After the Night of the Drunks, I wasn't optimistic about my short stay in Korea. For one thing, where would I stay? (I had tried to make contacts before I came, but without success.)
I decided to gamble on my one, thin relationship in the country: a brief e-mail exchange with the Dean (or something) at a graduate school for missions and / or ministry in South Seoul. So I packed up my backpack full of books, made my little suitcase as light as possible (the perpendicular vector of its force on muscles already carrying a heavy load hurts more than the straight downward push of dead weight), and set out for Seoul.
The express train was almost empty, maybe about ten people on the whole thing. The girl who took our tickets wasn't occupied, so I tried to catch her attention and learn a few words of Korean along the way. She didn't even turn her head, deeply engrossed in her entertainment box.
This, it turns out, is how most young people in Korea occupy their time on trains: movies and games on little screens. Gone are almost all of the books and newspapers one used to see.
We glided over the island where the Incheon airport is located, and which still hosts a little agriculture as well, and out over the vast mud flats that the communists trusted in to protect them, underestimating Douglas MacArthur. I noticed little mud canyons with water at the bottom, and mud uplands about six feet higher, on and on for miles -- what a place to land with heavy weapons, and artillery heading your way!
I changed trains at Seoul station, then again, and dragged my luggage, lugged my draggage, down bumpy sidewalks for about a kilometer, turning a couple times, and found myself at Torch Trinity Graduate School.
It's a remarkable institution. The main buildings appear to rise about four or five stories above both sides of a wide stairways ascending a little hill. In reality, most of the buildings are connected underground, with maybe another 4 or 5 floors of dining halls, cafeteria, classrooms, offices, below ground. Rooms are named things like "Faith Hall," "Joy Hall," etc, the purpose of the room apparently fitting its title.
The school is half in Korean, half in English. Students are recruited from around the world, and also from Korea.
It turned out that was the day for Open House: 2-5 for Koreans, 4-7 for internationals, with the overlap being a public meeting with skits and a welcoming, vision-type sermon.
The Dean was in. She was busy preparing for the Open House, but kindly gave her unforseen visitor fifteen minutes. She mentioned a guest house, which turned out to be part of the complex, and arranged to allow me to stay there.
Blessed be, no drunks! Trees, a well-stocked library with this very computer (and comrades), friendly mission students, inexpensive meals. In the two days I've been here, I've met students from Pakistan (she introduced me to the missions prof), the Ukraine, Kenya, another African country, Korea of course, and Mongolia (whose great-grandfather, surprisingly, turned out to have been a Christian -- presumably one of the "two and a half Christians" Donald Treadgold used to say were in the country before the Soviet takeover.) She said there are now about 100,000 Christians in the little country, about 5% of the total.
My mission in Seoul is to sound out local publishers about Korean editions of two of my books. The attempt to visit these companies proved time-consuming and difficult.
I quickly learned that giving workable directions to foreigners is not one of the motivating interests of Korean culture. An elevator at the airport said the train was on 1 Fl. It turned out that meant 1 Fl basement, not 1 Fl prime. Inside the elevator the legend said less about 1, and more about basements . . . Naturally I went to the wrong place, as, no doubt, have countless visitors before me.
Addresses and street signs are almost all only in Korean. Even in Mcdonalds, I lined up in the wrong place, and missed lunch (no great trajedy), because the signs telling people the till had closed were in Korean. Few people speak English, Japanese, or Chinese, and if they do, they can't always figure out the directions I have in English. If they do give directions, one still can't read the signs to which those directions point.
Furthermore, the telephone in my room was 6 stories and a labyrinth of rooms from the computer, so directions by e-mail -- the only kind that work -- involved running back and forth several times to obtain. And I couldn't print directions out.
And that was just the start of difficulties.
Another problem was that people confuse book stories, which I was not looking for, with head offices for publishing companies, which I was.
On the up side, many Koreans proved extraordinarily helpful in trying to point me in the right direction -- even when it was the wrong direction -- and sometimes more than point.
So in a day and a half of trying, I visited three Christian book stores, belonging to the main three publishers in Korea, but no headquarters. I did, however, manage to get my books into the hands of two publishers, and get to know two contact people at the right offices in the process.
Last night was a particular adventure.
After much calling and vain computer searches, I finally procured a couple addresses for one of the companies. (One my American publisher had recommended, as a matter of fact.) They rounded up a girl who could speak English and was involved in the publishing end of things. I was given spider scratches on paper which, I was assured, represented the company headquarters, plus a transliteration of a Korean address in English. Of course I had no idea if the two matched.
If not for the generous kindness of many Koreans, my epic journey across Seoul that afternoon would have proven a complete failure.
Several people pointed me in the "right" direction, sometimes however wrong by several subway stops.
An older gentleman loudly starting a conversation on the train, the kind that begins "Where are you from? I went to New York and Los Angeles once." In Japan, this would likely provoke icy silence all around, indicating that the speaker was romancing the fine line between crudity and lunacy. Here, there seems to be no such stigma attached to chatting up strangers: we had a good conversation. Off at the wrong stop (of course), another gentleman then spent considerable time phoning and mapquesting, and got me (finally) to the correct train stop.
A taxi driver didn't know the place. I tried to pay him for all the time he spent trying to figure it out, but he refused.
After wandering around and asking at random (including a cop -- no English!), I began to lose hope of tracking the place down by closing time at 5 PM. I stopped at a jewelry shop and bought an alarm clock -- the owner pointed me back the way I just came, with a flury of Korean that I could almost pretend to get the gist of. Several blocks and queries later, a couple who spoke decent English took it into their big hearts to escort me all the way to the building on the paper, a full mile or more away. We jogged a good part of the distance in an effort to get there on time, and they were a bit heavy.
When we arrived, I gave them a copy of my China book to say thanks, and learned they were both novelists! We parted friends as well as comrades.
But of course it wasn't company headquarters, it was a bookstore, and I was late.
A little more ringing by the girl at the counter, and the girl I'd talked with at headquarters came half an hour after her work day was finished, took me to a cafeteria, and bought me a strawberry drink and desert (on company dime) and we had a good talk. She turned out to have a background in YWAM and literature, so we talked missions, Shakespeare, Chesterton, and East Asian culture. She recorded some of my replies to her questions. Finding that I was interested in learning more about Korea, she then kindly bought a little Korean primer for me, on her own dime.
Missed dinner, then went jogging along a river this morning, and missed breakfast as well. Bought manjiu and strawberry yoghurt at a 7-11. I'm heading to a place where I can speak the language, again, but I'm almost sorry to be leaving Korea this afternoon.