A couple weeks ago, Erin and I went up to Camp Humphreys army base to see a roller derby bout. The ladies of OH! (Osan-Humphreys) were having a match against the girls of ROKD (Republic of Korea Derby), and Erin wanted to support her league. (Go ROKD!) While we were waiting to be checked through security, Erin grabbed my arm. "They have Cheetos."
Her gaze was fixed, unblinking, on a vending machine in the corner. It was stuffed with all the greasy things you couldn't normally find in Korea. A knot of other westerners were standing around it, licking the glass with their eyes.
As we joined the crowd, one of them turned with a mournful expression and said, "You don't have any dollars, do you?"
Erin blinked. "You mean it doesn't take won?"
They smiled ruefully back at us. "Are you kidding? We're in America now."
And so we were. When we finally got on base, we all took a trek to the cafeteria to enjoy some traditional American foods. As we were walking up, I felt a vague sense of displacement. There was a Burger King outside, surrounded by an acre of parking lot. A massive 4x4 was just pulling up to the drive-thru.
I leaned over to Erin. "Does that seem weird to you?"
She stared at all the empty space. "You mean, the part where there's room for like, a hundred cars out here? Yes."
After months in Chungju, with it's towering apartment complexes and crowded streets, this expanse of asphalt seemed unnatural. And once inside, my feelings of displacement grew. Everything had been designed to make the casual shopper feel like they were back in the states. Even the electrical outlets were all American. The cafeteria featured a Subway, a Baskin Robbins, a Taco Bell and a Popeye's Chicken.
We got in line for the Subway and stared up at the menu, trying to decide what to have. I looked at the people ahead of us, at what they were ordering, and it was my turn to grab Erin's arm in shock.
"Holy... is that supposed to be for one person?"
The sandwich artist was slathering mayonnaise on what looked like a football field of bread. A mountain of condiments and meats dripped with grease and cheese.
Erin looked equally shocked. "I... guess? That's a footlong, I think."
"Were they always that big? I don't remember them being that big!"
A man ahead of us reached the counter and placed his order, "Yeah, gimme a footlong BMT, double meat, double cheese, extra mayo." I watched the Subway employee pile a truly astonishing number of ingredients onto an equally ludicrous amount of bread and felt a little nauseated.
We got our meals, a pair of six-inch subs, and went to find some seats. The hall echoed with the sounds of conversation and laughter, all in English. Again, things felt out of joint. I was used to just tuning everything around me out. I mean, it's not hard when you're in a crowded restaurant surrounded by people speaking Korean. But this was different. This was overhearing conversations about family, or school, or work, or kids, or whatever was on their minds. And I could understand all of it.
"It's a little overwhelming, isn't it?" Erin said when I mentioned this to her.
I nodded, "Yeah. So is the fact that I'm not the fattest guy in this room."
"Huh?" She said.
I gestured around us. There were dozens of men and women in the hall. While the women ran the normal gamut of body types and levels of fitness, the men fell into only two categories: either they were obvious military and just ridiculously buff, or they were the cartoon stereotype of Americans. I'm not what anyone would call a skinny man, but after months in fitness obsessed Korea, this was just bizarre.
We moved on to the derby bout. It was a good time. We don't see a lot of sports over here so this was a fun change of pace. And then afterward we caught a train into Seoul. Sitting in our car, surrounded by the quiet murmur of Korean conversations, I felt as if I had come home again.
And that may have been the freakiest moment of all.