Notes & Essays

Seoul Sisters: How to Explore South Korea With a Friend

A travel writer describes an illuminating trip through the South Korean capital with a close friend.
IMAGE JOYCE ROQUE
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This essay is lifted from the book “How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar and Other Essays” by Josephine V. Roque. We are reprinting here with her permission. 

What I knew of friendships, I learned from my dead mother who made time to keep in touch with hers. I saw her friend crying outside the church in a corner after the wake. Blue would see me dabbing her face with a hanky before giving me a wan smile then nod. Mom, one of her best friends, was dead now, gone ahead and here was the daughter who was a twin in looks yet was not her. She died of cancer, a long and protracted march, giving both enough time to accept the inevitable. Close to the end, Mom stopped receiving visitors, more so friends, knowing they would cry more than she ever would as her face sank inwards each day. They were afraid for her, the cancer and even more terrified for themselves as if by another’s impending death it was possible that they were the next in line. I bumped into them at parties, supermarkets and said hi in the ensuing years, though seeing me made their eyes misty. Invitations continued to arrive in the house for the big events in their lives as if Mom were still alive to receive them.

Perhaps it made them feel better to see the family name on the list, to pretend she was present even by proxy. They had more memories of Mom than I did, a string of recollections tied together from being screaming college students at an all-girls school to meeting boyfriends to moving to a new city to start married life. I was not friends with my mother. She was the bad cop to father’s good cop, the loving disciplinarian. A yellowed vinyl record found among the detritus of youth spent in a sleepy town in Bulacan would have the inscription: To Susan on her eighteenth birthday and with it a postcard photo of a woman in a dress with poufy sleeves. She would die thirty-one years later.

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As I got older, I would nod when these friends talked to me about their lives, their faces stricken as if remembering another time with their long-gone friend. I would see Blue at wakes and there I would try to cheer her up, ask about kids. Town gossip spread, she was an abused wife, beaten and threatened by butcher knife and pocket pistol. Neighbours looked away because she married a known troublemaker, a bully. Growing up, I would see Mom with Blue go shopping, and share meals that stretched until late. I wondered then what she could have done if she were here. Would she have helped pack a suitcase when finally a bullet grazed her friend’s foot? Would Blue have stayed in my room as she figured out how to move on? A study by University of Kansas professor Jeffrey Hall says it takes more than two hundred hours to turn someone into a close friend. The hours tick faster for some people even if on paper you shouldn’t get along having nothing in common that was measurable. You go on tentative friendship dates to see if you can enjoy each other’s company, it could be coffee, lunch or dinner and wonder if the conversation will lead to anything interesting. There are people who become part of your life and share their stories that it feels like their peaks and valleys are yours too because of the many times it is repeated like a skit. One friend who hated having pictures taken only seemed to look good in photos snapped by someone she knew well and not a stranger. The smile was genuine, reaching the eyes while the body relaxed, knowing she was in good company. Maybe friends are the people you trust to hand a camera to knowing they would frame you in good light despite the double chin, the soft fleshy parts, the unflattering angles so the camera lens shows what they see.

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Photo by Joyce Roque.

An angry visa officer

It was past the two hundred-hour mark when Cheese and I decided to take a trip to Seoul, South Korea, where I would take dozens of photos. She celebrated birthdays as reasons to go to new places. It was our first time in the country having been curious to go because of K-dramas — hallyu — which led to the bigger slide to interests in Korean food, movie, music, fashion, design. When I told Korean friends I listened to a popular pop star, they would roll their eyes, sigh and shake their heads. I had mentioned someone not cool, even considered cheesy, and did not know any better because I was a foreigner.

We were on a plane flying in Korean airspace when Cheese turned 28-years-old. The camera I brought then was a Casio pocket, one the size of a deck of cards; the first I bought with my own money and not shared with the rest of the family. The camera was mine. I treated it like an extension to seeing. Those were the years I took photos of everything, every little thing that occupied precious pixels and gigabytes space for high-resolution images of pedestrian objects, of patterns on cracked dried earth or parking lots filled with nondescript cars taken with commitment like a documentary, of empty spaces or public places not claimed by anyone but me. The past self made it easier for these places to be written. So it was no surprise that upon landing, despite being late and eyes groggy with sleep, the first photo I would take was a lighted signboard welcoming us to Seoul along with a photo of each of us: one of me fourteen pounds lighter and her of fourteen pounds heavier. The reverse would be true after a few years on another trip. She encouraged me to take more pictures. Her capacity for manic energy reminded me of an ad for long-lasting car batteries, yet we got along well because of curiosity and openness for new things and our shared interest in getting the best deals. I was an introvert hanging on the coattails of an extrovert.

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We were giddy in anticipation and plans—what we would buy, where we would go, what would we eat. The excitement was encouraged by the fact that the Korean won was down by half compared to the Chinese renminbi, making costs cheaper. It was a sale! What luck. We congratulated ourselves for great timing. The visa counter officer did not share our enthusiasm and became cross with me after watching me yawn while going through my passport saying something in Korean while looking angry. This was lost in translation. In the Korean language, even rice is uttered with an honorific. What seemed like a harmless gesture to me was disrespectful to the visa officer, to look bored and tired while he was there stuck in his immigration seat with the clear authority over us. We were two unaccompanied women going to Seoul not joining a group tour. How could we navigate on our own? Independent travellers, more so women, especially women from so-called third-world countries, are a cause for suspicion. Could it be he thought we would work there or break the law because why would we travel alone and make ourselves vulnerable to misfortune? Male friends on knowing a woman who travelled alone would give a wink expecting they did and wanted what they wanted too: to collect flags from flings from every nationality when the more urgent thing that women wanted when they travelled was to be safe from men and not be killed in the process.

News of a woman maimed or abused while travelling alone is not unheard of though one doesn’t need to travel for a woman to feel helpless, sometimes it happens even when at home. The immigration officer got grouchier when he could not reply to us in English. We presumed he was asking us where we would stay in Seoul and we showed the hotel address which was in English letters, not Hangul. His voice rose as he muttered more words in Korean with eyes glaring. Would he not let us enter the country? Would we make it here only to be turned away by early morning? Thankfully, another immigration officer took pity on us. We were moved to the next lane to someone who was able to read and speak in English and was promptly waved away towards the exit gates.

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Shopping at 3 a.m.

We boarded an empty airport bus for the city. I continued to take bad photos aimed at indistinguishable objects because it was blurry or too dark. Cheese was too tired to notice or care. The hotel was a Hawaiian-themed one with tiki torches and pineapple prints in neon near the megapolis shopping area, Convention and Exhibition Centre or COEX. It reminded me that tropical fruits did not grow here because a Korean friend would ask if there were coconut and mango trees in our backyard. I answered yes, surprised at myself for taking the trees for granted while they looked impressed. I might as well have said I grew gold back home.

The room had the usual amenities and, surprisingly, a computer desktop with not only free internet access but in speeds that swelled and gushed out of a channel like a river. There was no need to go through the internet with a proxy server because no websites were blocked or censored. It was the fastest internet speeds in the world. We felt like children led from a dense forest to a clearing with open sky where we could look up things, unencumbered. No information was blocked. We did not speak Korean, though, and knew the language would make it hard to get around in this age before translation apps on your mobile phones were available.

Walking around the city meant bringing index cards with written questions scribbled in haphazard Hangul whose characters were written from left to right and differed from those of Mandarin in their ways of referring to meaning because of their use of an alphabet. It would be easier to ask questions using those and less threatening than to let them figure out what we were saying. The only Korean phrases I knew taught by well-meaning yet mischievous Korean friends in Shanghai were: hello, love and motherfucker. On the cards were written: Hello! Could you please help look for ____? Sorry we are lost. We made sure to ask the first good-looking South Korean man we saw on the street for directions. He understood the Hangul sentences on the index cards and answered in English better than ours which made him even more handsome. Cheese’s Korean colleague, Champagne, picked us up from the hotel and brought us to Doota Fashion Mall, a complex of retail shops that were open until five in the morning. Champagne loved to shop and suggested an itinerary without asking us. Cheese and I looked at each other. We were too polite to tell her we weren’t interested in shopping, just food, but was curious what a mall that kept ungodly hours would look like.

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Doota was in Dongdaemoon Market, a fast-fashion mecca and an environmental activist’s nightmare. We drifted from one store to another, up and down the towers bathed in bright lights and white. It was a wasteland of things you didn’t need. Salespeople were perky even at those hours trailing behind us asking best price, best buy in Mandarin and other Asian languages they knew. The energy of being there was wearing off, it felt like being hauled out of a loud party and thrust into daylight. Sleepiness melted many things into one lumpy mass. A family arrived with their children wide awake in tow to buy shoes at two in the morning. What started out as a novelty on the way there became a penance as we kept walking around at 3  a.m. in shops empty of people but full things to desire. Poor Champagne, worried that we were not having a good time because we ended up buying nothing. She would not get the hint right away that we were not shopping people by bringing us again to another outlet store.

The jubilation over the depressed Korean won was short-lived because no money exchange stall would open during the Labour Day weekend. The cash machines were also closed for the national holiday. We had a small amount converted at the airport expecting better rates in the city. We would be stuck with renminbi in our pockets unable to use them. There was money yet there might as well have been none.

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Photo by Joyce Roque.

Women-only Korean spa

Regret, oh regret when we realized it had not been a good idea to spend won for a jjimjilbang like the ones featured in television shows. The neighborhood jjimjilbang suggested by Champagne had a mokyoktang, a female-only area inside the bathhouse. We planned to stay for half a day if not an entire one to make the expense worth it but wanted to leave as soon as we stowed our bags in the lockers. Everyone inside the jjimjilbang was nude. Cheese’s eyes grew large when a middle-aged woman headed toward us naked and sopping wet with one hand holding a dry towel while water dripped down from sagging breasts to pubic hair to dimpled thighs to thick legs to form a trail behind her as she stopped by the stairs to stand. That was the future auntie version of myself right there, to become a no-more-fucks-to-give ajumma. I felt out of place, prissy and old-fashioned wearing a jjimjil uniform of a t-shirt, boxer shorts and the remembered modesty drilled in the brain and still unlearned from Catholic schoolgirl days. This disappointed me because I fancied myself a bohemian. How come they didn’t show this on K-drama, Cheese whispered as we laughed at ourselves and walked further inside the bathhouse. There were women scrubbing each other’s backs beside a pool. More half-naked women were eating bowls of ramen in a dining area while chatting. Do you expect me to scrub your back? I told Cheese. We both paused and said no at the same time.

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There was a floor for rooms fitted with clay kiln ovens for sauna where no one was naked. The women looked peaceful napping with folded towels covering their eyes. As we lay there, legs and hands outstretched on the floor, I began sweating profusely. It was a 200-degree Celsius heated room. The floor was uncomfortable, the heat was spicy on the skin like Sichuan peppercorns. Fish on a frying pan must feel like this. Or menopause. Was this a preview of menopause? I looked around me and tried to hold on, seeing that they were calm, telling myself this was considered healthy, even therapeutic, but the more I tried to reason, the more I thought this was warmer than even the hottest of summer days in Manila. It would be a relief to faint. I wanted to faint but could not because I was lying down. What to do, what to do. No water. Time was baking us, making us regret the last of the wons paid for a sauna simulation of hell.

I imagined the immigration officer was laughing at us too knowing we wouldn’t be able to take care of ourselves. See, what did I tell you, huh? In travel brochures, no one ever says that along with the sights and sounds of a foreign landscape or the other ways to live a life is that journeys make you realize how far from invincible you are. Not youth, not money, not even the most well-planned itineraries or intentions can prevent blunders or unfortunate timing. From feeling like we had more than we ever hoped for because of a soft exchange, the mood changed to beggarly. There was no choice but to make do with the dwindling won we still had. Champagne, who had business out of town, would be back in Seoul after a couple of days. We did not want to bother her. No one else could help us. Each won spent was counted carefully as if accounting for it would make it slower to spend and disappear from our hands. We wandered around Seoul, staring at food and letting our mouths water. The deprivation had heightened the senses. Cheese had become more energetic and positive assuring me not to worry though I knew she knew better than me. The money would last a few more meals and trips on the subway. Two days seemed long.

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Kawaii was everywhere. Shops festooned with plants and pastel welcomed the teen girl’s dream. I played with an adorable teddy-bear keychain, the stuffed toy attached to the chain was bigger than an apple. We held objects in our hands at the Insadong art street knowing we had to return it. Cuteness was a communicable disease here. There was so much cuteness, it was an end to itself for what did it matter that hair ribbons were in adorable checkers or polka dots. Despite the threat of penury, Cheese and I would blow our lunch budget on gelato and bowl of delicious cold noodles. In a building which seemed to have no walls or maybe it did but it felt like being outdoors while indoors, there was a courtyard in the middle of the four-floor retail area where you could bask in the sunlight.

Traveling with a friend

This was our first trip together. It is tricky to travel with friends when you risk being exposed to your less than ideal self when tired, cranky or lost. Travelling shows sides of you never known, so does it show facets of a relationship that would never have been revealed in friendships spent over coffee chats, movies and restaurants. The anxiety of being in a new place makes you change routines. It was easy to let the small things bother you. The Hawaiian but not Hawaiian hotel near COEX replenished our mini refrigerator in the room each day. Since we were low on cash and shy to assert our preferences, we negotiated for the spoils of the mini fridge indirectly by way of who would be the first to wake up in the morning to get their hands on them. If you’ve lived with a friend and ended up not hating each other at the end of the day then she is worth keeping. There are friendships that only survive within the confines of controlled, separated spaces that don’t involve leaving dirty plates on the sink or burning dinner. There were people who made perfect flatmates but you would have no business being friends with. By then Cheese was both one of my closest friends and flatmate.

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If Cheese were the only friend I met in China, I would still consider myself a lucky girl. She would remain a close friend despite leaving the country and working around Asia. I went ahead then she a few years later to another country for work, I was afraid our friendship would not last. What if the version of myself she liked to hang out with, the Shanghai Joyce was not as fun as the Manila Joyce with her calendar now busy with family obligations and all manners of errands you had to do when you lived at home? What if her Malaysia Cheese was not someone I would like to be friends with anymore? This did not happen and we were able to stay friends despite the time and distance. Maybe it was because she was not demanding of your time and made the commitment to stay in touch. We would email each other important life updates or plan vacations together. I teased her that she had a friend for every country in the world. She was loyal, brave and supportive yet with her own sense of right telling me to save an extra helping of stuffed eggplant when another friend had yet to arrive. When I told a friend of plans to leave China for good to go back to the Philippines, she told me she was jealous. She envied me for the possibility of another new life: the chance to start over again. You can be another person, she said adding that you didn’t even need to see the same people or keep in touch. Friends contribute to your happiness as much as they can turn it into misery. While most friends you met while you were younger with plenty of time to burn, fade away but you still keep fond memories of, there are some who won’t give you the dignity of a painless exit. They think since you’ve been so loyal for so long that you will continue being there despite abuse heaped on you. Cheese was not like that.

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People always talked about heartbreaks yet it is friendship break-ups that are in many ways more painful and traumatic than parting ways with a lover. Love stories are a dime a dozen, but nobody ever talks about good friends that stop being a part of your life. Nothing hurts more than being shut out by a person you trusted like a sister only for that to change and your presence barely tolerated later on. Friendship requires a chemistry of personality, common interests, generosity, a lot of laughter and the availability of time. No formal contract binds you to a friend but the pleasure of their company, not assets, not blood, nor obligation. They are there for you in the truest sense of the word and when you need it to knock sense into you. The sadness is longer and deeper when a friend you’ve loved for decades rejects the friendship like losing a keeper of your stories. Like any relationship, friendship also wanes and some branches will need to be pruned as one grows older. It is not wasted pain to stop being friends with someone after a few years more so if there were many good memories to recall.

In botany, plants are labelled deciduous or evergreen for those who lose or keep their foliage. Some people shed friends like deciduous plants, dropping leaves at maturity depending on the season and stage in their lives when the companionship is no longer needed. For plants like these, this typically occurs in winter as a means of survival, of liberation and conserving energy to grow. For people it is no different when they are going through a difficult period in their lives while other people like to hold on to friends like evergreen plants choosing to nurture what they have rather than start from scratch. Friendships were not ties of nature and you were free to choose to continue or not.

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Photo by Joyce Roque.

Caught in a demonstration

So it was based on the foundation of this friendship that Cheese and I found ourselves roaming Myeongdong shopping street late at night, dejected and waiting for the cash machines to open. A man was standing in the middle of the road speaking with a microphone and carrying a placard with the words: Lord Jesus Heaven, No Jesus Hell. It was not farfetched to guess he was preaching about religion in a materialistic world. I pointed to the Samsung branding we kept seeing during the trip. There were Samsung cars, Samsung taxis, Samsung fashion, Samsung appliances. Chaebol, Cheese said when I asked, referring to huge companies controlled by families. We walked on and pressed our faces on shop windows imagining we had bought what was our heart’s desire. Or we closed our eyes and imagined the taste of the food displayed under glass. I did not see Samsung food but wouldn’t have been surprised by that too. A Samsung waffle would look like a microchip laced in veins of caramel, flattened and crispy like stroop waffle as an accessory to a complete Samsung product dream existence where the picture on the box was exactly what you got in real life. Every included part fit together and made sense.

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Several hours would pass before the banks would open, until then I suggested coffee at the shop across. We still had enough money for coffee. Over there, I said. Look at that shop with red bricks. We crossed and realized too late that we were in the middle of a labour rally that was turning violent. Behind us were placards being hoisted up and down. A crowd of angry men were shouting. The chants stopped as they had begun; people started running, throwing bricks at the police. Would they use tear gas? What if one of us had tripped and been trampled on by the fleeing crowd? Where would we meet if we lost each other? Looking back, those were the times I travelled, feeling carefree, not thinking any harm would befall us armed with our plans, our maps, our hopes, our index cards of thoughtful questions when life was suffering no matter how much you planned it well, how no one gets out of it alive—it was the bingo prize everybody won.

The rally was happening in front of the coffee shop. No one found it strange that there were two women in the middle of them. We just needed to make it across to be safe from these men who wanted blood and violence, their hands heavy with bricks. I held Cheese’s arm praying that we would not be separated while we sliced through the crowd towards the well-lit, cosy place. No one glanced our way. We stepped inside the cafe where we watched the rally progress but with a benign interest as we regained our bearings, smiling at each other that we were at least unhurt, that we had escaped the chaos of what was outside in this safe place. People continued to sip their coffee and chat with friends. Here was our same-moment bunker before we had to go out again in the big, bad world, where no man could beat up your friend just because he can. This time, I did not take a photo. We bought our own cups and watched as people outside ran and bricks flew in the air.

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“How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar and Other Essays” by Josephine V. Roque is published by Penguin Random House SEA is available here.

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