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Wintertime In Seoul

Wintertime in Seoul

 

     Living for a year in the densely populated city of Seoul can be at once alienating and exhilarating.  Sometimes, despite adversity, or realizations of our own insignificance, friendships are forged that transcend the realities of language and culture, spreading new light on conditions that are all too real, all too human.  This is the story of one such friendship.

     Outside the subway terminal, the resident ants move swiftly and with purpose.  They are as diverse as they are many.  Some are worker ants, medical nurses, and businessmen. Some are students who wear uniforms with books strapped to their backs, and some are soldier ants.  They move through the cold streets with a quiet urgency towards some mysterious destination.  An attractive woman approaches me; dressed smartly with a white button up blouse, conservative skirt, and black buckled shoes.  She smiles and hands me a leaflet.  She is a missionary ant.  She darts through the crowds like a minnow swimming up stream.  With sharp paranoid movements she taps along the edges of the crowd, her eyes always a step in front of her. 

     We move up the steep concrete steps leading into the terminal.  Behind us are the outdoor vendors buzzing with indefinable language; the steam rises from their mouths in syllables of laughter and hysteria.  The air is thick and clogged like an artery.  Vehicle exhaust and grill smoke fills our lungs.  John climbs the stairs ahead of me.  He is an alien from Barbados, who towers over the resident ants; his skin black as onyx.  At the turnstile we slip our tickets into the mouth of a machine that momentarily unlocks a rotating trio of arms. We pass through, and descend into a deeper level of the terminal. 

     The steps from the main terminal open to an outdoor platform where passenger ants line along its edges waiting for the next train.  John and I work our way towards the end of the platform.  The passenger ants rarely make eye contact, but we catch glimpses of their stares and sense the weight of their curiosity.  In the distance we hear the electrical hum of the train.  It approaches like a mechanical snake; its underbelly slithers along the rails, before slowing to a quiet hiss and stopping in front of us.  

     The belly of the snake slides open and we step inside.  We find our way to the end of a boxed segment and grip on to one of the green hand straps that hang from its roof.  Unlike western trains the car is clean to the point of being sterile.  Soon the snake is in motion, twisting through the congested city.  Among us, the boxcar ants are bundled up in thick coats and scarves.  They observe us over the tops of newspapers.  The tangy sweet smell of Kim’ chi fills the compartment.   John is watching the world move by through the windows, apartments stacked on top of other apartments, building after building of compartmentalized lives. 

     The snake stops at the next terminal, where some depart and others enter.  New eyes stare back at us from behind scarves.  We are too obvious to hide…a tall bald headed black man and a pale blonde hair man won’t blend into this scenery.  We are the western freak show ants of the boxcar.  A toddler ant approaches John, unfazed by our untouchable status.   She hands him a stick of gum and talks, a flood of talk.  She is shaking her little finger and pointing at him in a lecturing tone.  John looks dumbfounded.  I’m laughing out loud, as the toddler puts her hands on her hips, stomps once, and marches away.  Another toddler points at John and yells, “That, Shaq O’Neal!”  The boxcar erupts in laughter. 

     Eight stops later we arrive at the heart of the city.  This is the multi-cultural center of Seoul called Ita’won.   We dismount the snake onto a bustling street of vendors and restaurants.  All around us are a million smells and sounds, light and movement.  We spy other western ants moving about with shopping bags filled with clothes and various souvenirs.  We pass by a market where the smell of raw fish and cabbage is nearly unbearable.  At one street side location elderly ants are gathered in a circle throwing down cards, yelling what could be curse words at each other.  We search out western influence and find a nearby KFC.  We sit sipping sodas in the second story restaurant, and watch the ants as they continue to bustle about.  Outside the glass the world is in full motion…cars pass by, horns blow, busses stop and go again.  It’s the ultimate ant farm, and we watch muted behind the plate glass window. 

    After ant watching we head out to the street where I buy some authentic Cuban cigars, a few shirts, and a pair of $10.00 Nikes.  John buys a new hat, and a few remote control cars to send his boys back home.  That night, we stop at a tavern for yakeemando and ramen.  The steam from the soup rises up and sweats against our wind froze faces.  We drink some potent resident ant concoction called Soju, and soon we are warm and full of life.  We laugh and tell stories about our homeland, our culture, and for a second we forget that we are aliens.  For a time we are just a couple of buddy ants a long, long way from home.

     Later, back on the train, we’re still too drunk to notice the stares.