An Afternoon in Seoul
I have just finished lunch with Kang Hee -- namyang, cold noodles that I ate with metal chopsticks, actual ice cubes in the stainless-steel bowl. She had to return to the embassy where she works. I have nothing to do, all afternoon to do it. I’m rambling, killing four hours until she gets off of work and I see her again. I got my camera in case I come across anything interesting. I’m walking down the crowded sidewalk. I feel free, independent of all the people around me. They have places to go, tasks to accomplish. I don’t speak their language; I don’t look like them; I don’t have to do what they have to do. I’m free, and I’m enjoying my freedom.
Unfortunately, it’s hot, the hottest month of the year, the hottest hour of the day. It’s got to be near one hundred. With the streets on fire, I glance up and squint at the oppressive haze. The sun is up there somewhere, high above the towering buildings, yet I can’t see it. But the heat. The heat -- the doors to the kiln thrown wide open -- is simply astounding. As Yukio Mishima writes, “It was the height of summer, and there was anger in the rays of the sun.” What a line, huh? And the humidity. It’s awful. My shirt is sticking uncomfortably to my back. Fortunately, I’m just a few blocks from the Kyobo Book Store; I decide to go in and check out the international newspapers and magazines. In air-conditioned comfort, I can stand and read for an hour or longer and then have a cold drink at the bookstore’s café. This is my plan. It’s a good one.
As I make my way down the sidewalk, two Korean guys stop me. One guy shoulders a TV camera. The other holds a microphone that is attached to the camera by a long cord. He wants to know if he can ask me a few questions. He wants to interview and videotape me for some TV show. He tells me the show’s designed to teach English to its viewers. “Is this guy for real? Is this a joke?” That’s what I`m thinking. I glance around skeptically.
We are near a broad avenue. It’s noisy, lots of cars and buses whizzing by, so he pulls me under an awning. We’re standing in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts. Again, he tells me he’s from some TV show. He’s finding and interviewing native English speakers for some Sunday-evening variety show designed to teach Koreans English. Can he ask some questions? Do I mind being taped?
“Okay,” I say. “Sure.”
The cameraman steps back a few feet. He aims the camera at the two of us, and a bright light pops on above the lens. The interviewer says a few sentences in Korean, and then he begins. In fluent English, he asks my name, where I’m from, what I do, why I’m in Seoul, how long I’ve been here. The camera guy is doing his thing. Then the interviewer wants to know if I’ll sing a song in English. He wants to videotape my singing for the TV show. The questions were easy, but I’m not sure about the singing. If you`ve ever heard me sing, you`d know why.
“So how about it?” the guy enthuses. “You know any good songs?” With English like that, the guy probably grew up in LA’s Koreatown.
The first number that pops into my head is “Moon River,” one of the very few songs I’ve ever sung in a karaoke club. It’s one of my favorites. Who isn`t moved by that song? Who isn`t touched by Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Audrey Hepburn’s incredible performance? If I’m drunk enough and if my Asian hosts encourage me enough, that’s usually the song I look for. But for some reason, a mischievous ditty by The Smiths pops into my head. If this guy wants a song, I’ll give him one.
“Sure,” I say. “I got one for you. I’ll give it a try.”
“Great!” He turns to the camera guy. “You ready? Make sure you get this.”
The interviewer stands next to me and addresses the camera in Korean. He’s all smiles and laughs. This is going to be fun. That’s his tone. He’s probably saying, “Check out this clown!” Then he steps aside. I’m standing there looking into the camera; it can’t be more than two feet away. I see a black hole behind a small square of thick glass. I’m nervous, but I begin: “From the Ice Age to the Dole Age / There is but one concern. / I have just discovered.” I’m talking more than singing, but I don’t stop. I’m at the refrain. My heart is beating fast, but I’m going to get through this. “Some girls are bigger than others. / Some girls are bigger than others. / Some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.” I’ve removed all irony (indeed, is there any?). I’m serious now. I dive right into the second stanza: “As Antony said to Cleopatra / As he opened a crate of ale, / Oh, I say, I have just discovered. / Some girls are bigger than others. / Some girls are bigger than others. / Some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.” That’s it. I’m done. Those are the lyrics, at least as I remember them, to The Smiths’ “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.” In college, that was one of my favorite songs; it’s hard not to hum the infectious melody as you cruise down the motorway. And I always wanted to open a crate of ale. I still do. I desperately want to know what it feels like to open a crate of ale.
Well, that’s the end of the interview. The guy looks at me, doesn’t even ask me about the song. Actually, he looks like he’s been duped. He speaks in Korean to the cameraman. “That`s a wrap,” he seems to say. Then he says to me, “Thanks, man. Thanks for helping out.” He extends a limp hand, and I give it a shake. He and his pal walk off. He doesn’t tell me when to tune in. He’s doesn’t tell me if I’m going to make the show. I walk the rest of the way to the bookstore.
Later, at dinner, I tell Kang Hee about my little adventure. She’s excited. She thinks she knows the TV show. She says she’ll tape it. I can send copies to my family and friends. I’ll be famous. She wants to know what I sang, so I half sing, half speak the lyrics to her. She probably doesn`t catch every word, probably thinks Antony and Cleopatra are common American names, but the refrain is clear enough. When she hears it, she frowns, puts down her chopsticks, and looks at me with a furrowed face that says, “I may not want to know you.” “That’s disgusting,” she declares. “They won’t play that.” She seems disappointed in me. “It’s a great song!” I say. “You haven’t heard it.”
“I don’t want to.”