Seoul Searching 5: Fleeting Moments
In a bid to meet other exchange students, I hop on a train to an area called Gapyeong with 30 strangers, anxiously fiddling the strap of my bag. Despite it being 10am, the three guys in front of me are chugging down beer and laughing heartily.
The university had set up a programme for exchange students to get to know each other and it had been decided that the best way to do this would be to lump us all in a field in the middle of nowhere to engage with nature.
The station we arrive at is small and forgotten. The pristine walls are too clean. Too white. In England, a place like this would be covered in dust with at least one broken light bulb, so this immaculate terminal strikes me with surprise and discomfort.
Gapyeong is similarly a ghost town. The streets are empty, and the noise from our group echoes across the river and into the mountain range. Our presence is disruptive and almost offensively loud.
We stand in a line as the group leader reads names off a sheet, like a primary school teacher. I joke to the woman next to me that we’re going to end up walking in twos at this rate. Slyly, she grabs my hand and pulls me into a convenience store: “What’s your drink of choice? Beer or Soju?” In desperate need of liquid courage, I buy the better half of the drinks aisle and walk out of the shop arm-in-arm with my newfound friend.
As a group, we quickly pace towards our first activity of the weekend: tandem biking. Arriving 5 minutes late, our leader rushes us over to the bikes and pushes us in blindly. Somehow in the chaos, my drinking buddy and I had been split up, and I am now with the 3 lads who sat in front of me on the train.
Peddling past the first checkpoint, the trio realise their fatal error. They forgot to replenish their drinks supply. Comically weeping, they cry out about the tragedy that has befallen them. Whilst I, smiling sweetly, pull out a 4 pack of beer and receive a full 5 minutes of applause. As we continued past each checkpoint, I would once again reach into my bag pulling out more and more alcohol, like an adult’s version of Mary Poppins.
After what felt like hours of chatting, drinking, and cycling, we finally reach the end of the tracks. The country air was stifling and heavy signalling the beginning of the typhoon season. The clouds stood menacingly above, glaring down at me. Intimidated, I opened another drink.
We turn back and stumble to our accommodation for the evening: a large Korean house in the middle of nowhere. The house is split into three sections: the women’s room, the men’s room, and the living room. Whilst the house could comfortably fit us all inside, we spent most of the night darting about outside.
Sometime after 6pm we set up a BBQ and sit down to eat in two groups. Taking it in turns, we grill beef and sandwich it between cabbage leaves. I lather mine with soybean and chilli paste. Dribbles of sauce drip down my fingers but I’m too drunk to care.
Escorted by my tandem bike buddies, a group of us trek over to the local convenience store to stock up on extra nibbles and booze. The road there is dusty, and baron and the street signs are caked in dirt. On each side of the road, there are dried up patches of farmland waiting to be replenished by the pending downpour. Crickets cough out with dried throats as if to beg for water.
By the time we get back, the group is separated into three factions. The first is desperately trying to replicate K-pop dances; however, as they’re hopelessly drunk, they keep missing steps and trip over each other. The next are cuddled up on the steps, having a seemingly deep conversation about the medicinal uses of marijuana. Finally, the third group is playing Korean drinking games.
Opting for this group, we work our way into the circle and begin to learn the rules for the games. First, we play a game called ‘dal-gi’, which translates to strawberry. A fitting game considering we’re surrounded by strawberry flavoured soju. Following a four-beat hand movement, you hit your knees, then clap, then snap left, then right, each time shouting ‘dal-gi’. The pace increases after each iteration.
Clumsily trying to emulate the others, I try my best, but they call me out again and again for playing wrong. They take their games seriously. The penalty is, of course, a shot, but it’s okay because they’re laughing and I’m laughing, and everyone feels as fuzzy and warm as I do.
Reaching the end of a soju bottle, someone curls the ring around the lid and passes it around the circle. The first person to flick it off has to take a shot. In fits of hysterics, I flick it off and into someone’s hair.
We move onto ring of fire, then never have I ever, and then it goes black.
I come in and out of focus. People are singing. Someone pulls me into a conversation about Brexit. Another tries to practice her Korean on me. I repetitively tell her I don’t understand what she’s saying, but she just laughs. I later realise she was telling me she likes beef. Wonderful.
I stagger to the bathroom and gaze at myself in the mirror, lost. I grasp my face with both hands and stretch out my cheeks. Suddenly, I become very aware of how drunk I am. The ceiling hangs low, suffocating me, and the walls slump. My body is unreasonably heavy. I slap my cheeks and push forward, back into the group.
Most people had fallen asleep in the 10 minutes I was gone. A group of 10 remained and were outside playing children’s games. I, of course, join them. I’m dizzy and exhausted, but I can’t let the night end. So, I run, and I tag, and I kick, and I reignite the memories of games played in primary school. At some point, I look down and realise my knee is bleeding, but I simply don’t care.
I lose myself in a flurry of thoughts. Why did I ever stop playing hide and seek? If I do a cartwheel, would I throw up? Why hadn’t I introduced myself to these people sooner? Will I remember them in the morning? Will we stay in touch or simply smile and nod as we pass each other on campus?
The next day, I wake up in the living room under a pile of coats and surrounded by friends who I would never talk to again. Our night was excessive, wonderful and priceless, but ultimately fleeting.
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