Sunday, September 10, 2006

韓国 Part 1: 一人旅

Back in Korea after a five year absence... I really enjoy Seoul, but feel a bit guarded here. Enjoying the place seems almost like an insult to my japanese friends, which is something I feel guilty about on several levels. Once you're caught up in the intricacies of japanese 義理 giri and 恩 on (social obligations / debts of gratitude), it's a hard thing to extricate yourself from. I don't resent my emotional obligations to Japan, but the strength and reach of them startles me sometimes.

At any rate, Seoul is nice, nicer than I remember. The night I arrived I wandered around the area surrounding my hotel, watching the street vendors and sidewalk cafe tables where fashionable Koreans were gathered, eating and laughing. On one corner, older korean men were playing igo, sliding the black and white discs across the thick wooden gameboards with a nonchalant sort of concentration. My commute now from home to work means that I never really get to experience Osaka nightlife, and I wonder how it would compare. Osaka is older, losing itself slowly to Tokyo, and stoically self-aware of the loss. Seoul lacks this tinge of melancholy. 楽観的な町です: an optimistic city.

My hotel itself is fantastic, a no-nonsense garishly korean affair with just the right amount of comfortable squalor. I suspect it doubles as a love hotel. The brochure and map provided by the airport information desk claim it to be located in 'central Seoul'; this translates in practice to the city's printing district. Opening the wooden shutters of my room's tiny window allows in the mechanical clack-clack-clack of the presses, which rolls out of the surrounding warehouse storefronts in heavy, heated waves. A sign in the two-person elevator warns not to push the button for the basement, as this will open into the kitchen area of a restaurant.

Surpringly, the place is teeming with Japanese, and this is the language in which I communicate with the hotel staff. We've chosen to ignore the slight absurdity of this. (Also to be ignored: the fact that I'm speaking more Japanese in Korea than I normally would during a weekend in Osaka.) Over breakfast, I've been able to chat with some of the other guests, mostly younger japanese women travelling on their own. One, a girl from Gifu prefecture, a very rural area of Japan, tells me a story of walking into a coffee shop in Seoul and announcing "I'm looking for korean friends, but I don't speak any Korean whatsoever." She said a group of Koreans who'd done exchange programs in Japan approached her right away. I was impressed by her willingness to risk embarrassment and rejection, not something I myself am terribly good at doing. Her attitude gave me hope for Japan-Korea relations.

My handful of korean words has proved useful: 화장실, 식당, 부탁함니다... I can communicate just enough, but not so much that I feel uncomfortable. You can lose some part of yourself in talking, give things away that I'd rather were controlled and regulated. To be in a place where it is impossible to give up that control is strangely comforting. It's the equivalent of swimming without getting wet. I had thought that these few days of mute solitude would help prepare me to greet my A-100 colleagues, would 'center' me somehow, but am finding the opposite to be the case. As the hour approaches for me to leave for our shared hotel, the slight anxiety is causing my stomach to raise and lower uncomfortably. I hope things go more smoothly than this physical reaction would imply. I know I know I know what I'm afraid of, but am trying not to think about it.

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