only to arrive in South Korea to the distinctive sound of Abba on the radio. Abba. The Swedish pop band whose manager lived in my Stockholm neighborhood. The radio playing Abba was inside the 7-11 across from my new apartment in Paju. The 7-11 next to the Dunkin’ Donuts.
Abba+7-11+Dunkin’ Donuts ≠ rural Korean experience I had expected. Granted, I didn’t have too many expectations. But Paju is often described as “rural” which conjures up fields and cows in my mind (and the Demilitarized Zone which I have yet to lay eyes on). My apartment, however, is surrounded by shops, buildings, and restaurants. It’s a two minute walk to access multiple buses (several of which are direct to Seoul). Not so rural. But I’m fine with that, particularly because I’m currently sans car.
I walked out of the baggage claim area, pushing my bountiful luggage – two large suitcases (50lbs each), one small roller, a massive backpack, and a giant plastic bag – and scanning the crowd for my arranged driver. And then I spotted him, a middle aged Korean man with a long friendly face, grinning and holding a sign that had my name in large black letters. Spelled correctly, which was a pleasant upgrade to my Cairo experience. (Yes, my name is difficult to spell. But how hard is it to transfer it from a computer to paper?)
He commandeered my bigger suitcases and led me to a spacious, comfortable van. There were no seatbelts in the back, which I discovered after several minutes of blindly groping the vinyl.
“Your name difficult,” he said, 10 minutes into the ride, long after we had discovered that we shared no common language.
“Yeah,” I said and laughed.
“Beautiful,” he repeated, and I realized he hadn’t said “your name difficult,” but “You’re very beautiful.”
Seeing as I had already laughed and agreed, I decided not to correct him. 30 minutes later, he pulled out his phone and spoke Korean into it. It translated his words into English, first on the screen, and then out loud in the female google robot voice. (How much did that woman get paid?) Through this method he asked me where I was from.
“Nationality,” the robot voice said.
“Rae-chonalty,” he repeated. “Rae-chonalty, Rae-chonalty, Rae-chonalty.” I gently corrected his pronunciation a few times and then gave up. It was probably not a good idea to encourage him to stare at and speak to his phone while he was driving. He didn’t seem worried about this, but then he was the one with the seatbelt.
I watched as he spoke Korean into his phone and it generated remarkably accurate translations: “Have you ever been to Korea before?” “First time?” And then, of course:
“You look wonderful.” He silently read it, waiting for the robot voice. It came: “You look wonderful,” said the stilted, oddly stressed female tone. He spoke the words to me with difficulty, laughing.
It is a nice thing when someone tells you that you look wonderful. However, I wasn’t terribly receptive to the compliment, seeing as I had just traveled for 14+ hours and had a makeupless, disheveled (but not in a saucy way) appearance, wearing my shapeless comfy traveling clothes.
“You English peecher?”
“Yes, I’m an English teacher.”
He smiled and said something into his phone: “Kids be happy.” The first ify translation.
“Kids be happy,” he repeated. “Why? Beautiful!”
I thanked him and we continued in silence. It occurred to me that he knew exactly where I lived, but I brushed this thought aside. He was much more curious than creepy.
My apartment is lovely. It’s big and furnished (including an extremely old fat computer), and I’m extremely happy with it. I’ll add pictures to this post tomorrow.