Seoul: a Whole Other Kind of Asia Experience

Location: Seoul, South Korea

After spending almost five months in Southeast Asia, my arrival at Incheon International Airport in Seoul felt like I entered another dimension. I was so used to the dust, the grit and squalor, and the general lack of cleanliness around me that I was almost taken aback when I stepped foot in South Korea. The floors, walls, and ceilings of the airport were spotless. Huge, stylistic, futuristic banners lit the walls, showcasing Asian temples with fancy, modern flares. When I went to the bathroom and found out the toilets not only automatically flushed but also put a fresh cover over the seat every time, I laughed out loud.

But I wasn’t laughing when I stood in front of the bathroom’s brightly-lit, full-length mirror, the first full-length mirror I’d encountered in weeks. My clothes were ripped and off-color, stained with dirt, my arms and legs were marred with bruises and cuts from all my nature-adventures, and I was tanned a deep brown from the sun. I’d fit in so well in Southeast Asia, but I stuck out like a sore thumb here, where everyone wore pressed, clean clothes and had fresh hair cuts, manicured nails, and smooth, pale skin. I tried to brush my hair, thinking maybe that would help, but I gave up when I had to roughly tug my hairbrush from the knots.

When I made my way down to the arrival terminal, I was greeted by an even more alien sight: a wall of pale figures whose faces, from nose to chin, were completely hidden by surgical masks.

I’d read about the MERS scare in the most recent news blurbs, but I didn’t know how serious people were taking the virus in Seoul. When I found myself staring at a sea of hidden faces, I realized that this was a legitimate scare. I knew that the virus had traveled through this same airport, carried by a man flying in from the Middle East. Should I be worried? How bad was this disease, anyway? I was headed back to America at the end of the week and visions of closed borders and quarantines filled my mind.

I scanned the crowd and recognized the eyes of one of the masked figures, a girl in a black sweater who was frantically waving her slender arm in the air. My fears fell away and I found myself running to meet Sujin for the kind of squealing, freak-out hug that you give your best friend you haven’t seen in almost two years. And I have to say, I didn’t know how much I missed my friends from America until that moment. I’d forgotten how good it felt to be around people that knew you, understood you, and cared for you. That intrinsic feeling of mutual belonging is so delightful that it’s practically a drug.

That night, we celebrated our long-overdue reunion the proper way: with beer and late-night snacking. Sujin brought me to a bar in her neighborhood (and yes, she took off her mask) that had service buttons on each table.You just pressed it and a waiter would appear within moments to help you. I couldn’t believe that such a thing existed and was common here in Seoul. It felt like ultimate luxury after so much time waiting around for a simple glass of water or a check from a restaurant in Southeast Asia, where I always ended up finally just getting up and taking care of whatever I needed, myself.

But the most luxurious part of the modern world was yet to come. The next morning, after deep sleep (on a real mattress! Not just a wooden board covered by a mat or springs!) I stepped into what was probably the greatest shower of my life. I can imagine it right now, the heart-warming feeling of medium, even-pressured, hot water pouring over my body and knowing that it wouldn’t get cold or stop working, no matter how long I stood under it. I couldn’t believe that twenty-four hours earlier I’d stepped out of a cockroach-infested, cold-water-old shower with nearly no water pressure and dried off with a musty-smelling sarong that I’d also brought to the beach on many an occasion.

Here I was, scrubbing off all the accumulated grit of months of roughing it with a lavender-scented body wash that left my skin tingly. The conditioner I ran through the ends of my hair detangled it almost immediately, leaving it soft and wispy for the first time in almost six months. And then I wrapped myself in a thick, fluffy towel that felt like clouds on my clean skin. I swear it was like being born again. Before that shower, I hadn’t even realized the intense amount of stress I’d been putting my body through. 

Ahh, civilization. I thought.