After hours of conversing like sleepover schoolgirls, I turned to my left and noticed the sun’s rays gently penetrating the window shades.
“Damn,” I thought, “Did we just pull an all-nighter?”
“Duh,” Anxiety-Brain sassed, “It was nighttime, you didn’t sleep, and now it’s daytime again stupid.”
“Easy,” I warned.
Around 6:30 A.M., everyone turned in for a nap – everyone except me.
“I’m going for a walk,” I said.
My friends didn’t say much. Most of them were already asleep. One asked me to take pictures. My phone was dead. I just shrugged my shoulders and stepped out.
I intended to take a short walk, listen to some music, and clear my head. I had some stuff on my mind and the apartment was the last place I wanted to be.
What was on my mind? I’m not entirely sure. My mental landscape was a faded haze of nebulous thoughts and lingering anxiety. I felt lonely (despite a great cadre of friends), lovesick (despite having zero interest in a committed relationship right now), and a bit vacation-weary (this one made sense to me).
As I slowed my breathing in contemplative focus, I decided to see a different park. I impulsively hopped on Line 2 with a piping hot cup of 300-won subway coffee between my hands.
Two stations later, pangs of regret struck. Where am I? Why am I doing this? My phone is dead. What if I get lost? What if someone wakes up and wonders where I am? I exited the train, ready to head home with my head hung low and my mind muddled in mild misery
Then, by a stroke of fate, I noticed a sign hanging above the street. “Seoul University,” it read with an arrow pointing straight ahead.
I felt the pull immediately. Since leaving the University of Kentucky, returning to college has been a low-key obsession. College campuses captivate me with their manicured gardens, modern statues, bustling quads, ivy-strewn walls, and passels of hopeful young souls. They are my fountains of youth. If I was a foreign-born education aficionado visiting the U.S., I might take a detour from New York to visit Harvard. Likewise, I felt the inescapable pull of Seoul University.
So I walked, and walked, and walked. I had no sense of distance, no sense of time, and no more prior preoccupations. All I had was a coffee-riddled sleep-deprived mind, two functioning eyes following a series of street signs, and two legs living life one step at a time.
Finally, I saw it – Seoul University. The campus was completely deserted (it was a holiday after all), but I still insisted on a self-guided campus tour. It was beautiful. The sight of gardens, lush trees, ornate statues, architecturally diverse buildings, and wide quads dissolved my niggling anxieties.
That is, until a new concern confronted me. All the coffee and water had finally caught up. I had to pee.
I have a fear of being trapped in public with powerful bodily bathroom needs and no place of relief. I was living it now. I pulled at every door. All were locked. I began to dance. Blasphemous thoughts bubbled up.
“Just go by this parking garage. No one will see you.”
That wasn’t remotely true. Maintenance staff and students populated the campus (albeit sparsely).
“No way,” I replied. “I cannot think of a worse omen than pissing on this prestigious institution of higher learning. I have dreams, man.”
“You can’t go to college if your bladder bursts.”
Anxiety-Brain had a point.
“I guess the tour is over. Let’s find a bathroom.”
My quest for relief escalated. I started at a 7-Eleven.
“Hwa-jang-shil-ee-seo-yo?” (Do you have a bathroom?) I asked, almost ready to clutch my crotch. The cashier shook his head and crossed his forearms.
“Hwa-jang-shil-op-seo-yo” (there is no bathroom).
Damn. I ran across the street to the GS 25 and repeated the same question. The clerk handed me a dingy brass key. It might as well have been made of solid gold and encrusted with diamonds.
After he helped me locate the bathroom (I often fail to understand the easiest of directions – foreigner problems), I lost a pound and a half of water weight.
Indebted, I bought an iced coffee (because I didn’t learn anything from this experience). I then wanted to visit Yeouido Hangang Park to walk along the river. We all visited there once, but the exiting crowds coupled with darkness obscured the experience.
New plans presented new obstacles. I had no idea where a subway station was. I didn’t know where I was in general. My scoutmaster would be ashamed. I should have been prepared. But with no phone and even less sense of direction, I was at a loss.
Then it hit me. Just get on a bus – any bus. Any transit system worth its salt will have frequent intersections of bus stops and subway stations. When I found the closest bus stop, I peered at the route. My intuitions were confirmed. There was a subway station two stops from where I was. I rode that bus with a newfound optimism and sense of self-mastery and then headed underground.
One transfer, several short naps, and many stations later, I lightly jogged up the stairs into Yeouido Park. I smiled as I took in the sweet sunshine and gazed upon the mighty Han River. My caffeine-overdosed mind did some nonsensical subconscious calculations and spit out the next impulsive decision – rent a bike.
“Okay,” I agreed.
However, when I approached the automated bike rental rack, I could not figure it out. I wanted to use my transit card to rent a bike, but the machine just sneered at me.
(I wish a city planner would incorporate unlockable bikes that can be rented for 30-minute intervals using transit cards. People could use the bikes and re-lock them in different “terminals” throughout the city. I would move there tomorrow.).
At one point, I thought I had unlocked a bike. I pulled at it, only to be startled with a “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” police siren-like sound. It was very effective. Concerned about losing my visa, I gave up on the bike and walked beside the river.
“Man,” I thought, “this is just what I needed.”
“You said it,” Anxiety-Brain replied in an uncharacteristically calm fashion. If I could clink glasses and sip a pint with my inner monologue, I would have picked that moment.
Eventually, I checked the time. 10:45. It was time to return to the apartment. I caught a bus right next to the National Assembly Building, boarded two subways, and emerged from the stairs right in front of our building. I returned to an unlocked door (left my me) and a flat full of sleeping friends. They had no idea I had left for so long.
My family and friends occasionally admonish me for my wandering ways. “Where’s Ian?” is a question used too often for comfort. However, sometimes some solo wandering is just what I need. I can clear my head, focus on my breathing, and explore my surroundings free of compromise.
In this case, I visited a prestigious university, mosied by a historically miraculous river, navigated public transit without the help of my phone, and found a deeper appreciation for 300-won cups of subway coffee (if that’s even possible). It wasn’t as energizing as a good night’s sleep, but it was just what I needed.
Before leaving Hello Kitty Island, we dropped a debut duet album. It flopped. We decided to go our separate ways.
I often forget the length of my arms until I see pictures of them stretched around someone’s shoulder.
Nightmare hides in inconspicuous places and then startles you once you’re fast asleep.
This is the look and feel of many commercial districts in Seoul (Gwangju and Mokpo have a similar layout on a smaller scale). A neon bath douses my eyes while English and Korean pop songs flood my ears.