A year in Arabia, two in Hawaii, and three in Texas left me ill-prepared for Korea. Thin of blood and body after Jidda, I reached Seoul in late October—enjoying a few days of autumn warmth before winter barged in from Siberia. I soon learned why Koreans have rosy cheeks, tutored by a child.
Six days of weekly work at the Korea Herald newspaper requires a half-hour bus commute from my flat south of the Han River, which circles Seoul like a necklace. The return trip is nastier because winter’s pale sun is long gone when I finish work in nose-to-grindstone South Korea.
This is 1983, just before the “Miracle on the Han River” economic boom catches the world’s attention. Suit jackets of Seoul’s hordes of salary men hang loose on still-lean bodies of dads working six or seven days a week. Their schoolkids attend hagwon (cram schools) on weekday evenings plus weekends to prepare for entrance exams. Koreans remind me of Mom in the 1950s. As a waitress, she worked Monday through Saturday with naught but home chores on Sunday.
I wait each frigid night at an unshielded bus stop a ten-minute walk from the Herald. It is located two hundred yards before a tunnel through Mount Nam, a mole of a mountain on Seoul’s downtown face. Wind accelerates over Namsan and howls down the bus stop’s building-lined street like buckshot through a gun barrel.
Would-be commuters stamp feet and press tight against shuttered buildings, keen to avoid Siberia’s breath. Our tundra-slit eyes scan arriving buses for the one that will take us home.
A collarless goose-down jacket (fine for San Francisco but not Seoul) warms me from waist to clavicles. Irish eyes water as my Celtic beak glows red. Single and vain, I shun hat and long johns as style dominates sense, and I had yet to learn to layer clothes. Nature extracts nightly payment for such vanity at that cruel bus stop: hawk wind pierces skin, hunches shoulders, shortens necks.
Airy boots designed for Vietnam’s jungles are pathetic. Nor are threadbare cord jeans and skimpy briefs (you’re so vain) a match for Korean windchill. Bone-cold from waist to toes, I need a girlfriend to teach me how locals dress for Siberia.
I had never been north of Hartford or SanFran, assuming I could handle Seoul’s winter because I grew up in Philly and Jersey (fool!). At 6ft 2in and 155lb, an advantageous gander neck in Danang, Austin, Honolulu, and Jidda is a liability in Korea.
The bus stop’s street is dimly lit, just enough to silhouette sleet driven diagonal by wind surging off Namsan. Hunched like a no-neck sparrow on an icy twig, I see my plight as Fate’s payback for two lush years spent on Oahu as a grad student via an East-West Center fellowship, which I viewed back then as payback for two-plus years in Nam as a marine.
There is naught to do while waiting except glare via tundra slits at lucky souls boarding homebound buses. Boarders enter the front door to deposit fares; those exiting do so from the bus’s midship door.
One icy night in late December became indelible because of a brief encounter with a slim Korean girl of about ten or eleven. She seems oblivious to cold that has me wishing I was back in Jidda.
Her apple cheeks glow like the brake lights of passing cars. She likewise scans bus numbers as they arrive, take on a few cold Koreans, and then rumble off. Yet only she is smiling at that frigid bus stop. She jumps around happily—as though she just finished classes (six days weekly in Confucian Asia) and Sunday is hers.
At first, I thought it must be the frozen-Chosin cold that has her awaiting a bus with such obvious anticipation. Yet her cloth coat is unbuttoned and her face is not wrapped in a wool neck scarf, such as this ill-clad observer.
Her spunk goes into overdrive when she spots her number among a half dozen buses rumbling toward us amid a cloud of exhaust fumes sliced by diagonal sleet. When her’s pulls up to the curb behind two others, she scurries not to its front to board but to the side door, where she posts herself like a palace gate-guard.
As the door accordions open, I see the red tip of a white cane poke both steps down, followed by its owner onto the curb. Apple Cheeks grabs his free hand and immediately gushes with the love of a child happy to see her father. His smile on hearing her voice and feeling her hand in his requires no translation.
Her school week and his work week are done. They are together, and soon will be in their toasty ondol-heated home with Mom and the rest of the family. Apple Cheeks bursts to tell Dad of her day and how good it will be to get home. Dad smiles as his daughter glows.
I watch with envy, numb from head to toes, bound for an empty bachelor’s flat. Seeing child and father recalls a feature story the Herald published a month prior about Seoul’s state-run school to train the visually impaired. The program motivates them to get out and about the city so they can be active, mobile, and self-supporting. One sees them dressed for work with red-tipped white canes on buses, subways, and city streets, commuting.
Still scanning oncoming numbers for her next bus, Apple Cheeks perks up as one arrives, which happens to be the one I’m awaiting. But when the bus pulls alongside the curb, the young girl and her father bypass the boarding line and stand instead near its midship exit door, she again antsy with excitement.
The door opens and another red-tipped white cane emerges—held by a woman, the girl’s mother. Judging by Mom’s smile and her outstretched hand, she knows who is there. Apple Cheeks grabs her hand and swings it with glee as Dad and Mom exchange sightless smiles.
Mouth agape and no longer cold, I miss my bus as I watch them walk away, the child skipping hand-in-hand between her parents as she guides them home for the holidays.