Whales, Umbrellas, and the Power of Language: Vignettes from Korea

I recently wrote about my trip to Korea and how everyone kept asking why I would vacation there.

As promised, I’m back with a few vignettes from the trip.


My friend Pricilla and I arrived at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport after nearly 24-hours of uninterrupted travel. After a bit of bumbling around the airport, we managed to find the correct counter to purchase a bus ticket for the 1.5-hour ride to Namsan.

We were two of only four passengers on board the clean, air-conditioned bus. Our flight had landed late in the afternoon; and as we bumped along, the sun slowly setting in the hazy sky, I struggled to keep my eyes open. My one goal was to stay awake long enough to find my friend Robby, take a shower, and maybe eat a little supper before falling asleep.

I leaned my head against the window and gazed across the Han River. The Seoul skyline slowly flickered to life against the darkening sky.

Suddenly, from the middle of the river right next to our bus, a whale breached, setting off a chain reaction of foamy waves. What an amazing sight! Water sloshed across the highway and misted the bus window.

Wow! We had only been in Korea a few hours, and already we were seeing amazing sights! I knew this trip would be unforgettable, but I had no idea something like this would happen.

I turned to make sure Pricilla had seen the whale and jerked myself awake. There was no whale; nor was I even sitting against the window. I was slumped over in my seat, gently drooling, backpack clutched to my chest and hoodie draped over my torso like a blanket. It was now totally dark outside, and I’d been dreaming.

Because of course.

There are no whales in the Han River.

At least, not that I personally witnessed.


We’d left Florida one day after a close brush with Hurricane Dorian and arrived in Seoul just in time for a sideswipe from Typhoon Lingling.

Hence our first full day in Korea, we were met with strong bursts of blustery wind, periodic rain bands, swaying tree branches, and pelting clumps of wet leaves. Classic “stay at home” conditions, which of course we were not going to do. We hadn’t flown halfway across the world to sit in Robby’s apartment while it rained.

But we weren’t totally insane. We switched up our original plan for the day and decided to spend it mostly indoors at the Seoul Museum of History.

“Don’t worry,” Robby said. “I have plenty of umbrellas.”

Maybe he didn’t say that exactly. But he did seem to have plenty of umbrellas because he had enough for himself, Pricilla, and I to take one each as we headed out to catch the bus.

All went well enough until we hopped off in front of the museum. The wind, which had been nominal to that point, suddenly picked up, accompanied by bursts of needle-sharp rain. We fumbled with our umbrellas as we hustled toward the entrance.

Robby and Pricilla snapped theirs open and ducked underneath like the normal people they are. I, however, began the first of what turned out to be multiple Korea-based, umbrella-related debacles.

It had all started so normally. I’d gripped the umbrella handle with one hand and used the other to push the round plastic runner up toward the spring at the top. That’s where things went awry. The wind got under the umbrella, flipped it inside out, and then by sheer force, snapped the canopy away from the shaft completely. I snatched at it, attempting vainly to reattach it before anyone noticed, but both hopes were in vain.

Pricilla and Robby were already wheezing from under the comfort of their properly opened umbrellas while I flailed about in the rain in my soggy, slapstick attempts to piece the umbrella back together.

I’d been in the country fewer than twenty-four hours, and I’d already broken something.

At least it wasn’t a bone.


Later in the day, before parting ways with us, Robby handed off his functioning umbrella. He wouldn’t let me pay for the broken one.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I have plenty of umbrellas.”

Which did seem to be the case.

Once again with a 1:1 umbrella-to-person ratio, Pricilla and I set out to check a few more sights off our to-do list before making an early evening of it and escaping the foul weather.

“It’s actually not that far to walk from here,” I said in a fit of enormous stupidity. “Why don’t we walk down, and if the weather gets bad again, we can always take the bus back.”

We had only made it a few blocks before the wind and rain kicked back up. People around us scurried into nearby shops to wait out the worst of it. Not us. We were made of sterner stuff. Plus, we had come prepared.

“Umbrellas up!” I crowed to Pricilla.

I wasn’t going to let history repeat itself. I took a firm grip on the handle at the bottom and fitted my hand around the plastic runner, pushing it gently but firmly toward the top of the canopy.

In that moment, the wind got under more than just the umbrella. It also got under my shirt. As I stumbled forward, wrestling the umbrella into submission, the hem of my shirt blew up and plastered itself directly against my collar bones. Desperate not to break a second umbrella in as many hours, I refused to release my death-grip.

“Help!” I crowed foolishly, inadvertently ensuring that the maximum number of people left on the sidewalks would turn to gawk.

They were joined by the line of onlookers who had ducked inside a nearby glass-fronted bookshop to escape the rain, gazing wide-eyed at the hapless foreigner twirling nearly topless down the sidewalk beneath a flapping umbrella.


No matter our plans for each day, Pricilla and I got in the habit of stopping somewhere for afternoon coffee.

Often we chose a Starbucks since they were familiar and also ubiquitous in Seoul; but we also tried a few local chains, one being Angel-in-Us. There, the staff members all wore jaunty brown fedoras with gold bands; and with a mix of English and Korean, we managed to order items more-or-less in line with what we thought we were ordering.

We were in the Sincheon-dong district of Seoul that day. The coffee shop was packed, and the people-watching excellent. Young couples had scooted their seats close together and were sharing Airpods. Clusters of upscale-looking housewives and middle-aged intellectuals engaged in lively discussions. Next to us, a dad and his miniature daughter FaceTimed the grandparents.

It was a whole scene.

In the midst of all this commotion, an oasis of silence.

A twenty-something young man sat at a small table all by himself, one leg crossed neatly over the other, bent studiously over a white-covered hardback novel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen someone reading with such obvious deliberation. No matter how the sound swelled around him, he never raised his head, never broke his focus.

He also never turned the page.

I leaned forward and squinted.

Oh, yes. That makes more sense.

He’s totally asleep.


For months leading up to our trip, Pricilla and I worked to learn Korean.

Since we only planned to be in the country for ten days, we didn’t have any illusions of making friends or having meaningful conversations, but we did want to avoid being completely helpless. We wanted to ask for directions, make purchases, and understand a bit of what was happening around us.

Our efforts proved successful.

One day, while buying water near Bukchon Hanok Village, I tried out my meager Korean on a store clerk.

Assuming (rightly) that I’m a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, he started out by nodding at my water bottle and ringing it up. I planned to pay for Pricilla’s water as well and decided now would be the best time to put my language studies to good use.

The rest of this conversation took place in Korean.

Me: Two of them.

Him: (surprised) wahhh!

Me: Please.

Him: [You] speak Korean!

Me: No. Very little.

Him: Very good!

Me: [I’m a] Korean person.

Him: wahhh!

Me: No, [I’m an] American person, LOL.

Him: LOL!


I found that speaking even the tiniest bit of Korean to wait staff, shop keepers, and people on the street seemed to bring out something personable and kinder in each of them. I mean, I guess it makes sense. But it always touched me to see people warm to even our most awkward attempts.

One day, when Pricilla and I stopped for lunch at a sukiyaki restaurant, the woman serving us seemed stand-offish (even a bit surly) until I spoke a few words in Korean. Then her face softened, she looked us directly in the eyes, and she came over to mix my sukiyaki for me as if I were a helpless infant.

Which, by that jet-lagged portion of the afternoon, I actually sort of was.

When we left, she had to chase me down to give me my phone (which I’d left on the table), and we were down the stairs and out on the street before I remembered I’d also left my umbrella in the umbrella stand.

Because for whatever reason, umbrellas in Korea were never not a problem for me.


There’s so much more I could write.

I came home with pages and pages of notes, scribbled furiously in my travel journal at the end of each long day. I love re-reading them. They remind me of what a fun, relaxing, and truly restful holiday this trip to Korea turned out to be.

Umbrellas or no umbrellas.


Guys, somehow it’s mid-November already.

You know what that means.

You get a new book from me in less than a week!

Head Back to School with Rachel Cooper (4)

Unseasonable: A Novel of Sisterhood, Storms, Sunblock, and the Occasional Christmas Celebration releases November 20, 2019.

I can’t wait for you guys to read this one. It was a treat to write, start to finish, and I loved revisiting these beloved characters–especially with Ann in charge.

If you pre-order the e-book today, you will be among the first to clamp your beady little eyes on it when it releases next Wednesday!

Until then, I hope everyone is enjoying a productive and happy fall.

May your hearts be warm, your coffees hot, and (if you’re in Florida, at least), your air conditioners ice cold.

 

 

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