The four of us awoke in sprawling Seoul – a 10-million-person metropolitan monster. The possibilities were boundless.
I woke up a bit earlier and decided to explore. We stayed adjacent to the Seoul Flea Market.
“Oh well. I have nothing better to do,” I thought.
That morning I discovered that I love flea markets. It ranks up there along with Winco Foods and hugs from my grandmother (I love you Grandie). The sensory overload of affordable and inessential items put my materialist alter ego into a coma.
“Good riddance,” I thought, “let’s save some money.”
The first thing I saw was a pile of 5,000-won hats ($4.50 USD).
“I could use a new-ish hat,” I thought. I excavated the pile for what felt like an hour (10 minutes in reality). However, I huffed and left hatless and unimpressed.
Next, I saw street food. I have a love affair with street food that pairs with my lifelong love of sports. Despite my insatiable desire to eat healthily, I love low-quality meats and sweets served outdoors (preferably on sticks). I settled for a spicy sausage skewer. Carbs would have to wait. It was delicious. My inner child smiled.
Next, I browsed the indoor bazaar based in a building resembling airport hangar. The aisles between stalls were not designed for a 192-cm broad-shouldered fellow like myself (I speak in metric now).
A floppy camouflage hat fit for an adventurer with no sense of style caught my attention. I picked it up. The attending ajumma (older woman) approached me with a Korean hello.
“An-nyoung-ha-say-yo,” I replied, bowing. “Ee-guh mo-ja ul-ma-yay-yo” (how much for this hat?)
“Man-oh-cheon-won im-ni-da” (15,000 won).
That was too much for my blood. I hesitated, gently laid the hat down like a loaded firearm, and took two steps back. Like a ware-hocking hawk, she sensed it.
“For you, man-sam-cheon-won,” (For you, 13,000 won) she said.
I hadn’t even asked for a discount (Ka-ka ju-se-yo), but I still wasn’t about it.
“Ah-ni-oh. Gwen-chan-ah-yo” (No, it’s okay) I said as I retreated back outside.
Several steps later, I found my kind of sale – hats and shirts strewn upon the sidewalk with cardboard signs that read 모자 1,000 원. For that price, I could buy a hat, lose it in two hours, and think nothing of it.
I bought a snapback that read, “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” like the label affixed to kid-tested-non-mother-approved albums. Luckily, I wore it several times and still have it. It is not particularly attractive, but it’s the best bargain I ever found.
Soon my friends were awake and drinking coffee (get on my level). I joined them at the café.
“What shall we do today?” posed The King.
“We should hit a museum,” I posited. “My kyo-geom-sun-sang-nim (vice principal) suggested we visit the Seoul National Museum.” I enjoy weaving Korean words into my speech because code-switching is cool.
Potato agreed. I knew she would. She likes museums. The rest of the crew gave in shortly. Ten minutes later, we transferred subways toward the museum. We indulged in the “5 Things” game the whole way there. Potato proposed an excellent question, so I returned serve with the same.
“Five things you would say to a guy to gently reject their proposition for a date.”
“I see you as more of a brother.”
“I don’t want to ruin our friendship.”
“I’m interested in somebody else.”
“I recently got out of a relationship.”
“I just want to be single right now.”
“Five. Five things.”
We passed substantial transit time with this game. 300-won cups of coffee helped as well.
Soon we arrived at the museum. From the moment I caught sight of the exterior facade, my breath was taken away.
“Kam-sa-ham-ni-da kyo-geom-sun-sang-nim,” (Thank you, vice-principal) I thought.
The sheer mass of the museum (along with the artifacts within it) was mesmerizing. I wandered through several exhibits with The King. He dished out grade-A humorous hypotheticals.
“This book has Chinese characters on it,” he would say. “I’m taking it back for my people.”
“I can help,” I played along (improv came in handy), “we’re just casing the joint right now.”
“No. I’m taking it now.” said The King.
“Go! Go! Go!”
I ventured off on my own for a minute when I came across the Buddhist sculpture exhibit. My goodness. I have appreciated the benefits of meditation for over a year now (yet remain a complete neophyte). The elegant 3-meter statues floored me – literally. I was drawn to sit in a corner and meditate in the shadows of peace, overcome with gratitude.
During those tension-releasing ten minutes, I heard many people come and go. Some likely wondered what I was doing.
What was I doing? I was simply being. I was present. I was happy.
“An-nyoung-ha-say-yo,” one Korean child said to me as he passed by. My heart melted and then grew two sizes that day.
Next (at my urging), we walked to the National Hangeul Museum. Hangeul (the Korean writing system) has been a fascination of mine since I took a linguistic typology class at the University of Kentucky. The class consisted of transcribing native-speaker utterances for the purpose of parsing Korean grammatical structures. Therefore, I loved this museum. We weren’t there for long, but it was the highlight of my day. I geeked out so hard that (insert arousal joke here).
Once we got our fill of culture, it was time to go full tourist. We planned to ascend Namsan for various attractions including the Seoul Tower vista.
We arrived following a short cab ride and an even shorter dining detour. The King recommended musubi (Hawaiian Spam sushi). We obliged like loyal subjects do (though I was also quite ready to mack on a snack).
After a short gondola ride up Namsan (san is Korean for mountain), our first stop was Hello Kitty Island. I have little knowledge and even less interest in Hello Kitty. I didn’t even know what Hello Kitty was except for an image I saw on girls’ folders and notebooks in grade school. I honestly thought it was a Japanese TV show or something.
“No, it’s just a brand that is really cute,” Potato explained.
Apparently, it is just an image I saw on girls’ folders and notebooks in grade school.
The island was quite foreign to me, even compared to Korea. For one, its citizens have been slow to take up the metric system. A sign proclaimed Hello Kitty to be “five apples tall.” I measured myself at 10 apples tall. Second, the inhabitants’ dietary staples include pastries, cakes, and ice cream. However, there were no reported cases of diabetes. If I was a medical professor, I would write a book about this saccharine-soaked yet surprisingly healthy society.
Potato (by virtue of cuddly cuteness) and The King (by virtue of a paper he wrote in high school) appreciated the island immediately. Nightmare and I took longer to come around.
“Go with the flow,” said Anxiety-Brain. He is considerably more mellow on vacation.
So I did. I allowed the cuteness to overload my circuits. I soon let go of my preconceived notions and immersed myself in the experience. I stamped my hand and forearms with Hello Kitty seven times. I even traced a lovely picture of the white-furred feline only to forget it at the apartment four days later (which is too bad because my walls are mostly naked and sad). Potato even described my drawing as Picasso-esque. I knew she was joking but I didn’t care.
Nightmare enjoyed the stamps even more. He inked himself with the ardor of a prison gang initiate putting in work and earning stripes. We did not witness this fervor, but we heard it from the other side of the exit door.
Click-clack click-clack click-clack click-clack.
The museum attendant heard this too. She retreated into the exhibit to investigate. Nightmare appeared simultaneously, a Hello Kitty half-sleeve adorning his arm. I think the attendant was looking for a young child messing with the stamp. Little did she know it was a 26-year-old stiff-upper-lipped Englishman.
We then rode an elevator to the top of Seoul Tower. It was the cheesiest elevator ride of my life.
“Look up at the screen,” said the attendant.
We complied. What followed was a simulated starship experience that gave the impression of heavenly ascension. We exited the elevator a mere 236 meters from the ground (very tall, but the elevator overhyped the expectations).
The panorama was stunning. The sheer size of Seoul humbled me. I walked a lap around the tower only to see city skylines in all directions – high-rise apartments, skyscrapers, and plazas as far as the eye could see.
“We are not in Sacramento anymore,” I thought.
I noticed signs indicating the direction and distance to major cities around the globe. San Francisco was the closest marker to my hometown (140 kilometers). From Seoul Tower, San Francisco is 9,023 kilometers away.
“Damn,” I thought, “you’ve come a long way.”
After exiting the tower (with the pleasure of an equally cheesy screen-based atmospheric entrance), we descended the stairs toward the gondola. I developed a habit of racing Nightmare up and down subway stairs. This is because I value my athleticism and competing against Nightmare’s nearly unbeatable stair speed is frustratingly fun. This time, in the heat of competition, we overran the cable car station.
“No. Hey. Stop,” the King monotonously warned. We didn’t listen and had to slog back up several flights of stairs.
Next on deck was was my final recommendation – dinner.
I was hungry (naturally) so I searched for an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue. I found one in Myeongdong called Hong Bar. There we reunited with Flat Cap, shared ample soju, consumed a feast of lettuce-wrapped meat, and had an excellent dining experience. That is until I acted the fool.
“I’m bleeding,” I said matter-of-factly, squeezing a napkin over my right index finger. I noticed my chopsticks turn red many minutes earlier but mistook it for kimchi sauce. Moments before that, I sliced my finger on a jagged soju cap.
In an inspiring team effort, The King procured several large tissues while Potato offered a hair tie. I fashioned an obese, jury-rigged bandage. My finger resembled a hard-casted fracture more than a common cut. Many laughed as I soldiered on, struggling with my chopsticks like a toddler using utensils for the first time.
Despite my minor medical mishap, I would rate Hong Bar 2.5 out of 3 Chamisul Soju bottles. I would recommend it.
Day one was a busy one. We acquired some Korean culture, assumed the role of tourists, inked ourselves with Hello Kitty, and stuffed our faces with sam-gyup-sal (pork belly). It was a good start to a better week.
En route to the Hangeul Museum, we paused by a small waterfall for a quick sandwich photo.
The Panda’s Kung-Fu was no match for The King’s Wushu.
I’d ride a cable car with these crazy cats any day.
Transferring from the cable car to a bus is quick and painless. Hello Kitty Island has a very efficient transit system.
My hideous hand heart languishes in this Shangri La of loving locks.