December 30, Back again (again)

This goodbye was much harder than the last and I’ll miss my family terribly. I look forward to visiting again soon and doing all the American things I can’t do here.

Korea welcomed me with below freezing weather. It was strange to touch down in the sense that everything was still different (Koreans everywhere! Bidets!) and yet felt not a bit unsettling as it had the first few times.

The procedures required between disembarking and freedom encapsulated Asia Time no less than I expected.

Army boys helped me install the quarantine app. At the next station I dropped my document binder twice, dumping all my papers over the feet of the more serious-looking immigration officer and thus neutralizing the entire point of organization. Oh well. She didn’t mind.

She did ask if I spoke Korean and I’m too seasoned to fall for that trick! Honey, there is a 2000% chance your English is better than my Korean, especially in immigration jargon.

Past her, I gave my hard-won negative COVID test to the final immigration officer who didn’t seem to understand a lick of English. She flipped slowly through my Urgent Care printouts as if English might suddenly become comprehensible if she simply looked harder. I told her my negative result was on the third page which offered her some relief and she waved me through the gate after taking a horrid post-flight photo.

Only a baby stood between me and the baggage claim. He was extremely fat and cried until he coughed and nearly gagged. Then I remembered I, too, was an extremely fat baby that used to cry until I threw up. What a strange little parallel.

When I finally pulled my luggage trolley through the sliding glass doors, a whole new set of hazmat men greeted me.

The first two young men whispered about me as soon as I took off; whether it was my airport stank, horrendous passport photo, or fashionable sweater I’ll never know. They directed me to a booth worker for Seoul who then called up a man from a group of what I can only describe as 아저씨.

Now, 아저씨 is used to address older men you don’t know but can come across as rude if used on someone who doesn’t see himself as middle aged. Colloquially, at least among foreigners, it calls up a very specific image of an impatient, gruff man who squats in the street to smoke.

This ajushi was the most ajushi ajushi I’ve ever seen. He sped walk up to me in his brown leather jacket and the set of his mouth seemed empty without a cigarette. He gestured me to follow and I pushed my trolley after him.

He continued to increase speed until I was nearly running and even then he turned back, deftly cutting through the US army group, to gesture impatiently at me.

He left me promptly at the taxi stand with a young woman and a jolly man who was in fact the real cabbie.

The real cabbie took my trolley and advised that I put on a jacket. He took off at what I would call a security guard power walk. Once we busted through the glass doors and into the 18F weather he took off at a jog. I shrugged and jogged after him.

It was unintended fun.

He had planned to take me to the health center so that I could get my required in-country COVID test out of the way but at 6pm the attendants were locking up for their dinner break so we had no choice but to drop me at my quarantine Airbnb.

In an ongoing curse of fate, I was left to carry 2 fifty pound suitcases to the fourth floor because who needs elevators? No matter where I’m going or what I’ve bought, I somehow, inevitably, wind up with suitcases busting at the seams and begging for mercy.

Time had no meaning in the haze of international travel until I was in the back of the van, craning my neck in awe. No typical winter pollution marred the view. The sunset was stupendous.

No picture will do it justice: the cargo boats twinkling in dusk to the south, the blue pink view from the top of the bridge that was visible in flight and inspired one flight attendant to comment on how pretty it was, and the gray purple horizon to the north with twinkling factories and billows of white steam.

It was a sunset that cracked the top three, righted my sense of time, and welcomed me back.

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