The six-hour layover in Tokyo finally ended. On the way to the gate, I stopped to have some ramen and a beer. I was the only non-Japanese ordering a hot meal, even though I was surrounded by Americans there, who were trying to figure out what to get but seemed timid about ordering.
The flight from Tokyo to Dallas was grueling. I had one of the center seats and little elbow room, much less leg room for my long-legged self. Sitting in the center is also tough because you have to decide who to wake up when you need to get out of confinement to go pee.
I passed the time by listening to podcasts and reading my book. I tried to sleep, but it’s difficult for me to get in a comfortable enough position. I leaned my head on the seat in front of me. That was the best I could do.
We arrived in Dallas. I was cramped, sweaty, stinky and exhausted. From the time I left my apartment through the waiting in Tokyo and the flight to Dallas, I had so far been traveling for twenty hours. I got in the immigration line for U.S. passport holders. I felt more relieved. I was finally in a line where I wasn’t going to be grilled about why I was visiting someone’s country.
Or so I thought…
An officer led a beagle through the line, sniffing bags. The beagle stopped at an old couple’s bags, and the officer took them aside. I didn’t see what happened next.
When it was my turn, the officer I had was a fat Texan redneck stuck in an authoritarian complex over his petty kingdom. It didn’t matter that these people in line had been traveling a long time, and this was their gateway to home. The guy was the rudest immigration officer I’ve seen in any country–and we all know that I’ve had my share of rude immigration folks in Korea.
So the guy asked me questions like what I was doing in Korea. I told him I lived there. With each question he seemed to get more and more annoyed, like my standing in line was distracting him from doing something else he’d rather be doing. He then mumbled something under his breath.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
He rolled his eyes and got terse.
“Do you plan to leave anything behind in the U.S.”
I thought, “Like what? A will and testament? What all should I tell him? Thirteen hours of flying, I really had to poo. I’m planning to leave a big turd in the U.S. Did he want to know that?”
“A few gifts.”
I couldn’t even remember what I had brought over. I’m not going to tell him I brought ramen noodles all the way from Korea.
“Yes. Korean plates.”
He sighed and waved me off. I think I mumbled something rude to him as I walked away.
After that part, we had to retrieve our bags and bring them through customs. I was more prepared with my answers this time. And the customs guys were a lot less ornery and more professional.
“What are the gifts you wrote down as estimating to $200?”
Passed right through. He even smiled.
I passed my bags off to these other guys, who put them on conveyor belts to be placed on my next flight.
I had a couple of hours to kill in Dallas. It was strange being in a building where I could blend in with the crowd. Everyone spoke English and could understand me. The airport had a western theme, of course. They had cowboy hats and giant belt buckles for sale. Big ole steak and BBQ restaurants. Real beer.
I decided to go to Fudrucker’s to have my first big hamburger in America in years. I placed my order, still in a post-flight daze. I heard him say, “Five twenty-three.”
I put six dollars on the counter. He picked it up and slammed it back down.
“What’s this? It’s nine twenty-three.”
I got out the correct amount of money.
The cheeseburger was good. I didn’t eat many of the fries. And there was no way I was going to get through the tub of Coke they gave me. I looked around and slowly realized I was surrounded by big people–at least horizontally–with less fashion sense than even me.
After the burger, I headed to my flight. I stopped at a couple of souvenir shops. I wanted to get something from each major airport on this trip. I got Eun Jeong a little Dallas t-shirt and a cow skull refrigerator magnet. The ladies at each of the shops were the first nice people I encountered in the U.S. this trip. They even said, “Welcome back,” when the small talk turned towards the reason for my visit.
I don’t remember much about the flight from Dallas to Atlanta. I was happy to be back, though. At the baggage claim, I discovered that in America, you have to pay for baggage carts–which were always free in Japan and Korea. I plunked down three bucks and lugged my bags on there.
Ben and I agreed to meet at L2 at the airport. I sat there and waited a while. I didn’t mind waiting. I liked letting my mind rest and absorb the fact that I was actually back in the U.S.–back in Atlanta–where this whole thing started four years ago.
I re-entered the building and found a pay phone. I had Ben’s cell number in my notepad.
“Hey Ben, it’s Joe.”
“Oh man, I’m still at work. I thought you’d take a lot of time going through customs and stuff.”
“They took care of that in Dallas. I’m at L2.”
“We’ll leave right away. I’m sorry about that.”
“Really, it’s no problem. Take your time.”
“We’re only fifteen minutes away.”
“Okay, see you then.”
A short while later, a Range Rover drove up, driven by Ben’s girlfriend Nita, with Ben in the passenger seat. He came out and hugged me, and Nita took a picture of us. We loaded my stuff in the back, and I was chatty, chatty, chatty. Imagine replacing the words “band camp” with “Korea.”
My mom called on Ben’s cell to see if I had gotten back okay. I answered it, and she was ecstatic.
For fun, Ben and Nita wanted to take me to a Korean restaurant on my first night. They were worried that I was tired of Korean food, but I said that I would really like to see what Korean in the U.S. was like.
We went to a place that Ben preferred over the others his friends liked. He said it seemed more authentic. All the buildings had hangeul, and I was reading the hangeul before the English. The restaurant was called ìš°ë¦¬ ì§‘ Uri Jip, or “Our House.”
CORRECTION: According to Ben’s comment below, the restaurant’s name was “Hae Won Dae.” I confused it with another place down the street.
Ben said that he asks to be seated in one of the private rooms, but they guy never seems to understand him. So we entered. The owner directed us to the tables in the middle of the restaurant. I pointed to the private rooms and said in Korean, “Is it okay if we sit there?”
The guy paused. Registered. Quickly recovered.
He smiled and directed us to a private room. The menu was extensive, compared to restaurants in Korea itself. Restaurants in Korea tend to specialize in one or two dishes. This one was trying to cover the whole range of Korean cuisine. We ordered Beef Galbi, Pork Bulgogi, KimchiJeon and some raspberry wine. I talked and asked questions in Korea much of the time, and he lingered at our table a lot. Other workers in our restaurant peered into our room. I guess he went into the back and told them about the Korean-speaking white guy.
I am pleased to say that the food tasted very close to authentic. They served the same types of side dishes as their homeland counterparts. The only difference was that I tasted more American chile powder than Korean chile powder–more jalapenos, which was quite good. The kimchi was good, with evidence of raw oyster. The sexy girl soju posters were also authentic. It felt just like a Seoul galbi restaurant except that they got the lighting right. It didn’t have Wal-Mart lighting. It was perfectly subdued–which made it bad for pictures, which is why I don’t have any pics of the food.
We went back to Ben’s place, where I showed some of the swag I brought down from Korea. All the alcohol was for him, along with some sauces and goofy stuff, like Juipo, the pressed fish snack.
The rain was getting harder, and the lightning was flashing more. Nita said that a tornado had hit midtown. A game at the Georgia Dome was canceled when lights swayed. It was in the vicinity of the CNN Center, Turner Broadcasting and televised sports events–but no one took any video of the whole thing–only the aftermath. One of Ben’s friends lived in the cotton-mill-recently-converted-into-apartments that collapsed. He’s okay but homeless now.
I took a badly needed shower and lay down on a great comforter on the floor. I really needed to sleep on the floor for my back. I conked out, only to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and not being able to go back to sleep. So just read my book.
Ben said he’d take me to work the next day. He also mentioned that he was setting up interviews with Alton Brown and Richard Blaise (Top Chef). So I stressed on coming up with interview questions for them.
Really. It would be great to meet Alton Brown, one of my heroes. But what questions could I ask him relevant to my site?
“Do you like kimchi?”