Sunday, May 19, 2013

last hurrah

Saturday was busy. It began with some YB-related work (still not done; I'll be finishing that tonight), continued with a visit to Sperwer's place (previously noted), then finished up with a flurry of errands and activities: getting a haircut, shopping for trinkets at Namdaemun, meeting Tom for dinner, shopping a bit more before returning to the apartment, throwing out a massive pile of sorted garbage that had accumulated by the front door (Koreans take sorting seriously)... and writing this blog post.

I got my hair cut at the same salon that did my hair when I first arrived in Korea. I asked the lady to cut the hair shorter this time, partly because the weather has been getting warmer, and partly because she'd cut it too long last time (I normally prefer short haircuts so that I can go six weeks between sessions; getting a haircut a mere month later indicates that my hair was still too long after that initial cut). A bubbly young woman was in the shop talking with the two older ladies; I got dragged into the conversation when it turned out that the girl wanted to get set up with a foreign guy. "I'm 43," I said cautiously. The ladies looked politely shocked: "You don't look it!" they squawked.*

Tom called in the middle of my haircut, and I told him I'd have to call him back. After my cut was finished, I returned Tom's call, and we arranged to meet that evening at Dos Tacos—the same Dos Tacos in Chongno where we had met before. I then took the subway over to Hwaehyeon (a.k.a. Hoehyeon) Station, which is right at Namdaemun Market. Exit 5 from the station took me up to street level, and the first thing to hit me was the overpoweringly delicious smell of some of the world's most awesome street food. Here's a shot of the line of food stalls that were set up right in the middle of the pedestrian zone, all serving fresh food grilled or otherwise cooked to order:

I was tempted to call Tom back, cancel dinner, and just eat my way through Namdaemun Market, gorging myself on stall after stall of food. But I was on a mission: I had to buy some trinkets for family, friends, and coworkers back home. It was cool and rainy; the various food and merchandise stands had deployed their umbrellas and tarps in an effort to keep their wares from being soaked. A constantly moving river of people coursed along the pedestrian zone on either side of the merchants in the middle of the street; I simply went with the flow, stopping now and then at outdoor carts and shops that caught my eye.

I'm a terrible gift-giver and an awful shopper; I have little to no sense as to what's appropriate for whom. In my world, with the friends I have, the best possible go-to gift is books. But books didn't seem like the best or wisest purchase; I was in Korea, so I needed to buy something Korean. At the same time, I knew that many of my coworkers and supervisors are already Korean, so it would be silly to buy things that were (1) already familiar to them, and (2) readily available for purchase at a nearby Virginia Koreatown. That second criterion made it nearly impossible for me to think of what I should buy.

My wanderings took me to the edge of the market, and I had a good look at the newly restored Namdaemun (Great South Gate), which had been torched by an enraged man back in 2008:

The great gate looked rather solemn in the rain, but I was glad to see it live instead of through another blogger's photos (article and pics). I'm also delighted that Korea has its National Treasure No. 1 back.

Starting to feel the cold and the wetness, I took a cab over to the Lotte Hotel. I wanted to sit at a lounge that looked inviting and relaxing, but when I settled into one of the plush chairs, a greeter accosted me and gave me a menu. I flipped through the menu, saw nothing priced under $20, and promptly left, lying that I'd just received a text message from a friend who had changed our meeting place. I apologized and bolted.

I took another cab to Jonggak Station, which sits about a block away from Dos Tacos. I spent a few minutes inside a doughnut shop, sipping an orange soda, feeling desperately hungry, and reviewing the assortment of gifts I had bought. A few minutes later, I stuffed everything back into my bag and braved the rain. Tom called again while I was walking the final yards to Dos Tacos; he had beaten me to the place. For a Saturday night on the weekend of the Buddha's birthday, the restaurant was surprisingly empty. Tom sat in a ground-floor booth, waiting for me. Our conversation quickly turned to end-of-the-trip assessments: "Do you think this trip was worth it? What do you think your chances are of getting work?" Etc., etc. I showed Tom the camera I had purchased at the Yongsan Electronics Market a few weeks back. He promptly took the following picture; I made sure to put on my best ogre face:

I took the camera back and snapped a pic of one of my favorite gringos:

Just before I took the above picture, Tom had been pulling goofy faces and gesticulating. He assumed a serious mien, however, the moment I hit the shutter. I laughed when I saw the above pic, and told Tom he looked awfully white, but at the same time strangely Korean: many Koreans, especially from the older generation, refuse to smile for pictures, preferring to adopt an expression that lies somewhere between lugubrious and funereal.

I was damn hungry, and I told Tom I planned to order an appetizer and a main course. He was right there with me, feeling celebratory because he had just finalized contract negotiations for a new domicile: a much larger apartment into which he plans to move within the next week or so. "It's closer to my university, and there's enough room for Thomson to run around," Tom said. It'll be a while before Thomson does any running: at almost three months old, the little dumpling can't even properly crawl, let alone hold his head upright for sustained periods.

The food at Dos Tacos was, surprisingly, even better than it had been last time. Because Tom refuses to eat vegetables (and is blessed with a freakish metabolism that allows him to survive their absence), our nachos appetizer came with veggies on the side. I piled them all on my plate, including the chunky salsa, and added a couple ounces of hot sauce to the mix. "I feel sorry for your asshole in the morning," Tom observed. I shrugged. I love eating spicy, even though I sweat at the drop of a hat. As I've noted before, the fact that I sweat has zero bearing on my ability to tolerate heat: I can eat up to ghost-chili-level hot and still have a good time.

Speaking of hot: our server was amazing—tall, slim, and bien proportionnée. She took Tom's bizarre aversion to vegetables in stride, and brought out our main courses when we had finished laying waste to the nachos. Once again, I ordered the beef chimichanga with extra avocado and refried beans. I noticed, this time around, that the beef had been done up carne asada-style, which was great.

Tom, who is cursed with the world's tiniest bladder, visited the restroom toward the end of our meal. When he came out, he told me that I needed to go in there to see the photos in the bathroom stalls. Initially skeptical, I went in and took a picture of this hilarious compilation of stall scenes:

Top row: a man in a hoodie, gamely urinating; a man collapsed and wrapped around a toilet bowl, licking the toilet seat; a young couple having frantic sex.

Bottom row: a dude taking a drag from... something; a uniformed man happily receiving a blowjob; and someone who, from the top, looks a lot like British actor/martial artist Jason Statham, taking a dump.

I didn't get to see what image was in the other stall; the smell drove me out of the restroom.

At last, dinner and our pleasant, end-of-trip conversation ended; I paid for the meal and waited for Tom outside while he, unbelievably, went to the bathroom yet again. While outside in the rain, I snapped the following shot of the entrance to Dos Tacos:

I regret not having taken a picture of our server, who really was pretty damn cute.

Tom and I walked toward the Insa-dong/Jongno 3-ga region, said our final farewells, then parted company at the major intersection for Insa-dong. It was well after 9PM, so I knew most of the shops in Insa-dong—the artistic district—would be closed, but I was determined to find more gifts. The shops that were open were all of the tourist-trap variety, but I entered them, anyway, looking for things to buy my brothers, buddies, and coworkers. I eventually found some overpriced items; I can only hope that the recipients will appreciate the gifts.

It was now close to 10PM. The weather remained cold and rainy, and I thought about just jumping into a cab to go home. Instead, I stifled that urge and elected to take a bus.

Sometime in the mid-2000s, Seoul experienced a radical makeover of its municipal bus system. I had already lived in Seoul a few years, so this changeover shattered my world: like other Seoulites, I had to start relearning the system from scratch. This proved awfully difficult, mainly because I knew I had an attitude problem about the change. My friends insisted that the revamped system was far better than the older one—more organized, more clearly marked. But I refused to give the new system a chance, and never bothered to memorize any bus routes. My bus usage went down as I began to rely more heavily on the subway and on taxis. Then I left Korea in 2008, never having learned the new system. This past month, though, I've experienced a change of heart, and have made an effort to grapple with the new bus routes which, in truth, are no longer that new.

It didn't prove to be too hard. While standing at a bus stop on the edge of Insa-dong, I found a chart that showed Bus 171 going right past Gireum Station, which is where my temporary apartment is. I waited patiently under the covered area at the top of a set of stairs leading to an underground passageway. Eventually, Bus 171 showed up; I asked the driver whether he was really going past Gireum Station; he nodded. I boarded, saw the route chart on the interior wall, figured out where I was and where I was going, and made a point of listening to the recorded voice that announced each stop. It wasn't hard to figure out, and I got off right where I wanted to, just past Gireum Station and only a couple hundred yards from the apartment building.

So now I'm home. This blog post has taken a few hours to write, and it's well after 1AM as I wrap things up. My flight out of Seoul isn't until 6:40PM tomorrow evening; I have all morning and some of the afternoon to finalize my trip prep and square away this apartment. I've got a bit of floor-cleaning to do, plus some dish-washing, a bout of laundry, and a thank-you note to write to the apartment's tenant, John McCrarey's daughter-in-law. I've also got to text Grandma tomorrow; I never did get to meet her. Come to think of it, there were quite a few people whom I had hoped to meet for the first time (Lee Farrand, the mad Aussie; Frédéric Ojardias, a friend of Holden Beck, and Robert Koehler, fellow Hoya and founder of the superblog The Marmot's Hole), as well as people I had hoped to meet again, including that culinary gastronaut Joe McPherson; my former supervisor at Sookmyung, Loki; and the inimitable, soon-to-be-published author Holden Beck. I was happy, meanwhile, to have made the acquaintance of longtime Hairy Chasms reader Scott at Daegu Haany University, and can only hope that DHU sees fit to employ me. At this point, I'd say that Daegu Haany is my best shot at employment; there are many universities I haven't heard from, but it may be safe to say that those schools are planning to "pull a Sungkyunkwan" and simply ignore my application because I won't be here to interview, and because they're too narrow-minded to consider interviewing me via Skype.

I told Tom earlier this evening that, over the past thirty days, I had traveled more in Korea than I had during eight years of residence in Seoul. I visited beautiful Yeosu, a quiet but up-and-coming city with a feather in its cap thanks to the 2012 Yeosu Expo; I went down to bright, clean, perky Ansan, a satellite of Seoul, and was impressed by Hanyang University's ERICA campus; I visited Yongin, a city that seemed to be a cool customer compared to Ansan—not as bright, not as peppy, but still quietly bustling and aware of its own venerability. I visited Gyeongsan City, next to Daegu, and enjoyed my time on the Daegu Haany University campus. I also had a taste of the horror that is Hansung University, right here in downtown Seoul, and knew right away that there was no way I could work there. I even had the chance to revisit Yeouido to meet Tom's acquaintance PB; that visit brought back memories from the mid-1990s, when I used to work in Yeouido for the SsangYong Paper Company.

All in all, this was a productive trip, I think. It wasn't ideally timed; if I try this same thing next year, I'll plan to come about two or three weeks later. I had been correct in my original assumption that university job ads start appearing around mid-April, but the real torrent of ads doesn't start until May, and it isn't until late May, or even early June, that unis start interviewing their short-listed candidates. Still, I fired off twelve applications and already have some results: rejections from Chonnam University in Yeosu and Hanyang University in Ansan, as well as a fumble-footed rejection from the Bank of Korea (which was too slow on the uptake; they shot themselves in the foot). I interviewed at Daegu Haany in Gyeongsan City and had a positive vibe. That leaves eight universities that haven't responded to my applications. Will they? Will they even bother? I don't know.

I suppose the most crushing result of all this effort would be to be rejected by everyone. But if that happens, well... I've learned some lessons from this trip, and there's always next year. Unless something awesome appears sooner on the horizon.

Forward Unto Dawn!

*Fat keeps you young-looking. Look at the Food Network's Alton Brown, who slimmed down so far that he now looks twenty years older (check out his neck wattles). Fat puffs you out and erases your wrinkles. Sure, you'll die of a heart attack, but at least you'll look amazingly young.


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