The Vladivostok Chronicles: Welcome to Seoul

“This is the best travel agency in the city,” Zhenya had told me with pimpish bravado before we arrived. I felt incredibly small, dwarfed not only by the enormous stature of the concrete building, but also by the three enormous letters that trumpeted its place in the world: MNP, short for Mezhdunarodnoe Putashestviye, which literally means “International Travel.” Back in those days, any firm worth its weight used a three letter acronym. That seemed to give a business Western sophistication. What the locals in Vladivostok had defined as “Western” was open to interpretation as even the international credit system hadn’t yet hit the city. In a city of under a million people, there was a motley crew of approximately twenty five Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and us Americans. There was very little intersection with the modern world.

Mad Vlad, as we called it, was a bizarre outpost at the ends of the earth that met at the crossroads of North Korea and China, directly across the bay from Japan. Not too many months before my arrival, Vladivostok had been a “closed” city because it was the seat of the Pacific Fleet. This meant that in order to be admitted into city limits even Russians needed paperwork, something akin to an internal visa. In the Soviet Union, any city that provided anything necessary to military or national interests was closed. Citizens were registered by their place of residence, which meant that the flow of internal travel was controlled and monitored, and closed cities were strictly off limits to non-residents. When in Los Angeles, I had visions of a Far East melting pot where Russians cohabitated in harmony with Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. In Vladivostok, there was no harmonious cohabitation. An American diplomat’s Chinese-American wife had been abducted off the street by local authorities, driven to the Chinese border and told to “go home.” An outsider was an outsider. They didn’t want us there.

As we waited there behind the thick plexiglass partition, Zhenya shifted anxiously from foot to foot. I should have known there would be a problem when the agent’s half-lidded gray eyes grew a horizontal halo of razor sharp crow’s feet from the meandering, deliberate half-smile he put on while taking my money. “Spasibo vam.” Thank you. I steadfastly ignored the bright red flags of my intuition and instead listened to the voice of my mind that loudly proclaimed, “Relax, you’re getting married. You’re getting married.” I squeezed Zhenya’s hand and held on for dear life.

I’d circled the globe a few times by this point. Los Angeles to San Francisco, to Seattle, to Anchorage. Anchorage across the Bering Strait to Russia: Anadyr, Magadan, Khabarovsk on to Vladivostok. A convenient 36 hour flight. Many months later, it would be Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, Moscow to St. Petersburg. Then St. Petersburg, Paris, Los Angeles. Los Angeles to Seoul, and, finally, back to Vladivostok. A more convenient 19 hour journey. At age twenty-one, when I first arrived, Vladivostok seemed different, glamorous in the pure oddity of it. Returning at twenty-three, I felt oddly bound there. Life for me was no longer a series of tributaries, carrying me along in the current. The paths had converged. There was one river now, swift and strong, and I was single-mindedly determined to reach my ocean.

Upon my return to Vlad, I knew things weren’t looking good when the passport control agent stared for a whole minute at the official stamp on the grainy paper. Things got worse quickly when, upon trying to register my visa with local immigration, they accused me of forging my visa stamp. I’d been working at The St. Petersburg Times on a three year business visa. I found that accusation to be completely preposterous and offensive, until I thought about it and realized that The Times probably had a fixer who had bribed someone for the stamps. We had scrambled to find someone, anyone, in the Russian OVIR immigration services whom we could bribe.

However, that didn’t help me any when I was called into a tiny office by a bespectacled, uniformed man with an even tinier mustache. After grilling me about the circumstance of how I had acquired the suspect visa, I was informed that they believed the visa to be fraudulent and that their generous response to my fraudulent visa would be to let me leave the country without arresting me for fraud. After my 19 hour journey, for which I still had major travel hangover, the last thing I was willing to do was get back on a plane to go home. For christsakes, my eyes pleaded with him silently, but I’ve crossed eight time zones to return to the love of my life so we can get married. Although I didn’t utter a word about this because technically it was illegal. To legally marry in Russia, I would have needed to enter the country on a marriage visa.

Confident in the fact that I had not, in fact, forged my visa, I decided to get combative. I thought the bureaucrat was being a Commie prick, and so I told him I didn’t accept his attitude, and I wanted a more senior official to handle my case. I thought I could throw around a little American muscle and it might help my plight. He physically threw me out of his office.

I took my crusade to our local neighborhood immigration office. I found a very sweet bureaucrat who offered to arrange a meeting for me at the central OVIR to plead my case. Unfortunately for me, when I arrived back at OVIR central, my heart bursting with so many hopes, it was utterly deflated when I stepped into an office only to discover again the tiny mustache waiting in delightful anticipation. He knew I didn’t have any corporate or government muscle flexing for me, and so he took the liberty of flexing his own decidedly Communist, anti-American muscles. He told me in no uncertain terms – in pedantic Russian, dripping with condescension – that I had 48 hours to leave the country or they would throw me in jail and throw away the key. He said he didn’t care where I went – Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Hell – only I had to leave.

I quickly ran through my options. Twenty four hours alone in a train in a compartment with three other Russian or Chinese just screamed, “RAPE!” and so I quickly ruled out a solo train adventure through Harbin and into Beijing. The other option, Tokyo, was prohibitively expensive. I tried to explain this to him in the most basic terms while playing abacus in my mind. I had my life’s savings on me – about $1300 cash – and one credit card. My lower lip started to quiver as I quickly tabulated in my mind all of my cash, that it wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t be enough to get me half-way across Asia, bribe someone for a new visa, and get both of us home. Every moment of my proper waspy upbringing had conditioned me not to show emotional weakness in front of strangers. Just as I redoubled my commitment not burst into tears in front of this paper-pushing asshole, a resounding sob erupted from my chest as the tears charted new landscapes across my cheeks. He took me firmly under the elbow and said, “Then Seoul it is. And, dyevushka, don’t forget. 48 hours. You’re still here in 48 hours, you’re going to jail.”

Outside, Zhenya ran his thumb across my cheek, removing any traces of my dire uncertainty. The weight of it all felt overwhelming. I needed to know it would all work out. Despite the distance between us. Despite the cultural differences. Despite the odds. Here we were, now a unit in the world, and I felt completely alone. I was the one under false attack. I was the one being forced out. Seeing the look of utter devastation on my face, Zhenya pumped out his chest like a preening peacock – he had a plan. Russian men have adopted an entire visual language of body cues that read, “Don’t fuck with me.” I smiled absently, floating back to the first moment I saw him. I opened the door to my flat and he stood there, pumped up, hands at the ready, floating slightly out to his sides. In that fraction of a second, I felt like someone hit me over the head with a baseball bat, and I heard a voice clear as day announce, “You will marry this man.” Zhenya’s fingers trailed the length of my face along my hairline, pulling me across time and space back to him. I was bolstered up by his brown-black eyes that somehow magically absorbed the light.

And so I followed my fiancé in his tight designer black jeans to the MNP travel agency, booking a week-long travel package to Seoul, including $50 a night hotel, a driver to and from the airport, and the paperwork for my visa. What I really paid the agency for was the fake papers. The half-lidded half-smile was going to provide me with a three month proof of stay in Vlad from a local hotel, which would enable me to get a three month visa, as opposed to the standard one month visa. With the payment confirmation from the hotel (of course, fake and paid for with a bribe), I would be able to get my visa. I needed the three month visa to have enough time to finish all the paperwork and medical tests that my future husband would require in order to get his green card at the American Embassy in Moscow.

The travel package didn’t include air fare. The thirty minute flight to Seoul I had to buy separately, for $750 cash, because the Korean Air office in Vlad didn’t take credit cards. Parting with half of the cash I’d brought with me just for airfare – knowing I was going to still have to get me and my to-be new husband out of Russian and back to LA – was madness. Torture. My heart stopped.

My future brother-in-law drove me and my fiancé over an hour to the low concrete block that doubled as an airport. Zhenya and I sat in the back seat. We didn’t say much. We just held hands. I was terrified: what if the half-smile took my money but doesn’t fax the invitation to the Russian consulate in Seoul? Inside the large room, there was a small mix of South Koreans, Russians, but my misplaced, buxom blond self was definitely a point of interest. Especially because I had started crying again. “I don’t want to go to Korea,” I whined. Future brother rolled his eyes and smiled bronze from ear to ear. Russian men who fight lose all their teeth when they’re young, and they used to get them replaced with metal teeth. That bronze scared the dickens out of me, and I clung to Zhenya. He stroked my hair ever so softly, whispering in my ear, “Everything will be fine. Next week you’ll be back and we’ll be married. Vsyo budet normalno.” He leaned in to kiss me, at which point future brother put his hands on his hips and took a step closer, ready to leave. His enormous shoulder pads black-and-white tweed blazer shifted so that both of his holstered guns were visible. Future brother slapped Zhenya on the back, hard, and they rolled out, along with the bronze and steel, leaving me and my badge of courage completely alone.

I’d never been to Asia proper before, and if I am being honest, I’d never had a great calling to go. My Russian host sister from St. Petersburg had married a Japanese man and was living in the suburbs of Tokyo. I’d had years of her stories describing the vapid, xenophobic evils of the Japanese: random people pulling her hair because she’s blond (and, more pointedly, not Japanese); pointing, staring and laughing; moving to the opposite side of the bus every time she got on and yelling loudly, “It smells.” God forbid the horrible smells of the great white woman. I had always felt comfortable being in countries where I could, within reason, pass as a local – Russia, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, England. My heart sank as the landing gear descended.

Once I had paid the ridiculous airport landing tax, I meandered out into the lobby of the airport, expecting to be met by my driver. But, instead, I was greeted by a group of very friendly American missionaries of some sort of generic Christian denomination. I asked them if they’d seen my driver, and they said no, but they offered to give me a lift. I decided to wait, thinking it was likely safer to get picked up by a Korean stranger than ride off into the sunset with a bunch of right-wing extremists.

An hour late, the Korean driver finally wheeled up in his white soccer-mom minivan. He leapt out and grabbed my bags and in a storm of Korean-English gibberish, helped me into the car. Once we were on our way, the MNP driver kept giggling and looking in the rear view, eyes wide, asking, “Ameeeriiiicaaaan?” I would plaster on a great fake smile, flashing my perfectly orthadontured teeth, nod politely and say, “Yes,” hardly believing that this was really the first time he’d ever met an American. Maybe it was because I was blond? Certainly he’d met a blond person before. He didn’t really speak enough English to be conversational, but he asked me in about five different barely coherent ways if I was really American. And not Russian. Each time I smiled and said, “yes,” by the fifth time thinking maybe he was slightly retarded. MNP hooked me up with the retarded driver. The luck of it.

We continued into the low grayness that is Seoul. My breath felt heavier, away from Zhenya, as though the loss of his physical proximity were a hardship my body wasn’t able to bear. I wondered how he would kiss me on our wedding day. I wondered about the process of getting registered. As a former Communist, non-religious country, Russians didn’t have church weddings as we have them. They just went to the local government ZAGS office and got registered, like we have civil ceremonies. I wondered if I still got the “you may now kiss the bride,” if our first married kiss would feel different, somehow new.

We drove past armies of 16 story concrete buildings with enormous numbers painted on their windowless sides, past hillside after hillside of shanty shacks of corrugated metal, up the hill to the broadcast tower, and then back down again – for over an hour. It struck me as the bastard spawn of Communist Russia and third-world Tijuana, trapped in a Bermuda Triangle of dense fog that somehow reflected and captured the incandescent city lights. When we were clearly reaching the outskirts on the other side of the city, and the sun had already set, I began shifting in my seat. Those red flags again.

The driver turned down an alley adjacent to a very large stadium. We passed hundreds of small booths filled with vendors selling every kind of crap imaginable. The little booths were eclipsed by the enormous stadium wall and the passers-by looked like ants crawling in the crevices. Just as I started to wonder how you say “ghetto” in Korean, we pulled into a parking space in front of a completely nondescript, off-white building right across the street from the stadium. It had an incredible neon sign in Korean blinking jewel-toned magentas and greens.

As I grabbed my carry-on, I noticed through the front glass wall what appeared to be a Russian woman talking on a payphone in a bra and panties. Before I could fully process this, my driver put his hand at the small of my back and ushered me inside. A whistle sounded loudly, and a row of ten Korean men lined up before me. Employees of the hotel, they were all in their navy slacks, white shirts and cheap tasseled pleather loafers. As I passed each one, he looked me up and down and gave a brisk nod. I was impressed. I thought, for a ghetto hotel, this was some pretty good service. In comparison to Russia, where good customer service routinely included a scowl and an insult, it was pretty damned incredible, actually. But, I just wanted to get into my room, take a shower, and get everything arranged for my big morning at the consulate.

My driver exchanged some words in Korean with the final attendant, who, with a flourish, waved us on. We ascended the stairs to the second floor. The driver opened the door to the room, which was unlocked – wait, did I even get a key? – and this was when I had my first panic attack of the evening. The carpet was brown and horribly stained. The mattress was completely exposed – no sheets, pillows or blankets – and every inch of it was encrusted with stains – cum, blood, vomit, shit or other. Even the ratty bedskirt was stained. I quickly checked the doorknob – the door didn’t lock. The driver just stood there boasting a goofy, starry-eyed grin. He took a step to his left and gently closed the door behind us.

Once we were alone, he took a tentative step toward me. In that instant, even I, in all of my occasional obliviousness, couldn’t ignore the writing on this wall. It was instantly clear why he was so magically enchanted and couldn’t get over the fact that I was American. He thought I had gone to the travel agency in Vlad and purchased a prostitute vacation to Seoul. He thought he was going to get some delicious American pussy. I suddenly wondered what this little Korean man had been promised, if he had been told by half-smile that his tip was going to be a good fuck. A good American fuck. I hoped like hell I would remember how to scream, scream for my life, and that my knee would connect with his soft bits in a moment of very brief but meaningful intimacy. I wondered if any of these Russian hookers would come to my aid. I thought, I can take him. He’s going down. In situations such as these, being a bigger girl is just awesome. Just the best thing in the world. I had a momentary flash of mind-numbing regret at having been so self-loathing about my weight all these years. In that moment, being the fat girl could have saved my life.

As he took another step forward, still wearing that absurd grin, I hissed, “I cannot stay here. I am not going to stay here.” I pointed at the mattress. I opened the door, hoping that he would rush back downstairs and pull me out in the wake. He suddenly didn’t speak one word of English. My body language was plain enough that not only was this not any sort of a love connection, but it was absolutely disgusting. Catching on that there was no free fuck for this ride, he rubbed his fingers together in the universal sign for “pay the fuck up, bitch.” I said, more loudly, “You are going to take me to a proper hotel. If you don’t take me to a proper, Western hotel, I am not paying you a dime.” For good measure I added, “And you can go fuck yourself.” As “fuck” is also the universal language for “fuck,” he was horrified. After some extended arguing, which was hilarious, because he was hissing at me in Korean and I right back at him in Russian-peppered English, he stormed out of the room.

Back downstairs in the lobby, I took in the full spectacle: there were a variety of scantily-clad Russian women lounging about, some chatting on their phones, some flirting with local men. Some of these women glanced over their shoulders to look at what was going on. Most couldn’t be bothered. The driver got a phone book from the man at reception and suddenly there was an enormous kerfluffle about my leaving. The uniformed men started pouring into the lobby from all directions, yelling at my driver, clearly outraged that there wouldn’t be any American pussy from Vlad on the discount menu for the week. Perhaps they thought he had done something to upset me. The driver made a call, after which he said to me, “Hotel downtown take you.” I said, “Western hotel.” I had not flown all the way to Korea to sleep in the ghetto. “Western.” As I schlepped my bags back down to the small, square minivan, I turned back to the glass wall, where all the men had lined up to watch me get chauffeured off into the darkness. I raised my hand in a sort of half-wave goodbye to the bra and panties, who was still chatting away, non-plussed. She threw me a wink and leaned up against the glass, spreading her fingers wide.

It was almost the middle of the night by the time I’d gotten to the next destination, which was something reasonably close to a Western hotel. The bed had sheets and the door locked, which was a good step in the right direction. The receptionist looked about fifteen and was very sweet but didn’t speak a word of English. I had no idea what the driver said to her, but he got his money and stormed off. When I got up to the room, the phone rang. Assuming it was reception, I answered it. A male voice on the phone said, “Sex? Sex? Want sex?” “No!” I barked and promptly hung up. A few minutes later, I called my mom, who said she’d run out and bought a guide book on Seoul. Interestingly enough, the first thing she said was, “Whatever you do, make sure not to go to the south eastern part of the city, because that’s where all the prostitutes are!” Although I’d wanted to say, too late – been there, done that, I decided against it. The phone rang another four times that night with offers of sex before I finally took it off the hook. It would be years later before a friend of mine who had lived in Korea explained to me that the driver must have told the receptionist that I was a prostitute, thus the all-night calls.

Surprisingly, the other people in Korea completely ignored me. I floated through the gray downtown like a ghost. There were no stares, no hair pulling, no “you smell.” Walking down the street, this made me feel oddly at home. But, I knew I wasn’t in the clear until I’d gotten my new papers. Ultimately, I got screwed over by the half-smile in more ways than one. The Russian consulate was very happy to issue my visa – for one month. Despite the fact that I’d paid for a three month invitation, MNP had faxed over only a one month invite – so they pimped me out and fucked me over. Welcome to mother Russia.

I did end up getting Zhenya’s green card within that next month, although we had to bribe a border guard to let me through at the train crossing in Belarus because my visa had been expired for two days. As the enormous sandy-haired officer sauntered into the sleeper compartment, my heart stopped. I was terrified after all I’d been through that this would be it: this was where I’d hit the wall. I would be pulled, kicking and screaming, off this train and disappear into a shitty concrete Belarussian jail cell, never to be seen again. When he saw the expiry date, his face clouded. “You know this visa is expired? You’ve broken the law. I could throw you in jail right now.” I shuddered, feeling a sob erupting from deep within my chest. That was when Zhenya stepped forward, pumped out his posture in that specifically Russian way, and explained in hushed, conspiratorial tones that we were newlyweds and we needed his help as he carefully slid a large wad of cash into the guard’s palm. There he was. Larger than life. The man I loved. The man I married. My husband. Despite making some tough man noises to reestablish his alpha role, the guard’s half-lidded gray eyes grew a horizontal halo of razor sharp crow’s feet from the meandering, deliberate half-smile he put on while taking my money. Zhenya and I were effusive in our thank yous. He tipped his cap, saying, “Spasibo vam.” Thank you. And, in that moment, the voice of my mind eclipsed everything in the world as it proclaimed loudly, “Relax, you’re married. You’re married.”

Copyright © 2009 Monica Partridge. All Rights Reserved.