Whitey on a bike

For those whom I may not have spoken endlessly to about what I’m doing in Seoul, my plan is to go to the universities, drop off my CV and cover letter at English and Political Science departments, and get a job. Today was the first week day since I arrived, so it was time to begin. My host kindly lent me his little folding bicycle, and I set out for Hongik University.

I stopped at a local bike shop to fill my tires – there are bike shops everywhere, and they have electric pumps that are free to use. Unlike Toronto, I didn’t have to cycle 15 minutes to find one. I next tried to get some money from a bank machine, failing the first of many attempts. Being cashless is a little scary, though most things work on credit here. After this 10 minutes’ hard exertion I was hot and sweating; Evian and Pocari Sweat didn’t help, so – fearful of my limited tolerance for hot climates – I found a coffee shop.

I’ll have to do a photo essay of coffee shops, which have taken over Seoul. My fears of not being able to get a good coffee were unfounded; in some neighbourhoods, all you can get is a good coffee. There are a few chains, including Starbucks, but most are independent, decorated eclectically but with precision. Mine was devoted to a region of Ethiopia, but I’ve seen French, Italian and even Guatemalan. This is new; most have “since 2010” or “since 2011” on them. Down the street from Ecobridge Coffee, where I am now, there’s a store selling industrial roasters and grinders. Clearly, espresso is here to stay.

When you buy anything at a coffee shop, you’re handed your receipt and a wireless device. When it starts vibrating and red LEDs begin jumping back and forth, your coffee’s ready:

Suitably refreshed, I set out for Hongik, and then realized I didn’t know where I was going. My host An had driven me by it yesterday, but I got to an intersection and was completely non-plussed. Finding a precious bit of shade, I wrestled with google maps on my iphone till I got a blue location dot; then, because I can’t read Korean street signs, I moved down the street to see which way the dot moved. I plotted a route close to Hongik, cycling on the sidewalk like all Koreans. At one point it dawned on me that, three days into my residency, I was cycling on a tiny bike along a sidewalk in a vast metropolis, in the blazing heat, with only a hazy outline of my destination.

The heat caught me soon enough, so I got lunch at Mazeltov 106. It was a mish-mash of cultural influences – Italian design, Korean design, presumably some Jewish design, French wines, and Radiohead on the stereo. This sounds like a horrible pastiche, but it worked: whoever designed it had added wooden tables, white walls, tasteful, nonsensical art; it’s like postmodernism with an underlying unifying theme – presumably, that of being Korean.

After a couple of hours air-conditioning, I got on my bike again. I should mention that it’s locked to its wheel, nothing else, and left for hours on a side street, but no one touched it. I wended my way through narrow streets, in the synyonym-for-very-hot sun, checking in with google maps once every few blocks, until I finally got to Hongik, which you’d think would be easy to see, but not when it’s blocked by thousands of retail signs.

Next was printing out my CVs and cover letters. After much sweaty strolling I found PC World, a gaming establishment that has printers. I’ve never seen an internet cafe like it. Rows of widescreen monitors, high ergonomic bucket leather seats, in a dark basement filled with adolescent boys playing MMORGs. Unfortunately it was full, otherwise I’d have taken a photo. The print shop across the street was empty except for two nervous men, who I was finally able to communicate “pay with visa” thanks to google translate. I get that impression from a lot of Korean service people: they’re incredibly nervous about their English, despite it being mandatory to study from kindergarten. It was the same when I got to Hongik; the security guard didn’t speak English, so I stopped 4 young people and asked them where the Dept. of English was. They looked slightly panicked, smiled warily, and finally one person gave me directions. I smiled broadly – that’s my response to everything these days – and I could hear one of the girls giggling madly as they walked away. Not at me (I presume), it was more that the English had proven such a monumental task.

His directions were correct; I found the building; got directions from a security guard  (no English); a departmental administrator; and finally the two English instruction secretaries in different offices. One didn’t accept paper resumes; the other did and was quite friendly about it. Walking out of Hongik, admiring the art (it’s known as a design school), I reflected on the fact that, no matter what happens, I managed to bicycle in East Asian summer heat in a strange metropolis, and print out and deliver CVs to a university that I didn’t even know how to get to. I should get a job for that, at least.

Upon leaving the university, I found a white tent with giant banners draped beside it, and a security guard hovering nearby. One banner had cartoon people raising their fists – it was a protest. Inside was a neatly-dressed young woman working on a laptop, and I asked her what the protest was about. She hesitated, and then replied, “Labour struggle?” But she didn’t know any more English, though she gave me a leaflet when I asked and understood my solidarity fist salute – so much easier than An Yan Han Se Yo. Over dinner, my host explained that Hongik University fired all its security and cleaning staff three years ago and hired new workers using a yellow union; since then the campaign to reinstate the fired workers has attracted national attention. I’m so impressed that, on a 30 degree day, students are out on a long-term protest.Image

I will have this soon thanks a very helpful friend. Soon the ‘rewards of higher education’ will start rolling in, chiefly in the form of brightly-coloured smart-casual clothing and nice suits which, contrary to the snobs at styleforum.net, appear to be quite common in Seoul.

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