Here are some helpful tips to ensure nobody visits you EVER, compiled from my experience being the worst tour guide of all time for a friend visiting me in Seoul. This is part two of the series – for part one, please click here!
4. Force your guest to perform labour for you and be uncomfortable and awake for the entire night
It’s after 11. We have just returned from an action-packed evening of watching a B-Boy show, going out for Korean barbecue, and drinking makgeolli (Korean rice alcohol). Glen is exhausted, and I can see him eyeing the air mattress set up on the floor, wondering when this never-ending day will be over.
I, on the other hand, am in a panic. I haven’t finished preparing for my class tomorrow, where I over-ambitiously decided that I would teach my unenthusiastic ESL students about art and film criticism.
But I have an idea…
“Hey… uh, do you want to do something fun?”
“Do you want to find and save these images while I take a shower?” I pass him a list of paintings and movies I plan to use with my class.
I’m sure he doesn’t mind. Because nothing is more fun than finding stills from the chariot race scene in Ben Hur when you’re exhausted, cold, sleep-deprived, and jet-lagged.
I get out of the shower much later than intended to discover that Glen has found almost all of the images I requested. What are friends for, if not to prepare your classes for you while you take a long, environmentally-unfriendly, steamy-hot shower?
“Alright, that’s all of them… I’m sorry, but I need to go to bed.”
“No problem. Uh… do you mind if I stay up a little longer to finish some work?”
“… No. How long do you think it’ll be?”
“Oh, not that long.”
Two hours later, I am still on the computer, about three feet from where Glen is attempting to sleep. The glow from my screen is casting an eerie blue tinge over the entire room, so despite having all of the lights off, the room is still bright. Although Glen never once complains, I imagine it probably feels like trying to sleep in front of a full-powered spotlight.
The air mattress is hard, plasticky, and slightly too small for him. I can hear him turning uncomfortably from left to right as he attempts to find a more agreeable sleeping position.
Almost done. I type up a final worksheet for my students, trying to hit the keys as softly as possible. This is a problem, as my space bar is broken and only seems to work if I aggressively beat it with my thumb. Also, my T is sticky and requires a digital smackdown whenever I type the, at, to… or basically half of the words in the English language.
But I’m sure that despite the light shining directly onto Glen’s face for the past two hours, like in some attempted alien abduction, despite the belligerent clacking of the keys, an off-rhythm, never-ending drum recital, and despite the inflexible synthetic bedding made for a child on which he rests… I’m sure that in his exhaustion, he has found a way to sleep through it all.
One hour later: “How’s it going? Are you almost done?”
5. Get hopelessly, painfully lost all the time
It is Glen’s second day in Seoul, and I have decided to take him to Dr. Fish Café in Myeongdong neighbourhood, a quiet café and mini-spa where tiny Garra rufa fish originating from Indonesia eat the dead skin off of your feet. The sensation is weird, tingly, and reminiscent of those times you rubbed a Dustbuster all over your body to remove cat hair from your clothing (we all did that, right?).
This time, I was determined to get us there without any mishaps. Before I left, I looked up the café’s website, took a photo of their map on my phone, and prudently copied down step-by-step directions. We had tickets for a musical that night, but I would make sure we had enough time to go to Myeongdong, spend time at the café, and get to the nearby theatre. Yes, this time, I would be the best tour guide ever!
We get out of the station, and I immediately notice a problem with the map. There are only two streets on the map, neither of them labeled – and Myeongdong has tons of tiny, meandering alleys that could potentially be the ambiguous streets indicated on the “map.” Also, according to the map, we were supposed to turn at a Nature Republic, a ubiquitous skincare store which, like a Starbucks, can be found on every corner.
After turning at a Nature Republic, realizing it wasn’t the correct one, and going back to our starting point several times, I was starting to feel the futility of our mission. All the care and planning that had gone into ensuring we wouldn’t get lost was in vain. We were lost.
I stop several passersby and ask them in my approximation of the Korean language if they know where this café is, but to no avail. We try to follow the directions I copied down, but they also seem wrong, as we keep ending back at our starting point.
I decide that I hate maps. And people. And fish cafés.
“Hey… why don’t we use GPS?” Glen inquires after about 30 minutes of this nonsense. The fact that this didn’t occur to me 30 minutes ago is a testament to my navigational ineptitude.
I turn on the GPS and manage to locate the café. Yes! All is not lost! We back-track and walk in the direction of the blinking blue arrow, which is to be our salvation. We would find it! We would succeed! We would have our feet eaten by fish! We would –
Why?? My battery life bar is descending rapidly, but we’re still not at the café, nor do we appear to be close. As well, half of the landmarks we are supposed to have passed do not exist in reality, so although we seem to be going in the right direction, nothing is matching up. So either my maps app had not been updated in years… or – the more likely scenario – my phone is trying to kill me.
I glance at my watch. It’s 5 minutes before we have to meet my friend, who is attending the musical with us.
“Ugggh, forget it. We have to go meet Yejin now.” I knew time was running out, but I had wanted to find the café out of sheer rage, just to prove that I could not be bested by a crappy website map, inaccurate directions, and an out-of-date phone app. But I was wrong…
After an hour of wandering the streets of Myeongdong, turning down its restaurant-lined alleys and pedestrian walkways crammed with street vendors and shoppers, I admit defeat, and we head back to the station.
The three of us are leaving the musical in good spirits. NANTA, a Korean musical / cooking show, has been uproariously entertaining, and we are now looking for a good place to eat.
We turn the corner from the theatre and head down the street to see which restaurants are still open.
“Oh, is that the café you were looking for?” Yejin asks innocently.
We look up. The Dr. Fish Café sign is lit up and glares innocuously down at us from above. FML.
6. Humiliate your guest in public places, like restaurants
We are seated in a dakgalbi restaurant near Suyu station in north Seoul, looking at the menu. I blow hot air on my hands to warm them up from the frigid November night air.
“Okay… there is the traditional dakgalbi which I think you should try,” I say, pointing at the picture of the chicken stir-fry coated in an alarmingly red sauce.
“But this is the one I usually get…” I point at a picture that has been relegated to the bottom of the menu, a sad, brown, naked bulgogi (marinated beef) version of the traditional dakgalbi, devoid of the wily sauce that causes my entire body to shut down (see point number 3).
“Well, I’d like to try the original version… but do you think you can handle it?” Glen asks me, trying to be polite.
“Sure, no problem. I’ll be fine…”
We order and go to the self-serve section in the back, piling loads of ban chan (side dishes, usually cold vegetables and roots) onto little plates. I also fill two rice bowls with drinking water and carry them back to our table.
“What are those for?”
The waiter, a boy of maybe 18 or 19 years, is clearly not used to seeing Westerners. He gives us sidelong glances, appraising our faces, which are red from the cold, and our winter clothing-swaddled bodies, while setting up the ingredients for the dakkalbi. He expertly mixes the chicken, rice cakes, lettuce, and other vegetables with the gochujang (red pepper paste) in the large black cast iron pan in between us. Glen has obviously not yet had the experience of being infantilized by a teenage waiter cooking your dinner for you while you helplessly watch, and he looks as if he’d like to offer his assistance.
“Just let him do it,” I admonish. “He thinks we’ll burn it.”
We will definitely burn it.
After a few minutes, the teenager looks up proudly at us. “Okay. Eat!” And we do.
I grab a piece of chicken off of the pan and immediately dunk it into the water bowl I have placed in front of me.
“What are you doing??” Glen looks horrified.
“I’m getting rid of the gochujang.”
“Doesn’t that take off all of the flavour? And make it just taste like water?
“Yes it does.”
Ignoring Glen’s not-so-subtle expressions of disbelief and disgust, I keep on with my defense against the powers of gochujang and continue dipping pieces of chicken and vegetables into the mini-pools.
Before long, the water in both bowls has turned red from the paste. Also, despite this seemingly foolproof solution, the gochujang remnants that are still to be found in the dakgalbi are causing a total body shutdown. I can feel it now… The back of my throat is burning, begging for relief – some water, a glass of milk, a piece of cardboard, anything that isn’t covered in red pain. My eyes are watering now, tears forming around the edges, threatening to spill over. And my nose feels that familiar congestion, making it difficult to breathe.
For the sake of enjoying the meal, I ignore the pain and continue eating, despite every part of my body initiating defense mechanisms to prevent its continued assault by this unwanted pathogen. There’s no way to ignore my nose, though. But, 20 used Kleenexes later, that problem has been solved.
Our waiter walks by. He does a double take, realizes that he’s being rude, and continues walking. A few moments later, he does this again, only from the opposite side of the restaurant.
I glance down at the table. In front of me are two bowls of bright red liquid filled with chunks of chicken. It looks like I have killed a small animal and am now drinking its blood and eating its raw flesh out of the bowl like some demonic medieval witch.
Also, as I look around, I realize I have spilled most of the water in my gochujang-ridding, dunking fervour. The red water is all over the table in little puddles, and some of it is also spilling down the wooden sides. And strewn everywhere are used, snot-filled Kleenexes curled into white clumps and dotting the table like snowballs in a field of blood.
The teenager has gone to the back of the restaurant and is consulting excitedly with a couple of the waitresses. They all glance over at our table regularly while covering their mouths with their hands. Glen looks slightly amused, but mostly embarrassed.
Nobody will ever eat with me again.
More to come soon…
To read the first part of this series, click here!