My excitement to finally have a visitor in Korea was pretty palpable. That I would both be repaying a similar degree of touristy kindness to Greg and Agatha for showing me around China, hosting old friends from the university days, and showing off both the country that I’ve grown to love and the language that I speak with a kind of childish competence makes the experience all the more fulfilling. There is a lot to show in this country, but I think the primary function of tour-guiding someone around should, as always, be to immerse them in as much local weirdness as possible.
It is difficult, sometimes, to recall what is weird and what is not. The way that weird rapidly becomes normal is a little bit shocking: I know, on some base, primal level, the things that stunned me when I first arrived. But the callus that has grown over my brain–the thick, enduring shell of well-harnessed indifference and acclimatization–has left me a little murky on the particulars. All of the things are there, in this country, and just as weird as they ever were, but the me that was weirded out by all of the weird things stopped having time to be wide-eyed and amazed after the first few months. Weird just became life.
But having guests suddenly reinvigorates the weird. With their surprise and open, barely contained joys, I am reminded that I live basically in a non-stop funhouse of bizarreness. And being a connoisseur of nonsense, it is heartening to remind myself of all the crazy-ass I have come to take for granted.
I took Greg and Agatha to the mandatory Koreana hubs: Gwanghwamun, Gyeongbokgung, Insadong. I allowed them to bask in the glory of the efficient, unstoppably pleasant, and mind-bendingly complicated public transit system. And then I did what I could to drench them in weird. That we were surrounded at every moment by middle-aged people in incredibly expensive hiking gear and enormous backpacks, or couples in absolutely identical clothing, made the job somewhat easier. We walked up and down bizarre sidestreets, and were accosted at every other second with a new smell: rust, and then feces, and then delicious barbecue, and then gasoline, and then 호떡 (Korean wonder pancakes). Neon blasted out the sky so that, when the sun went down, it was impossible to tell the time: all night time comes with a faint, buzzing glow.
After our long day of Korean thing-ing it up, we headed to Hongdae for a nice, relaxing evening in a cat café. Felines burrowed here and there, burrowing into my backpack and climbing all about us while we sipped at our expensive juices. Upon entering, the operator asked if any of us spoke Korean, and was thankful when I replied that I did, and proceeded to list several dozen rules and procedures for us on how best to enjoy our cat experience and also how not to piss them off. Korean couples lounged around us, and people crouched on the floors and took dozens of photos of adorable felines. A person wandered in from their advertising gig outside, dressed in a full, enormously headed Garfield costume, which they were seemingly not allowed to remove until safely enclosed in the staff-only area.
We returned for the evening to eat dinner with my friends at a grill restaurant, where the table burgeoned with one-too-many side dishes, as is traditional. Afterwards, we walked to the near combination batting cage and pellet gun range, where Ty’s excellent shooting won him a set of keychains for whatever reason. Several young Korean college guys were outside kicking the kick-machine or punching the punch machine, and entered to watch, and ask us if Ty was a soldier. We soon found a claw game, and Agatha won a plush toaster that may or may not have a vagina on the top of it.
The restaurants themselves provided when they could: food occupied every available surface, every nook and cranny of the table, as elderly waiters and waitresses ministrated to our many and various needs. Strange new flavours and tastes boiled and frolicked in central, communal pots, as huge wafts of fragrant steam billowed hither and thither. Outside we sought street food of various kinds, sucking down skewers, rejecting the horrible street silkworm larvae, and spending time watching various things being pressed or congealed or fried or jellied for public consumption.
And then, just casually, Greg and Agatha mentioned that they wanted to see possibly the greatest hub of weirdness that I could give to them. They wanted to visit my school.
A lot of touristy things can be easily white-washed, in one way or another, to make them more palatable and approachable to outsiders, but it is difficult to whitewash a school. It is so of its own culture, no matter where it is, that it is impossible to polish and make more approachable. It is the one place most drenched in Koreanness to which I am regularly allowed access. I asked my coworkers if maybe my friends could visit.
The visit was approved, and the principal was reported to be very excited. He began preparing gifts, and sending requests for snacks to be prepared, and inquired as to whether we should be treating them to lunch. He and the vice principal began sending me instant messages, in English, and clearly translated by Google, declaring that my friends could come to the school.
After arriving safely at our gates, I allowed the environment to provide all that it could. The students shouted and jockeyed for position to greet them, screamed at them from great distances, and gasped at their very existence, as though all of the air had been forcibly knocked from their lungs. Some rushed to meet them, others fled in terror and waves of shyness. The staff did double-takes and coyly practiced their English with the proudest of smiles. My principal gave them both towels and bandanas, my students slipped them free candies, and they were assured, over and over again, that this was the first time that three people of non-Korean ethnicity had ever been in the school at the same time. We had our photos taken with the principal, and members of the English staff. (I am relatively confident these photos will either appear on the school website, or be posted somewhere on the grounds.) It was an enormously big deal. They were royalty.
The crowning achievement of weird had been delivered. Compressing a country’s worth of weird into a few days can be difficult, but I think we managed.