Sunday, December 30, 2007

First night in town

For the sake of a good narrative, I'd love to say that I arrived in a whirl of drama, but unfortunately my first few hours in Korea went extremely smoothly.

After arriving in Seoul I was by the boss of my recruitment agency (in his Manchester United jacket) with his family in tow. I was quickly shuttled straight onto a plane full of stolid salarymen for the thirty minute trip to Busan, where I received another friendly welcome and a pretty good takeaway cappuccino.

Providing the coffee were two teachers from my English academy, who had given up their Saturday night to drive me along the highway to Changwon. They quizzed me on the weather in England, and told me a bit about Changwon and their hectic work schedules. They also insulted each other in a (I think) good natured way and sang along to Korean and US tunes on the radio - Vicky, the driver and head teacher, performed a mean rendition of Because of You by Kelly Clarkson.

Suffice it to say, their English was excellent (even to the extent of making fun of their own tiny quirks of pronunciation), so my pathetically limited grasp of Korean wasn't tested.

After speeding past the drab apartment blocks and sprawling factories on the city's outskirts, we soon hit the island of light that makes up downtown Changwon. Even without the rather pretty Christmas lights, the city centre would be a riot of illumination.

As I'd soon learn, the buildings are much more striking at night, with bright, gaudy signs scattered seemingly randomly over the surfaces of the mostly featureless, boxy and not-quite-skyscraping tower blocks. That's not to say that Changwon seemed unattractive at first glance (and it soon revealed its charms and even the odd touch of architectural flair), just not particularly dramatic.

For a Saturday night, it all seemed a little quiet, with plenty of people milling around, but hardly the bustling crowds the explosion of brightly lit signs would suggest. I soon realised that a) most of the action happens away from the ground, with hundreds of bars, restaurants and clubs spread over all levels of almost all the buildings, b) the preferred method of transport is to drive from one building with an underground parking garage to another, and c)
it was flippin' cold out.

My flat turned out to be very close to the heart of the city centre, so after having dinner (over which I tried to explain to my hosts - and maybe to myself - exactly why I'd chosen to come to Korea) and being dropped off, I decided to have a quick walk around the block. Again, I'd love to say that drama ensued, but I felt instantly very safe out in Changwon. Though I was obviously a curiousity to the kids on the streets (which was slightly surprising, as I imagined they'd be very used to seeing westerners), the closest I came to feeling threatened was the odd brave soul who blurted out a quick 'Hi, how are you?' before running back, giggling to his or her friends.

By about the third round of this, I tried to answer in Korean ('Annyong Hasseyo'), but realising that I could only manage a mumbled, sleep-deprived 'Ahhyo', I decided it was time for bed.

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