Today was a day that restored my faith in the value of traveling with no plans whatsoever. In the importance of allowing serendipity to guide one's footsteps, and just see where things lead.
I have come to Suwon – one of my Korean home towns, at this point. I feel very at ease in this city, although I only technically lived here for about two months, in February and March of this year. I didn't come on the bus – I got a ride with an acquaintance, a Korean man with excellent English who happens to be a doctor in Yeonggwang. We had a wide-ranging conversation about many topics, and he got me riffing on linguistics. He may have regretted this, as I can tend to get a little bit too enthusiastic on my favorite subject, and I maybe have overwhelmed him with my talk-talk-talk.
The day was grey and overcast, with low-lying clouds draping themselves over verdent green mountaintops like sleeping kittens. The damp, green fields of South Korea's breadbasket alternately zoomed and crept past, depending on the flow of traffic – which was bad. Traffic in Korea, during the Chuseok holiday, is like traffic in the US during Thanksgiving. It's as if God went up to a mountaintop and yelled: "OK, everybody… switch cities! Now!"
We finally got to Suwon's old city walls' south gate (Paldalmun) at around 130. I went to the guesthouse where I like to stay, and got my friend Mr Choi's phone number from the manager there – I'd lost Mr Choi's number because of my broken cellphone, last month.
Mr Choi said, basically, "Oh wow, Jared, hello. Go to the tea-seller's shop and wait there!" He said it in Korean. I wasn't even sure I'd understood. But I deposited my bag into a room at the guesthouse, and ran out and down to the tea-seller's shop (see [broken link! FIXME] old blog posts if you're wondering who the tea-seller is). There was the tea-seller man, and some friend of his with a very luxurious Samsung Renault car, still smelling of new-car-smell.
We drove to the tea-seller's apartment, where Mr Choi was hanging out with a bunch of the tea-seller's family, friends and relatives. They'd literally just cleared the table after their feast as I walked in. They insisted I eat something – so they set a single setting with a modest Chuseok mid-day feast and watched me eat as they drank tea and chatted about whether or not my Korean Language ability had improved. Well, they probably chatted about other things as well, including the weather.
After I finished eating, we drank tea alternating with shots of 12 year scotch whiskey that someone had presented as a gift to the tea-seller, out of the same diminutive cups (the tea and the whiskey had the same amber color, and at one point I became a bit confused about what had been poured in my cup, much to everyone's amusement).
The tea-seller's children put in a shy appearance (but it was pleasing that they seemed to remember me fondly – I'd provided them with "free" English tutoring back in March as a sort exchange for my crash course in Korean tea-culture and the tea-seller's general kindness and friendship, among other things).
Actually, as I sat, gazing out the window at the overcast early afternoon, I reflected that these Koreans were possibly the kindest, most generous Koreans I have met in Korea, among many kind and generous people – I felt amazingly at ease and welcome and comfortable. I need to remember to get the tea-seller's name and email address from Mr Choi … it's so strange in Korea that it's possible to become pretty close friends with someone and not know their name, but that's the way it works, especially if they're older than you.
We spent a few hours there, drinking a great deal of 보이차 [bo-i-cha = Chinese "puer" tea], and it was a pretty sympathetic Korean immersion environment.
After that, we drove in Mr Choi's new car (he has gotten out of managing the guesthouse, and is working for a disabled-person's advocacy organization – he seems to be doing much better than when I knew him last winter) to a movie theater and watched a movie, rather spontaneously. Chuseok is a big movie-going day (much like Christmas in the US), and we saw the opening day of a Korean movie called "퀴즈왕" [kwi-jeu-wang = quiz prince], about a bunch of inept people who enter a quiz show contest after meeting in a police station one night having all been involved in a giant and surreal traffic accident. I didn't really follow the intricacies of the plot, although I gathered something about the quiz show's supposedly "impossible" final question was revealed in some piece of evidence that everyone had had a chance to see while at the police station. About halfway through the movie, I thought, "this movie is a cross between 'Crash' and 'Barney Miller', seen through the filter of magic-realist Korean cinema." That about sums it up. I think, despite not having understood it well, I liked it better than Mr Choi: "재미없었어!" was his melodramatic lament, as we made our way out of the theater.
Actually, that's the first time I've been to a Korean movie, without subtitles, in a theater, and more-or-less at least had some idea what was going on. More confidence-building, on the language front.
After that, Mr Choi and I looked for an open restaurant. It was like looking for an open restaurant on Christmas day, in the US. We found a little joint a few blocks from the Paldalmun, and we ate 부대지개 [bu-dae-ji-gae = "Army Camp" stew]. I've had this many times, over the years, in Korea, but I don't think I've ever mentioned it before. It's basically a bunch of things that might be found in a Korean army base, thrown together and cooked into a stew: ramyeon (ramen), spam, hot dogs, kimchi, grass and weeds, tofu…. Delicious? It seems to be a popular thing to order after a hard night of drinking. All Mr Choi and I had had was way too much tea, and a few shots of whiskey, but it was a good meal. The restaurant lady was impressed by my ability to eat kimchi – some Koreans are, when they see a "foreigner" eating kimchi – and she kept bringing more.
Finally, the day was more-or-less ended at a reasonable hour, and I headed back to the guesthouse in the first chilly evening I've experienced in months, walking down the familiar alleyways of old Suwon. Is fall finally coming? How appropriate that there should be the barest hint of the Siberian months ahead, on Chuseok evening. The drizzle felt wonderful on the back of my neck. I shivered.