9.11.2011: Stranger In A Strange Land

Toby Smith
3 min read
Stranger in a Strange Land
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I was winding down from a day’s work as editor of an English-language, daily newspaper in South Korea. It was about 10 p.m., Seoul time.

My cable TV provider had decided, oddly, to stop offering CNN. This move for me represented just another example of a hard-to-figure country.

With no CNN, that left me with Korean soap operas minus subtitles and a U.S. armed forces station. The latter usually broadcast scraps of Fox News between reruns of “7th Heaven” and constant warnings delivered in militaryspeak: “Pay attention to your situational awareness.”

In other words, don’t forget that North Koreans are only 30 miles away, and they have nukes.

Living alone, my routine after work was to make a sandwich, open a bottle of beer and read. I used the television as background noise. I was doing all this when Geraldo Rivera came on with a bulletin. Something about a plane hitting one of those towers in New York City. I looked up and remember thinking, Where did that idiot learn to fly?

Back to my eating and reading.

Then Geraldo’s voice again: “A second plane has hit one of the towers …”

What the … ?

I put down my sandwich and turned up the sound.

For the next several hours I sat as most Americans did, tube-tied. The difference was I was far from the United States, and my information arrived in bollixed bits: U.S. fighter jets have taken off. … Where’s Bush? Cheney’s in a bunker. … The White House has been hit. No, the Pentagon has been hit … box cutters … terrorists on a train . … Saddam did this. No, the Saudis did it … 10,000 dead. No, 4,000. … Let’s roll.

Three months before, I had relocated from Albuquerque to Seoul to help start up a newspaper. I knew only the people I worked with, and most of them were South Korean. What could I do? What should I do? I tried calling the States and couldn’t get through.

I had another beer. Soon I had another.

The towers collapsed.

Finally, so did I.

The next day when I squeezed into a subway car on my way to work, something peculiar happened. Normally a ride on a Seoul subway during rush hour resembled close combat. This day, South Koreans seemed weirdly polite. They had always stared. Now they looked at me differently. Somehow, some way, they sensed I was an American.

Many nodded at me in sadness. It was if they wanted to say, I’m sorry, but didn’t know how. They stepped out of the way, and they didn’t shove. I even heard words I rarely heard in crowded confines: “Shillye hamnida.” (“Excuse me.”)

The sympathetic treatment helped, for I desperately missed the U.S. I had no Brokaw to listen to, no friends to chat up, no loved ones to hug.

But I had the Korean people and, oddly, that was enough.

Toby Smith is a U.S. Army veteran who served during the Vietnam War era. He later spent several years with the Albuquerque Journal as a reporter and editor, primarily in the sports department. He’s a regular Alibi contributor.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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