A Visitor’s Experience in Korea: A Fishy Story
My first time in Korea was by accident. En route to Japan my plane connection in Seoul failed. The ongoing part of my flight went on to Japan before my flight from Alaska came in. I was stuck, but I didn’t much mind. Someplace called the Koreana Hotel, nice enough, (but not claiming more than two and a half or three stars in travel literature) became my home away from home for the night.
In the morning I waited for a bus in the rain and stood aside as Koreans, male and female, young and old, pushed and shoved each other fighting their way onto the standing room only bus. What chaos I thought. About two thirds of the group squeezed in. On this planet, apparently, no one had heard of queuing up.
Waiting for the next (crowded) bus to come, an older lady with orange-purple hair moved close to me and arranged her umbrella such that it covered us both. I smiled a thank you to her (since I couldn’t speak the language) and she did the same (presumably for the same reason). I will always remember that small kindness. I wonder if she considered that she had contributed to someone’s first impression of her country.
I wandered about the city despite the rain-drizzle-rain state of the weather. Despite the fact that I had no idea where I was going and even less of an idea how to get back, I was enticed to enjoy the interesting sights, sounds, smells, and people. I noticed that all the young women I saw wore black lipstick which brought to mind thoughts of Halloween. There were proper streets here and proper sidewalks too. But anyone could park anywhere. Cars stopped right on sidewalks at random angles and pedestrians would have to walk into the busy street to get around them. It was sometimes like running an obstacle course. At dark I went into the hotel since there was no way to discern what or where was safe and what was a mugging waiting to happen. I was also expectedly tired from the long, boring flight above unseen Arctic Circle polar bears and along Russia’s border. I wondered if anyone else on board knew it was the same airline traveling the same route from Anchorage (KAL 007) that was shot down by Russian fighter jets some years before.
From my Seoul hotel room window stretched a most interesting sight. I could see across the sprawling exceptionally hilly city especially the uncountable neon signs from uncountable businesses. Also visible were hundreds of tents glowing orange from lighting within. In a city of all concrete, why were there so many tents, help for a homeless population? But an awesome sight appeared. On the rooftops of homes and small buildings, neon symbols lit the darkness. These were red neon swastikas, perhaps nearly a hundred in all. Was this, not Argentina, the place to which the escaped Nazi officers had fled? Who else would go up on the roof and install a lighted Nazi symbol?
For a moment, I decided I would track down these evil Nazis and drag them, dead or alive, to The Hague for their trials and earned fates. Or maybe I would save the world a lot of trouble and just execute them on sight. After all, they should have hanged long, long ago. Hell, I should call the Israeli Mossad!
Then again, why in hell would escaped Nazi officers advertise their hideouts? Were they eating kimchi now instead of sauerkraut? Nothing was making sense on this planet. If I were an escaped terrorist or Nazi, would I put a glowing neon sign about it on the roof of my house? I really don’t think so.
I drew a quick map of the strange orange tents and the swastika locations and slept uneasily till morning. Before returning to the airport, I took time to track them down. I tried and failed. Neither one orange tent- nor any other tent-existed. And it was difficult to find the (now unlighted) swastikas from street level and in daylight.
The Korean Air flight rumbled up and over the expansive city. The view out the window was of square rectangle after rectangle after rectangle. I had read that a third of all the country’s people live in Seoul. These were the yard-less apartment buildings into which they were crammed. They were pitched all in neat rows as is so common in post-Soviet Poland. I pitied their lives for a moment and then as the plane ploughed through clouds, they disappeared from view.
I learned subsequently that my pity was assumptive, perhaps even ethnocentric. Close up, most modern South Korean apartments are actually beautiful affairs and thoroughly unlike what people put up with in East Europe. In Pyongyang in North Korea there are more or less similar buildings, maybe twice as tall and half as well made which serve the members of government. They are built one attached to the next, making designs such as crescents, “Y” shapes and so on. From the air they look like some kindergarten class project.
On a recent return visit, with some friends, we motored to the southernmost coast for a long weekend of relaxation, fishing, and sun. A monster tangle of traffic awaited us at the ferry crossing tour destination, a small island. We waited in the suffocating heat as the ferry left without us. Our turn would come when the ferry returned…we hoped.
“It’s the price we pay for coming on a Saturday,” old lawyer friend Mr. Han blurted matter-of-factly. He must have sensed my dismay at the wait.
By mid afternoon we were sweat-soaked, but aboard the rusting ferry boat and soon our island destination grew bigger in our view. Of course another measure of chaos awaited us upon arrival as cars and trucks exited one at a time. There were five of us squeezed into the damn thing.
Although the island has public beaches, it has no hotels. It’s essentially a fishing village. But we found a simple list of families ready and willing to rent out portions of their homes for cold cash. It is on display at the island’s convenience store. My new friends, Mr. Kim and Mr. Kim made phone calls and then scratched one name off the list.
“All set,” he stated in English, “and this one has a bathroom.”
Our housing arranged, we stocked up on beer, snack foods, and a few unknown dried sea things, and the storekeeper sketched us a quick map on our grocery bag. A couple of reckless turns and one big hill later, we came to a halt in a mushroom cloud of dust. Driveways on the island-like most of its roads-go unpaved.
The house, ranch style, was designated such that the left third was for guests, the right third held the residents, and the middle third-the kitchen and bathroom-was to be shared. In other words, we slept together in one large room vacated for our presence. And in typical Korean style, sleeping meant on the floor.
There are two funny things about Korean names. First, except for a sprinkling of Parks and Hans, nearly everyone’s last name is Kim. The other odd thing is that people almost never use first names. So I was here with Mr. Han, Mr. Kim, Mr. Kim, and Miss Kim. Although this may make it easier to remember names, it ends up being profusely inefficient.
We were close enough to the beach to walk and we did so often. I wasn’t much for fishing although my friends were. I preferred a cooling swim in the ocean and a cold beer relaxing on the sand. Although the heat and humidity were relentless, the others, to my knowledge, never went in. That first evening no fish were biting and none was caught, although Mr. Han caught himself an old sneaker. I suggested he switch the bait.
We had planned on fish for dinner, but instead asked for a chicken at the convenience store. The shopkeeper chopped the thing’s head and feet off right there on the store’s front sidewalk. After a few minutes he returned holding a garden hose and washed the blood into the street. Something about all this made me less hungry for chicken. At least we could be sure it was fresh. The next day the heat grew worse still. Of my heat-induced lethargy I slept through all the daylight hours.
At dusk I found myself alone and wandered down the hill to the beach. Friends gone. It was dark now and I remembered my mother’s old advice, “Never swim alone at night.” Well it was night and I was alone, but mitigating facts swept into my mind. The moon rose full in the sky, and this being a fishing village, and sharks worth their weight in fins, what was there to worry about?
I swam parallel to the shore and not very far out. The moonlight painted a glistening path in front of me. Suddenly, I heard a splash somewhere ahead of me. I stopped and scanned the surface. A woman was swimming ahead of me-or a man with very long hair. I swam to catch up, but she disappeared under the water. I was tiring. Spotting a pile of rock reaching out of the water, I swam over to it to rest.
She was there. Just ten or twelve feet away she was, like me, half out of the water. I might have expected someone in scuba gear, but she was naked!
Things this interesting just don’t happen in Korea, at least not to me. I didn’t know what to say. She just eyeballed me and smiled. I said hello in Korean. Bathed in moonlight she gazed her blue eyes down. Then she slid down under the water. I swam around the rock to her side. Fifteen feet away I heard her splash toward the open sea and saw-distinctly saw-the bottom of her body was that of a fish.
I called to her again, again. Nothing.
Since clearly I couldn’t swim as she could and underwater it was too dark to see, I could only return to shore.
I ran up the shore and up the hill to look for my friends. Back in our room everyone was eating fish and I told my story. “I met a mermaid while swimming!”
Convincing them was not going to be easy. They shot me with three possibilities: I was drunk; I was crazy: I was kidding. We spent the whole next day drinking beer on the beach. And every two minutes was another jibe at my apparent hallucination.
“Was she Korean?
“Did she have a big chest?
“Did she give you her cell phone number?”
I just wanted to drop the whole thing.
Finally, the subject did die down and we taught each other vocabulary words in our respective languages. But then dusk fell.
My friends made half-hearted gestures at returning to our accommodations. I stated firmly that, especially as it was our last night on the island, I was going nowhere. In the end, I and both Mr. Kims swam out to the rocks. Mr. Han didn’t know how to swim and went off with Miss Kim to fish. The moon was bright again. Nothing came of it except that we cooled off from the day’s heat. Mr. Kim explained that on nearby Cheju Island there are women called mermaids. They are expert swimmers who dive for shells, and seaweed (which Koreans eat). I countered that surely they didn’t do so at night-and naked.
The other Mr. Kim suggested she might have been a dolphin. “But dolphins don’t have long hair,” I shot back. Even with the extra sets of eyes scanning, not a ripple appeared. Eventually even I gave up. I had been tired-exhausted-from swimming and it was dark. I must have just imagined the fish tail part.
On the way back, the congestion getting to the ferry terminal was just as it had been before. We backtracked and approached from another direction. It was still slow going, but an improvement. We were at the water and nearing the old hulking boat.
Suddenly, Mr. Han cried out (in Korean), “Hey, stop the car!
Mr. Kim was driving and pulled over to the side. All but he piled out.
Han’s sharp eyes had spotted a statue. It was a mermaid statue in the style of the well-known mermaid statue in Copenhagen Harbor.”What does it say? There on the sign,” I demanded.
“It’s some legend. Ninety years ago a mermaid saved a fisherman’s life…brought him to shore right here. Her name was Kia. This statue is in her honor.”
They all paused and looked at me with new eyes. Then they pulled out their cameras. Koreans love their cameras.
Written by Guest Writer – Steve Angelique