Wednesday, June 27, 2018

South Korea; First Impressions...

So here we are in the "Land of the Morning Calm"; South Korea. Everyone keeps asking me what my first impressions are, how do I like it? It's only been one day but so far I can answer that easily: I love it. 

Let me rephrase that...


It did not start out great however. We arrived into Incheon Airport and to my pleasant surprise it was probably the quickest and easiest immigration/baggage claim/customs experience I've ever had. Though I may change my thinking in time, so far the Koreans seem to be very efficient (especially compared to the Italians!). Anyway, we found the USO and waited a half an hour for the shuttle bus to Camp Humphreys. When it arrived we went outside to board and it. was. POURING. We're talking monsoon level wind and rain. Normally not a problem but when you're trying to herd three kids and five large bags, it just plain sucks. I was eagerly anticipating the drive to Humphreys so I could survey my new surroundings but the wind and rain were so pervasive that visibility was basically non existent. Virginia and the kids slept the whole way, as is their custom. We finally pulled into Humphreys and drove what seemed like forever until we got to the drop off spot and they announced that people PCSing should disembark there. I did so and after some confusion, the Korean soldier called the taxi for us. Now, with all our bags, we needed either a big van or else two taxis to carry everything. He said they had no van available but that they would send two taxis. We went back downstairs to wait under the awning and within 5 minutes, two taxis came into the parking lot, one right after the other. I started loading the bags into the first one and realized right away that we could have a problem; the trunk could only hold one big bag. Apparently in Korea the cars (or maybe just taxis) carry some kind of fire suppression thing in their trunk which takes like half the space. I actually thought it was a nitrus oxide cannister to be honest. Anyway, I figured we would just put most of the bags in the back seat of one taxi and we would ride in the other. But as I started loading the bags in the other taxi, a young soldier came out and said that the second taxi was his, that he had called it. I told him no, we ordered two taxis and they came in together. He insisted it was his and showed Virginia something on his phone saying "See, look at the number, this is my taxi". We were getting soaked and I was getting annoyed so I just said fine and asked our driver to order another taxi, which showed up in less than 5 minutes. I found out later that you can order a taxi online here on base and when they send it they give you the taxi number that is coming so you know which one is yours. So it was indeed his taxi. 

{Now, let's take a time out here so I can play crusty old curmudgeon and complain about the 'younger' generation; If I was that soldier and saw a guy and his wife with three kids and all those bags struggling to do everything in the pouring rain getting soaked...I'm sorry but I would have said "no problem sir, just take this taxi and I'll order another one, I don't mind waiting an extra 5 minutes." I guess some of the younger generation never learned proper manners. After all, "selfless service" is one of the 7 Army Values. But I digress...}

Anyway, we finally arrived at the hotel and I checked in which was a bit difficult as the owner and his wife barely spoke a word of English. Eventually we got through it and then the dark cloud that followed me for the last month or so in Italy made a triumphant reappearance; my government travel card got declined. Now, the GTC lady in Vicenza upped my limit to 10k so I thought I would have enough but nope. I had to pay the first month up front so I thought maybe it was too much so he tried a smaller amount. Still declined. He tried an even smaller amount. Declined again. Finally he tried to charge one night only. You guessed it - declined. So that tells me that there was something else wrong with my card. Finally I told him to use my personal credit card - AGAIN - and just charge 5 nights and then once I got my government card un-assed this week he can cancel the original transaction and use the GTC. Of course my personal card worked just fine, which was surprising because with the amount of stuff I've had to put on it the past week it's got to be pretty much maxed out by now [Insert angry face emoji here]. So we go up to the room and the first thing the lady says is that we have to take off our shoes at the door. Now I'm a huge Seinfeld fanatic and I love the epsisode where George's dad had an affair with a Korean woman years ago but it didn't work because he refused to take off his shoes ("I had a potential foot odor problem") and her father would not have it. I thought it was funny before but after one day here I have realized that taking off your shoes is really a major deal here. I mean REALLY a major deal. Thank God I don't have a potential foot odor problem...

People in Korea are small. And it shows in many things here. Our hotel is a perfect example. We were able to get a "suite" with a kitchenette which I'm told is pretty rare here but it literally is the size of a double room in most countries I've been to. The bathroom is small and, well, how do I describe the shower? Let's see...picture your bathroom at imagine a shower head in the corner; that's pretty much our shower. No shower curtain or stall. Just take a shower and the water goes all over everything in the bathroom. Crazy. 
This will take some getting used to...

It was late and I was jet lagged and grumpy and so I was, shall we say, not enamored with our room. I had flashbacks of our return to Italy last year and the loooong 4 months stuck in a hotel room. We asked if there was a place to eat and the lady said everything was closed even though it was not yet 10pm, but there was a 24 hour minimart around the corner. Things were not going well thus far. Our hotel is in a scummy looking alley so my initial impression of Pyeontaek was not a positive one; I started wondering if I'd somehow managed to move us to the Korean version of Scumter. We went and to our surprise there was also a 24 hour Korean eatery next door to the minimart so we went there instead. Of course we had to take our shoes off again and the lady spoke no English so we muddled through and eventually ordered something to effect of "meat on a bone". This being Korea, she prepared a bunch of fresh vegetables and then put a bunch of small bowls filled with various things on our table. Then she came with a huge dish of pork on the bone standing tall in a soup of various vegetables. She then put it on the stove burner on our table and lit it, then took a bunch of the mushrooms and vegetables from various bowls and put them in the pot to cook around the huge bone in the middle. The meat on the bone was ok but I'll be honest, the real star of the meal was the veggies. In all my years, I've never had kimchi before because spicy cabbage never appealed to me but there it was sitting in front of me so I figured when in rome, err, I tried it and WOW, it was so delicious! I am a kimchi fan for sure now. 
Luca and Xavier were a bit unsure...

But then the meat came and they were all in.

Kimchi; never thought I would like it so much but it's everything they told me it would be.

I went to bed feeling a little disappointed last night, hoping things would get better. There's a popular saying that "Tomorrow is another day" and that was certainly true in my case. 

I awoke this morning still suffering from jet lag and the time difference but I had to be at the CPAC to start in-processing at 0900 so I dutifully took a shower and got ready to go. The hotel is a mere 7 minute walk to the walk-in gate but the base is so completely massive that you pretty much have to take an on-base taxi everywhere. As I sat through the in-processing brief and then spent quite a bit of time afterwards talking with the CPAC (personnel) reps, I quickly realized that things are different here. Everybody and everything is very laid back, things run smoothly and easily (so far anyway). It's almost like the anti-Italy. The guy I'm dealing with spent time in Germany and Italy and he says I will be amazed at how much easier things are to get done here. So far he has been spot on. 

As I departed the hotel this morning and turned on to the main street, the smell hit me. Anyone who has traveled in Asia knows that smell. It's the smell of working class people cooking food for the common man on all the back streets and alleys and it permeates the very air you breathe as you walk around and it's nothing short of intoxicating. The Pyeongtaek I found this morning as I walked to the base was vastly different than the one I saw - or thought I saw - last night. It was night and day (literally). For a moment, I felt like I was back in Hong Kong or Manila and I felt, for lack of a better word, reborn. This is exactly why I took this job and moved us here after only a year in our beloved Italy. I know it's only been one day but for now I am 100% certain that I made the right choice. I'm so completely anxious and excited to see what the next 3-4 years hold for us, I wish I could experience it all right now. After work we walked around town and it is just as I hoped it would be. We had dinner with a friend of mine who I used to work with in Scumter (here on a one year unaccompanied tour) at an Indian restaurant that was a thousand times better than our favorite place back in Vicenza and cheaper too. Afterwards he bought me my first ever bottle of soju which I've longed to try after years and years of hearing countless stories about it from friends who have been stationed here. 

We are going to love it here. 

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