2 Little Words

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2 Little Words

Koreans pride themselves on originality. Who else would think of selling boiled silkworm larvae - to eat? But Koreans also borrow freely, particularly trends, and nowhere is this adoption more evident than in the name "Santa Fe."

Nearly 150 businesses in Seoul use those two words, pronounced by many Koreans as one: "Santapay." The bulk of the enterprises is drinking and eating establishments: cafes, pubs, buffets, beer bars, pizza parlors, soju nooks. But there's also a guitar-maker, a few supermarkets and a robotics firm called Santa Fe. There are Santa Fe karaoke rooms, interior design companies, hair accessory shops. A couple of years ago, a novel appeared about the place: "Santa Fe Ro Ganeun Saram" ("A Man Going to Santa Fe"). Last spring, Santa Fe Coffee, served cold in tiny, pop-top cans, made its Korean debut. Last month, the Seoul Hilton winged in a Santa Fe chef for a week to concoct green chili omelets for guests at 20 bucks a yolk. Can Santa Fe kimchi be far behind?

All of this makes me uneasy, for I used to live and work in the source of the appropriation - Santa Fe, New Mexico, a state capital located in the southwestern United States. I left there for Korea, fleeing what Santa Fe, New Mexico, had come to represent: a hip, romantic, sun-baked Shangri-La, where there are no problems, except finding the perfect bathroom tile.

I first saw Santa Fe in 1975. It was then an innocent desert town with a rich artistic history and three distinct cultures. Five years later, things began to change. Californians and New Yorkers, wearying of smog, wearing $280 cowboy shirts and holding wads of folding money, arrived. They built dream houses on top of Santa Fe's mountains, the better to look down upon the less fortunate locals. They created Santa Fe Style, an elitist mode of adorning those expensive homes with exposed beams, Navajo rugs, shiny black pottery and Spanish furniture created to appear as if it had been carved by Coronado's troops. The Santa Fe plaza, once a drowsy, charming town square, became glutted with pushy newcomers who demanded apricot sorbet.

Goodbye innocence, hello infuriation.

Could the same thing be happening in Korea? Has the myth of Santa Fe turned east Asia into effete Asia? I had to find out. To do so, I decided to search Seoul for those two little words and try to understand what they meant here, 6,500 miles from their origin.

I am touching a 6-foot-tall cactus that looks like someone's idea of a coat rack.

The cactus stands in the Santa Fe Coffee Shop, one floor up from the buying bedlam known as Myeong-dong.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers numerous scenic attractions, but no saguaro cacti. Those massive, towering green plants are found next door, in Arizona. Cactus in New Mexico generally rise no higher than your kneecap.

In the evolution of trends, however, cockeyed imitations seem of little significance. I once watched an Elvis impersonation contest in Las Vegas in which all the participants were little girls. That something was missing bothered no one in the audience. That the name Santa Fe represents a symbolical paradise is all that interests Koreans. Nobody wants a geography lesson.

"It came from a flower shop in Seoul," says the Santa Fe Coffee's Shop's owner, Cho Taik-yoo, of the cactus.

Where did the flower shop get it? I ask.

A shrug. China perhaps. Maybe the Philippines.

I am studying some paintings on the wall of the Santa Fe Coffee Shop. The paintings are landscapes done in muted greens and earth tones. From a distance, the creations might suggest the Santa Fe days of Georgia O'Keeffe. Up close, the artwork is more Days Inn, Valdosta, Georgia.

"I ordered the paintings," Mr. Cho says, his chubby torso swelling with satisfaction.


Mr. Cho, an amiable, bespectacled fellow, visited Santa Fe once, in 1989. He took a whirlwind tour of the American West. Six years later, his head filled with visual memories, he instructed various people what to paint - a valley, say, or a canyon, and sunsets, plenty of sunsets. Korean craftsmen listened carefully, then went to work. The result? Fine art, by the numbers.

Yo, DaVinci, I wancha to do me up a portrait of that Mona chick. Ya know, dress her in black, and make her smile like she just ate all da spumoni.

Mr. Cho used to be in the fashion business. But after his trip to the West - to the Grand Canyon, to the Painted Desert, to Santa Fe! - he came back to Korea and decided to change his life. He opened a coffee shop in Myeong-dong in 1992 and called it Se. Se what? Just Se. Three years later, with Santa Fe fever spiking the peninsula, he chucked the Se's name and refurbished the premises. He carted in the cactus from God knows where, commissioned the custom-made paintings, tossed faux-Pueblo Indian fabric across some chairs and suddenly he had a corner of the magic kingdom.

Everybody everywhere, it seemed, was going bonkers over Santa Fe in those days. Still are. There was even a pornographic magazine with that name begun - Mr. Cho says, with a noticeable sniff - in Japan. Mr. Cho has never seen Santa Fe magazine, of course, but he hears things, as a man in his position will, and one thing he hears - sniff, sniff - is that the Pope subscribes.

Few people come to the Santa Fe Coffee Shop to eat. The menu features "fork cutlets," a long leap from green chili omelets and surely much harder to digest. What most people do in the Santa Fe Coffee Shop is smoke This cigarettes. Korean women, who never light up on the street, turn the Santa Fe into the aurora borealis. Korean men have no such restrictions: They smoke in the shower.

There couldn't be a better named cigarette for a place like this than This. Something's definitely missing with that name. The brand must be the first cigarette in human history to conjure a Who's on First? dialogue:

"Packa This."


"Uh-uh. This."

"Over there?"

"Nope. Here. Right here."


"No, no, no. This."

"Those there?"

"Look, I want This."

"You want what?"

I am lying on a round bed. My feet are pointing toward a little hill that slopes to Sinchon, maybe half a kilometer from the rotary there and its sweet smell of bus exhaust.

The Santa Fe Motel in Sinchon huddles in a forest of "love hotels," hostelries with hearts emblazoned on the doors and maids who fluff the same pillows three times a day and cars outside with their license plates camouflaged and lots of folks walking around in the midday sun, wearing the expressions of shoplifters. Make no mistake: Love hotels are not about romance. They're about no pants.

Shifting on my bed in the Santa Fe Motel, I point my feet toward a large water cooler, another attraction of Room 207. From the doorway of the room, the motel's owner, Park Noh-il, asks me what I think. For 35,000 won ($23), the room can be mine. Stretch out, relax for a few hours, Mr. Park urges. The round bed feels good, I admit, and the water cooler looks inviting. What else could man - or a man and a woman - want?

Mr. Park rubs sleep from his eyes; I have awakened him this afternoon. When I entered the motel, he had been lying on the floor behind the front desk but now, slowly, he has joined the living. His gray hair is matted and stubble covers his chin. He is dressed in baggy slacks and an undershirt with straps, the kind that every Korean male over 5 wears. In Korea, the white shirts are often marketed as "innerwear." In Santa Fe, New Mexico, and elsewhere in the United States, the undershirts are called "wifebeaters." Any American B movie in which a man cracks a woman across the chops always takes place in a trailer and the man always wears what has become known as a wifebeater.

Tugging the strap of his shirt, Mr. Park tells me that his motel used to be called the Taerim, which in Korean means "business will boom."

But business never boomed here, much like the Se coffee shop, so two years ago, when things Santa Fe were leaving the launching pad in waves, Park Noh-il decided to change the name. He wanted something that stood for a shrine everyone yearned to visit.

"It's the most important city by far of the United States," Mr. Park announces.

I nod, thinking if Santa Fe is No. 1, then, yes, the importance of New York and Chicago certainly pale alongside a community with 60,000 people and a few hundred tumbleweeds. Remarkably, I am getting my own geography lesson.

Mr. Park has seen signs for Santa Fe motels in Taegu and Pusan, but he's sure they're not better than his motel. He's sure those other places don't have a room with a round bed or have what he has in his lobby. In the lobby, which I am now inspecting, stands a Christmas tree. Artificial and fully decorated, the tree, Mr. Park says, occupies this honored spot year-round. Two weeks before Christmas, the owner of the motel plugs in the lights.

What is the meaning of the tree? I wonder.

"Just happy in Santa Fe," says Mr. Park. Then, giving me his best something's-missing smile, he adds, "Easter bunny."

I am sitting in the front seat of a brand-new sport utility vehicle. The car, called a Santa Fe, is parked in a Hyundai Motor Co. showroom, a roomy, large-windowed structure that faces a traffic-clogged thoroughfare in Gwanghwamun.

Beneath my thighs and under my backside lies the tissue paper placed on the seats of many just-off-the-assembly-line vehicles. To my left, his long head poking in the driver's side window, is my salesman, my "car master," Han Sung-nam, a tall, anxious-to-please looking fellow. I have asked Mr. Han about the Santa Fe SUV, which Hyundai put on the market less than a year ago and already sells nearly as well in Korea as slippers.

"Diesel," Mr. Han says.

Quiet? I ask.

"Diesel," he repeats.

The car, Mr. Han says, seats seven. I get out of the front seat for a moment and to do a quick count: Two people in the front, three in the rear seat. Where do you get seven? I ask. Opening the tailgate, Mr. Han reaches down and flips up two more seats - about the size of bar coasters. Seven, he says, folding his arms.

All right, seven, I say to myself. Five adults and two finger puppets.

I slip back into the front seat again and return to the Santa Fe's engine. I want to know whether it has an "intercooler." I have seen that word on the sides of several SUVs and 4-WD beasts around Korea. Turbo Intercooler. The word has a mysterious ring to it. What, exactly, is an intercooler? Moreover, how is it different from, say, an innercooler?

An intercooler, Mr. Han recites from his car sales training course, pre-heats the engine. He rattles off something about condensers and boiling points. Finally: "You do not need intercooler. System is developed."

You mean the Santa Fe will always start?

"Start?" he asks.

The next thing I hear snaps my head around. Mr. Han is chattering on about the Santa Fe being a cross between a passenger vehicle and a van, when there it is: "Santa Fe . . . fusion."

Fusion! If ever there existed a word that sounds like it means much more than it does, that word is fusion. In fact, it is an ideal Santa Fe word - all voguish vapidity. Since I've been in Korea, I've heard the word fusion almost as much as I've heard the word haseyo. Fusion food, fusion dance, fusion clothing, fusion film. Confusion? No doubt. Now fusion cars.

Fusion, I mumble, mulling the syllables.

"Fusion," Mr. Han affirms with a pleased smile.

I am staring at the Santa Fe's dash panel, at the multimeter, which tells me, among other things, the temperature of the car's interior. Not the engine, but the interior. What will these Koreans think of next?

Mr. Han apparently doesn't know what to think. He hasn't mentioned price (24 million won) or asked me if I wanted to take the Santa Fe for a spin. Yet. But I do, I do. I want to see what this baby can do.


Sure, I say. Finally, Mr. Han realizes that I expect a test-drive. Nobody test drives a car in Korea, I learn. You want to purchase that Kia coupe? We'll drop it at your house on Thursday, with the keys. Sign here first.

I push for a test drive, however. Maybe just zip up to Namdaemun market and fill the back end with Snickers bars and Froot Loops. I point to the absence of a license plate on the rear of the Santa Fe. Wowza! I shout. I'll be able to visit a love hotel!

"Love hotel?" By now Mr. Han is totally baffled. He recovers for a moment to tell me what colors a Santa Fe comes in, including an oh-so-appropriate choice: merlot.

Exiting the car, I circle it one last time for the ritual tire kick. Trailing, my car master hovers solicitously, more than a bit unsure. Just when he likely was hoping for no more strange questions from this American, I offer up this one: Why did Hyundai name the car Santa Fe?

A brow furrows. Mr. Han stares downward and shuffles his feet nervously. Then he leans over and confides, "At training workshop, they forget to tell."

Are you saying that you don't know?

A nod. "Don't know."

I look at his face and realize that he really doesn't know, that something is indeed missing. But this I also see: It doesn't matter.

by Toby Smith

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