I was fine on the flight. All 15, non-stop hours of it. This was mainly due to the fact that for the whole length of it, there was nowhere I could become lost, no language barriers that could cause any potential problems, since all of the Korean Air stewardesses spoke English. But once the plane landed at Incheon International Airport, I knew I was on my own. I was about to descend into a foreign abyss.
While waiting in the line for immigration I had chatted with one of the few other non-Koreans on the flight, coincidentally enough a red head just like me. He used to teach English in South Korea and was now back to visit his Korean girlfriend. Naturally he was not taking the same airport bus into the city’s Gangnam district as I was, so any feelings I had of bravado lasted only a short while. (Seoul is such a massive metropolis that there are multiple bus lines from the airport to the city’s 25 gu, which are local government districts.) After handing the bus driver my ticket I said to him, “Can you let me know which stop is the Marriott?” I’m not sure if he understood me or not, as he just gave a curt nod of his head indicating I should board.
During the ride into the city’s downtown, I felt like Bill Murray’s character did upon arriving in Tokyo in the 2003 film, Lost in Translation. On the outskirts of the city my eyes were amazed by the endless rows of identical 50 story buildings, which I later learned were apartments. Giant Hangul characters on the outside of them made it possible to see which building was which from a far distance. Although the buildings look extremely plain from the outside, and Americans may think resemble inner city housing projects, on the inside, the apartments are another matter. I was fortunate enough to stay with a Korean classmate of mine and her family and their apartment was very elegant.
As we arrived in the downtown city limits, the Asia of my thoughts and dreams exploded in front of me. Mobs of people on the street, bright, neon signs flashing in an alphabet completely foreign to me, buildings that all looked as if King Kong would be scaling them at any moment. When an announcement on the bus came over the loud speaker alerting passengers we were at the Central City Mall stop (the J.W. Marriott in Seoul is connected to the mall), I immediately got up from my seat and stepped off the bus. A moment later I was chastised by the driver who apparently had understood what I asked back at the airport, as he said to me, “no no no, you next stop.” Back I went on the bus and even in my heightened jet lagged state, I felt embarrassed for having gotten at the wrong stop. This, coupled with, for the first time in my life I was the “other,” meant the abyss had only gotten deeper.
A few short minutes later we arrived at the other side of the sprawling Central City Mall, the side that featured the front entrance for the hotel. I’m sure the driver was glad to be rid of the foreign college student at this point, but I still wished him kamsa hamnida which is Korean for thank you. After wheeling my luggage into the lobby area, the extreme politeness of the Korean people was immediately apparent.
I had politely declined the assistance of a bellman, as I didn’t have that much luggage and didn’t want to be going through all my won on my very first day in Seoul. However, I must have appeared completely out of it, for on the floor where my room was located, I was having a hard time knowing which hallway to take when I turned around there was the same bellman. He had followed me. I knew I needn’t be afraid in the least bit. The Korean people are that anxious to help you, to do their job, to ensure that you are okay. When he stepped forward to take my luggage I didn’t even protest and 30 seconds later we had arrived at my room.
Although I was beyond exhausted I did go to the mall to find some dinner, only to become lost on my way back to the hotel unable locate anyone who spoke English well enough to feel comfortable in helping me. When I finally made it back to my room, I took a bath in the luxurious tub in the bathroom that was outfitted in bamboo furnishings, only to doze off in it. I reasoned that for future travels, never stay in a luxurious hotel on your first night after a transpacific flight from the East Coast of the United States-it will be completely wasted since you’ll be so tired.
Before finally surrendering to sleep, I did gaze out the window of my room at the beautiful sight in front of me-skyscrapers so synonymous with Asian skylines, buildings illuminated for miles, and mountain peaks off in the distance.