After we landed in Korea and processed through Customs at Incheon (customs there was surprisingly easy – not like in America!) we walked out into the air terminal and were found by the representative of the electronics manufacturer we were there to visit.
I’ve said that I won’t talk about my trip – but I’ve decided that I will talk about it, but I’ll leave my company out of it. I won’t talk about the company that I work for, and I won’t say the name of this manufacturer either, except to say the odds are very good that if you own any electronics, then you own either consumer electronics made by them, or you own electronics that contain parts made by them. Call them VBKC – for Very Big Korean Company.
The VBKC representative couldn’t speak a word of English. As far as I could tell he was only a driver. He had us bring our bags to the curb outside the airport, and then made a call to his colleague and handed the cell phone to one of us. The person on the other end was one of the people we were to see, and he told us that we were to wait there while the driver ran to get our ride.
And what a ride! I’m not sure of how true this is, but apparently the Vice President of VBKC loaned his company van for us to travel in. It was VERY plush – leather seats, soft interior. A wide screen HDTV screen with 7.1 surround sound and a built in satellite dish. Nice sound system and a backup monitor for the driver too. Oh, and it was an American van – a GM I think, converted to suit the company’s VP.
The trip into Seoul from Incheon took over an hour (about an hour and a half? I’m not sure) and I started getting VERY impressed with South Korea very quickly.
When I was last in Korea, back in the mid 80’s, I was struck with how ‘advanced’ Korea was. But at the same time Korea then was not long out of its third-world country status. Well, any doubts about Korean advancement are long gone! The highway, the cars, Incheon, Seoul, they all very much reminded me of San Francisco – but much cleaner! Walking around in downtown Seoul at midnight (yes, I did that while I was there) felt safe – protected. There were a LOT of people on the street at that hour – the city did not sleep.
I got into the hotel room by 5:40 PM, and made a quick phone call to Eun Baer. Eun Baer is a college student who we hosted for a year at our apartment while she studied English. Her parents are friends with Won’s mother too. I had a bag of gifts for her, and for Won’s mother that Won had saved for the next time she went to Korea, but since I was going anyway…
Eun Baer met me at the hotel and took me on the Seoul subway to meet up with Won’s mother. It was about an hour trip, with a connection somewhere – and I was thoroughly lost by the time we arrived. Won’s mom doesn’t speak English, and I only speak a small subset of Korean, so Eun Baer acted as our translator. We had a nice dinner and then went to Won’s Mother’s home where I dropped off the gifts – and then it was time to take me back to the hotel.
It was 10:30 PM by the time we got back onto the subway. During the trip back I people-watched as usual. There were a lot of high school aged kids going home from study academy at that hour. There were three high school or perhaps college aged girls sitting across from us.
One big difference I noticed about Korea is that as a mee-kuk I got very little attention. This was different from when I was stationed in Korea. Back then I’d attract stares, and Koreans would often come up to speak to me too. But now, I was just another person in Seoul – and the citizens seemed jaded about different nationalities.
But they were not quite that jaded – the 3 girls opposite to Eun Baer and I on the subway kept stealing glances my way, and whispering to each other. I didn’t stare back – I’m pretty good at people watching without getting caught at doing it. One of the girls had her cell phone out, and when they got to their stop she pointed it at me and then sort of ‘fled’ the subway car. She’d taken my picture!
Now I wonder if there is a Korean blog out there with my picture in it? If anyone finds it, let me know, okay?
We got back to my hotel by 11:30 PM, and I felt so sorry for Eun Baer – she had an hour trip to get back home, and had to be up at 5 AM the next day to attend her own study academy. But she was happy to see me, and I think it was okay. Besides – she’s young. She’s still at the age where she can stay up all night and work all day and still be effective.
I was up at 5:30 AM the next morning – not feeling quite as effective, but still very functional thanks to a coffee infusion.
The two days that we worked at VBKC were pretty much the same. Up at 5:30 AM, breakfast at the hotel, then picked up in VBKC’s luxury van for the long trip to Pyeongtaek. Meet in a conference room just off one of the engineering labs at VBKC until noon or 1 PM, and then off to lunch at the VBKC executive dining facility, then back to work until 6:30 PM. Afterwards we all went out to dinner together, treated by VBKC.
I was impressed with the facilities at VBKC – it was all very Engineering Geek decorated, and I felt right at home. The dress code was more lax than I was expecting, with flip-flops everywhere. Some workers even wore shorts – but not the engineers that I could tell.
I was surprised to see some non-Korean faces working there too. A Russian programmer worked in the engineering group I was visiting. I also saw a lot of people from India.
I think if I ever went to work in Korea, I’d apply for a job at VBKC.
Dinner the first night was at Chow-wu Jung – a high class Korean BBQ. For those of you unfamiliar with such a thing, you sit on the floor with a low table. The BBQ is installed right in the table, and is fed by hardwood coals that the restaurant carries in a hotbox to your table when you’re seated. The food was excellent – typically Korean. Marinated ribs and pork cooked on the grill with fresh onions and mushrooms. Several types of hot soup, lots of shared dishes filled with veggies, fish, bean curd, tofu, and of course several types of Kimchee. The meal was finished out with a bowl of summer noodles (served cold) and a glass of sweetened rice and lemon tea. Beer and Korean schnapps was also served. (I passed on the beer and got a coke instead – the schnapps was lovely, but I’m not much of a drinker.)
This is all very familiar to me, and I kept surprising our guests by not being shy about eating. Especially the garlic clove slices dipped in hot pepper paste. Yum! Me and another from my company loved ‘em, but the heat was too much for one of us. I’m also really good with chopsticks, but that isn’t just due to Korea – I first learned how to use them as a kid when my father taught me. Of course, my skills have vastly improved!
Dinner the second night was at Pulhyanggi. Pulhyanggi is a very old-time traditional Korean restaurant just off the highway that runs into Seoul from Pyeongtaek. The food was very traditional, but the seating was pure Euro/American, with real tables and chairs. Still, I think these chairs may have all been older than I.
Old-time traditional Korean food, to me at least, means diet. Although the food was wonderfully tasty, there was very little meat, and the veggies were just not plentiful enough to fill me up. I left feeling like I needed to go have dinner! It didn’t help that I was plied with a lot of very lovely strawberry and raspberry liqueur! Oh my that was goooood! It was very much like the raspberry liqueur I purchase here in California for use as a topping on vanilla ice cream. I drank way more of that than I should have, and when the room began to spin I realized my mistake. I then upended my glass on the table to keep it empty and to serve as a reminder to myself.
At the end of dinner, VBKC presented me with a gift! They gave me a 512MB thumb drive on a silver chain to wear around my neck. The drive itself is very small, the smallest I’ve seen, and all silver too. It doesn’t look like a thumb drive, it looks very chic. Geek jewelry!
It was 9PM by the end of dinner, and our hosts had further plans for us. They wanted to take us out to a Karaoke bar for a night of bad singing. There was also hinting that further entertainment could be provided to us, of a female variety. Having had too much alcohol already (but not enough to make a fool of myself) I managed to beg off and had my hosts take me home. My compatriots gamely went on to uphold our company’s honor, but they too came home (relatively) early. Everyone on this trip was too smart to travel with a hang over, and none of us wanted to chance the female ‘entertainment’. All of us were either married or committed back home. But that didn’t stop at least one employee of the VBKC – he called his wife and told her he was being ‘forced’ to entertain clients and to not expect him home until 8 AM.
So VBKC dropped me at the hotel at 10 PM, and they were off for Karaoke until midnight, when the rest from my company were then dropped off at the hotel, only slightly worse for wear. (I’m told that their group was the quietest at the Karaoke bar!) On getting back to the hotel, I went for a walk through the COEX underground shopping mall. Unfortunately, most of the shops were closed, but I did find an open 7-11 where I purchased an international phone card.
I then came up to street level in downtown Seoul, about two blocks away from my hotel, and walked back. By the time I was back I’d burned off the last of the alcohol and was feeling a lot more clear-headed, but very very tired. I spotted a Kinkos on my way back and made my 13 October entry into my blog then.
I got back, cleaned up, packed, and was in bed by 2 AM for my 4:30 AM wake up. The VBKC van arrived at 6 AM to take us back to Incheon International air terminal and we caught our flight out to Hong Kong.
On the flight to Hong Kong, I wasn’t especially tired, so I had breakfast onboard the plane. Then since I was too futzed to read, I watched a couple of movies from the Cathay air lines onboard movie on demand service.
We had a short stop in Taipei Taiwan, where we picked up passengers and food. From my little window, Taipei is beautiful. Green and lush. I’d love to visit there.
In Hong Kong, we had a 3 hour layover – I explored the air terminal shopping center (waaaay too expensive!) had some more food, and did some reading.
By the time we boarded our airplane, I was very tired. I’d calculated that I’d need to sleep soon after takeoff to put me back onto Fresno time – and was looking forward to the fold-out bed in executive class. But once we were all seated, the captain came on the intercom to tell us all that we would be stuck there while maintenance changed our tires and, “fixed some other bits.” Bits? What other bits? Did something fall off? I was quite happy to stay put there for the next hour and a half as the maintenance crew did their job. No, no rush! Just get it all right please!
As soon as the wheels left the ground, I had put on the mask that Cathay gave me, along with the ear plugs. I then folded my seat out and burrowed under my blanket – out like a light for 7 hours.
Did I mention how great Cathay air lines is? How great it is to fly executive class? Get this – the whole time I slept they didn’t bother me! They left me alone! Even when serving dinner to the other passengers! If I’d flown some economy class plane the stewardess would have woken me to give me the chance to eat. The attitude is usually, “Get it now, or lose your chance bub.”
But when I finally came out of the depths of sleep, and groggily sat up, an attendant was RIGHT THERE at my elbow asking me if I’d like to eat now, and if I’d like dinner or breakfast! They had coffee ready to pour for me!
Oh my. Economy class is so… uncivilized!
The pilot had worked very hard to make up for the time we lost in Hong Kong – when I looked at the in flight display I could see he’d found a good spot in the jet stream. We had a 190 MPH tailwind! So even though our airspeed was 560 MPH, our groundspeed was almost 760 MPH. Almost Mach One!
We still landed 45 minutes late in LAX, but we made it through customs fast enough to make it to our connecting flight.
Only to find out that we were no longer booked on that flight! Cathay was being nice – they’d figured we would miss our connecting flight to Fresno, and re-booked it for the next flight out.
American Airlines was still great – they managed to dig up two spots on the original flight. So since my travel companions seemed a little put out, I urged them to go ahead without me. Besides, the counter agent was getting very stressed – not just by my companions, but by another passenger that was flying standby and who was raising a huge fuss. I don’t like fuss – and I’m usually very easygoing, so it was no problem for me to take the next fight out.
My travel companions got on board. I stood at the counter waiting for a little attention and watching the antics of this Russian woman who by this time was accusing the counter agent of lying to her about seat availability. The counter agent was VERY ticked at this woman – she was doing her best to get her a seat, but standby is low priority and the Russian woman kept getting bumped. She had to threaten the Russian woman with security to get her to back off. When she finally was able to pay attention to me, I made sure I was charming and kind, and asked her that since I had to wait for the next flight was there a place to eat that she could recommend. She was so happy to see a smiling face that she not only directed me to Chili’s, but also gave me a coupon for a free dinner – courtesy of American Airlines!
I had dinner, then came back and boarded for my flight back. The Russian woman had finally lucked out too, and a seat was found for her on this flight. The rest of the trip was very uneventful, with me reading, or watching the lights outside the window. I landed at 7:20 PM and was home by 7:40 PM that night.