by Bart Schaneman
Chyaru was flying in from Osaka and she wanted me to pick her up, so I went down to the bus stop in front of the Hyundai Department store and caught a blue bus going west. I rode for 15 minutes, stopping every three or four blocks, before the driver looked back and asked me where I was trying to go.
“The airport,” I said.
“No, no,” he said. “Go no.”
He stopped and told me to get off. A man stepped off the bus with me and showed me how to get to the airport from that stop, where to stand, when it was coming.
“Brown bus,” he said.
I should have seen the signs. Things that start off rough have a tendency to stay that way. Fifteen minutes passed and no buses came. Her ETA was noon and it was 10 till 11. I couldn’t wait any longer so I hailed a taxi—I had 36,000 won in my billfold that I wasn’t sure was going to be enough. We drove over the bridge connecting the island and I watched the meter pass 20,000, then 25,000, and at Gimpo I was sure I would have to get out and walk. When we finally got to the airport the meter read 32,000 won. I gave the driver all the cash in my wallet.
“One more,” he said, holding up a 5,000 won bill.
“Opso,” I said. “I don’t have any more money.”
He didn’t believe me. I showed him my empty wallet.
“5,000 won,” he said.
I shook my head, got out and I walked to the information booth, found out her gate, and took a seat on a bench facing the doors she would come through after customs. It was after 12. Did I miss her flight? Did I even remember what she looked like? Was she already sitting there? I watched the flight board flash from Korean to Chinese to Japanese to English. After a while her flight arrived. But where was she? Really, what did she look like? The national soccer team had just returned from beating Jordan and were being interviewed against the wall. Was her hair long or short? Was she tall? No. Probably not. I checked the faces around me but none of them registered. I sat down and thought about the absurdity of my position. I thought about going home.
Woman after woman passed in front of me as I sat in plain sight thumbing through old text messages on my phone, keeping my head down but not hiding. After 20 minutes a girl came through rolling a short black suitcase behind her, stomping on the tile in 4-inch heels, wearing sunglasses with her hair pulled back. She smiled when she saw me so I stood up and when she slowed down I knew it was her. We executed an awkward hug. I took her suitcase from her.
“Sorry,” she said. “Late flight. Sorry.”
It was obvious she had been practicing that line. I had forgotten, or maybe didn’t ever really know, how little English she spoke. We got on a bus back to Seoul and sat next to the window. I took out the Lonely Planet guide book to show her pictures of the city, to see if maybe there was something she wanted to do while she was here. I had a few pictures on my camera of the city and I showed those to her, too. She didn’t have much of an opinion on anything. We weren’t very far into it and I felt like we were already thin on things to talk about.
At Hongik Station we got off the bus and walked through the neighborhood to my apartment. I pulled her suitcase—she stomped in her high heels, her hands out at her sides with her handbag in the crook of her arm.
“Hungry,” she said.
“We’ll get you some food.”
When we walked in to my apartment she said hello to it in Japanese.
“Japan same,” she said, looking around and pointing at my walls. She counted my plants. She picked up the remote for the television.
“It doesn’t work. I don’t watch it,” I said.
She shook her head and looked at me like she didn’t understand. Jesus, this is going to be a long three days.
We left and took a taxi up to Insadong where a man wearing a wooden mask played the piano on the street. People took pictures of people. People took pictures of people taking pictures. We took pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures. At the end of an alley we found a restaurant and sat down and picked at the side dishes. The waitress spoke to Chyaru, not able to tell she wasn’t Korean. Chyaru only smiled and nodded. I tried to explain to the waitress that she was Japanese but she didn’t understand. We ordered kimchi chiggae and bulgogi. She told me more about her family. She said her brother was a student, her mother owned a flower store, and her father was a businessman. She said he spent most of his days playing the Japanese casino game Pachinko.
After we ate we walked down to Jongno and along the Cheonggye stream. The grass stood tall along the pathway. We walked together weaving through the coming Koreans. She stopped under a bridge to take off her heels and slide down a rock and put her feet in the water. From the bank we watched a boy splashing, kicking his feet in the water, happy.
“Good-do,” she said. “Korea good-do.”
As we walked to the end of the stream we got a lot of long looks from the people we passed—mostly from the men. At City Hall a woman approached us and gave Chyaru a plea for support for her protest group. I told the woman she was Japanese but the woman thought I was putting her on.
Chyaru wanted to change her shoes so we went back to Hongdae, stopping first at the Family Mart for bottles of bokbunja and baeksaeju. In my apartment I took out a deck of cards and sat on the floor in front of the coffee table.
“You know speed?” I asked her.
“Speed-do,” she said. “Speed-do?”
“Right, yes, speed-do.”
She knew the game but a different way to play. I poured us another shot but she didn’t seem to want to drink. She said it was too “sweet-do.” So instead I took her to a Nepalese restaurant in my neighborhood. We ordered nan, dal makhani and chicken curry. I drank Cass and she drank gin. We tore off pieces of the hot, buttered nan and spooned the curry onto the bread. The food was bright, vivid red and yellow, and the spices gave it an energy and warmth.
That night along the Han River people walked and rode bicycles on the pathways. Windows from apartment buildings reflected the neon lights of the bridges. The gray river water absorbed the lights of small boats that cruised slowly up the river and men set up rows of long fishing poles on the banks with bobbers set out in the water. They sat cross-legged next to green soju bottles, waiting for a bite. We walked to the fence on the bank. I thought about how I had once sat on the bank of the same river with a girl I had loved and we had watched the blinking lights of the skyscrapers and imagined they were talking to each other. I could see the same building, the same lights, hear what we had talked about. But instead I was with this Japanese girl now. She took pictures with her phone and showed me a video of her and her friends playing on a beach in Wakayama. I wondered what it meant that she was there with me. What the hell did this have to do with anything, and why were we doing it? What did she want? What did it mean? We took a cab back to my apartment, tired from the day. She went outside to smoke and talk to her friends on the phone. She came back in and asked to use the shower.
“Long time shower. Long time, OK?” she asked.
“Sure, no problem.”
“Face change, OK? Shower face change. No makeup. Makeup off. Face change. OK?”
I sat on my bed and read a book about how civilizations fail. After at least an hour when she came out her hair was down and her face was pale, much whiter than mine. The majority of her eyebrows were washed off. She put on a t-shirt and got into bed. Her hair was like a soft broom, her hands like a child’s. She smelled like something I couldn’t recognize. I had been in this situation before, but that night I was sleeping next to something I couldn’t understand, a kind of formless spirit. She touched me and giggled. I feigned exhaustion. She said she wasn’t tired. I didn’t know what was going to happen or what I wanted to happen. She looked different than anything or anyone I had ever seen and she was in my bed. I studied her face as she fell asleep. She thrashed and kicked at me while she slept. I stayed awake most of the night.
In the morning she wanted to go to the ocean so I researched the closest beach, took down directions to the train from the information hotline, and a taxi drove us down to the train station. I read the newspaper and she slept. People on the train stared at us. An hour later we got off at the Dong Incheon stop and took another bus to Wolmido. We followed old men and women talking excitedly about going to the ocean. On one side of the boardwalk, ferries took passengers to other islands, on the other side ajummas sat on stools in front of fish and seafood restaurants calling to us, some getting up off stools to pitch their restaurants to Chyaru, who of course didn’t understand. We walked further down, past norae bangs, billiards parlors, and restaurants serving pasta and pizza.
We decided on a restaurant on the second floor with a large window overlooking the bay. The woman brought out a bowl of mussels and a bowl of cuttlefish. After the food, which was poor and too expensive, we both needed a cigarette, but I didn’t smoke anymore. We went down to the edge of the boardwalk and sat under a small shelter. Without language, without an ability to communicate properly it didn’t matter that I sat on the bench next to her—trying to talk with her was continuously frustrating.
Down at the end of the boardwalk was a dead amusement park. Stopped Ferris wheels and carousels, rusting Scramblers and Sizzlers, empty balloon booths and clown’s mouth booths. Everything was stopped. Murals of badly drawn pop culture figures on the boards behind the rides. Abandoned cotton candy stands. As we walked through it I took her hand and she laughed. At the end of the park we turned into the trees toward the center of the island. On one side were walls with razor wire keeping people out of yards and on the other side a field of flowers. Marigolds, dandelions, feverfew, poppies, sunflowers. We talked about the names of the flowers—some of them were the same in English and Japanese. I took pictures of her and the butterflies that landed on the flowers. The path took us up toward the center of the island.
“In Osaka,” she said. “I two jobs. One department store. One hostess. One week two nights. Wednesday and Friday. One bar. Some beer. Businessman. Touch arm.”
“OK,” she said.
She said “OK” with a sharp sound, like the Japanese say “hai!” for yes. It would take me longer than it should have to know what her confession about her employment meant.
We walked around the edge of the park in the shade of the deciduous trees until we found a lookout point where we could see across the water to a shipyard and watched the cranes unload shipping containers off of cargo ships. After we walked around the entire island we went back to the bus stop and took the bus to the train station and rode the train back to the city.
Back in Hongdae we went to a street in my neighborhood with samgyeopsal and galbi restaurants. Restaurants with open fronts, where inside short stools were arranged in circles around waist-high steel grills. We went in to one I liked and ordered beef, beer, and soju. I told her what the words were for the things on the table in Korean and English and asked her what they were in Japanese. The woman who ran the restaurant thought she was Korean. The woman put her hand up to her face with the thumb and pinkie out in the shape of a telephone and pointed to both of us. Chyaru didn’t understand. She said something to the woman in Japanese and the woman said something back in Korean. It was a conversation I was happy to avoid translating.
After the awful island meal we were both hungry and we stabbed at the side dishes while the beef cooked—chunks of meat turning from red to brown. When the pieces were ready we picked them from the grill, wrapped them in lettuce and kaenip leaves with garlic and mushrooms and stuffed them in our mouths. We ate kimchi off the grill and made soju toasts. I ordered more beer.
After the food, we walked down to the park where Josh was stabbed. We drank tall cans of OB Blue and watched a woman who might have been a man in a dress swing with a face of blissful detachment. Strange looks and vibes of hostility from passing men. It was a country full of people who stared when I was alone—once I was with what I assumed they thought was one of their women, the stares took on a different feeling. After the beer we stopped at a flower shop and I bought a plant.
“You like flower. Like plant. Cute-do,” she said, holding my arm. We swapped the plant for my camera and took a taxi to Namsan Tower.
The driver wasn’t taking us a way that I knew or recognized. Seoul is a big city, and there is of course always more than one way to get somewhere, but sometimes you can just tell when you’re in the hands of an inept man. Couple that with my frustration in the inability to communicate between me and the Japanese girl and I spoke up.
“Where are you taking us?” I asked the cab driver. He addressed Chyaru, saying something to her neither of us understood.
“What?” she asked me.
“He’s taking us for a ride. The long way. Namsan Tower,” I said to him. “Namsan Tower.”
The driver sensed the tension in my voice. He called into his office and reported the situation. I could hear him saying something about “waegook saram,” or foreigner, to the dispatcher.
We eventually arrived with a higher fare than the trip should have required, but unable to negotiate we paid the man and got out. Somehow Chyaru was in her high-heels again and we had a long way to walk. I pushed her to make it up the hill to the glowing spire.
At the top of the hill artists had strung floating white men on strings from light poles and they hung in the night, shining in the dark. We walked to the lookout point. On the fence were hundreds of padlocks that couples had hung to symbolize their love. They had picked it up from an Italian novel. I looked at all the locks then I looked at her. Neither of us felt love in us, neither of us knew why we were here. Nothing we did together had a future, or a meaning, or a purpose. So we did what the people around us did. We took pictures of ourselves.
For a long time we stood at the railing looking out at the city lights of the Seoul night. I used my telephoto lens to peer down into the city, into the windows, into living rooms and bedrooms where I imagined I saw women organizing clothes in closets, boys on computers with red eyes, girls talking on cell phones, men drinking alone. Then we went to the tower restaurant for a drink where we were both glad we had something to look at that eased the pressure of conversation. The waitress kept trying to talk to Chyaru and Chyaru wasn’t finding it funny anymore. She flew off on a rant at her in Japanese and the woman went away.
Back at my place I laid on the bed while she washed off her face. When she came to bed she laid down next to me. She squeezed my calf muscle and laughed. Here, in the bed, we could communicate without talking. She stroked my arm. I turned on the fan.
“Fan-do?” she asked. “Fan? OK?”
“It’s fine,” I said. “It’s not going to kill you.”
We tried to sleep but couldn’t. She pushed her way into the middle of the bed and thrashed in the sheets, her hair whipping me in the face.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Go to sleep,” I said, but I don’t think she understood.
In the morning I made tea. She spent an hour drawing her face back on. We walked down to the bus stop in front of the Hyundai Department store. I helped the man put her suitcase in the hold of the bus. She got on without a hug or a handshake.
A few days later she sent me an email.
Thank you. I have fun time in Korea. Sorry my English so bad. Come Japan. Sleep to my house.
That was it, the last I ever heard from her.
Bart Schaneman lives in western Nebraska, where he is the assistant editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald. He spent five years in Korea teaching English and working for newspapers. He is most recently the author of This Expat Life, a collection of essays about living abroad. You can find him on Twitter at @bartschaneman and Tumblr at bartschaneman.tumblr.com.
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