Wake up around 1:30, New Years Eve. Pull on some dirty jeans, a dirty Radiohead t-shirt, my new fuzzy coat, my old Pumas. Wander outside and down the road, wave down a bus. Ride the bus to the train station, buy a ticket to Seoul. 12,000 won. Twelve dollars.
Standing room only. Contort myself into a stairwell and read Hesse. Frantically. Must finish by midnight. Must ...
Make fast friends with a mechanical engineer dude from Seoul who studied in Poughkeepsie, pronounced Pyeo-kyeup-shi.
"Feeful who live year in foreign country," dude says, "go crazy. Like me. And one day you also."
Dude scribbles a crude map of Seoul on Hesse's inside cover. Streets look like the small intestines of a small rodent. Where do you begin with Seoul?
Disembark. Embark. Buy a DaVinci coffee, brood over a subway map. Crumple up the map and buy a subway ticket. Ride towards Namdaemun, where CNN has led me to believe the festivities will occur.
Emerge. Look around. Seoul City Hall. Lights. Music. People, a handful. Glance at my watch. It is 7:30. Wander. Wander down neon streets, past the PC rooms, karaoke rooms, DVD rooms, corporate strip clubs, the Starbuckses, the silkworm larvae vendors. Wander out into a dark space. And there it is, across the street: Namdaemun, Carmen Sandiego's holy grail. Wait ten minutes to cross the street. Cross the street.
Namdaemun. Empty, dark. Glance at my watch. It is 8:00. Where's the party?
Wander back to City Hall. Lights. Music. People. But not many. It is 8:30.
Stop at a kimbab place and order a bowl of ramen. Read. Slurp. Finish my Hesse book, slurp down the salty dregs. En route to mouth, the final noodle splashes red sauce all over my Radiohead shirt. It is 9:00.
Wander back to Namdaemun. Empty. Wander back to City Hall. Slightly less empty. Arirang Konglish Radio has set up on the far side of the square. Shove hands in my pockets, wander over there. It is 9:30.
It is 10:30. Square is suddenly jampacked. Korean dude taps me on the shoulder, asks me do I speak English. Yes. Dude says good. Dude leads me by the arm to the Arirang booth. A microphone thrust into my mouth. Microphone is connected to a hand, hand is connected to an arm, arm is connected to a Texan.
Texan: This guy doesn't look Korean!
Keith: 아니요. 한국 사람입니다. (No. I am a Korean.)
Texan: Haw haw. What's your name?
Texan: Nice to meet you, Keith. Where are you from?
Texan: Haw haw. No, I mean ... where are you from?
[Nebraskan in the crowd hoots]
[Keith tosses up feeble hand gesture of some sort]
Texan: And what brings you to Korea, Kevin?
Keith: I have no idea.
Texan: Haw haw. Well, what do you do here?
Keith: I am here to teach 초딩 (cho-ding).*
[scattered Korean laughter]
(Korean laughter sounds like this: ku ku ku ku)
Texan: Oh ... no.
Texan: Well. Kevin. Is there anything that you wish you had accomplished in 2006?
Keith: [reflects for several seconds, tugs on his right sideburn] ... that is a very difficult question.
Texan: ... and we're going to give you a long time to think about it. Because right now, sitting with us in the Arirang booth, we have the Mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon!
*Cho-ding: Korean derogatory term for children. Similar English words: anklebiters, rugrats, little shits. See my as-yet-unwritten Cho-bo's Guide to Korean Lewdness and Nogoodnikery for further lewdness and nogoodnikery.
Korean DJ takes over. Sit Indian-style on stage and watch the interview. Understand very little. Texan hands me a digital camera.
"Hey, get some pictures of this. Thanks, Kevin."
Snap pictures of the mayor, an opera singer and his depressed synth accompanist, a Korean reggae band ... Rastakoreans?
Man wearing rabbit ears keeps hugging me. Maybe he's drunk, maybe ... want badly to leave. Demonstrate this by standing up and looking around listlessly. Texan comes to retrieve his camera, presents me with two harmonica-sized boxes wrapped in wax paper.
"Thanks a lot, Kevin."
It is 11:30. Crowd is large but not riotous. Perhaps I am in the wrong place. Wander.
Follow a herd of Aussies for several blocks, dead end, they stop at Outback. Shadow a troupe of grey Korean suits, halt before the entrance to a strip club. Tag along with some Indians making a beeline, cutting through the crowd. They are getting somewhere. Somewhere big. Perk my ears. Can hear a whooshing in the distance, like the sea ...
Turn the corner and we're swallowed up by a sea of humans. Here we are. A hundred thousand people, there is no end. Four blocks away the whole time.
Shoulder my way forward, towards something bright and thunderously loud. A spaceship? Children cackling, blasting their Korean Roman candles at cars, trees, each other. Cover my head and charge.
Starts as a murky drunken chant, but as it loudens it starts to come together. The countdown. Look around, opt not to kiss the Korean man next to me.
At first there is only light and sound. The sky turns white. Ears crackle. Smell returns slowly with the taste of a billion burnt Pop-Tarts. And then the sensation of being chewed, swallowed, muscled down through the bowels. Turn around to fight the tide, but it's no use. Seoul is digesting me. Human waves thrust me into other human beings, we are stuck together in compromising positions for speechless breathless minutes at a time and we just stare.
We collide with the police. Riot shields come out. Korean profanities. British profanities. German profanities. Faces smooshed hockey-style against the windows of a 24-hour pharmacy. Behind the glass an old man peruses the herbal laxatives.
Untie myself from the crowd, dash down a yellow alleyway. Dude's arm stops me.
"Hey," dude says, "happy new year."
"Happy new year."
Shake his hand. Dude looks me in the eyes.
"Fuck you, mother fucker," dude says.
Smile. Dude does not smile. Nod. Dude flips me the bird. Turn and dash down the alleyway.
Step out into a black mist. Cross a four-lane warzone. Mounds of grey confetti, beer cans, expired ammo. Foreigners tromp by, tilting back their tallboys to the sky. Out from the fog marches a band of blue-and-white uniforms, smashing cymbals together, a rhythm so deafening and redundant it can't be looked away from. Ring forms around the drummers. Ring forms around the ring around the ring. We watch. Koreans, Westerners, Middle Easterners, Indians, drunks, stray dogs, plastic bags. We dance for a while, hugs are exchanged, politics and fuck yous in back alleyways momentarily forgotten about.
A murderous beeping. Big orange machines come and brush the rubble away. The screeching of whistles. Policemen come and chase the people away. Minutes later, the street is once again clogged with Hyundais and Kias.
Wander up and down the same sidewalk for hours because the bars are charging covers. Find a pirated copy of Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot in a street vendor's tent. Linger but do not buy.
En route to the subway, stop at a Subway. Order the Spicy Italian, but it does not exist. That's okay, settle for the Italian BMT. Sit down, start reading Nietzsche, feel more than pretentious for doing this at 3:30 AM on New Years Day sitting in a Subway in Seoul. Eat my sandwich.
Train station is vast and empty and lit up on the inside like a basketball court. Buy a ticket to Daegu. 32,000 won. 32 dollars. Sit amongst the scattered hoboes slumbering in their three-room cardboard boxes, breathing in my vending machine cappuccino.
Ride the train to Daegu. Take the bus to Chilgok. Walk home. Drop into bed. It is 8:30. Drooling ensues.