As I alluded in my last letter, October started with a bang.
October 2 – 4 was Korea’s thanksgiving holiday known as Chuseok. Because of that, I had a 4-day weekend. Since China is pretty high on my “Must See” list and I now have a friend there, (met him when he was studying in Seoul last year), I figured October was the perfect time. So I’ve been told, Beijing is even colder than Seoul during winter and there was no way I was trying to find out first hand! So October, (or summer vacation) was my only choice and summer seemed too long a wait.
October 1 was the last day of exams for our girls which meant a much welcomed half-day! After school, I met up with another teacher to donate a couple of bags of unneeded clothing that had made the journey from my old place to the new one. We chatted about our holiday plans, she showed me a spot in our neighborhood to get eyelash extensions (more on that in the next letter) and wished me safe travel.
Next on my agenda, was a task I wasn’t looking forward to. After promising my building management that my dog Peppero would no longer “be a problem” I was messaging/texting half the people I knew in Seoul for advice. Another dog owner suggested debarking. “You could get that awful surgery they did to my dog,” were her exact words. Do note the words “awful” and “they.” Her dog was also a rescue but the culpability was not her own. She had rescued the poor creature from “them.”
When visiting the animal rescue, I had happened across the most adorable little Maltese. When a volunteer and I approached his cage for a little playtime, we appeared to be convulsing. His little head was bobbing back and his torso shook ever so slightly. “Aww, he’s scared,” she said but after watching for a few more seconds, I realized, “He’s barking.” We both watched him closely. His little body made all the motions but there was absolutely no sound. It was pretty pitiful. After taking him out of his cage, he proved to be quite the little yapper…non-stop head bobbing! As odd as it was, I resolved in my mind that it was a better such a dog endure the indignity of being voiceless rather than be sent down “the long walk through the one way door” (as it was referred to in Lady and the Tramp).
Peppero on the other hand, is not “such a dog.” I had chosen her from over 100 dogs at the shelter precisely because she was so dang quiet but still playful! I had never heard her bark. (Even when she got her shots, the technician mentioned he couldn’t believe she didn’t yelp!)
The thought of debarking a dog that didn’t even bark seemed a whole range of words from unfair to cruel. In the end, I had only 30 minutes to make a decision.
I headed off to the vets office with Peppero in hand (ok, bag). Fortunately, the nearest vet and a couple of his staff members speak basic English (although I’m not sure how ‘basic’ the word tracheotomy is! Gotta love Asia…) The vet looked Peppero over. He noted her stitches from spaying appeared to be healing nicely. He explained the debarking procedure was pretty standardized outpatient work that would only take 10 minutes. “We will cut the vocal chords,” he said. I’m pretty sure my face glazed over at that point. I had just had my dog’s uterus removed and we’re gonna slit her throat…great. I was feeling like a great big jerk. He assured me that the procedure was the only guarantee since she was howling rather than barking and howling can’t be stopped with a training collar the way barking can. “In Korea, it is normal,” he said and gave me a little pep talk about the necessities of such operations while living in close quarters. He told me there would be no blood and at that point, I felt I had no choice. Too many things, (my afternoon flight, for instance), depended on a quick resolution. I arranged for surgery, stitch removal, bathing/grooming and four days of boarding. After pre-paying (!), I ran home to finish packing and wash my hair.
I had already limited myself to three outfits for the weekend and as a sufferer of ‘Chronic Over-packing Disorder,’ I was pretty proud of myself. Three outfits and only two pairs of shoes was a veritable tour de force. I consoled myself with the thought of additional shopping to make up the shortfall. ^^ All that was left before departure was the little issue of washing my hair. Unfortunately, this must be conducted with consistent attention to established ritual.
My hair is sometimes fragile and Korea’s hard water has done it no favors. Shampoo must be followed with by a deep conditioner, then leave-in conditioners, and a silicone-based smoother, (yes, plural), one of which has to be activated by heat (blow drying). On the best of days, I can get it done in 1.5 hours. If I take my time, more like two. If I flat iron it…add an hour…Knowing that I’d neither have the time or the tools to undertake the process on (yet another) foreign soil, I determined to get it done before my flight.
When I finally left my apartment for the airport, I had a partially damp head of hair, about 1-and-a-half hours before boarding and a 30-minute ride to the airport. Things were looking…impossible.
I was absolutely torn…express bus, subway or taxi? I stood at the curb outside my apartment running scenario after scenario through my head. I was paralyzed by the possibilities, none of which were sure. I opted for a taxi AND the express bus. I was too jittery to fuss with the subway and figured the bus would save me some cash for the latter part of the trip. My taxi got caught in traffic, of course! The 15-minute drive to the express bus station went more like 20 minutes and the extra moments felt like an eternity. I did some unnecessary walking while struggling to find right waiting area at the bus depot and by the time the bus pulled up, I was ready to collapse into one of the few remaining seats and relax.
Fortunately the 30-minute ride went without a hitch. After arriving at the airport, I bulldozed my way down the aisle past the other passengers and plowed into the expanse that is Inchon International. After a moment’s hesitation, I accosted an airline associate to ask where the Air China desk was.
When I got to the desk, the four airline reps chatted playfully with each other like they were on break. I got directly in front of the counter and said, “Excuse me,” then received a "do you need something?" glance from one of the girls—not the face I want to see at that moment.
“I need to check in for the 545,” I blurted. “It’s been delayed. You should have come earlier. Normally our desk closes at 430,” Uh, thanks for the lecture. “Can I make it?” “It’s not boarding until 630.” “Ok, thanks.”
My mind was so frenzied that while her answer was clearly a “yes,” my brain hadn’t yet absorbed how much time I had left (about 1.5 hours until boarding). What I did know was that I wanted very much to get settled in near my departure gate and unwind. As lightly as I believed I had packed, my luggage was deemed too heavy for carry-on. I relinquished my bag and proceeded to the security gate with the very sensible plan to grab some food and hit an ATM when I got to my departure concourse.
As par the course for Inchon Airport, I got through security pretty quickly. I eagerly hopped on the shuttle to the international departure concourse not knowing I might as well have taken a ride on Willy Wonka’s paddle boat. First stop, Lotteria, a fast food join dedicated to Asian-flavored McDonaldization of food. They have these French fries in a bag with your choice of cheese, onion, or garlic flowered powder. Totally disgusting—totally addictive. I was in just the mood for a dose.
As I headed to the counter to order, I noticed a few stickers plastered over several menu items. The little kids working there did their best to explain to me in their best English that yes, there really aren’t any french fries…or onion rings…or the #3 combos. At this point, I had to will my mind to stop thinking because NOTHING that came to mind at that moment was “noble or pure or lovely.” A burger joint without fries?! It was Candid Camera without the laugh track.
At a loss for what to eat, decided to tackle task #2, get some cash to exchange when I get to Beijing. I stopped by a money exchange window run by my bank and asked to get some money. “Can I use my card to get some money?” “No. You can’t do that.” Uh, ok. Just another disappointment among many… “Ok. Where’s an ATM?” “There’s no ATM here.” Wow…just wow. “There’s no ATM here? Is there one somewhere else? Where can I get money?” “There’s no ATM in this area.” “Wait? Like this whole concourse? The international area?” “Yes. There is no ATM.”
OH MY GOD.
I left the counter and did everything short of blanking out to keep myself from snapping. (The bulletproof glass is there for a reason!) I checked the concourse map to make sure she wasn’t mistaken. 업서요. Nothing. Nada. I decided to head back to the front of the airport.
A few things you should know to understand the foolishness that soon occurred: I had 3,000 won in my purse…AKA $3. Korean debit/ATM cards issued to “foreigners” generally do not work overseas. It’s been covered here, here, and here. (We can’t get bank loans either.) I have two Korean bank accounts, one I use for daily expenses—it’s where my employer puts my paycheck—and another that I use for savings and to send money to the US. For some reason or another, the debit card for my second account will work overseas but the first—the money pot—doesn’t.
I had no french fries, no money, and now, no time. I jumped into a nearby elevator and headed back downstairs the way I had come. When I got downstairs and attempted to wait for the shuttle, an airport employee intercepted me. I don’t remember what he said, but he did everything short of shove me back in the elevator!
I told him that I needed to get to an ATM. He told me I couldn’t leave. I told him I live in Korea. I showed him my resident ID. He insisted that I go back upstairs to the information desk. I was between a rock and a hard place, tears and explosion. I went back upstairs and found the information desk. It was the least informational moment of my day. Let the meltdown begin! I had images of an impoverished self eating ramen all weekend or even worse—not shopping! God why?!
I moseyed on over to the info desk and explained to the staff member so beautifully attired in her pinkish hanbok that I needed to go back to the front of the airport and use an ATM. *blank stare* “You can’t leave this area.” Riiiiiight. That’s “Scenario A” and I’m trynna make a move to “Scenario B.”
“I don’t have any money. I need to get some money.” “But you can’t leave this area.” “I live here.” I pulled out my Resident ID. “I live here and I need to go to an ATM. There are no ATMs here.” Naturally, a staff member nearby wanted in on the action.
“Don’t you have a credit card?” he asked with a sliver of mock innocence mixed with incredulity. And I’m thinking, what are you, the anti-Dave Ramsey?!
I went into my briefest explanation of Korean’s banking restrictions on foreign nationals and the fact that I had tested my debit card in The Philippines previously. The blood in veins was rising to my neck and I was milliseconds away from becoming “that” person who’s talking a little too loud and a little to forcefully NOT to be taken away by security.
When the staff finally understood what I was saying, (or realized I wasn’t backing down…not sure which), the hanbok lady told me I might miss my flight. “I don’t care. I’m not going without any money,” I blurted as I held back hysterical tears.
In my peripheral vision, I could see a clock indicating there was one hour before my flight’s departure. I called the friend with whom I’d missed my Philippine flight. “What is it with you and airports?” she asked. I still don’t know the answer to that one. lol.
Fast forward 15 minutes and “someone” still hasn’t arrived. I’m as antsy as can be. I inquire and am assured “the person is coming.” I figure the airport has some super secret passage ways (in addition to the speedy shuttle train) that can get me where I need to go. Another five minutes slip by before a Korean Air staffer arrives in her impeccable uniform. [The Korean Air Girls (KAG) are always impeccable.]
The Information staff briefs her. I glance at the clock and tell the KAG my flight leaves at 630. “Will we be able to make it?” In answer, she says, “Come on,” and breaks into a jog toward the elevator. I thanked her for escorting me and we proceeded in silence.
When we reached the next concourse, the KAG broke out the long-distance marathon pace. In heels. In heels! In addition to the guilt I felt at putting someone else through an airport sprint fest, I felt terribly inadequate as a woman. I had on sneakers and could barely keep up. Did I mention Korean girls don’t sweat? They don’t. AND their hair always stays in place. Crazy.
So there I am, my new dog about to undergo the knife, I’ve got $3 in my pocket and I’m chasing the embodiment of picture-perfect femininity through the airport in pursuit of a relaxing weekend. What’s a girl to do? I used my cellphone to make a call to Beijing while running across those George Jetson escalator floor thingies.
“Robert? I dunno if I’m gonna make my flight.” “Hello? Where are you?” “Running through the airport.” It was very much like the scene in Home Alone right before the “KEVIN” moment where the family is running with complete abandon oblivious to what they’re leaving behind.
Somewhere mid-stride—was it Concourse A, B, C, or D?—I had the realization that this was only a four day weekend and if I made the plane I’d be eating dinner in Beijing. If I didn’t, I’d have lost my hostel reservation for the weekend, half-a-day’s vacation, AND have to hightail it 45 minutes back to my apartment. Then, lo and behold—was it the voice of God?—the light bulb above my head turned on…you have money in your American account. (DUH!) The resolve to continue my cross-airport marathon diminished faster than the fig tree on the road to Bethany. O…M…G…
As I was rolling the details over in my mind, the KAG slowed her roll and turned to me. “You will not be able to take your flight.” I battered her with a quick succession of questions: “What time is it? When’s the next flight? How far are we from the ATM?” I don’t think she had formed the answers before I blurted out, “I wanna go back.” Despite her impeccable KAG customer service training, her face said she hoped I was joking. “I wanna take my flight! I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath—God knows what she was thinking! lol—and off we went.
We RAN all the way back to the international wing of the airport which was more exercise than I’d had in months…no doubt, scaring a few people as we blew by. Naturally, as one would expect in a situation where time is of the essence, my plane was parked at the very last gate of the hall. By the time the gate was in sight, I had a side cramp, was wheezing and breaking a nasty sweat! The KAG showed no physical signs of distress other than her perfectly-formed hair bow taking a slight dip.
I made the flight by the sheer skin of my teeth. I was the last passenger and presumably looked like the poster child for swine flu with a clearly above-normal temperature and a mucus-laden cough. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit next to me! Fortunately, my nearest seatmate knocked out pretty early so I didn’t have to feel guilty.
My two-hour flight went without a hitch. Beijing is an hour behind Seoul so I gained some time as well.^^ My buddy Robert (Zhengyu) was darling enough to come all the way across town to meet me. The Beijing airport is ginormous. I always say Inchon Airport is big ‘for no reason’ and Beijing is that plus one! I was really glad I didn’t have to navigate it alone. As it so happened, my arrival date coincided with the "democratic dictatorship's" celebration of 60 years of glorious rule, as it were.
If you watched the Olympics last summer, you already know, China does it big. Every TV at the airport was tuned to coverage of the parade and performances in Tiananmen Square. Even on TV, the enormity of the production was apparent. I was only able to catch a few glimpses on my way out of the airport.
It took close to an hour to reach Robert’s neighborhood. We took an express train then two subway trains. He lives in a nice area of town full of new residential and retail developments. Despite missing the big parade, on the way to dinner, we were able to catch a few fireworks in the distance. It was a nice touch to my first night in China. We stopped at a small family-owned spot and got a really amazing plate of vegetables and another of tenderized seasoned beef. YUMMY! It was nice to eat something different that tasted so good. ^^
One of Robert’s roommates was gone for the weekend, so I accepted his offer to crash at their place. His other roommate was a Russian girl who spoke more Chinese than English. She was nice but naturally, we couldn’t talk too much. I had a comfy bunk laden with extra bedding from Robert’s brief stint as a hostel owner (before "democratic dictatorship" intervention on his location). I contemplated how many ‘toursity’ things I could fit in the next four days, then fell into a much earned sleep.
To be continued...
Miss you guys! Love & Hugs. ^__^-t.