“How much money are you bringing?,” Grandma asked in Chinese.
“Mom has given me a few purses to put my money in, I’ll put them in my …” What is the Chinese word for coat? I give up and use English instead. This does not bode well for my future Korean lessons.
“Coat and in my bag.” I slip my hand into my imaginary coat pocket to show her what I mean. I am sure I will do a lot of gesturing in future.
“That’s fine, but …” Grandma pauses, then lapses into Hokkien when it becomes too difficult for her to express herself.
“Put some money in your jeans, but most of your money, put it in your underwear.”
As I walk down the aisle of the AirAsia Airbus, I doubt that I’ll get to enjoy the luxury of an empty seat beside me. The airplane is filled with people. I try to spot Korean faces but I cannot tell the difference. Only when the mother behind me talks to her son can I place them as Singaporeans headed for a holiday. Whether stealing into basketball courts on sunday evenings to play soccer with friends – ah bengs with broken homes, some working as bookies, some with long dyed hair; or at the voice clinic where the ex radio DJ told us to practice an international accent for greater clarity, the accent was a part of my identity. On a flight away from Singapore, I was reminded of what I was leaving behind.
I settle into my seat besides a young woman wearing a hijab. She’ll stick out in Seoul I bet, what will she eat and where is she going?
I picture talking to her for the rest of the flight –
You’re going where?
Oh that’s funny, I was thinking the same thing too!
But first, logistics. Who is the man sitting beside her? I figure out that they don’t know each other so after more procrastination and half-attempts I ask her, “Where are you going in Seoul?”
“We’re checking out Gangnam and Namdaemun”
“Oh god, Gangnam Style”, I cringe and we both laugh.
“Namdaemun, isn’t that the one that burnt down, you know, some smoker left a cigarette and the whole thing went down”
“Don’t know …”
“How are you going to find Halal food in Korea?”
“That’s why I brought a lot of Maggi Mee.”
I begin to talk garrulously and when there is nothing to say, I take out my macbook air and show her my goshiwon, the cramped apartment I will be in before the day is over. As she leans in on my shoulder to look, I secretly thrill at her touch, but it feels childish and stupid compared to the easy charm of Elody and Dusan’s farewell – the french call it la bise.
For instance, as we were walking down the steps at Dongdaemun subway, and Elton John strained in the background, Dusan began to sing, “and can you feel the love tonight …” Francois and Elody joined in “… between lovers and vagabonds …”
I smiled as Dusan said, “You must think we are crazy”
“No, just french.”, I said.
“It’s being human.”
The French sing in the subway, the Australian teaches the beer game, the Singaporean wants the cheesecake, while the Japanese is allergic to alcohol but sips politely as soju and cider is mixed amid good cheer. The Korean, what little contact I have had, has come in the form of supermarket transactions – Please sign here, (and also, what I imagine is the cashier asking if I want a plastic bag or not) or when I am lost and looking for directions – Is there a movie theatre here? I am at a deserted shopping mall with spooky naked mannequins tastefully covered up in cloth (on TV, the koreans are remarkably touchy. Once a character places a cigarette in his mouth and takes a drag, the offending cigarette is immediately blurred. Once taken out from the mouth, the cigarette is uncensored. This jars the senses, one of many things which mutely show that things work differently around here, I am in a strange land.)
The farewell is much more prosaic. The aisle fills with people grabbing their luggage from overhead. I inch past her to get my things and after debating whether to get her name, and looking alternately at her and away, the words end on my lips as she stops me with a nod and a smile. I nod goodbye and walk off quickly.
As I walk out the arrival gate of Seoul International Airport, I already see the buses lining outside in a row. They hide a secret terror – how do I get on those things, do I pay the driver, or what? I look at my laptop for the third time. Bus 6002 goes to Sinchon, wait at either bus stop 5B or 12A. I don’t need to look, I already have this by heart. I brace myself for the cold and the unknown and walk outside, my strategy is – look like I know what I’m doing and follow everyone else. Some people are sitting outside just waiting for the bus to arrive. This is decidedly unhelpful. Yes, I am at the correct bus stop. Yes, the map says the fifth stop is Sinchon. Now what? Thankfully, my charade ends when I spot the bus ticket counter.
I walk uncertainly towards the booth and the woman behind the glass. I circle it slowly while studiously avoiding the woman’s gaze. A queue forms and they presumably speak in quotidian korean:
Ticket to ___ please.
That will be ___.
Thank you very much.
Have a nice day.
Except the words do not make sense. Everyday words are now ineffable, terrible, mysterious, they anticipate furrowed brows, apprehension and tentative gestures.
“Sinchon?” I enunciate expectantly. I hope a ticket will appear but a quizzical look is equally possible.
“Sin-chon? Sin-cheon?”, she makes it clear that there are 2 different places with similar names in Korea, but all I want is to go to S-I-N-C-H-O-N. That’s how it is clearly and uselessly spelled in English.
“uhm, Sogang University?”, she nods her head, and prints another ticket for me. The first one is no good and she scratches at it with her pen.
Everyone else deposits their bags in the luggage hold at the bottom, so I do the same. The driver asks me something, looks at me, then says again, “Ticket?”.
As the bus moves off, I am running late. I haven’t slept or eaten in 24 hours. I need to meet Hyunju at 10 at Sinchon, which is the 5th stop. This I expect I will have to count off one by one. What if the bus skips a stop and I miss it? I begin to rehearse my line, Sinchon? Sogang University? (I might have to mime University. Perhaps scribbling on an imaginary piece of paper can pass off for study and by extension, University.) Thankfully, a recorded voice in Korean, Chinese and English announces which stop is next. 2 out of 3 languages is good enough for me. When I come back the other way, I’m gunning for a perfect score. But the agglutinative details of the korean language must wait. I need to get off at Sinchon.