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I’ve never understood why people applaud the pilot after a successful landing. Sure, the plane didn’t crash into the runway and explode with arms and legs and microwave meals spewed all over the tarmac, but that’s just their job – make sure nobody dies. No one claps the bus or train driver when they arrive safely at their destination. What makes pilots so special?
I’ve just landed in Seoul, South Korea. It’s half-ten at night and I’ve been travelling for the last sixteen hours. The sight of the city as we descended onto the runway, gleaming, basking in neon, was enough to get me relatively excited; but now, thrown into the chaos of impatient travellers scrambling for their luggage, the fatigue starts to kick in again.
Sleep became my second priority after discovering drinks were complimentary on the flight. Obliging air hostesses poured glass after glass of red wine, a cautious smile held under their noses as they fuelled my flight-long arcade game binge. I spent almost three hours on Pong, trying to score a perfect game against the computer but failing miserably, my chances only decreasing the more tired and drunk I became – a real catch 22.
After retrieving my luggage, I stagger from sign to sign until I find myself in the underground metro station. Among a sea of Koreans, I spot someone who looks like he’ll speak English, a tall white guy with a head the size of a melon. I ask him whether I’m going the right way as he steps onto the train, and he nods silently, waving me inside before the doors slam shut.
‘Going to Itaewon, huh?’ he asks as I take a seat.
The carriage is half-empty but the American remains standing, loosely gripping a handlebar above his massive head.
‘Looking to party?’
‘Party?’ I echo. ‘No, no… I’m just going to a hostel.’
‘Oh, man,’ he frowns. ’But Itaewon is party town. You gotta party while you’re there.’
I don’t take much notice of the guy, but the last thing I want is a ‘party town’. I want sleep.
‘Oh, well… my brother booked it.’ I shrug. ‘He said it’s quiet.’
‘Not last time I checked.’ He shrugs back. ‘Who’s your brother?’
‘He lives in Daegu. I’m going there tomorrow.’
‘Are you one?’ I ask.
‘Yep. That’s my trade - speaking English.’
‘Daegu, huh? Never been there.’
The American smirks and nods my way as a female automated voice reads out Itaewon. ‘Here we are, my English friend.’ He pats me on the shoulder. ‘Have a pleasant stay… whatever it is you do.’
Itaewon slaps me hard in the face.
Inebriated crowds stumble around me as I stand and stare at the onslaught of bright, colourful lights decorating the strip. Clubs booming, bars heaving. The American was right - it is a party town, and something tells me my brother knew this too.
‘Fucking joker…’ I mouth to myself, suspecting he intended this exact scene: me, bedraggled, fighting against the crowds, struggling to find the hostel amid the piles and piles of hedonistic squalor. I can almost see him standing in front of me, announcing something like Welcome to Korea, brother, followed by his typical bellowing laugh.
It takes me half an hour longer than it should to find the hostel.
I keep going up and down the same overpopulated strip, back and forth, sweating, until a badly placed sign points me down a hidden alleyway, and at long last, to the elusive 24 Guesthouse.
As I approach the hostel, I see a girl, twenty-something, smoking on the doorstep.
‘Is this the 24 Guesthouse?’ I ask, like I don’t know already.
‘Yes,’ she answers in a subtle French accent. ‘Are you checking in?’
‘Yeah. I’m a little late. This place isn’t easy to find, is it?’
‘No, it’s not.’ She laughs gregariously. ‘You look like you found it hard.’
‘Yeah.’ I grin stupidly. ‘I did a bit.’
‘Well, you must be tired.’ She stubs her cigarette out on the floor and invites me into the hostel. ‘Let’s go inside.’
I’m clumsy and feel slightly embarrassed as I stagger into the hostel, knocking various ornaments with my rucksack, hoping I don’t break anything expensive. A little old Korean man who I assume is the owner charges towards me and points down at my feet. ‘No shoe,’ he orders, shoving me a pair of flip-flops. I force a smile and change into them, leaving my shoes by the door.
He crosses my name off a list and waves his arm in the direction of a corridor behind him. ‘Room foh,’ he grumbles and hands me a key.
I wander down the corridor until I reach the fourth room. I gently open the door and peak my head inside to see the French girl again, now spread out on a bunk bed with a book in her hand, and a slouched Korean kid, playing with his phone on the floor, presumably the owner’s son or nephew or something. I roll my suitcase over to one of the empty bunks and begin unpacking some things for the morning.
The Korean kid starts chatting to me. ‘I’m Korean,’ he says. ‘How about you?’
‘English,’ I answer.
‘Wooow. How old?’
‘Guess,’ I say, attempting to be playful.
‘Um…’ he pauses, analysing my face for any telltale signs of age. ‘Twenny-five?’
‘Nope.’ I shake my head. ‘Twenty.’
‘Woow…’ he murmurs again, his gaze slowly resorting back to his phone. ‘How about me?’ he asks, still not facing me.
The kid looks pretty young. With smooth skin and chubby cheeks, I doubt he’s older than sixteen, but I don’t wanna offend him by going too low. ‘Seventeen?’ He looks embarrassed. ‘Or eighteen? Eighteen, right?’
‘Uh, no,’ he blushes. ‘I twenny-three. But… in Korea… you have… Korean age. You… one year… already… when you born.’
’I was disappointed when I found out I had a Korean age,’ the French girl chips in. ’I’m twenty-eight here. God, now I feel really old.’
I try smiling at the girl, but she doesn’t look at me, so I turn back to the kid.
‘Well, even still,’ I say, ‘I was only four years off. Because, really, you’re twenty-two. I mean, if you weren’t Korean.’
The boy shrugs and continues playing on his phone.
We talk a little more about our lives.
I tell him about my hometown, my brother, my girl.
He tells me he’s just finished two years of mandatory national service.
‘I did have… girl… like… you, but… national service… is… long time, so… I don’t have now,’ he attempts to explain. ‘Girl… doesn’t… have… to do… so… she find… new… boyfriend.’
‘That’s a bit unfair, isn’t it?’ I put to the kid. ‘Girls don’t have to do it? Where’s the equality in that?’
He doesn’t respond. Probably doesn’t know the word equality.
‘I mean, I couldn’t imagine doing that. Be in the army? Fuck that.’
I realise I might sound insensitive, but the kid doesn’t seem to notice nor care. He just shrugs again, staring at his phone.
After a few more strained conversations, I’m more than ready for sleep.
I climb onto the top bunk and pull off my dirty clothes.
The Korean kid slips into the bunk below and for some reason the owner later crawls into one of them as well, cradling an empty glass bottle, babbling away to himself in Korean.
From my bed I can still hear the sound of jeering crowds and blaring pop music emanating from Itaewon’s core.
My eyes start to get heavy, the music fades, and I drift into sleep.
I wake up to an empty room.
The sound of clinking plates and cutlery lures me into the kitchen where I find the Korean kid and the owner eating breakfast. ‘Helloooo,’ the kid beams, while the owner spoons another load of cereal into his mouth. I ask the kid how I can get to the bus terminal and he scribbles down some directions on a leaflet for me. ‘Kansamnida,’ I thank him, and finally, I leave the hostel.
Itaewon is almost unrecognisable in the day.
Old Korean men sweep up the residue of the previous night, all the bottles and cans and glow in the dark wristbands that once provided a temporary bout of pleasure for the reckless youth. The clubs and bars look miserable in the morning sunlight, too - empty, decrepit, and over-exposed, merely waiting for the darkness to return again.
I ride the metro out of Itaewon and shortly arrive at the bus terminal. The woman on the counter sells me a ticket to Daegu for however much. I climb onto the bus and find my designated seat, one step closer to seeing my brother.