Sunday, April 7, 2013

Flying to Korea

I have flown many times to many places. Some have been long flights but most have been short. An hour flight up to Boise to see my grandparents or an hour flight down to LA. Although standing on the second step of ladder can give me vertigo, I’ve always enjoyed flying. It seems like it would make sense that I would choose an aisle seat every time so I never have to see how high from the ground I am, but it’s just the opposite.  The only time I get nervous is when I’m not by a window. When I was a kid I always chose a window seat for two reasons: curiosity and because it made me feel like I was riding backseat in my parents Ford Expedition. If the plane were to crash I wanted to know what was going to be the cause of everyone’s death whether it be a bright blue ocean of cresting waves or a snowcapped mountain range that looked like a plate of cut-up waffles. And if I was by the window I could accept my death peacefully, knowing that I wasn’t responsible for the death of a vehicle full of people. I wouldn’t be the asshole who blocked the one stewardess who could have helped the captain in the cockpit while trying to get my suitcase from the overhead bin--as if everything would be ok if I just had my luggage with me on my lap.

That was when I was a kid. But not too long ago I realized that sitting by the window had become a superstition.  Baseball players rub things down with chalk or wear their socks a certain way to win a game. I sit by the window to make sure I get from point A to point B safely. I realized this when I was transferred to a different plane due to some maintenance issue with the plane I was scheduled to be on. Airplane maintenance is always very bad.  Someone on the PA system says a plane needs maintenance and I automatically assume they’ve found gremlins in the engine tearing crap apart. I was already feeling edgy knowing that I almost got on a plane with a bad case of gremlins when I got on my new plane full of plainly-obvious irritated passengers. I had never been one of the last people to board a plane before because I never wanted to see endless rows of people who had nothing better to look at than the people who were being herded down the aisle. Besides acrophobia, I also have a good case of stage fright and here were my two fears mixed together in a delicious cocktail of anxiety just for me! I didn’t want to look up from the ground so I used my peripherals to look for empty seats. At first I didn’t see any and for a moment I thought I was on the wrong plane. I tried to make my way back to the exit but the row of people behind me kept moving forward. Then the stewardess near me said, “Please take a seat sir,” and I knew this was going to have to be my plane. So I found a middle seat and said “Excuse me” to the people I was wedging myself between in way that implied I didn’t like the situation any more than they did. In fact I tried to imply that I liked it a lot less than they did. I suppose it would have been easier if I had said it outright but I was shy so they were just going to have to read between the lines.

After sitting for a couple of minutes I began to feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t too cold or too hot but I began sweating. For the first time since my first time flying in a plane I was feeling afraid. I didn’t understand. I had flown hundreds of times before, up and down from Boise, to and from Kansas City and back and forth from wherever else--never once did I feel afraid of flying. Why was I afraid now? Then I heard a voice shouting in my head. Find a window seat! Find a window seat now! Find a goddamn window seat now or we’re going to die! So I perked up and scanned the horizons for an empty window seat with no luck. I began to have a minor panic attack. My attack made me sweat like I was wearing a wool sweater in July and feel like I was choking but it wasn’t so extreme as to make me jump out of my seat, strip off all my clothes, and run down the aisle naked screaming, “We’re all going to die unless I can sit by the fucking window!”

I sat back, pushed my head into my headrest and gritted my teeth like was getting ready to go into hyper-drive on the Millennium Falcon.
Before leaving for Korea I was working as a busser in a Thai restaurant. I waited to tell my managers I was leaving for Korea until I only had three weeks left before I had to go. I didn’t want them to think I was using them since I had only been there for three months. I know restaurants like to have employers for a while so they don’t have to keep training new people. But I guess I never realized how nice the managers were to me and how much they actually felt like an extended family, because when I told them I was leaving to go teach I was surprised when they smiled, patted me on the back and told me they were very proud.

My last week at the restaurant was great—lots of jokes, celebratory beers after shifts, and the Thai cooks made my favorite meal twice. My one manager from Thailand really liked to razz me. She kept telling me not to wonder into North Korea and if anyone asked me to watch a nuclear bomb for them, “Just say no. Like they are offering you drugs. Ok?” One night while we were closing though she said this with a serious tone. I thought she was joking again but when I looked up from sweeping under the tables she wasn’t smiling. “I’m worried about you Josh. You’re very…forgetting things. Don’t wonder too far.” I wanted to give her a hug like she was my mother or my aunt and tell her I would be fine. I may forget to bring a table their check or set a table with silverware. And I may walk into a room and forget why I was there and have to pace for a couple of minutes until I remembered what I was doing, but I actually have a decent head on my shoulders. But I had never talked to her about anything serious before. And other than the occasional karate chop or love punch to the arm I never physically expressed my filial affection for her. So I just gave a smile to express my gratitude for her concern and reduced the speech in my head to, “I’ll be ok.”

The next day was like the night before hadn’t happened and everything was light hearted again. I still hadn’t booked my flight yet so I asked my manager what airline she used when she went to see her family in Thailand. “What? You haven’t booked you flight yet? What you been doing stupid? It’s going to be $1200 if you book it now!” …Holy shit…. “Korean Air is the best. I think.” That night I raced home from work and didn’t give a damn if a cop thought I was driving too fast through the quiet historic downtown area. When I got home my dog ran to the door and barked at me like I was a stranger--like he always does when I get home at 11:00 at night. This time though I didn’t stop to quiet him down so he wouldn’t wake up my parents. Fuck it! They’ll go back to sleep. I raced upstairs and began frantically searching for travel sites trying to find the cheapest airfare. I remembered the funny ads on TV from Kayak. It was the first thing that popped into my head so I checked there first. I typed in my information and hit “enter” like I was ripping off a Band-Aid. One quick motion and it will all be over. One quick bullet to the head. But when the prices loaded I didn’t feel like hanging myself. Some of them were cheap—only five hundred dollars and the highest price I saw was nine hundred. I double checked my information but everything was correct. I had a Homer Simpson moment and shouted “Woohoo!” I saw a moderately priced ticket with Korean Air. I’ve always been a middle-of-the-road kind of buyer. I never buy the cheapest item because I don’t want it to break or come with some kind of mystery stain and I never buy the most expensive item because I’m not fancy or made of money. So I bought the ticket and felt confident that my flight was going to be an average experience.

I’ve only flown internationally once before to France. I don’t remember much of the flight because it was so ordinary I slept through most of it. But when it came time to board my flight for Korea I could tell it was going to be different. The boarding process confused me. The first directions were in Korean and while I was trying to see if I could recognize any of the words, I completely missed the directions in English. I don’t know why I bothered trying to listen or understand the words. The only word I knew how to say was “thank you” and I often forgot how to say it as soon as I stopped repeating it incessantly. I went up to one the officials in a Korean Air outfit—the same one I saw when I checked my bags—and asked if it was my turn to line up. She smiled and said it didn’t really matter. Oh how lovely, I thought and I headed into the tunnel.

­As I walked down the tunnel to the plane I began psyching myself for the grueling thirteen-hour-long flight ahead of me. Study for six hours then sleep the other seven—no problem….. Ahh!! This is going to suck! I walked through first-class then business-class. I don’t know why people were already in these seats. If it were me I wouldn’t want to board until after everyone else so I wouldn’t have to see people judge me as they walked by. Maybe it’s just me who judges these people when I walk past and see them sitting in their fancy airplane chairs. I’ve been told I do this too much. I know if I could afford a first-class or business-class seat though, I wouldn’t feel bad about it.

I walked to the very back of the plane—second to last row. I excused myself as I passed the Asian woman who would be my neighbor for the flight and went to sit by the window. On my chair, waiting for me, was a clear package filled with items. I put my bag under the seat in front of me and began digging through my package like it was a party favor from a six-year-old’s birthday party. “Oh wow! A blanket! A bottle of water! A toothbrush and toothpaste! And what’s this? SLIPPERS! No frickin’ way!” I was five all over again and each item I found was a rare and unique treasure. Look at this toothbrush I found Mom! Mom look! I wanted to show my items to the lady next to me hoping that she could fill the void of my mother, but when I looked over she was sitting cross-legged with perfect posture, knitting away an intricate scarf. You are nothing like my mother! I’ve never seen my mother sit like that my whole life. The yarn for the scarf was being spooled out of a hemp bag with a giant pot leaf emblazoned on the front. Nope. You are definitely nothing like my mom. She looked so stoic and mentally centered I didn’t want to disturb her. I looked around the plane to see if other people were excited about their bag of goodies. Maybe I could find someone and we could compare our items like trading cards. But no one else was freaking out like me. What was wrong with everybody? Didn’t they know how rare and amazing it was to receive a package like this in coach?

I also noticed there was a TV screen on the chair in front of me. When I flew to France the only TV was in the aisle and it was at such an awkward angle from the window seat that I didn’t even bother to try and watch it. Next to the TV was a controller device. I looked across the aisle and saw some kids using the remote like a game controller. What? They have games? I popped out the controller and turned the TV on. A menu popped up with a movie, game, and news category. This flight was just getting better and better and we hadn’t even begun to leave the gate. I scrolled over to the games section but it took me a good thirty seconds to get over to it.  Damn. I’ve got a garbage controller. I wouldn’t be able to play games with a faulty controller, so I went back to the movie section. (I found out about four hours later that I had been holding the controller wrong the whole time.) I was expecting the usual Hollywood B movies that were popular the week they came out but then quickly forgotten—just something to kill the time. So when I started scrolling through the movie selection I was surprised to see movies that were still in theaters back home. Many of them were movies I wanted to see back home but had never got around to it or hadn’t come to my town. And they weren’t Pay-per-view. They were free! Again I looked around to see if anyone else was impressed. No one. You’re all lame! I demand you to be impressed! The person in the chair in front of me was already watching a movie like he was expecting nothing less from the movie selection. I picked the first movie that interested me and watched it for ten minutes. The picture quality never changed. I scrolled back to the home screen then back to the movie selection to see if I had used up my viewing allowance. It was still there. And better yet, the TV remembered where I stopped watching.

Before I knew it, it was time for the first inflight meal. The flight attendant gave me three options. One entrĂ©e was chicken, one was beef, and the other was a Korean dish. I decided to play it safe for the first meal and just take the beef. I figured I could have a Korean dish for dinner and I also didn’t want my first airplane meal to ruin my impression of Korean food.  The stewardess handed me my meal. And it looked like an average airplane meal. I pealed back the plastic wrap covering my beef and put my knife into the beef. It gave way like I was cutting through butter. In fact the butter for my roll was less tender than my beef. I forked a piece of beef and put it in my mouth. And it was actually delicious. The roast potatoes and carrots were also delicious. In fact if I ever were to see this meal in a restaurant I would choose, to order it on my own free will. “Yes I would like the Korean Air beef meal please.” It was that good. Then the flight attendants came by with beverages. One of them was double fisting bottles of wine—a merlot in one hand and a chardonnay in the other. I just took juice because I didn’t have any money. But then I noticed the stewardess was just giving the wine away for free like it was Mardi Gras or something. What the hell! Had I known the wine was free I would have asked for some. I don’t even like wine but if someone is giving it away for free on a plane you don’t say you’d like the orange juice.

After lunch, I began to get fidgety. I pulled out my computer bag and started to dig through it, looking for something that might entertain me. I pulled out the small blanket I packed from home, my Canon camera, my Korean learning books. Then I stopped and started pulling stuff out of my pockets. Quarters, notes, pens, my iPod.  I’ve been unorganized my whole life. I just chalk it up to my artist mentally and I’ve learned to live with it. I also like to stop doing one thing and start another until everything is out at once. I noticed I was starting to spill into the empty middle seat between me and the Zen lady.  She never put anything in the middle seat so I assumed this was our mutual no-man’s land area—like the area between North and South Korea.  I nervously scooped up my items and piled everything back onto my lap. “Sorry,” I said hoping I hadn’t disturbed our relationship of indifferent silence.  She looked at me and leaned over with a smile like she was sympathetic to my disorganization, the same way a person might be sympathetic to someone who has a mental handicap that prevents them from living alone. “If you need to use this middle space you can.” She said it in perfect English. I have never been one of those people who can easily chat up a stranger sitting next to them. In all the years I’ve flown, I can count the number of times I’ve talked to the person next to me on a plane on half of one of my hands. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to tell this woman that I was interested in learning Korean and because I was going to Korea to teach, I thought I finally had something interesting to say. I leaned over, “So do you speak Korean?” “No,” She said, “I’m Japanese.” Fuck. Now this lady must think I’m a racist. I leaned back and didn’t say another word to her for the rest of the flight.

I tried to fall asleep but I was afraid I was going to miss dinner so I forced myself to stay awake until it came. Just before dinner came though, the overhead lights flickered on and stewardesses came out of the back caring baskets of steaming towels. That sounds nice. Too bad I’m not in first-class or business. Again I was surprised when they started handing them out to people in coach. These must just be extras left over. But everyone got one. Even me—the second row from the back. At first I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with the towel. I had only heard about them in movies. I hoped that someday I would be rich and famous enough and have the privilege to experience the joy of a hot towel in first-class but that time was way in the future if I was lucky. I looked to see what other people were doing with their towels and I saw that one man was dabbing his face with it. It looked like a good idea so I did it too. It felt amazing. I could feel the towel opening my pours and relieving the stress of travel. Just as I was about to fall asleep with a towel on my face dinner came. But there were no Korean food options so I had the chicken.  This time it tasted like airplane food. But after a hot towel, free movies, and wine I wasn’t going to hold one average meal against them.

After dinner I finally went to sleep.  When I woke up we only had an hour left until we landed. I turned on my iPod and stared absent mindedly out the window until I saw my first piece of land. At first the land looked very ordinary. Then I saw small cities and they were very different from the ones I often saw outside my window when flying in the States. The first cities I saw were sparse but organized and tucked up against mountain sides. Sparse cities back home were often in the middle of valleys, away from mountains. After the small cities I saw oil fields and a series of island chains. These islands seemed particularly reserved for producing energy. Besides oil drills I saw the occasional windmill. Modern ones—like the ones in Palo Alto not like the ones you see in old Dutch paintings. When we finally landed I took my time packing everything up. I scooped up all my crap and stuffed it haphazardly into my bag like Mary Poppins on a bad day. Because I was in the way back I knew it was going to take at least another 20-30 minutes before I would be able to get off the plane. I realized I had gone the whole flight without opening my Korean language books once so I also wanted to wait and ask one of the stewardesses how to say “thank you” in Korean. When I looked up though the plane was completely empty. Like a swift wind had simply blown all the people out. I hovered around my seat until I found the cute stewardess I had been eyeing the whole flight. “Um. How do you say ‘thank you’ in Korean?” She smiled in a way that made me think she was thinking, Aww. Look at the silly foreigner trying to speak Korean. I don’t know though. I suppose I could have been projecting this. “Gam-sa-ham-ni-da,” she said. “Ah! Right. Gam-sa-ham-ni-da!” I kept repeating this over and over until I reached the middle of the plane and saw a family huddled around an old lady who looked like she had killed over—literally. She was leaning over, lying on her tray motionless. I paused and thought I should do something. I didn’t know what that something might be though. I suppose I could be a third party witness if the airline needed to take a statement. It was the least I could do after getting a hot towel and free wine. But the family was laughing and one of the flight attendants motioned me to continue. When I stepped off the plane I looked to the flight attendant by the door to say “thank-you” but I realized I had forgotten how to say it. I was officially in Korea and I didn’t speak a single word of Korean.

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