The Stars at Night! Are Big and Bright!

Our plane landed just one hour after leaving Busan.

I looked outside my window and laid eyes on Jeju-do, the largest island in South Korea.

Travel had been a whirlwind ever since we arrived in the country, less than one day before the United States squad started their first round World Cup schedule.

I was still coming to grips with how small South Korea was compared to my home state of Texas.   In fact, it occurred to me this might be just the second time I’d ever been on an island, the first being Honshu just a week before.  Up until that point, life had been spent 100% on continental masses.  Although Jeju-do was only 50 miles away from the mainland, I felt a sense of remoteness and isolation.

As we taxied, I looked out my tiny window.  Although the hazy weather thwarted any attempts to survey all but the landscape closest to the aircraft, I still strained to pick out features like the new World Cup stadium or the island’s famous volcano.

Soon we arrived at the terminal, and I started to get excited.  Waiting for us inside was Shupe, an old friend of ours from the Bruce Hall days.  He had been in South Korea for several years, living simply while teaching English and scuba-diving.

Jim and I deplaned and found ourselves in a moderately-crowded terminal.  As expected, a majority of those present were Korean, although we did encounter some of our fellow football fanatics.  We had just touched down before a separate plane carrying the Slovenian squad, which was scheduled to play Paraguay the next day.  Their fan contingent was gathered just outside security, waving all sorts of banners and signs written in their native language.  Despite all of my years learning Spanish, Japanese, and German, I was fascinated at how foreign Slovenese appeared.

We still hadn’t encountered Shupe.  Jim and I started to question if we had gotten something mixed up.

Suddenly, a leather-jacket-wearing dude with sun-bleached blonde hair and glasses jumped out from behind a thick column.  It was Shupe.

Thrusting his forefinger high in the air, he belted out at the top of his lungs, “THE STARS AT NIGHT! ARE BIG AND BRIGHT!

And like any good Texan, Jim and I instinctively dropped our bags and responded. Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! “DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS!!!”

All surrounding Koreans turned their heads and looked upon us with wonder.  Awe-filled whispers of “Ahhhh! Texas!” filled the room.  Flashes went off as some captured the moment in photographs.

The Friendly Skies

Airplane Aisle

The flight felt brutally long. Unlike the last time I flew overseas, when Continental Airlines had been kind to stock their planes with in-flight time-wasters such as movies, video games, and friendly flight attendants, their codeshare partner Northwest Airlines had skimped on such amenities, ensuring that they would continue living up to the nickname of “Northworst“.

Normally I sleep on international flights.  But this being a flight of firsts for me — first westbound overseas trip and most timezones jumped at once (ten, including a penetration across the international date line) — I was too unsettled to doze away the hours.  I had nearly completed one of the two novels I had brought for my entire two week vacation and there were still hours to go before we land. I began to worry how I’d kill time when I was on terra firma, as finding things to read in English is not a trivial task where I was heading. I worried even more about my return flight in two weeks, as I would once again be blessed to fly the same airline.  With my current and future flights, a full 24 hours of my life will have been wasted flying such unfriendly skies. Despite my upcoming destination, I craved entertainment now lest I die of boredom. Sitting in my aisle seat, I returned to my book and tried not to think about the endless amount of flight time remaining.

After an hour more of reading, I paused to rub my dry eyes. My will to read further was waning, so it seemed like a good time for a break. I put down my book and took a moment to survey the cabin. All shades were drawn tight, as it was still daylight outside. The actual time of day was lost on me, thanks to a combination of no wristwatch, no cell phone, and the fact that I would have been half-a-dozen time zones off were I to guess. Everyone but me was alseep, the lucky bastards. I planted my elbow on the armrest, buried my chin deep into my palm, and sighed.

An elderly Japanese lady walked down the aisle past my seat. Right as she passed me, she halted and slowly turned around. I took notice and looked at her face. She seemed slightly bewildered, reaching a hand up to her forehead as if she was starting to feel queasy. She used her other hand to grip the headrest of the seat in front of me. Then her leg quivered and she tumbled over, falling to her side.  She bounced off my lap, flipped back the opposite direction, and landed on the floor with a dull thump, coming to rest in the aisle next to me.

Pings echoed across the cabin, as I and several others quickly jabbed our “call attendant” buttons.  The ceiling was a constellation of blue call lights. Two flight attendants rushed to the lady’s side. Even more followed, carrying oxygen canisters and a defibrillator. Passengers nearby stood up in order to get a better view.

I was not one of them. Inches away from me was a comatose woman, being poked and prodded into consciousness by highly-trained professionals. As I seriously pondered the possibility of someone dying next to me, I curled my body towards the left, putting the spectacle to my back, and did my best to bury myself in my book.

Tokyo couldn’t get here fast enough.

Image credit: Oleg Dunin on Flickr

Be the Reds!

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.

Small World, Part III: Margaret

Last year, I went to the World Cup (as is my habit) with my best friend and our first game was United States vs. Portugal. This was the year the tournament was held in two countries, South Korea and Japan. It was an amazing game that the Amercian squad won 3-2, a result that will go down as one of the greatest soccer upsets ever. I had attended the game wearing a North Texas soccer t-shirt, and as I left the stadium a man stopped to speak to me about my shirt. His name was Steven Forbes, and I came to find out he was an instructor at North Texas! We talked briefly about campus, about our travel plans, and about the victory. He mentioned that his wife Margaret also went to North Texas, was currently involved with defending a disseratation, and would join him in Korea when she was free.

At the United States/Poland game, we bumped into Steven again. He tells us his wife made it to Korea. She appears from the concourse and joins her husband, who then promptly introduces us to her. We all look at one another, pause, then burst out laughing. Steven was a bit confused by this.

In college, I participated on every soccer team I could find. Around 1996, we struck gold with our co-ed intramural team: a team of three girls and four guys that just clicked and fought its way to the championship We scored left and right, especially the girls! (every shot they scored was worth two goals) The first girl Julie was tenacious and tough. Leila was a running machine. And the third…was Margaret.

So literally halfway around the world and six years later on, the core of our winning soccer team was reunited. As if this world could get any smaller!

It Pays To Pay Attention In Class

Last summer, I was in Korea and Japan for World Cup 2002. I spent my two weeks there travelling with my best friend Jim, and a majority of our time was spent in Korea. But early in our trip, we found the time to take a short trip to Japan. There, we met up with Yuko, whom we met years ago in England at the Shakespeare Institute. So for four days, we stayed with her and her parents (unfortunately their names escape me).

Yuko’s father was nice. He was a huge Yankees fan, and I recall catching him early in the mornings drinking Kirin Ichiban and watching live MLB broadcasts.

Yuko’s mother was silly. Very sweet woman who spoke some English. But when she overheard me talking to Yuko in Japanese…I was sure that if she wasn’t married already that she would have dated me then eaten me up with a spoon! See, in college I took Japanese as a foreign language, and did quite well. And had retained a good amount of the grammar knowledge although my reading recognition sucks nowadays.

On our last night in Japan, the three of us went to a sushi bar — Yuko’s parents were going to treat us to dinner. It was a small place, and the two of them were waiting for us at the bar itself, with the open seats all to the left of Yuko’s mother. Jim goes to sit down next to Yuko’s mother and she shoos him away: “No! No! Matt! Sits here!” Jim was a little surprised at this and capitulated to her demands. I sit down in my rightful place.

During dinner, we learned alot about proper sushi-eating technique. For example, the Japanese rarely use their chopsticks when eating sushi — instead they will finger-dip by turning the piece upside down and touching just the meat to the soy sauce. This is also repeated for rolls, and chopsticks are reserved for capturing pickled ginger slices.

Also during dinner, I tested the true power of celebrity. Like usual, Yuko’s mother was showing me things so that I might read out the Japanese associated with them. Menus, picture books, etc. The sushi chefs overheard me, inquired with Yuko and her parents, and Yuko informed me that they wished to hear me speak more Japanese. So I straighten up and boom out, “Watashi wa nihongo de hanasu koto ga dekimasu yo!”

Translation: “I can speak Japanese very well!”

Result: Sushi chefs raise their knives high and boom out a cheer. Patrons at the surrounding tables raise their sake cups and join in. I turn left and right to greet my adoring audience. Jim shakes his head in disbelief.

Flashing back to 1993, when I was taking four semesters of Japanese in college, my teacher Randell-sensei asked everyone why they were learning the language. Reece and I told her, “Because we want to be on Japanese soap operas!” She was confused at this.

Would she be confused if she saw me at that sushi bar?