The flight attendant gently shook me awake.
“Sir, we’re about to land. Please return your seat to the upright position.”
It took several moments for me to process her words, I had been sleeping so deeply. On this leg of the flight, I was fortunate enough to have a window seat. I looked outside but could see nothing but the inky blackness of the Yellow Sea below. The lights of Incheon International Airport soon blinked into sight, and after a routine landing I was on the ground thousands of miles from home.
One-and-a-half decades of dreaming of Asia were finally coming true. I was in Korea on opening night of the 2002 World Cup.
We filtered out of the airplane and sifted ourselves into evenly-spaced lines at customs. Incheon was a brand-new airport, built on an island far west of the capital Seoul. Built as a shiny yet inanimate ambassador to those like myself that had never set food in Asia, it was designed to be large and efficient. No less than fifteen booths were manned with customs inspectors, a far larger number than I had seen in my previous foreign travels. Behind the booths was a broad balcony overlooking the lower floor of the airport and its baggage claims and shops.
Either I was still asleep, or processing passengers seemed to take longer than expected. Yet after moving in the air for fourteen hours, I was in little rush to move any faster than I had to.
Suddenly, the air was snapped by a sonic boom of human design. It began downstairs in the baggage claim area. Like an tsunami of sound, it swept upwards into the customs area and blew past us, so concussive that I felt the hairs on my arm snap to attention. It was a loud roar, a cacophony of humans cheering, and the building shook from its power.
Before we could process what happened, a door on the far right wall opened up. Out popped the customs supervisor.
He was yelling something in Korean as he briskly approached past each agent’s stand. Occasionally, he grasped an agent by their shoulders, looked steady into their eyes, and quickly exclaimed the same untranslatable news.
Several agents popped up and ran off downstairs, leaving their boothes unmanned and us standing in line. If we so chose, we could have snuck into the country illegally without gettng our passports stamped. Those agents remaining were high-fiving and hugging one another. Quickly, the roar subsided, the absent agents returned to their posts, and our processing continued. We still had no idea what had just happened/
I got through security, headed downstairs, and scanned the crowd, hoping to find the friendly face I expected. Behind me, I heard a familiar voice.
Noone else in Korea could be expected to answer to that name. I whirled around, and there was my best friend Jim. He had been on a separate, earlier flight to Korea — he had apparently made it alright. We embraced in relief at seeing one another.
I asked Jim what the hell was going on. The roar, the ensuing chaos. “Oh, you mean everyone celebrating the South Korean team scoring?”
It turns out that the noise was the collective celebration of an entire scoring their second goal of the night against mighty Poland, during the World Cup opening game that was ocurring right at that very moment.
Jim waved his hand towards the several flat-screen televisions mounted in the terminal. Each was broadcasting the game live. Jim explained that when Korea scored its earlier goal, the entire building exploded in a similar celebration. The scary thing was that everyone, from security guards to shopkeepers and cab drivers — abandoned their duties upon each score. Each left their post in a rush towards the nearest television, which would replay the glorious, impossible moment several times. The World Cup was amazingly important to South Koreans, so much so that they’d be willing to leave the airport momentarily defenseless in order to share a moment as a nation. The place could have been robbed blind, or a bomb set off, and noone would have noticed anything but Hwang Sun-Hong pounding home what would prove to be the only goal needed by The Reds.
Now that both of us had arrived, we had a ride to meet. We went out to the curb, where Jim introducted me to our driver for the evening. He was to drive us the long route from Incheon to Seoul, where we would be staying at the home of a family whom we had never met before. We could only hope they spoke English.