Last night felt like a disaster.
I was already feeling moody and gloomy after my ferry ride back to Korea. Riding the ferry wasn't like a boat ride (which I love). Because it was a high-speed hydrofoil (I've only ever ridden a ferry like that a few times before), you can't go out on the decks, you basically sit strapped in your seat for 3 hours. I should have signed up for the 10 hour regular ferry, maybe. Riding the ferry was like sitting in a taxying airplane for 3 hours. And while on the ferry, they showed a really depressing tear-jerker movie about some little boys with cancer. It was a Korean movie, with Japanese dubbing, but it was pretty easy to follow the plot. Lots of emotional, teary moments. I actually get pretty strongly affected by such things, I think.
So I was moody. And I was returning to Korea, which was a bit like coming "home" but not really. Partly because I'm always going to be an alien in Korea, no matter how long I spend here. But also because I'm only going to be traveling around a bit, and then really leaving to return to the US. So I was feeling melancholic because it was a bit like it was going to be a goodbye tour.
The hotel I found and checked into seemed alright, at first. But it was really unpleasant. I should have run the other way when I found a complimentary can of RAID in the closet. And there was a neon sign outside the window. And the air conditioner didn't work. Etc., etc. I'm too stubborn (or stingy?) to just write off the money spent on lodging and find something better, and I'm too shy, especially with my disappointing language skills, to argue about things or complain about things to the management. Being a loud, complaining customer is really hard for me.
I got fixated on having some bibimbap for dinner (since I'd come back to Korea). So I found a place that sold bibimbap and ordered some for take out (포장해 주세요…). They clearly understood what I wanted, but apparently weren't the sort of place accostomed to giving take-out. They tried to insist that I stay and eat, but… I was feeling melancholy, as I said, and was really fixated on just taking it back to my room and eating in my private gloom. I was remembering many meals of take-out that I would get from the place near my apartment and take back to eat alone. I really don't like eating in restaurants alone (except maybe fast food joints), I always feel uncomfortable. That's why when traveling alone like I am, I tend to eat a lot of take-out and carry-out type things (although still trying to avoid too much fast food — at least American-style fast food).
So anyway, the woman at the restaurant was actually having a conversation with me. And at one level, I was surprised, because she was attempting to do it in Korean, and I was attempting to answer in Korean, and it was going back and forth, although with some (a lot of) confusion. Why was this surprising? Because this almost never happens. It's one reason learning Korean is so difficult: Koreans don't like to try to talk Korean with foreigners. They must think it's impolite, or frustrating, or … who knows what. It had already happened to me more than 5 times just in the short time between disembarking from my ferry and getting to this restaurant: I attempt to start some kind of exchange in Korean, and I get this bewildered, puzzled look in response, as the look up and realize I'm a foreigner, and they either couldn't understand what I'd said, or that they could but it wasn't the expected English (which they often can't understand either, but at least they understand why they can't understand).
It's so different from Japan. The Japanese always talk to you in Japanese. Even after they see that you're a foreigner. They only ever switch to English if you explicitly ask them to, or persist with several answers in a row in English. Because of this, while in Japan I had more "conversations" (such as they were) in Japanese over 10 days than I could've had in Korea over several months. That was another depressing thing about Korea, coming back from Japan. How can I ever learn Korean when Koreans refuse to speak Korean with me? Perhaps the contrasting Japanese behavior displays a sort of underlying cultural arrogance (it's a bit like the French are reputed to be, right?), but from a language-learner perspective, it makes things so much easier.
Here I was, then, having this "real" conversation in Korean with a Korean restaurant lady, and she's badgering me to eat in her restaurant, and I'm being stubborn because I have this fixed idea that I wanted to eat my bibimbap alone in my crummy hotel room. So she starts chatting about other things as the kitchen staff prepares my take-out. I'm American, yes. I was in Japan, and came back. And wow, most of it is in Korean. I'm feeling mildly please. Then she says, hey, you've got a bit of a paunch. Pointing at my gut.
Now… this is typically Korean, too. This business of openly and flatly commenting on the physical characteristics of strangers. Not always positively, either. "Gee, teacher, you have a lot of gray hair," is something I've heard more times than I can count. And not just students… strangers on the subway, or whatever. I know and understand that for Koreans, it's a way to make conversation – once you get past the awkward first steps (the must-knows: age, place of origin), all topics are open game. It's not meant to be offensive, although I suppose even Koreans would agree it's kind of "low-brow" to make random, negative observations about the physical characteristics of just-met strangers.
So I grinned and agreed. Too much bibimbap, I tried to say. I don't think I said that right. She seemed annoyed I'd returned to the topic of the food (which was a lost battle, for her). And then my food was ready, and I said thank you very much and took it back to my hotel room. They had their revenge, however — there was neither spoon nor chopsticks in the take-out bag (although it was quite delicious and was exactly what I'd been craving). Nevertheless, I ate it guiltily. Because of the paunch.
I've always felt like I could stand to lose a bit more weight, and that just hammered it home. I watch my quantity of food intake pretty carefully, normally, and I walk everwhere. Living in Ilsan, I even fell into and out of and into and out of the habit of going jogging. At my best, I'd go 3-4 times a week, other times, I'd miss a few weeks.
But I've maintained my weight pretty well since losing all that weight back in 2006-7. Still, I could stand to lose more, right? And, I've got a bit of a paunch. Probably, traveling around, despite the huge amount of walking everywhere, I've gained a bit, because I don't have the same kind of discipline for intake: I see something delicious in my touristic meanderings, and I buy it and eat it.
So that made me depressed, as I lurked in my stuffy, mildew-smelling hotel room and tried to go to sleep. I was feeling all kinds of remorse: for deciding to leave Korea (although that's reversible); for failing to learn Korean (this is my hugest bugaboo, probably, given it was always one of the main "reasons" for coming here in the first place); for failing to watch my weight; for not just giving in to the restaurant lady and eating in her restaurant, like she wanted; for trying, yet again, to travel alone, even knowing that rarely works out well for me.
And why is it, anyway, that I travel alone? Well, because that's who there is to travel with. Michelle and I had many things we used to fight about. But we were amazingly compatible, when traveling together. Those were the wonderful times. We never fought about things related to traveling: if we fought while traveling, it was about other things (like that unforgettable knock-down-drag-out argument about Aristotle vs Plato on the drive back from Winnipeg to Minneapolis, one time). We had the same way of traveling: no plan, just go out and look and explore. I miss traveling with Michelle very much. And now, like most of my life, I travel alone. Because traveling is too important to me, and too much fun for me, not to do it; but traveling alone sometimes really depresses me, too.