years. When Koreans say they can legally drive at age 20, for example, that really means age 18 by the Western reckoning, which makes the Korean driving age the same as Europe's.



John McCrarey said...

Nice read.

As to women, I definitely prefer those skinny Korean asses. To my dismay I have noticed an ever increasing fatness amongst young Korean women (although nothing like the epidemic here at home). Damn you McDonald's!

hahnak said...

"I had fantasized that Charles was simply going to cut the thing into four gigantic pieces, one massive hunk for each of us four diners... and by Jesus, that's exactly what he did." fantastic. seems like a hobbit sort of thing to do. very welcoming and friendly.

im enjoying your posts. i also continue to cross my fingers for you.

John said...

Sounds like you have arrived back home Kevin. Your narrative brought back memories of my (our) time in Korea all of those long years ago. I would so love to come back again and soak up Korea in a non-touristy way like I did back in the mid-nineties. Those 2 and a half years were really quite cool and they have coloured my life since.

Charles said...

Ha! I'm glad the portions lived up to your expectations--although I will admit that part of that was due to the fact that Tom's DMZ (clever) took up precisely one-quarter of the lasagna.

Kevin Kim said...

John Mac,

There are some ladies' derrières that appeal to me despite being on the skinny side, but generally, I feel a bit like a pervert staring at ten-year-old boys' asses. Women with curves like those of Jeon Ji-hyeon and Lee Hyori are quite attractive.


Thanks! By the way, I brought along that 750GB drive, and it's a godsend.

John the Kiwi,

Well, at least you took a bit of Korea with you back to Enn Zed!


So perhaps I should thank Tom and his vegetable animus.