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Shinji & Obachan Go West

May 27th, 2016  |  Published in FEATURE, LITERATURE & VOCAB

| On a warm evening in 2005, I was walking the girlfriend home and had just stopped by the neighborhood Family Mart for some Jeti, a beverage apparently for children but that I’d grown addicted to because, well, it’s chocolate so it’s good. On our way out of the store I witnessed something strange to me but fairly common for her. As I stood mesmerized, she was desensitized. The following story is based on what happened that day.


It’s 2005, obachan wrote me a handwritten letter and it came in the mail recently. I’d graduated from Tokyo Polytechnic University‘s photography program and she was congratulating me on that and apologizing that she wasn’t able to attend the ceremony because, according to her, she was out fighting crime, her euphemism for incontinence testing which she didn’t need to clarify but she did.

To make up for the absence, she offered me an expense paid trip, within reason, to Seoul with the partial aim of me winning the love of a stranger who per her vision I’d encounter through a random, romantic, yet not too-far-fetched string of events. There would be two conditions. First, I had to be her translator when she went to buy a shit-ton of Amore Pacific specific products for herself and her friends. Second, on specifically the night of Thursday, May 5 between the hours of 18:30 and 21:00, I was to accompany her to a pre-determined address and assist with her personal agenda for the trip which was to remain a secret till the moment it became not. Although she was being mysterious, it was obachan and that was fine. It would be unexpected, but it would be harmless and it would be interesting. I agreed and we made our bookings for some flight and this Hotel Tiffany in Chungdahm.


We find exit 1 of Chungdahm station and ascend the escalator. She brings out a stapled collection of pages with pictures, directions and chicken scratch all over. She flips to page 3, looks down then squints up and around orienting herself. We do a 180 out of the exit, cross one street, go down another, turn left and down a lane that brings us to a Family Mart, restaurants, and other establishments.

Family Mart

“Here. We must be here by 18:30 tonight, Shinji-kun. Here.”

“Ok, I got it. Here.”

She has me look her in the face. “Here.”

We disband. She allows me to gallivant. She would stake out a space in a nearby coffee shop and plan for her moment tonight. I go back to the hotel to grab a thing. I catch an elevator, cute girl comes on board.

With a determination to practice the local tongue she furrows her brow slightly and stumbles into “Sa…cheung”. I think she thinks I’m a local. There is no fourth floor. It says “F” on the panel. She’s getting F.

“Not from around here?” I go, in Korean. She doesn’t understand. I speak louder. She shakes her head which means she either answered my question or she still doesn’t understand it. Maybe I should speak slower and louder?

Ok, yeah, she doesn’t know what I’m saying.


“Yeah, please.”

“I was commenting how you’re obviously not from around here.”

“Is my Korean that bad?”

“It could be better.”

“That’s why I’m here, I guess.”

“You’re in the right place. Hey, I get off here. I’m Shinji. Sounds like you might need some help here. I’m heading to the northern part of the city in 10 minutes if you’d like to join me.”

“Wow, friendly. Can I think about it?”

“Think about it, yeah. I’m in 305. 10 minutes. Deul eo ga sae yo.” She squints like when a person’s confused. She was, just by the Korean though, FYI.

I forget what it was I came back for. Fine. I sit around for those 10 minutes. Call comes through! And you may call this awfully convenient. Yes, it is, but she could have easily not called too and I’d be heading north of the Han alone. We make choices that result in one positive outcome after another all the time. Sometimes that’s just how life rolls. And at times the reverse happens — Murphy’s Law. This is one of those good times that happened to flow from taking a chance and seeing no harm in doing so.

“Ah-nyong-ha-sae-yo. Evelyn ib-ni-da.”

“Yong-sae-yo. Shinji ib-ni-da.” I think there should be different teaching materials for writing and speaking in Korean. No one says hello the way it’s written in books. There’s no way it sounds like five syllables when it comes out of a native speaker’s mouth. It is way closer to “Yong-sae-yo” than “Ah-nyong-ha-sae-yo.” Anyways.

We head to Cheongwadae to check out some of the local art scene and this Blue House thing. I mean, they’re just physically nearby. It’s not like the Korean government spends all day with water colours.

The area with Samcheongdong-gil and Cheongwadae-ro has all these cafes, shops, and galleries like here, here, and here. It’s a cool spot. And it’s surprisingly peaceful despite the northern centre of the city being 10 minutes away. We advance up a hill and near the top I see a person rather than a traffic light directing cars. My initial impression is “weird.” Then it’s “there’s probably a good reason for that.”

After a while we agreed to give the language lesson a rest. Free-flowing exchange has been a long time coming.

“So where is home?”

“You know Yokohama?”

“No shit? Why are we doing this in English? We can be speaking Japanese.” We switch although you wouldn’t know with the language this story is written in and the limitations of the author.

“I’m from Kobe. Why is your name Evelyn?”

“You mean instead of Yumi or something? I was born with it…My family’s moved around — Vancouver, Taipei, there. Evelyn came up somewhere in all that. Yeah…so are you just traveling?”

“That’s part of it. I’m also here to help my obachan with something but she’s not telling me what. She could very well be the chosen one.”

“Exciting. Maybe she’s a secret agent.”

“She’s definitely something…” I check the time. “Hey, so I need to actually meet up with her for our thing.” I’m here for another 2 days. This was cool. Let me know if you’re around.

“Yeah. Hey. I’ll give you my number. I got a phone at the airport.”

“Great. So are you gonna hang around here all night?”

“I think so. I was reading about this Hi Seoul Festival that happens every season around City Hall. I think I’m gonna check it out.”

“Cool. Maybe I’ll give you a call later on depending on when this other stuff finishes up.”

“Sounds good.”

“Alright. Check ya later.”


So we return to that place from earlier with the Family Mart. 10 or so elderly women clustered together come into view in front of a Japanese restaurant. We approach them.

Japanese Restaurant

“Have you seen anything?” goes obachan, mine. I’m confident all the other women here also have kids that have kids.

“Not yet. Reports are still coming in.”

They huddle over a list and simultaneously call out what sounds like a pretty intense exercise regimen. This is followed by collective giggling.

“Then the shower!” More giggles, squeals this time too. The fuck is going on here?

“10 minutes. Talk with trainer: another 10 minutes. 20 paces from the table to the elevator doors. 18 second elevator delay…”

“Is this a hit?” I wonder about and then immediately dismiss each frail woman’s capacity for violence.

“Shinji-kun, stand over there until I come get you.” I obey. And I stand soaking up my surroundings…for what would become over 2 hours. Every time I try to get close, she shoos me away. I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Finally, I sense some progression.

“Nozo-chan, time!” I notice a bespectacled septuagenarian peering around a corner.


“Natsu-chan, are you ok?”

“I will soon be when dream is reality” from the octogenarian with a walker. She had to be the oldest one there. What dream?!

“Shinji-kun, come.”

She now introduces me to her posse: “My mago. I dragged him here.”

“Oh! How sweet. What a sweet b–” Abrupt stop. Whatever was meant to happen is unraveling starting now.

“Shinji-kun, listen to me carefully. When I tell you to, you will employ every technique you learned at that school making you the most promising photographer since the most famous photographer whose name I can’t remember. You will conduct the most glorious night time photo shoot without a support crew this universe has ever known! You will flatter this 68 year old body to the fullest extent of your powers! And this will be spectacular! Yes?!”

I nod with frequency. Tight-lipped, I ready myself for the inevitable coming. And then…

Screams! Shrieks of joy! Shrill beyond compare! How is there glass unshattered? With the intensity of a thousand suns or a classroom full of obnoxious spoiled tweens, these little women burst at the seams at the sight of, holy shit, motherfucking Bae Yong Joon!

“Shinji-kun go!!!” She grabs my hand and pulls me towards him as he attempts to walk through the exit.

“Ask him to hold me like Yoo-Jin on this 2004 limited edition DVD release.”

In my most polite Korean, I present the disc and explain. He agrees and I start snapping shots from every favorable angle I could.

“Now like he did at the end of episode 9 when he tells Yoo-Jin he’ll never let her go and she agrees to follow him. This is before they go to the summer house and Min Hyung and his mother meet.” Wow she said that so fast. I again explain and he again graciously agrees. Just like in the show! More shots happen fast and furious.

“Dip me Yon-sama! Ahhhhh!” She calls out in Japanese.

“Like in dancing?”

“Yes dammit! Please! Ask!”

She doesn’t wait for me. She goes for it! Swoons (flails, knocking a photo and pen out of his hands). Obachan floats (drops like a 32 kg rock) into Yongsama’s arms. What a classy guy! He must have been there for 40 minutes. He did everything those prunes asked for. Finally, he manages to escape.

I grab some drinks from the Mart. Super-old Natsu looked like she could use a cold one, that’s for sure.

“Does this happen every night?” I inquire.

“Only Mondays and Thursdays. On other nights he’s at a location that’s still unknown…For now…” Giggles renewed.

“Obachan, why didn’t you just tell me we were here for all this?”

“I wanted the spontaneity of it. That energy. I’m obviously not going to have many moments like these in my life here on in. I might as well do what I can while I still have a physically working body that isn’t entirely feeble. When you want something, go for it. Plan, execute with confidence, in the way you think is best.”

I let that stew. It’s been a good, weird trip so far. Where’s it going? What am I going to do about it? One thing’s for sure: Bae Yong Joon is the man.

For more on this writer’s favorite spot in Seoul, see below and just throw Cheongwadae into Google Maps. You can use street view to look around and even see inside buildings!

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