Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Best Day

The infamous taga ride at Geumo Land
blue dot
Dec 18 2011

There were wooden seats near the Viking ship and we sat on them and took some photos. I wandered off by myself to have a cigarette. I was feeling good, I was having a good day, but I wanted to be by myself for a moment. I wanted to collect my thoughts and calm down.

I came back to Lisa and Stella. They wanted to go ice-skating. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea. I had nothing against ice-skating, but I’d had bad experiences with winter sports. I tended to injure myself. My injuries would follow a pattern: I would start off, all awkward but gamely trying, cautiously edging my way around the ice or snow, and then I would get the hang of it – or at least think that I had got the hang of it. And then overconfidence would set in. I’d take off, marvelling at my own prowess, imagining the comments of others as I passed: “Gosh, look at him, such style! He only started a few minutes ago.” And then I would fall over and injure something permanently. Both my knees are shot; the left from a skiing accident when I was twelve, and the right from my first and last attempt at ice-skating, more than a decade earlier.

I didn’t want to be a killjoy, so I said I’d come and watch – but then Stella said, “Are you really just going to watch?”, and I thought fuck it. I said I’d give it a go.

We found the ice-skating rink by a process of elimination, it being the only building in Geumoland large enough to conceivably hold an ice-skating rink. We went in and went over to hire some skates. I couldn’t remember what my shoe size was in Korean, and Stella asked me what size I was in Western shoe sizes, and I couldn’t remember that, either. This, to her, was like not knowing who were the founding members of S.H.E.I.L.D. – ignorance of unimaginable proportions. Eventually I got some skates that fit, although my memory is that I had to change sizes more than once.

When we finally got out to the rink it had been cleared for sweeping by a zamboni. “Oh, look, it’s a zamboni!” Stella said.

“A what?” I said. It was a new word to me. According to Stella I was too ignorant to live and not knowing about zambonis was like not knowing your shoe size or the difference between The Avengers and the Fantastic Four. She told me about YouTube clips of zambonis falling through thin ice into rivers and the like.

The zamboni finished its perambulations and we went out onto the freshly cleaned ice. My ankles bowed outwards and I hobbled along next to the railing, but after a circuit or two some muscle memory was triggered and I began to get the hang of it. It must have been all those weekends in my youth when I went to rollerskating, because I’d only been ice skating that one injurious time. So I started cautiously venturing further from the rails. Stella and Lisa each went over once, but I was still entirely upright and feeling pleased with myself. I whizzed past some Koreans and they went “wah!” with the same impressed tone that they used when I said “anyeong hasseyo” – ice skating, like simple greetings, was apparently something non-Koreans were not thought capable of doing.

It was fun but exhausting and after ten minutes or so I left the ice and took a break. Stella came and sat with me on the wooden seats and told me about her tumbles and near misses. Then she started trying to teach me to say “yeah yay-er” which was a California expression I could not pronounce and which was a project of hers. It had a peculiarly American combination of vowel sounds and I couldn’t get it right. Apparently there was a special hand signal that went with “yeah yay-er” and she showed it to me. I imagined Crips saying to Bloods, “Bring it,” and the Bloods saying “yeah yay-er” and doing the hand symbol before they rumbled. Lisa came over and asked us what we were doing and we laughed and she took a photo of us doing the “yeah yay-er” with hand signal.

We went back out onto the ice. I was whizzing around, but getting tired. I skated up to Lisa and Stella; they were getting over it, too. I said I’d go around a couple more times and then quit. I accelerated on one last circuit, and was heading towards the exit – I was aiming for the barrier to one side of the exit. I straightened up as I approached it, and felt me feet start to move in front of my centre of gravity. I tried to adjust, and couldn’t do it – I was falling over backwards.

I was conscious of how I’d hurt myself in the past, landing on the ice, so I reached out with one arm to grab the barrier. I caught it, but couldn’t stop myself from falling. I held on to the barrier, fell over backwards, and nearly wrenched my arm from its socket.

I sprung up, wanting to give the impression that I’d only taken a light tumble, as always more worried about what people might think of me than anything else but I could tell I’d hurt my arm pretty badly. I left the rink and sat back down on the wooden seats. My arm felt numb. I rubbed it. Cautiously, I tested it. I could still move everything. After a few minutes the pain faded a little, but I could tell it was the sort of pain that was going to return later, and much more severely.

The girls finished their skating and came off the ice. They hadn’t seen my fall and I told them about it. I told them that I thought I might have hurt my arm pretty badly, but for the moment, it was OK.

We were done with Geumoland. We returned our skates and changed back into our regular shoes. We left the park and caught a taxi back to Gumi downtown. Lisa and I compared bus times, and we both had an hour to kill. We decided to go get coffee.

A while back Stella and I had discovered this amazing coffee place in Gumi downtown and had decided to make it our regular, although opportunities to go there hadn’t really come up and we hadn’t been back since. It was a second floor coffee shop across from the Alcoholic Landmark, a bar whose owners had presumably typed something like “memorable place for drinkers” into an online translation service. The coffee shop was incredibly cute in that Korean way. It had a nice view over the street and was run by a young Korean man who was so poor that he gave us loyalty cards while telling us that he couldn’t give out free coffees, yet, but hoped to be able to do so in the future. But his coffee was great and the froth designs on their tops were works of art, individually matched to his observations of the personality of each customer; I never saw him repeat a design. A true artist, he never rushed things, so sometimes you had to wait a half-hour for your coffee, even when there was no-one else in the shop, but it was worth it. A month or two later we tried to go back there and found the business shut down. A neighbouring shop-keep told us the young man couldn’t make a go of it, and we felt bad. We should have gone more often, told more people about it…

We ordered our coffees, and some biscuits. We talked about friends who had gone home and took photos on our cell phones of the hilarious signs for the Alcoholic Landmark and when our coffees came we took photos of the intricate designs in the froth. My arm was starting to hurt. It was alright if I kept it steady but if I moved it in a certain way I got flashes of incredible pain.

Stella asked me if I still needed to get my multi-entry visa as she was thinking about taking a trip to Daegu to get hers. I’d actually managed, as far as I could tell uniquely, to get my multi-entry visa online. It had involved installing about fifteen spammy Korean security programs and I was still getting weird popups in Korean accompanied by alarming symbols, but I had a printout from the immigration office saying that I could leave the country and return, if I wished. I told Stella about this but said I thought it would be a better idea to just go to the immigration office. I said, “I’ve already got mine, but I’ll come for a ride to Daegu for the hell of it,” because I was still on morning teaching schedule, and trips to Daegu were fun.

We talked about – what? I can’t remember. Eventually we got onto stories from our past and Stella wanted to tell Lisa a story I’d heard before, and while it was a good story there were parts of it that I found disturbing, so I said I’d go down and have a cigarette and meet them downstairs.

I went downstairs. I squatted on a ledge and put my coat on. The sun was going down and it had become cold. It was evening and Second Street was busy, now, and the neon lights were on and I looked at the lights and the people moving past me. I lit my cigarette and pulled my coat more tightly around me. I had to smoke left-handed due to the shooting pains in my arm.

I finished my cigarette and eventually the girls came down from the cafe. We said goodbye to Stella and I said I’d see her Friday. Lisa and I went back to First Street and caught a taxi for the terminal. The taxi driver was watching a drama while he drove, as Korean taxi-drivers tended to do, and I talked to Lisa about a drama she was watching, and asked her for tips on a drama I should try. She said I should give the movie My Sassy Girl a go, and told me how they’d made a terrible American remake of it. We got to the terminal and bought our tickets. Lisa’s bus was about to leave and I went with her through the doors. Her bus was there; we said goodbye and made plans to catch up soon in Daegu or Busan. She got on her bus and I sat on a bench and waited for my bus to make its way across from the other side of the parking lot, where I could see it already waiting. I lit another cigarette and smoked it, because that’s what I did when I had five minutes to kill, and also what I did before a bus ride.

The bus to Gyeongju came across the parking lot and I got on it. There weren’t assigned seats on the Gyeongju bus, and it was only half-full. I took a seat towards the back and leaned against the window and closed my eyes to rest. Soon we were under way and I looked again at the highway that led out of Gumi and the mountains before it became too dark to see anything at all. Mostly I rested, and wondered if anybody from the committee was ever going to get in touch with me about what I was supposed to be doing the next day.

A little while out of Gyeongju I got a call from Elizabo. I had vague plans with her to meet up for dinner in Gyeongju, but it was getting late. She’d already had dinner, but wanted to know if I wanted to get dessert. I told her that I wanted to get myself a motel first, and that I’d call her once I’d done that.

The bus pulled into Gyeongju. I got out. It was another Korean bus terminal and I had no idea where I was, but I trusted Korea by then. I knew that somewhere around me would be a bunch of love motels. I got outside and smoked a cigarette and looked for the direction that seemed love motelly. There was always such a district near a bus terminal, and they had a feel ‘d learned to recognise: buildings of a certain size, neon lights, alleys of a certain intimidating narrowness. I saw what looked like a likely direction and set off.

The first love motel I came to was new-looking and had an English sign saying “motel”, which made me think it was probably a more expensive place. I checked anyway, and sure enough it was 45,000 won, which was above my limit. I never paid more than 30,000 won, except in Seoul or occasionally Busan, or in desperation. The next I came to looked more promising; the sign was in Korean and it looked older. I went in, and sure enough there was an old woman on a cot sleeping behind the check-in counter, which I had invariably found to be a good sign. I woke her up – I felt bad, but what could you do? It was 25,000 won. I checked in, the ajumma gave me a toothbrush and disposable razor, and I went up to my room.

It was a decent love motel. About a four on the lurve scale. It had satellite TV, a double bed, an elaborate sexy shower, and a good selection of complimentary toiletries. I called Elizabo. I was pretty tired by then, and she didn’t want to come out to the terminal. She asked if I wanted to catch a taxi into downtown, but I couldn’t be bothered. We made vague plans to catch up the next day, if I finished up early at the Kolon (actually, the orientation would stretch into two days, but that’s another story).

I went downstairs again. The ajumma was awake. I asked her if there was a PC Bang around. She smiled and motioned for me to follow her. We went out on the street and down to the next block, and she pointed out a PC Bang to me. I was moved again by the extent to which Koreans would go to be hospitable. I bowed to her and went off to check my email, hoping there would be a message from the committee.

There wasn’t. I didn’t want to pay for two minutes of internet use so spent some time bumming on facebook, then finished up. It was about nine o’clock by then and I was hungry. There was a restaurant close to my motel. I went in and ordered a dolsot bibimbap. There was no-one in the place except me; the elderly proprietors were watching a drama on a TV. I ate my dinner quickly because they were cleaning up.

I paid and went back to my motel. The ajumma was sleeping again but my key was in a basket on the counter. I took it without waking her and went up to my room. My arm was hurting really badly. I took a hot shower under the bizarre love motel shower fitting, which resembled a UFO. I got out of the shower, turned on the television. My bed had an electric blanket and I switched it on to high, thinking it might help with my arm.

I knew what I probably needed to do was ice it, not heat it. I got an idea. I looked in the bar fridge and sure enough, there were two complimentary cans of iced coffee. I drank one of them. Man, I was so tired. I opened the fridge again to get the other iced coffee, and on second glance noticed that there was a package wedged into its very top, right next to the cooling mechanism.

I pulled it out. It was a plastic bag of fish, left behind by a previous resident of my room, now frozen solid. I put it against my arm. It seemed to work for a little while, but after a few minutes it began to melt and a smell of rotten fish filled the air. I put it back in the fridge and took out the remaining iced coffee. I resisted the urge to drink it, knowing that I needed it for my arm, that I’d want it the next morning.

I sat on my bed and watched TV and iced my arm with the canned coffee. I remember watching CNN International, which had a very long show about the two Koreas on it. It was a nice piece of synchronicity and I watched it with interest. I was feeling tired and happy and a numbing pain from my arm that changed to lightning bolts of agony whenever I shifted in an unfortunate way. The electric blanket from my bed heated up under me, and I would shift across to cooler places. Eventually I got tired; I set my alarm for the next morning, wondering what the next morning would bring. I turned off the light and came back to my bed, turned down the electric blanket to something more sensible and got in. My arm by then was hurting in almost any position, and I arranged my second pillow under it, and lay there, stiffly on my back; I wondered if I would be able to function at all with it the next day; and eventually, with surprising ease, I went to sleep.

A story like this needs an epilogue; some sort of justification, hopefully a better one than my attempt to explain why a dead cat in the snow had anything to do with anything.

The next day I got a call from Nicole, confirming that I was, indeed, meant to be at the Kolon Hotel. I got directions to go there and caught a ridiculously long bus to the place. I did my best to help, both in an official capacity – showing the Gyeongju scholars how to break down and teach a second grade lesson on body parts – and in an unofficial capacity, providing general encouragement and advice on being a TaLK scholar – i.e., I got drunk with a bunch of cool fourth gens. I made some new friends, and left feeling pleased with myself for having acquitted myself as a sociable, engaged and interesting instructor. I caught a bus back with Nicole and taught my final day of fake English camp. The next week I started back on regular classes, and I was into a new semester in Korea.

I don’t think I fictionalised this too much, but can’t swear to the accuracy of all of it. I remember it as the best day of a lot of good days in Korea, but even after having written all this I can’t say why. It was a day with a lot of seasons, a constant motion to it, and that’s part of it. It came in a good week, a week that included my snowy day with my third graders, hanging out with the fourth gens at Kolon Hotel, a random trip to Daegu with Stella to extend her visa, a fun bus ride back from Gyeongju with Nicole. Maybe it was the best month – rediscovering Korea after having been away, feeling very good about being there, feeling comfortable with it.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Was it around then that I tried to quit smoking and had a private emotional meltdown, like I always do when I try to quit smoking? That day – did I know it was as good as that at the time? Is it possible I was tired for a lot of it, that I was stressed that Stella waiting for her package would leave us not enough time to see Geumoland, was I grumpy that Elizabeth didn’t come meet me at the terminal, did my arm hurt much worse than I remember, was I worried for a lot of it about whether I was just supposed to show up at the hotel the next day, and how was I going to get there, and what people would say when I arrived? It’s possible. Maybe even probable. It’s strange; because I’m in a different place now, and I have to construct a bridge to get from here to there; as well as I remember it, there are gaps where I wonder what we talked about, was the light truly as I remember it, was it that time, or another. I wonder if there’s a concrete reality to it, or just a mythology I’ve created. I wonder if other people remember it the way I do.

Waegukin wrote these 9391 words on December 18th, 2011 | Posted in Stories |


2 comments on “Best Day”

  1. Robert says:

    You should watch the YouTube video where Crayon Pop rides the tagada. It’s awesome!

  2. Waegukin says:

    Yes it is! I actually wrote about it in my post on tagadas:


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