Right through the heart of it,
New york, New York.”
– Frank Sinatra
It’s five am and I’m awake. But this time my insomnia isn’t of the “What am I doing with my life life?/Why, oh why am I in Japan?” variety. I’m awake because I’m jet lagged. And I’m jet lagged because yesterday I flew 13 hours to New York.
Yes, I’m back in NYC. As I write this, I’m sitting in the living room of my dad’s apartment in Chelsea, eating a chicken wrap from the deli and watching Good Day New York.
But let’s rewind a bit to this time last week, when I got off the airport shuttle at 12:30 am in front of the deserted Seoul Station in South Korea. I was trying to hail a cab in below freezing temperatures, completely under dressed in a light coat and a flimsy scarf from Uniqlo.
I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was supposed to be in my cousin’s heated apartment in Busan, a three hour train ride away. But my flight had been delayed, causing me to miss the last train, consequently leaving me stranded on the side of the road with a busload of Japanese tourists.
An hour walk, a cab ride (“No, I told you, I don’t have a name of a hotel. Just take me to any hotel, I don’t care”), three fully-booked hotels later, I’d finally secured a corner suite in a luxury hotel. It cost US $96. For a six hour stay.
My mom would tell you that this was a result of my habit of impulsively traveling places without a plan. I like to think that it was a result of an unchecked desire for adventure. But whatever.
I made it to Busan the next day and stayed with my cousin and his wife, Liz, for a week. South Korea had never been on my list of places I wanted to visit, but I think it’s so important to travel to where you know people, because you get a far more authentic experience then you would staying in a hotel and exploring the country by bus or Lonely Planet guide book. They’re ESL teachers too, so I had the opportunity to watch them teach (somehting completely fascinating which I’ll write about later) and they took me to all of their favorite restaurants and bars and I got to see where my cousin DJ’s every week.
And I found South Korea really interesting. I expected it to be very similar to Japan, but besides their shared love of florescent neon signs and tacky, cringe-worthy cutesy fashion, the two cultures are really different.
Koreans are rude, for example (and I mean that in a good way). All of the overly-formal, stuffy polite behavior that I found so stiffly about Japanese culture, didn’t seem to exist. Koreans, pushed and shoved one another out of the way in crowds, without as much as backwards glance. And if a Korean accidentally bumped into someone, he or she didn’t apologize. In fact, apparently there isn’t even a phrase for “excuse me” in Korean.
That’s so different from Japanese culture, where I once witnessed a woman roll head over heels down a flight of subway station stairs, immediately pop right back up and apologize profusely to everyone within ear shot, for inconveniently and momentarily blocking their paths down the the steps.
But the Koreans were also very friendly and helpful and not shy to attempt to engage you in conversation. On a couple of separate occasions, people stopped to ask if I needed help, when they spotted me looking lost. Once, a woman personally escorted me for a 15 minute walk to the train station, linking arms with me and then holding my hand, enquiring as to whether I had any brothers or sisters and telling me all about her “too much long time” marriage to her husband.
I felt so much more at ease and comfortable in this environment, not having to worry so much about unknowingly committing some horrendous faux pas and potentially offending someone. It was such a relief.
I’ll post pictures and write more later about my trip, highlights which included having hundreds of guppy-sized fish eat the dead skin off of my feet at the world’s largest spa and eating silk-worm larvae.
Right now, I have to get ready for a day with my dad. Our Saturday plan is filled with the New York-ish activities of museums, art galleries and sample sales. It feels really good be back, even if it’s only temporarily!
More later, I promise.