In a painkiller-induced fog, watching yet another movie, my phone rang. Unknown number.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Yoboseyo?” a husky voice responded.
“Eh, yoboseyo. Do you speak English?” I asked.
“Uh, a little,” he answered. “This is police. Is this Jen-nee-pa?”
“Can I buy ye a green beer, or perhaps dance a jig with you on the dance floor, lovely lady?” asked a man dressed from head to toe in green.
“No thanks,” I politely responded.
“Oh, come on, darlin’,” the man continued in hist best Irish accent.
Every weekend, my roommates and I try to do something “touristy.” And every weekend, we end up getting lost.
Not this time.
The moment we exited Noryangjin subway station, the smell of fish and saltwater guided us over a bridge and down two flights of stairs—into the largest seafood market in Seoul.
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen… I have a special treat for you this evening. All the way from Florida, U.S.A., I bring you (insert drum roll) not one, but two, blond-haired, green-eyed white people!”
I imagined the Korean man with his face pressed against the window of Starbucks would have said this if he spoke English.
Photo courtesy of Tales of a Travel Addict.
“You are very beautiful, Jennifer teacher, but you are a little fat.”
I wanted to end class then and there. I wanted to run home, bury my face in my pillow and cry. But the tears wouldn’t wait. I dropped my scissors, put down the construction paper turkey and sobbed.
I suddenly missed America—the land where a size six was normal—a place where every retail store sold clothes and shoes to fit my body. But alas, I live in Korea, where normal is a size 0 and a 6 is, well, apparently fat.
“What’s that sound?” one of my students asked, pulling on my shirt. I quickly answered, “It’s probably an ambulance—you know, taking someone to the hospital.”
It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that my roommate clued me in. “So, did you hear the practice alarms today?”
Once a month, the city of Seoul sounds its sirens—making sure they work for when North Korea decides to attack again. It’s been more than 50 years since the last shot was fired on South Korean soil, but to some, it feels like only yesterday.
In the U.S., numbers make me crazy. In Korea, well, they just don’t make sense.
Take my apartment building…101. The building to my right, 113. To the left, 104. Don’t try to look for a pattern or make sense of this; addresses weren’t assigned based on location. The buildings are labeled in the order in which they were constructed. So if you don’t feel like getting lost in the second biggest city in the world, make a Korean friend. They’re your only hope, as Mapquest and Google Maps do not exist here.
Day two in Korea, still jet-lagged, I had a 9:30am health check appointment at the hospital. A vision test, hearing test, lung X-ray and four vials of blood later, it was time to pee in a cup.
After being pricked and poked in front of what seemed like half of Seoul, a little urine sample sounded relatively painless.
I was wrong. My first public peeing experience—in a hospital mind you—ended up being in a ceramic hole in the ground.
Andrew Zimmern taught me that Korea is a soup culture, that its people eat squid while it’s still squirming. Anthony Bourdain gave me a taste of Korea’s street food and an introduction to soju. A 200-some-odd-page book told me all I needed to know about the different types of kimchi.