Welcome to the first blog post of a roughly 63 part series here on The Kindergarten Cop called "The Korean Cop: DFM goes to Korea." For the next 60 some-odd days I will be living in Korea and will upload detailed reports of my experience to this site for your "make enjoyment time pleasure with read excitement." Let's begin.
On Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009 I phoned a taxi company to book a cab for the following morning at 8:00 AM. I was diligent in setting my alarm, but not in getting to sleep on time. Excitement kept me up (as did studying the hangeul - Korean alphabet) and as a result my weak wrist watch alarm did not wake me up. A friend with whom I was staying did wake me up though, and I was lucky that he did because at that time it was 7:40 AM. I rushed myself out of bed, washed my face, ate my breakfast and packed my bags all in a record 15 minutes. However, in the rush I did not actually pack my towel which I had "thoughtfully" left in the washroom for my anticipated 6:30 AM shower.
By 7:55 I was at the front door waiting for the taxi. However, there had been a mix up at the dispatch center and the operator had entered the wrong address for me. So, at 8:15 AM I started to get worried and phoned the cab company to straighten things out. A cab finally did arrive at 8:35 and rushed me to the airport.
Things started out with a quick flight to the Vancouver airport. The trip would have been fine except the loudest, most annoying woman I've heard in at least a week (which is a long time not to hear a loud, annoying woman) just had to be sitting behind me. It wouldn't have matteredwhere she was sitting though, because I heard other people talk about her afterwards and they had been sitting nowhere near her. "WOW, NO SNOW IN VANCOUVER! WOW! A BABY! WOW! MY SEATBELT CLICKS!!" All trip long she just couldn't shut up (I added the "wows," but the grating on your nerves was all her). The only thing that kept me sane was the fact that Air Canada had wisely included an episode of the best show in the world, Top Gear, in its in flight entertainment package. So, I plugged in my earphones and cranked up the sweet sounds of Jeremy Clarkson offending just about everybody and let the stress die away. (see: The Tall One, The Short One, and The Other One)
In Vancouver I met up with a Korean in the airport named Choi Young Tae (Choi is pronounced "Chway" in Korea). We talked for a while until I remembered that I needed to get some over-priced Canadiana trinkets from the Duty Free shop as gifts for any Korean friends I might meet along the way (every Korean person I've befriended in Canada has given me a gift, so I thought I'd return the favour).
I got on the plane and had my first realization that I was heading to a different world. The first woman I sat down by didn't understand any English. I thought, "DFM, you're not in Kansas anymore buddy." Then another woman stole my seat when I stood up, and I was about to say something until I noticed that I had actualy been in the wrong row. I moved back a seat and met Woo Seong-Bum (Jeff). Jeff had studied English in Calgary and we were able to share many stories of life in Alberta. Jeff also helped me shore up my Korean reading skills a bit which was greatly appreciated. I'm not a pro, I'm not even good, but I can read about half the symbols now if I have enough time, and that's usually enough to figure out the names of subway stations, etc. Unfortunately, even though I can read the words doesn't mean I understand them. I have a very limited vocabulary which I will immediately start improving.
There was a funny story with Jeff. I asked him how my accent was and he said I sounded Japanese. I responded "oh great, that's doubly bad. Now I'm not only a drug-using pedophile, but I'm a drug-using pedophile who wants to take over your country. Old Korean men are going to love me!" Jeff laughed quite hard at that one.
I was also told that the Internet here is lightning fast. But so far I'm not noticing anything spectacular. Files download on my computer faster than they would in Alberta, but not as fast as the guy living next door to me (his Internet is 1 000 times faster on any given day: 1 GB/s vs. 1MB/s on a good day for me).
On the plane I was given a form to fill out for immigration purposes. Unlike many nations where you declare which items you are bringing into the country, etc, in Korea they give you a simple yes/no questionnaire. Actual examples of questions from the questionnaire include "are you bringing radioactive weapons into the country?" Or, "are you bringing child pornography into the country?" (I made sure to point that one out to Jeff to emphasize my earlier point.) At the end of it all I had to sign on a line under the statement "I agree that I have made a truthful and correct statement." I admit that it seems like a less-than-perfect security system, but it sure makes it easier for the travelers. America take note: I did not have to show my passport 3 times in a row before leaving Customs/Immigration. Nor was I subjected to any other degrading security checks like having a drug dog check my bag twice while some angry woman yelled at me (I saw it happen to a man in Minneapolis, of course the dog didn't find anything because these checks are mostly for show anyways). I handed over my form with its "truthful and correct statement," had my passport stamped without annoying questions about my purpose for entering the country (I had already written it down on the form), and was sent off to terrorize the country and rape its women.
A quick note about the movies on the flight. I swear Air Canada pick the worst Hollywood movies it can find to show. I happened to watch The Day The Earth Stood Still (the new version). If you haven't seen it, don't bother, but if you have seen it then you'll know that Keeanu Reeves plays an unemotional alien sent to Earth in human form to warn humans that they need to change their ways or face destruction. Would you believe that Reeves is such a bad actor that he managed to mess up a mono-emoting character? Unbelievable! To be fair, I did get to watch The Secret Lives of Bees, with Queen Latifah, and that film is superb.
After passing through immigration I needed to catch a bus from the airport into the city. I had no idea how to get my ticket (I was just going to walk on the bus), but Choi Young-Tae from the Vancouver airport showed me where the ticket booth was and helped me buy the appropriate ticket and find the appropriate stop/bus.
The "limousine bus"was amazing. It had leather, first class wide seats that fully reclined and had their own ottoman (like a La-Z-Boy) and miles of leg room, and a flat screen TV at the front. The driver was amazing and could weave in and out of three lanes of traffic like he was driving a scooter instead of a coach liner, but he did not speak any English and so I was lucky to have an English speaking Korean sitting near me who translated for me and helped me get to the proper subway station.
The subway stations in Seoul are also amazing. They're wide, clean, and quite an adventure to find your way to the right platform and get on the right train. One thing about Seoul that I noticed right away (besides the notable absence of an old urine smell) is that anyone will try to sell you anything at any time. There was actually a man squatting down on the floor trying to sell a collection of DVDs to passer-byes.
After exiting the right station at the right exit, I had to walk over to Indigo Restaurant (a Korean owned "hip" cafe that tries to recreate a Western atmosphere by playing a collection of Oldies and '80s pop songs while employing hipster Korean males who wear girls' clothes (so, the same as North American hipsters essentially). I actually quite enjoyed the restaurant even if $4.00 for a slice of carrot cake did seem a bit steep and the owners were very nice and kept me company by talking to me until my landlords came (by this time I was glad to have some English conversation again). Actually, both the prices and the atmosphere reminded me of the cafe MandDFM and I used to frequent when I was in Canada (see: The Coffee Shop Story).
I was at Indigo Restaurant to meet my landlords who would then take me to the place I had rented. When they came though, they told me that there had been a mix-up and my place had been given away to someone else. Things turned out alright fortunately, as they let me stay at their place for the night and then took me to a cheaper, more convenient place the next morning.
When I got back to their place it struck me at just how much a premium space is. I'm sure that if you have the money you can get large homes, but let's just say that for the majority of Koreans the term "living room" is a foreign phrase.
When I was finally able to take a real shower (my first in two days), I then noticed that I had forgotten to pack a towel. My landlord let me borrow one of her towels though, so again it worked out alright. However, you can see from the picture that Koreans have a much different definition of bath towel than do North Americans or even Europeans.
(That is a sub-standard sized pillow on top of a Korean bath towel. The left edges in the picture are lined up even with each other. Notice that while the towel is perhaps 5 inches longer than the pillow, it is much more narrow. Let's just say, "don't forget your house coat" when going for a shower in Korea, because you definitely aren't going to be leaving a lot to the imagination if you try to wrap that around your waist.)
(This is a Korean shower. The basin of the tub is perhaps 4 feet long and there are no shower curtains, so the water just sprays out and "drains," or more accurately evaporates, from the floor by the hole in the center of the room. Everyone wears beach sandals to the bathroom here because the floors are always wet.)
I went to bed that night on the first real bed I'd seen in a week (I'd been sleeping on the floor at MandDFM and his roommate's place for five days before my flight), and woke up at 4:30 AM ready to take on the Asian Tiger of South Korea.
Well, that was day one, keep tuned for more updates from The Korean Cop. Tune in next time for a story about the Russian Mafia's presence in my neighbourhood.