Monday, July 27, 2009

New Places and New (and familiar) Faces

I took a weekend trip to 울산 (Ulsan) on the south side of Korea last weekend to meet my friend, who has been an email and instant messenger friend since January or so. His name is 성동 (Sungdong), and I helped him find a British friend a while ago, whose name is Reza. I spent the entire weekend with those two guys. We went to 부산 (Busan) as well and met Reza's friend Eve and some of her friends. Basically, it was a social bonanza and exactly what I needed to get over my stir-craziness. As far as my impression of the area, it's about the same as the Seoul area, but with a beach and higher mountains. It's gorgeous, really, and I look forward to returning whenever I get the chance. I feel right at home with 성동 (Sungdong) and Reza, like they could be my cousins or brothers, and I'm sure I will miss them after a while. By the time I got back to 분당 (Bundang), I was refreshed, a little tan, exhausted from traveling, and missing my friend 규원 (Edward) a lot.

I got back home and back to daily life. 규원 (Edward) took me to a 찜질방 (jjimjilbang, like a sauna and public bath house) Monday night. He researched which one was the most famous in Seoul, as he had done for a noodle restaurant the week before. It turned out to be the new spa at Garden 5, an under-construction 3-building mega-mall which takes up 3 city blocks. It was difficult to find, and when we finally got there he tried to explain what I was supposed to do. For all of you Americans, let me just say it's something you've probably never tried before. There are separate shower rooms for men and women. When you enter, you get a key that works for two lockers: one for your shoes and one inside the shower area. You also get two hand towels (Koreans generally don't use large towels like Americans do) and a shirt and shorts; in this place brown for women and tan for men. When I walked in the door to the women's side, the first thing I noticed (which 규원 (Edward) had warned me of) was that most of the women there were 100% naked and completely unashamed. Korean society is very conservative about sexual things, and here before my eyes were girls and women of all ages with absolutely no clothes on, acting completely normally. I asked a middle-aged woman in lacy lingerie where I was supposed to go, adding that it was my first time. She led me to a locker with my number (17) and said to put everything in there and then the shower room was the other way. I was unsure and embarrassed, and started taking off articles of clothing one by one, starting with my socks, jewelry, and hair tie. I watched as another woman wearing clothes passed me to go further into the locker area. I pretended to be primping and checking cell phones messages until I saw her walk by the other way, completely naked and holding a towel. Thus, I was assured that was what I was supposed to do. By then I was in pants and a bra, so I stripped and followed suit. In the shower room there was a large bath with some women relaxing and girls playing, and rows of half-height showers with mirrors and stools. There were also full-height showers without any dividers, like swimming locker rooms in high schools. I saw a couple of women getting massages, too, but I didn't know if you had to pay for that or not. I was still self-conscious about my naked body so I didn't want to draw attention to myself by exploring or asking questions. I just found a shower with a stool in an empty row, sat down, spent about 3 minutes figuring out how to turn the water on, and grabbed the bar of soap. After bathing, I walked back to my locker completely bare past all of the other completely bare women and donned the brown shirt and shorts. With my key on its stretchy bracelet around my wrist, I entered the main area to meet 규원 (Edward).

He had said to meet him in the 찜질방 (jjimjilbang), which is the sauna area, in 20 minutes. Neither of us had ever been there, so we couldn't have anticipated the fact that there were 3 of them, plus 2 freezer rooms (don't ask me why Koreans have cold rooms and hot rooms in their spas, but 규원 (Edward) didn't think it was odd). There were also two rows of what look like Western half-circle brick fireplaces at the entrance, but are person-length tube-like room things with heat lights in them. Sorry for the choppy description, but it's not something I'd ever seen before so I don't really know what else to compare it to. Anyway, the place also had a hot and cold water purifier (standard just about everywhere like water fountains in America), a little playground area for kids, a snack bar, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a large flat-screen TV in view of a row of massage chairs, a PC room with internet at every computer, an indoor balcony area with a view of an indoor park on the floor below, a room decorated like the outside with a bird in a birdcage and a bench swing, a movie theater downstairs with lazyboy chairs in rows, a pile of sleeping mats, and two or three super-hot sauna areas that look somewhat like Native American medicine man sweat lodges if I had to compare them to something Western. I might have missed something in that list because it was quite overwhelming for me and we didn't do everything.

Anyway, I was petrified. Here I was, my cell phone in my locker, the only foreigner, where everyone was dressed the same, and I didn't know where the hell to wait for my friend. I looked in all of the 찜질방 (jjimjilbang) but I didn't see him, so I figured I had come out before he had. But what if he was waiting for me somewhere? What if I was just stupid and couldn't find the right place? I asked a little girl where the 찜질방 (jjimjilbang) was, just in case I had misunderstood what I was seeing and there was one big one where I would find 규원 (Edward). She confirmed what I thought, that there were three of them, and scampered off. I like asking children questions because I don't feel as ridiculous and insecure, and because they use easier words. I checked all three, but he wasn't in any of them. I decided to go back to the main area in view of the men's shower exit, and I watched TV while keeping a nervous eye on the door, above which was a clock. After what felt like forever because I was so anxious (I just did something completely new by myself and then emerged to a place where I was helpless and with which I was also completely unfamiliar), but the clock said was only about five minutes, 규원 (Edward) emerged.

After exploring a little, we decided to check out the movie room, which was showing American Gangster at the time. Neither of us had seen it before, so we settled into neighboring, big, comfy chairs (being clumsy and nervous, I almost knocked mine over), and started to watch the movie. After a while, he asked if it was okay if he took my hand. With butterflies in my stomach I agreed, and we spent the rest of the movie hand in hand, occasionally chit-chatting a little. I guess you could say that was the moment we started dating.

규원 (Edward) is pretty crazy in a way I really like. Not destructive or cruel crazy, just individual crazy. So far the only problem I can imagine is the language barrier problem. At the beginning of any relationship, if you forsee problems, it's doomed to fail. But, I'm learning Korean quickly and will try even harder for him, and I'm sure his English conversation will continue to improve as it has been over the last month or however long we've known each other. He read this blog and could understand 95%, and he reads English language newspapers and has very little trouble understanding. So, vocabulary and comprehension isn't an issue; he's just not used to listening and speaking (very normal in Korea because of the traditional educational system's stress on test-taking rather than conversation when it comes to English). While I'm learning a completely new language, he's learning a pretty new aspect of a familiar language. We'll keep getting closer and closer to meeting in the middle and eventually we won't need excessive body language anymore. He's completely devoted to me, as I'm quickly becoming to him. He lives far away from me, but that hasn't been much of a hindrance, as he's willing to come all the way to where I live with no complaints. I would gladly go to him as well, but recently I've had almost no time and have been constantly exhausted for more than two weeks. Now, because of the new subway line 9, which literally just opened, it takes half an hour for him to get to 강남 (Gangnam) instead of the hour it took before. 강남 (Gangnam) is about 20-30 minutes away from my home by bus, depending on which bus I take and how the traffic is, plus there's usually up to a 15 minute wait for a bus. So, distance isn't a real problem anymore thanks to serendipity and Seoul Metro. I haven't had a chance to do something half as nice for him as he does for me on a weekly basis, but I'll think of something. Sorry, the only pictures we have together are on his cell phone, but I'll try to remember to pull out my camera next time I see him.

Well, as always, I have written way more than necessary on one topic. Now I'm really tired and it's 4am so I can't tell you about the other exciting news I have. I'll jot down the other biggest event to satisfy your curiosity. My friend Julia from Korean class back in America (a year ago) moved to the north side of Seoul two weeks ago. FINALLY, I got up to see her with my friend 선형 (Seonhyeong/Sunhyoung) and we had a girls' night at Julia's place on Friday. I don't even wanna talk about my transportation nightmare that turned a 2-hour trip with time to spare to see 선형 (Sunhyoung)'s new room into 3 hours with no time to spare. Anyway, we had a good time, and the next day Julia went home with me. We got some breakfast and I showered while she watched cable TV in Korea for the first time (hers doesn't work), and then we went out to meet someone for a short while. Then we shopped, watched a little more ridiculous TV, talked, and headed to 강남 (Gangnam) to meet 주환 (Joohwan). Remember him? It's been about 3 months since the last time I saw him! Way too long~! It was really great to meet again, and he and Julia got along well so it wasn't too awkward or anything.

When I say it was really great to meet 주환 (Joohwan) again, I mean that in a few ways. One, of course, is that we're friends and it's been a while and I missed him. Two is that I have an old friend in Korea now. I know 4 months isn't a really long time, but with all the changes and new experiences I've had, it feels like a lifetime. I barely even remember living in America at this point! Also, I've had a lot of friends come and go, but seeing 주환 (Joohwan) again is like validation that I can and have made a lasting friendship out of all of this. Even when we couldn't see each other, we sent texts back and forth periodically, which is something I don't generally do. I'm one of those if-you-call-me-it-should-be-to-plan-a-meeting people. Here, I send texts just to keep in touch with 주환 (Joohwan) and also 성동 (Sungdong, the friend I traveled to visit in the south). I barely even keep in touch with my own family, so it's really surprising to me that I do that. Mostly it's replies, but I've even initiated a couple little conversations. This shows me something I hadn't expected: I'm learning to value friendship more and to lean on simple conversations for emotional support. Just knowing that my friend on the other side of the country is hanging out with his friends this weekend makes me feel like I have a little more meaning in my life. Places change, many friends come and go. Oddly, though, those are the only two of my friends here that I value in that way. Maybe it's because they're both around the same age as my brother and they treat me like a little sister. I do miss my brother quite a bit, so maybe because my friendships with them remind me of him they're very comforting. Also, I feel like I'm important to them to about the same extent that they are important to me. I don't like unbalanced friendships in which a friend relies on me more than I rely on that friend, or vice versa. Although it's very rare that I rely on a friend for anything more than trivial favors or trivial advice. That's reserved for my two best friends: Anna (my longest-lasting friendship ever) and 은영 (Jenny) (my former roommate). For me, I have to really feel close to someone to call or send a message when I'm in trouble or feeling down or afraid. Maybe my walls are coming down as I'm growing up here.

Oh, and now it's 4:35am. Really, I'm going to sleep now. Oh my god. So yawny.

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