Riding the subway has transitioned from an anxious experience to a familiar one. I remember once being fascinated by the number of people who slept on the subway. Bus riders would be sitting straight up, with their bags and belongings on their laps, but their eyes would be closed and they would be peacefully sleeping. I was always amazed by the fact that each sleeping rider always knew the second that they had to open their eyes to get up and off at their stop; I’ve missed stops while perfectly awake and conscious. Sometimes Seoulites reminded me of “The Stepford Wives,” seemingly human on the outside, but actually programmed humanoid robots.
I watched subway stops flash in front of my eyes out of the window. I hadn’t been to too many places outside of the jurisdiction of my neighborhood but I recognized names: Jamsil, Sincheon, Sadang. I knew that we were heading towards Chungrang-gu, but neither of us knew exactly how far CostCo was from the subway exit. As the guys talked politics, I rummaged through my purse to assure myself that I had everything that I needed. Since taking public transportation, I have developed a sort of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder where I have to always check my bag and pockets for my things: money, ATM card, Alien Resident Card, passport, etc. I never worried about pickpockets, but imagined scenarios of leaving things in taxis and on buses, forever discarding my identity. In many ways, I felt like a flop or nomadic bum, carrying her life history on her person.
“We’re almost there,” Greg said. “Two more stops.”
“Everyone got cash?” Victor asked. We each nodded. Apparently, CostCo was a great place to shop, but they didn’t take credit cards as payment, which was a disadvantage to those who swore by plastic and not paper. I brought eighty-thousand won with me, which was roughly ninety dollars.
“Well, what I really need to get is sheets,” Colin spoke. “I have only been able to find duvet covers and comforters… does this country not have sheets?”
Greg laughed. “Sheets? I’m not sure what kind of sheets go with a mink blanket!” When it became obvious that this was an inside joke that only the both of them understood, Colin explained that he had found a gorgeous mink blanket when looking for a comforter a couple of weeks ago somewhere out of the city.
“Do you know how many mink they had to kill for your blanket?” Greg asked heatedly. Colin shook his head, probably contemplating the mink, as I wondered what the hell a mink was. “It probably looks like something out of Dr. Zhivago.”
“Well, I cannot credit my decorating skills to Pasternak, but I do feel influenced by Martha Stewart,” Colin joked. “If it could keep me warm in Russia, then I want it on my bed this winter.”
The subway slowed to stop for the hundredth time it seemed, but this time Greg and Victor walked towards the subway door. I patted my pockets again and when I felt content, I looked around the subway. All of the Korean riders seemed to have his or her nose in a book or perusing the Hangul type of the newspaper. I wondered if once the four of us walked off of the subway they would all start chattering about us, talking about our big noses and big feet. There was a time when I was naive to think that I could somewhat melt into the Seoul population without sticking out as an American. At a bar one night, a Korean friend once asked me how I felt about the Korean response to Americans being in Seoul. I told him that I felt as if I were less than a blip on their radar, hardly making an impact. He laughed and then leaned forward: “Trust me, you are hardly a blip. They do notice you.”
We probably sounded as if we were winners of the Golden Ticket, skipping away to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. But we were just expatriates craving junk food in bulk sizes for a decent prize. It was true that any convenience store or grocery market in the city charged much more for American products than Korean. American toothpaste could cost anywhere between five-thousand and ten-thousand won, or between six and eleven dollars. Meanwhile Korean toothpaste was three-thousand won; it’s not that the Korean brand was bad, but sometimes it’s hard to switch from Colgate. A better example would be deodorant; Koreans are known for not needing it because they don’t emit smells or seem to sweat as profusely as other nations. So it’s hard to justify paying eight-thousand won when you know that you could get it for three bucks at your American Walgreens.
As we walked, Greg broke down the structure of CostCo to me and Colin, the newbies.
“Bedding and housewares are on the top floor. There are also some clothes too, but there are probably going to be way too many people shopping, so you won’t be able to get past them. But our target area will be the bottom floor, where all of the food is…” he looked from me to Colin with a grave look on his face. “… there’s no way to prepare you for this.”
Colin and I shrugged at one another. All that I really needed to get was cat food and litter. Zooey seemed to hate to see me leave the apartment because he would chase after me crying and then proceed to nip my ankles and feet. I had been doing all right with the amounts that Zooey’s previous owner had given me, but lately I had made a habit of feeding Zooey entirely too much food in order to occupy him every time I left for work. And cat litter, well, needless to say, one necessitates the other.
“Here it is guys, on the right,” Victor beamed. Each of us looked towards the direction of Victor’s pointing arm to see the luminous red CostCo sign.