Jin Ae Mason finished signing in at the desk of Mammoth Hotel Seoul and was handed the activating key to get into her assigned room. One of the greeting attendants meeting people at the door had seized her luggage when the taxi came to a halt in front of the massive building and walking at a crouch had shepherded her inside to the reception desk shouting instructions to another assistant. After she’d completed formalities, he reached for the key just handed over to her and indicated she should follow him to the elevator. Once inside he selected the button indicating her assigned floor and stared at the wall avoiding eye contact. The elevator swiftly rose, and the door opened.
Jin Ae stepped outside and waited while the attendant wheeled her luggage quickly down the corridor and paused at her room while she followed. He unlocked the door with a flourish and then closed it again handing her the key. Jin Ae understood he was showing her how the card key should be inserted and took the key with both hands extended having observed that was the appropriate way to send and receive things here. She opened the door, and luggage was pushed in unloaded and stored in the room luggage area. The attendant then bustled around inspecting the room and attached bathroom checking air-conditioning and cable TV. Satisfied he stood to attention and bowed. Jin Ae retrieved notes from her purse and offered it to him and he stared at the notes approvingly. It was an American custom that had migrated to the large hotel chains in South Korea.
Seoul Incheon International Airport had been a new experience for her. It was strange to be in a country where the majority looked like her and she felt an inner peace but also harboured a sense of inadequacy. Because she had Korean features those processing her papers through customs and immigration naturally spoke to her in the Korean language and seemed surprised and irritated when she’d tell them she only spoke English. So, they’d then resort to English but showed disapproving looks as they processed her American passport.
Outside she’d expected to find a Mammoth Hotel courtesy van but after waiting for some time finally settled on a taxi and handed the driver instructions written in Korean. She marvelled at the clean modern buildings and organized road systems as they made the long journey to Mammoth Hotel. She’d tried to talk her Mother Mee into making the trip with her.
Mee, who her father always addressed as May had painful memories of Korea and the war and had been grateful for the American soldier Sergeant Clifford Mason who’d rescued her from the refugee camps and sent money to support her with the generous Korean family he left her with. He later returned to Korea to find her when he was discharged from the army and war paused in an armistice. Her name Mee meant beautiful in Korean and Sergeant Mason could not get her out of his mind. He’d proposed through a translator and as she had no family, she knew of now she gratefully accepted. Through army contacts Clifford Mason negotiated papers for her to accompany him back to America and over many years she finally was accepted as a citizen. She felt safe here but those were difficult years for Mee as she sought to communicate through sign language and the few broken English words picked up in the camps which were often misplaced to the amusement of those around her. Each mistake was a painful reminder of her vulnerability as a migrant without language skills, but she persevered and in her old age was now quite proficient in English. But she was not interested in returning with her daughter as Korea with its horrific memories for her was the land she’d left behind gratefully. Now it was a modern powerhouse that had obliterated the scourges of the war and Jin Ae was sorry she hadn’t been able to convince her mother to see this change.
Jin Ae was here to see the land of her mother’s birth and to try and retrace her father’s army movements as he and other UN troops sought to protect this land from the onslaughts of communist threat. Her father had been dead now for several years. Jin Ae’s mother Mee had been his shadow through their married years and there was deep love between her Mom and Dad. She’d been swept up in that family love embrace since birth. Her brother Tim had followed his father into army service and done service in Korea recently. He’d bought back glowing reports, and this had encouraged Jin Ae whose name had the connotation of truth treasure and love to see her Mother’s roots for herself. Jin Ae wished to see the places of battle south of the DMZ her father had fought in and particularly site of the refugee camp from which her Mother had been rescued. Her brother had researched all this and written it down in detail during his US army service in Korea. He’d arranged for a Korean friend to accompany her on her tour journeys.
This woman friend and former translator and assistant Cho would be meeting her tomorrow at the hotel and Jin Ae smiled as she thought of the effusive praise her brother showered on this woman. Tim had been single choosing that lifestyle because of his frequent moves around the world but could it be that Tim was being lured by Cho whose name also signified beauty?
Jin Ae known to her American colleagues in the corporate world as Jenny had poured herself into the tech industry and was a sought-after innovator tech geek in top management in Silicon Valley. As she reflected on her brother’s sudden interest in a woman there was a feeling something was missing in her own life. If she were to find an interest in seeking a partner in life it would have to be soon, she reflected. Perhaps she’d waited too long seeking to advance her career and now she had position and money it was not enough.
Jin Ae had an uncomfortable night despite the luxury of her hotel room. Jet lag! She hated the changes in time zone but up to this time her overseas trips had always been to Europe. This trip was her first trip to Asia, and it felt good despite her lack of local language skills. She wondered if she’d be able to learn. She had dim memories of her mother talking to her in Korean as a child but refused to speak in Korean starting in her elementary school years and now, she couldn’t follow conversations. Tim said it was a difficult language and Koreans seemed to find English just as hard to learn. There were a lot of English Language Schools in Seoul now and those in the tourist industry were proficient in the language. Tim had told her Miss Cho had graduated from one of those schools and spent time as a student in the US before returning to start a career working in the ROK military, so it would be ideal travelling around with her. Jin Ae could hardly wait to meet her and see if this could be her future sister-in-law. Her mother would no doubt be happy if that happened.
She thoroughly enjoyed breakfast at the hotel next morning. The version of English food was not bad, but she filled her plates with Korean food and revelled in the tastes she remembered as a child when her Mom favoured Korean style dishes. When she returned to her room to freshen up there was a message on her phone, so she contacted reception. Miss Cho was inquiring if she was able to meet her in the lobby. Jin Ae grabbed her purse and made her way back to ground floor in eager anticipation.
Cho inspected the photo given her by Tim as people emerged from the elevator and headed over to introduce herself to Jin Ae. She gave the customary bow in welcome and Jin Ae returned the courtesy.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you Jin Ae, Tim has told me a lot about you and the photo I have does not begin to do you justice. You are beautiful!”
Jin Ae blushed with a combination of embarrassment and pleasure. “Thank you, Miss Cho, but you are even more beautiful, and my brother Tim has every reason to have shouted your praise in his letters to me. Have you known him long?”
“I was assigned as his translator and secretary by our army while he occupied his important position for the US army north of us at the DMZ. I will take you to some vantage points so you can see where the base is, but we will not be able to take you inside unfortunately. But we can see North Korea from some high points. Well maybe the demilitarized zone. Tim sent me a list of the places he thought you should see and if you agree after I explain this to you with travel-map I’ve bought with me then we can get started. It is my understanding you’ll be here for a week is that true? I would also like to take you to some of our night cultural programs if you are not too tired from our daily travel appointments.”
After an hour looking over the suggested program for the week and having Jin Ae’s enthusiastic agreement the two women began their itinerary.
Imjingak Park was their first destination, and they fought their way through the tourist commercialisation of the area because of intense international travel interest, Cho kept her eye on her watch and eventually they made their way to officially enter the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). As they pulled up to the check point guarded by military personal armed with machine guns Cho familiar with those in charge engaged in conversation and they were permitted on a bus. Soon heavily armed guards entered and carefully checked passports checking them against their mobile data bases. Cho had hoped her influence there would get them extra time but that was politely refused, and they were only permitted the usual thirty-minute tour. Cho gave a running history and Jin Ae tried to imagine the terror of her Mother who’d fled her original home in North Korea following retreating allied troops and the hunger of those in huge refugee complexes. Cho told them of freedom bridge the point of return of Allied and South Korean swapped prisoners of war the bridge now blocked off as an entry point between both countries.
In the evening they did the usual tourist thing at Dongdaemun Night Market then headed for lookout cafes on Hangang River which offered cosy retreats for those looking to unwind after a day of sightseeing in Seoul. Jin Ae was thoroughly exhausted by the time they made it back to the Mammoth Hotel but tired as she was, she asked the question that had been in the back of her mind since finding out Cho was employed by the ROK army. As she alighted from the taxi which Cho had retained to take her to her parent’s home, she casually inquired.
“How come you are able to take time off from the army to take me around for the week Cho?”
Cho smiled. “There was an unofficial request from your embassy to our officers and they were willing to grant me this leave for the week because of the good relationship between our countries. But apparently that did not help us getting extra time in the DMZ. See you tomorrow morning Jin Ae.”
Next morning Jin Ae made her way to the dining hall to enjoy more of the Korean food she’d enjoyed so much the day before. A figure in military uniform watched as she emerged from the elevator and headed for breakfast. The officer removed the newspaper from in front of his face to remain unidentified and quickly moved to follow her to the dining room.
“Do you mind if I eat with you Miss Mason?”
“I prefer to eat alone if you don’t mind.” Jin Ae turned to smile pleasantly but firmly then gasped in surprise! “Tim, what are you doing here? I thought you were at the Pentagon.”
Jin Ae made to give her brother a hug then remembered that was unseemly in Korea and stepped back quickly. “I’m so glad to see you Tim! She took in his uniform and thought It looked different.”
Tim laughed. “So, you noticed my uniform. I’ve just been appointed a Major Jin Ae and am on a mission which I can’t talk about for our government. Shall we eat? What time does Kim Cho meet you this morning? I need to talk with her privately before you two take off on your sightseeing tours. Army business of course.”
Jin Ae laughed and her brother looked at her in surprise. “Of course, Tim only army business. What other reason would you have to talk with an ROK soldier? You’re talking to your sister not one of your buddies so you can be honest with me. Cho is beautiful, why don’t you have a conversation about some non-army business as well. You’re not getting younger and I’m sure she’d say yes!”
Tim looked flustered and irritated. “Jin Ae I hope you haven’t been saying things like that to Cho. She is from a conservative family and she’d be insulted if you were that direct in the American way even in fun. Please don’t embarrass her, or me!”
Jin Ae laughed again. “I won’t embarrass her or you. Just ask her. I like her and want her as my sister-in-law.”
To be continued
© Copyright 2021 Ian Grice, “ianscyberspace.” All rights reserved
© The above free image is taken from pexels-photo-6457518 Alexander Suhorucov