David and Emily both had to teach at the Seoul International School during this week until they got the following week off for the Cheusok holiday, so I was on my own to explore the neighborhood and city. Without my bike, I hit the pavement in my shoes and with Tunes keeping up beside me. We walked to the end of the neighborhood and just kept going, down a thronging main road, taking in all the different coffee shops, restaurants, storefronts, and of course, the sumptuous people watching. A few pedestrians tried to strike up a conversation with me, which was sad, because all I could do was shrug with an apologetic smile and say “Sorry, only English.” So I was over the moon when three young men with beautiful midnight skin walked past and said in a lovely African accent, “Cute dog.”
I walked a couple of miles down to the Moran station, feeling some helplessness at being entirely illiterate here, and yet thrilled to be on my own somewhere that was entirely foreign to me, save for the bizarre appearance of a Dunkin Donuts and a Yankee Candle store. Those were pretty much the only words I could read. What a feat, I thought, for so many immigrants world wide, who drop themselves into a place where it feels this vulnerable all the time. Not only do you have no idea how to get around, what kinds of substances are in the packages on grocery shelves, or how to have a pleasant conversation with anyone local, but they also transplant themselves into an entirely foreign cultural milieu and must somehow learn subtle social customs such as turning 20 degrees away from your elders while taking a drink at a table, or removing one’s shoes upon entering a home, or accepting a gift with two hands after refusing it politely as not to seem greedy or inappropriate. Especially difficult is moving to a place where the alphabet is entirely different, where cognates are far and few between, if any, and the phonemes are so entirely different that one has nothing familiar to anchor them to in order to memorize phrases easily. My brain keeps wanting to tell Tunes “ne, ne, ne” in Hindi when she does something objectionable, but that no means yes in Korean. Or I reflexively say gracias when I’m sure that’s senseless here. When I want to spout of a first person sentence or conjugate a verb, my brain tries to code switch into French I was once fluent enough in to get around in France. But here, I’m totally and utterly useless and infantile. At least my “hello” and “thank you” has become far more proficient than my first strained YouTube parroting attempts. I’m grateful for the humbling exercise. I wonder whether members of certain political parties were immersed here on their own and without money would still be clamoring to build walls and deny equality to their fellow human citizen, if they could only see what it was like to struggle with what privilege renders invisible.
That evening, David and Emily returned home, and while I was tempted to join in on a fitness boot camp with Emily, I join David and neighbor Kendall for a trip to get sushi in a huge mall. We take the subway, which is an exciting city experience I’ve not had since my last visit to NYC about a year ago, and it’s one of the cleanest and safest in the world. There is a glass case at every stop, about the size of a large armoire, with about 30 silver bags, an oxygen tank, and some small boxes. I ask David about these, and he explain that they are masks, first aid kits, and disaster supplies. “This is a nation at war,” he reminds me, “and in case we’re bombed, these are emergency supplies underground.” It seems such a strange token gesture, with almost 10 million people living in Seoul and thousands and thousands using the subways, to have 30 masks staged in this catastrophic-event tableau.
In the subway tunnel were various vendors hawking their wares, and we passed one that has an entire booth dedicated to selling dog clothes. I had to stop of course, and I picked out a hanbok, or transitional dress, for Tunes in time for Chuseok. We posed for a couple of photos outside of the world’s 6th tallest building, which is still under construction after nearly 30 years.
Tuesday came and so did my bike, finally! It turns out it’d missed one of my connecting flights and was waylaid. I spent a good amount of time reassembling it myself, and received some additional kindnesses: one was from Muffin, the housekeeper and dog walker, who propped open the downstairs door for me so that I could catch a breeze while working on my bike in the foyer, as it was a sweltering 85 degrees Farenheit here.
Another kindness was that a friend of David and Emily’s, Peter, came by to take me to lunch at the Seoul International School. Peter was just about to hop on a plane that afternoon to fly to his new job in Vietnam, but made time to give me a tour of the school and take me to the cafeteria, where I joined David during his lunch wave, and Emily for hers later. What a beautiful facility! It was cool to see where they get to work and teach, and I got to learn a lot in a short time about the social climate of a Korean education (more on that later).
An additional kindness came from the neighbor and one of the Magnificent Seven bike touring team, Jim, who helped me reinstall my derailleur, which was a bit tricky for me. Jim is an uber bike nerd, and we spent an hour or two together as he worked on his own bike and I helped it (read: I held the fork for a minute and pointed a flashlight for him). I learned so much about bikes from Jim; I only wish I could remember half of what we discussed. His awesome wife and badass volleyball coach Mindi joined us after her team’s big win, and that evening, David and Emily cooked up the yummiest chicken and Brussels sprouts! MMmmmm.
By Wednesday, with my bike all assembled and David rigged me up a sweet map that directed me to an incredible bicycle path. It was a humid, hot day, and rain was forecasted, but I came here to ride and explore, so I tightened all the bolts one more time, stuffed my raincoat in my pannier, and Honey Badgered it. Finally! I was on my own, riding my bike around Korea We followed a beautiful designated bike path that was mostly flat and followed the Han River. I was so excited to get out and go, and we cruised about 50 miles, feeling totally blissed out. Touring Tunes was back on the road, back in business.
I treated myself to lunch out, and received the kindness of a waitress who helped me navigate my food options with a visual menu, so I pointed at what I wanted, sheepish that I could not be more polite, and she kindly showed me where the metal chopsticks and spoons were (in a freer in the table) and ultimately helped me get my bill. I was so grateful for her assistance– even though I felt like an ugly American, she was patient and gracious. And I got an amazingly spicy meal for only 6,500 Won (about 6 bucks), including soup, sides, kimchi, rice, and some delicious pickled radishes! And supposedly, this is the fast food place in town. I’d take this over the Golden Arches any day.
Song of the day: Going Mobile by The Who