47.5 hours after being dropped off at the Salt Lake City International Airport, I’m finally sitting in my friend’s Seoul, South Korea apartment. I just arrived. Speaking of 47 hours, I didn’t even need to cut my arm off!
After an 8-hour overnight delay in Los Angeles (which, thankfully, involved a lonely night in a glorious Hilton Hotel suite, a dinner, and a breakfast buffet), and a 2-hour delay on the tarmac, I finally enjoyed a long flight to Beijing. Once there, I was put on a different flight to Seoul, which ALSO offered me a 2.5 hour delay on the tarmac. I received 4 airplane meals and a decrease in ambient English with each flight.
From LAX to Beijing, I was lucky. I was seated in a window seat with an empty middle seat and a nice, my-age, Hong-Kongean (?) graduate student named Cheng. He just finished a semester of studying in an LA architecture school. He was great, and I hope to hit up Hong Kong to see him.
On my flight from Beijing to Seoul, though, I was thoroughly impressed. First, I found my aisle seat, retrieved my reading material, stowed my backpack, and sat down. I looked across the empty middle seat to the elderly Korean (I presume) woman sitting against the window. She caught my eye, and I (obligatorily) offered a smile along with a weak, you-probably-don’t-speak-English(-and-for-that-reason-I-say-‘hi’-like-a-5th-grade-girl) “hi”. She responded with a heavily accented “hi” before I turned to the book I was opening on my lap. As I did so, though, a hand grabbed my book-opening wrist. I slowly lifted my head as the grip tightened, and saw the woman nodding her head, holding my hand and moving it slightly, with a look of “dear god, help us get through this together” on her wrinkled face. I smiled in response to this powerful gesture, she held on for a bit longer as she kept her eyes locked on mine, and finally I was free to open my upside-down book, completely ignoring the words, and ponder what just happened. I believe it was the truest act of solidarity I’ve ever experienced, and it only involved a single (poorly) spoken word.
An hour later (still stationary and against the jetway, having not moved at all), the guy sitting in my mirrored last-row seat pulled out a Costco-sized container of mixed nuts. Momentarily jealous, I was blown away when he stood up and started offering a very generous handful of nuts to each person in the row in front of him. He moved forward and offered eye contact, a smile, and a handful of mixed nuts to those in the next row. He continued this way, quickly depleting his container of nuts, throughout the entire back half of the medium-sized jet. I was the beneficiary of the last of his offerings as he returned to the back row, rotated towards me in a conscious effort to not forget the lone American, and knelt to offer a nearly-empty container of mixed nuts. I smiled, inserted my hand, and pulled out 5 nuts simply to be part of such a distinct act of good will.
2.5 hours later, as we neared landing in Seoul, the same elderly woman reached across her husband (who now occupied the middle seat), grabbed the bottom of my firmly folded arms, and slowly felt around my hand. It took a while for me to realize that she was searching for my watch, which is hidden up-arm of numerous bracelets and a tight flannel sleeve. I smiled as I unbuttoned the flannel wrist to expose my watch to her as she cradled my hand close to her weathered face, shaking it uncontrollably but ever-so-slightly.
In Seoul, I retrieved my climbing gear (which did not get lost) and caught a certain bus into the city. My friend had put together the most impressive directions–complete with pictures–to find his apartment, and I did so easily.
I’m here, alive, and looking forward to avoiding jetlag, catching up with friends, and becoming an overnight Korean sensation.
…I just have yet to figure out how.