Some time ago, with a trip to Seoul, South Korea on the horizon, I found myself reflecting on the single-serving friends I made during my first visit there. I say ‘single-serving’ because I never expected to see, or think of, or feel much about them again. Little did I know that I would feel deeply for them over the months that followed.
It started with a 24 hour layover in Seoul. On the heels of the incredible popularity of PSY’s Gangnam Style – the song being a jab at poseurs living large in the wealthy Gangnam-gu neighborhood – how could I resist a taste of the Korean good life?
I arrived at Incheon International Airport [ICN] in the late afternoon, cleared customs with my colorful visitor information form, and booked a bus ticket for the long ride into the city for ₩15,000 (about $15). I had already settled in on the Ritz-Carlton in the Gangnam-gu neighborhood, after reading a review that commented: “There is nothing here that a tourist would be interested in.” Sold!
My suite had two computerized commodes with heated seats, and a curious smoke mask that looked more like a supervillain transformation kit.
Out in the bitterly cold February night air, it was getting dark and the restaurants in the nearby alleys were already teeming with nightlife.
I found a pork barbecue restaurant by spotting its neon pig. I settled in and opted for the full portion of do-it-yourself barbecue. My hosts stoked my in-table hibachi and brought me various cuts of pork and a wide array of mix-and-match sides and sauces, explaining popular preparations for each.
I tended my pork carefully, but apparently not to local standards, given how often the host tended to me versus other patrons. He was my first single-serving friend.
The only thing that might throw the average Western traveler was that water was served from a used plastic bottle. I drank it anyway.
Back on the street, it was darker out and even more bitterly cold. I walked up and down the lanes to take it all in. I walked for an hour before seeing another Westerner. I stood out at 200 lbs and sporting a full beard. Some people gave me a wide berth on the street.
I checked out the Gangnam Style sign and watched groups of young Koreans bubble up from the train stations below ground.
I ventured across a major thoroughfare into a more residential neighborhood. I found stalls displaying goods late into the night.
Finally succumbing to the cold, I headed back to the Ritz for the ultimate Gangnam experience, club Eden. As I strolled up to the entrance, a Ferarri and other high-end European cars rolled in. Cover was a bit steep at ₩30,000 (about $30), but included your first drink (Miller High Life were ₩10,000, $10). It was among the most intense nightclubs I’d ever been in. First and foremost, deafeningly loud. Music, lights, fog, confetti, mirrors, lasers, and air jets all assaulting your senses. Some patrons threw their arms around me, saying “celebrity” and gesturing at my beard and all of the Western (read: Hollywood) connotations that came along with it. I made some more single-serving friends.
The next morning, ears still numb from Eden, I noticed that many young women were dressed in the traditional Hanbok. They were celebrating the “Festival of the Moon,” as they called it for me in English, although I think “Lunar New Year” may be more common. One young woman greeting guests at the Ritz posed for a photo with me. She seemed disappointed for me that I only had the prior evening and the remainder of the morning in the city.
I headed out for a walking lunch of dried squid and bottled double espresso.
My last single-serving friend was a young woman who gave me an approving nod and smile after taking note of my lunch.
In the days that followed, tensions would escalate with North Korea enough to draw global attention. I thought back to everyone I’d met and the lingering pain they must feel from separation, the longing to reunite, the acute stress of a hostile neighbor, and the redoubling of the pain knowing that families may be split across both sides of a violent conflict.
I think back on my single-serving friends from time to time and wish them well.