Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Hangover

When I first arrived in Korea three years ago everything was new, and my first few hours in the country were an overdose of sights and sounds which are still as potent to me today as they were when I first experienced them. But you can only do something new in your life once, so my return to Korea yesterday was never going to be the same as it was the first time.

I stepped out of the airport, and the smell of diesel mixed with cigarettes was just how I remembered it, but no longer in any way surprising. The heat mist that had once hung over Incheon had been replaced by the murkiness of rain clouds and pollution from China, but while the weather might have changed the place itself had not. So this time it was not with a potent sense of anticipation that I stood there amidst the chaos of the exit to Incheon Airport, but rather a sense of grim resolution. Is the future truly unwritten or are we condemned to live our lives in patterns, the words and the actors may differ but the play remains the same? If the latter is the case then here I was, Korea Act I Scene I, not the original but the re-imagined version.

In fact, my re-introduction to Korean society had begun earlier in the day on a plane out of Frankfurt. Struggling to get a case into an overhead locker a Korean man had demanded to know of my wife – in deliberately disrespectful plain form language - why she couldn't have waited until he'd passed to do that. English people might be ready to commit unspeakable acts of rudeness and violence at a moment's notice, but we hide it behind a thin veneer of politeness which to the untrained eye might appear to make us rather affable. I'd forgotten that Korean men in my experience often seem to hide behind no such pretence, especially towards Korean women.

I don't sleep on planes, even if Lufthansa were only going to offer a selection of 12 movies, and by the time we landed at Incheon I'd been awake for almost 24 hours and I had lost my sense of time. So as we walked from the coach stop to Seoul Station I saw a lot of homeless people who I assumed were bedding down for the night, before realising it was about 2pm in the afternoon, emphasising the reality that they were not only lacking proper shelter, but any sense of purpose as well. I'd been away for 16 months during which the global economy had collapsed. Every indication was that Korea had been less affected than some other countries, but on this evidence it didn't appear to have escaped unscathed. There was definitely a story here.

Seoul Station was just how it always was. Military personnel wandering around with Mickey Mouse shopping bags reminding us that one of the world's largest consumer-driven societies is still technically in a state of war with its starving neighbour to the North, and in a new addition large Dokdo posters – or Dokdo-Is-Korean-Territory to given them their full official title – adorned the walls of the station to remind us that there always has to be an enemy, even if we happen to be going through one of those bi-monthly periods of non-hostile relations with 'the other Koreans'.

As I boarded the KTX I was into my 25th hour without sleep, making the task of lifting two 20kg bags above me onto the overhead shelves all the harder. Predictably and despite the near empty carriage, an ajumma saw no reason to await the conclusion of my struggle and pushed past me shoving me unexpectedly forwards and almost pivoting the bag clean over my head to drop dangerously behind my back. With a strength I didn't know I had in me I just managed to bring it back the right way. "Don't mind me, just push by, it's perfectly OK!" I burst out angrily as I turned around to see the face of my nemisis, but all I saw was the back of another oblivious Korean who evidently thought it desperately urgent to get to their seat. Were the people here always like this and I just got used to it before? In fact, last time I was in this situation I recall a group of young heroes of the Korean Military who were laughing their bottoms off at my wife struggling to get her suitcase on the train so maybe it really was deja vu all over again. This really wasn't going the way I had expected.

When I first rode the KTX down from Seoul I was transfixed by the landscape as it whizzed by at almost 300kph. Now the train seemed slow and I barely looked out of the window until we reached the outskirts of Busan. As it happened my MP3 player shuffled itself to an instrumental track by composer Richard Gibbs called 'Reunion', and so it was this somewhat melancholy piece which provided the musical backdrop to the familiar images of unimaginatively functional square office blocks as we moved further into the city and the full weight of a growing realisation finally hit me – this is home now. Home – a small word with a big meaning – and one which carries a huge significance for me this day.

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