Back when I was in college, a friend approached me and said, “Hey man, since you’re from around here, let me ask you for directions. I’m not asking Brad anymore. He only knows how to get places from his parents’ house. Every time I ask him for directions, he sends me there first.”
When he said that last part, I knew I was in trouble. This was also my understanding of the city I grew up in – every location was relative to my parents’ house, as though our home on Spicewood Lane was the center of Rochester, NY, and every road or highway stemmed from there. Driving to the mall or to the movies, I’d almost always find myself going to my parents’ house first because that was the only way I knew how to get places. If my trip originated from a different location, I’d be completely lost, like a tourist driving through downtown for the first time.
Sometimes living in Korea is like that too. This has never been as evident as it was last week, when I ran out of deodorant and things went into crisis mode.
I stunk. I never thought my body could produce such horrible B.O. until I sat in my classroom and I couldn’t breathe. My own armpits were suffocating me. The can of Nivea deodorant I’d been using for the past couple months ran out on a Monday, and by Thursday I reeked like a homeless man or my father when he’d come back from jogging. It wasn’t that I’d stopped showering – washing my armpits in the morning simply wasn’t helping. By lunch time I was funkier than Bootsy Collins. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except I couldn’t find a can of deodorant in Seoul to save my life.
The search started with convenience stores, although I knew that would be futile. Soon I was popping into pharmacies and cosmetics stores, taking an invisible can of deodorant and spraying myself to communicate my needs to the Korean clerks. The salespeople in Korean shops are funny because they apparently have no idea what the store has in stock. They’d nod, a look of panic in their eyes, and then start scanning the shelves. After a few minutes they would turn to me and, giving up, simply say “no.”
Running out of ideas, I went to Leah, my boss. “Leah,” I said. “You might have noticed lately that I really stink. I’m having trouble finding deodorant. Where do they sell it here?”
She looked perplexed. “I will check the Internet,” she said, in a voice that didn’t inspire confidence.
I was frustrated. Since moving to Seoul, I hadn’t been able to find garbage bags or socks, and now I couldn’t find deodorant. That Thursday night I headed for the Homeplus in Bupyeong (Homeplus is Korea’s version of Target), figuring my problem would be solved. I felt relaxed. It was almost ten at night, and I walked through the aisles unsuccessfully. I approached a saleslady and asked her.
“Ah, deodorant,” she said. “It is seasonal item. Only in summer. No more deodorant now.”
Suddenly a rage overtook me. I turned my head away, my face getting red. In the form of a loud whisper, my frustration boiled over. “Fuck this shit! This is bullshit. How the fuck is there no fucking deodorant? Not one fucking can. Fuck Homeplus in its fucking face. What kind of fucking place only sells deodorant in the fucking summer? Fuck this place. Fuck Korea.”
I took a deep breath and turned back to the saleslady. “Kamsahamnida,” I said and got the heck out of there. Some friends of mine had organized a dinner that night. With no other options, I bought a bottle of Fabreze. Seconds after arriving at the restaurant, I stood in front of my friends and blasted myself with it. What other choice did I have? Yes, I felt ridiculous, especially since the Fabreze completely soaked my shirt. But I wasn’t going to put them through dealing with my funk. Not at dinner. Not if I wanted to keep them as friends.
Come the weekend, I knew where I had to go. All last year I lived near the Arts Center in Incheon, and I could picture the exact location of deodorant in the Homeplus there. It was a little depressing, a little deflating, knowing that I was going to make a 3 hour trip when surely there had to be someplace in Seoul that stocked deodorant. I didn’t care. Really, I wanted to go back to a place I was familiar with, where I knew how to find things and everything was as right as rain.
So I did. I took the subway from Sindebang to Sindorim, then transferred to the dark blue line to Bupyeong, then transferred again to the light blue line to Arts Center. I went to the Quizno’s where I used to eat all the time and had a sub. Full and happy, I made my way to the Homeplus, where I purchased two cans of deodorant. Buying two made me feel better. I was “stocking up.” Only a fool would come all this way for one can. I was leaving with a full supply.
Taking the subway back, I felt good. Korea might not really be my home, but at least I had a home there. Like how driving to my parents’ house helped me understand the layout of Rochester. There are certain places that are more than reference points. They’re knowledge points, places where buying deodorant, garbage bags, and socks is as easy as buying deodorant, garbage bags, and socks should be.