Friday, June 5, 2009

Who Would Have Thought? – More Notes from Asia

Wed, June 3

Who would have thought that Seoul, Korea would be such a fine place for a game of summer evening tennis? Before tonight, certainly not me.

I got home from my meetings late this afternoon and retired to my room, mildly torn between taking a nap and going for a run to wake myself up. I opened the drapes, carelessly looked down at the carefully manicured grounds of the Grand Hyatt twenty stories below, and what should I see but three tennis courts, all improbably in use?

On a whim, I called down to the athletic club to see if the resort had a pro. To my surprise, they did, and he was available. I booked an hour at 6:30PM.

Still, I was not hopeful. It is not uncommon for me to show up to hit with the pro at some resort where tennis is not a first priority only to find that I am the one who should be giving the lesson. And this was a resort in the middle of teeming Seoul, Korea. Not a hotbed for ATP professionals.

At the appointed hour, I ventured down in my running gear – that’s all I had – and found the athletic club. I signed in with a well-meaning but ill-spoken (English that is; my Korean is non-existent!) young lady who told me to descend to the tennis courts and inquire with a Meeester Davies. I ambled through lush greens down to the courts and found a young man sitting about, obviously waiting for me. He was caucasian, early twenties – a good sign. “Mister Davies?” “Ahh, na, it’s Dievid.” An Australian accent – an even better sign – he’d have game. We mounted the courts, started hitting and, true to his heritage, David’s game was exquisite and powerful. He spent an hour and a half running me ragged -- until my shirt was sopped with sweat. I could not have crafted a better afternoon for myself. It was the perfect antidote to Oriental jetlag, and I was infused again with enough energy to conquer the Kimchee and Soju at dinnertime.

I witnessed a funny thing on the way to the courts earlier that evening. In addition to spying the tennis courts from my twentieth story windows, I saw a large, lovely swimming pool, expertly crafted with ornamental tile.

In it were about thirty middle-aged men, arranged in rows, moving back and forth, amongst and around each other. It was such a strange sight that I did a double-take, fearing that I was seeing things.

I assumed that I was witnessing some strange oriental custom. But to my surprise, when I looked closer again, I found that all of the men were caucasian.

Now, it is simply not possible that a resort water-aerobics class would be so popular as to induce thirty middle aged men (and only men!) to don their trunks and take a whirl in the pool to the upbeat tempo of some Asian Richard Simmons.

So I concluded that it must have been a corporate training event, and the thirty men below were poor victims of some Executive Vice President’s decision to impose a dose of team-building and corporate training exercises. In fact, I could see the enthusiastic corporate training guru at the pool’s side, chirping out instructions as the men frittered about in the pool.

I laughed out loud at the same time as I felt for the men in their ignominy. They’d been thoroughly emasculated by the training guru.

I passed the pool on the way to the tennis courts and found that the men were not, in fact, middle aged, but rather twentysomethings. And they were huge twentysomethings - all about 6’5”, 250. And indeed they were doing water aerobics. The mystery deepened.

I slowed, stopped, and chatted with another onlooker. It turned out that it was the English National Rugby Team, which was staying in the hotel, presumably in town for a match against the Koreans (do the Koreans play Rugby?).

They even had tiny little waterproof rugby balls which they passed back and forth as they charged through the water. Their trainer was at the side of the pool barking out instructions.

The men had careful smiles on their faces, indicating that they, too, found the whole thing a bit ridiculous, but were nevertheless being good sports about it. I figured that it was the team’s means of getting a little exercise when they stayed in a place like the Grand Hyatt with no practice pitch nearby. I laughed again and made my way to the courts.

On a long roadtrip, clothes become important. It’s hard to pack a week’s worth of clothes in a business travel suitcase, so one becomes meticulous about clothes and keeping them looking and smelling good. In general, it’s not a good idea to get blood all over your pants while on a lengthy Asian road trip.

I’d fallen on the tennis court and given myself a good, bleeding strawberry rash just under my knee. The blood didn’t stop after the shower, and so I sat in my room before dinner trying to figure out what to do. I don’t carry band-aids in my Dopp kit. I couldn’t even put on pants to go see if they had band-aids in the gift shop.

So I ended up fashioning a big band-aid out of two Breathe-Rite Nasal Strips and a ball of tissue. It worked like a charm. Unfortunately, I then had to go out and subject myself to Kimchee and Soju.

Thurs. June 4

The Chinese take this H1N1 virus stuff very seriously. I flew from Seoul to Tianjin, China this morning. Upon landing, the plane was momentarily quarantined. A pack of surgical-masked medical professionals descended upon the plane, each holding a kind of electronic pistol in his hand. It was straight out of some Michael Crighton biological disaster thriller.

The medics walked down the aisle, pointing their guns at each person’s forehead and pulling the trigger, presumably taking everyone’s temperature by infrared measurement. If I hadn’t known better, it would have been deeply disturbing.

Five minutes later, all passengers declared fit, they decamped from the plane and we were on our way to immigration.

Heading home tomorrow! (just as I get over my jetlag!)

Fri. June 5

PS: You may have noticed that I posted this after I got home. I drafted most of the blog post on the plane to China, and the remainder in my Tianjin hotel room. But when I went to post it online, I found that I was unable to access anything in It’s possible that China blocks this site all the time, but I have also heard that since it is the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, China is blocking all social networking and blogging sites temporarily to curtail any possible troublemaking that might get organized online.

I find it unbelievable that such government actions would be possible in this day and age. For all its economic might, China is still a backwater.