Once in a while you meet someone, and soon you both discover that the two of you are truly something special to each other. You share your thoughts and feelings so relaxed, so openly, and right away you know your friendship’s truly meant to be. That’s the way it is with my friend, Heejin. We connected in an instant almost nine years ago when we were both enrolled in a Master’s degree program at McGill University in Montreal. Coming from different worlds (she from Korea, me from the U.S.) to the foreign culture of French Canada, we found an immediate closeness and natural bond that completely engaged us through two years of learning, teaching and understanding each other. I labeled us the ‘Bobbsey Twins’. Heejin called it “chemistry”. We both knew that an extraordinary friendship was born. When our studies were complete and it was time for each of us to return home, I declared to my friend that “if she was ever to find herself ANYWHERE in the continental United States, I would meet her there”! I finally made good on that deal and recently spent 3 peachy days in
HOTLANTA WITH HEEJIN.
We have four years of details to discuss so we start with where we are — together, at last, in Atlanta, Georgia (of all places)!
Back near the ballrooms, I sit and wait for a glimpse of my girlfriend as other conventioneers wearing bright orange lanyards with big badges at the bottom that read 2009 BIO International Convention begin to gather in the foyer. Soon she emerges with what appears to be the only other Korean person in the place — her boss, Mr. Jong. He and I have barely shaken hands before the woman drawing business cards out of a bowl announces that the winner of the $100 American Express gift card is “…um…someone from the Institute Pasteur-Korea with the last name spelled J-o-n-g”. It’s Heejin’s boss! I congratulate him and tease that I brought him the good luck and he offers to use the gift card to take us all to dinner…right after he takes a nap. Say, around 7pm.
Heejin and I hold up in our room sharing a glass of wine, updating each other on the most immediate events in our lives and waiting for Mr. Jong’s call. We have four years of details to discuss so we start with where we are — together, at last, in Atlanta, Georgia (of all places)! In the course of our comfortable conversation, we are reminded that we have presents for each other. I have brought a gift that corresponds to each of the 5 senses and will top it off by treating her to the ultimate sensory experience, Dialog in the Dark, a debut exhibition being presented in Midtown. She showers me with treasures from all over the world. A hand-painted rawhide lamp from Morocco, cookies, candies and cosmetics from Korea, incense from Japan, and so many wonderful gifts related to my love of tea. I am afraid I will need to buy an additional piece of luggage to get it all home!
There is an ever-present energy and amazing aura about us, and it is obvious that the chemistry of the Bobbsey Twins is still remarkably alive and growing.
It’s well past 7 o’clock when she decides that Mr. Jong must have over slept his invitation and that we should go find some dinner on our own. We head downstairs and straight for the nearest Mexican restaurant where Heejin can practice the Spanish she is currently learning and we can toast our dream of retiring to a quaint little village somewhere in Mexico.Jalapeno Charlie’s is perched on a corner at the top of a hill, with an upstairs dining deck that lends an excelente view of the lively downtown streets below. We share the tostones con pollo, and with a bottle of Negra Modelo and a Mojito we vow, “Vayamos a Mexico”!
Mexico is only the beginning, as we go around the world in conversation until almost 4 a.m. As we chronicle our respective journeys through personal issues and professional matters, exotic travels and episodes of inertia, health and happiness hiccups, and advancements in self-awareness and self-admiration, it is evident that our lives run along parallel paths even when we are on opposite ends of the earth. There is an ever-present energy and amazing aura about us, and it is obvious that the chemistry of the Bobbsey Twins is still remarkably alive and growing.
We get even with Mr. Jong by sleeping through our breakfast date with him and opt for our own brand of room service. That is, I make my tea in the miniature coffee maker and break open a box of Korean cookies while Heejin hikes downstairs to hunt for a salad? The poor girl is so time-zoned out she doesn’t realize that salads are not available at 9am in this southern capital of America. The best she can hope for is a bowl of cold cereal and a banana, which is what she resorts to reluctantly. Slowly but surely we pull ourselves together and catch a shuttle bus to the convention center to check in with Mr. Jong. I am not allowed on the exhibition floor without a BIO badge, so we separate for a few hours while Heejin treks around the trade show and I saunter through Centennial Olympic Park and wander through the World of Coca-Cola.
It is here that I pause to drink in some nostalgic refreshment and learn how an Atlanta pharmacist’s recipe for a new soft drink became the most recognized product in the world.
The 21-acre park is Atlanta’s legacy to the 1996 Olympic Games and comes complete with sprawling green lawns, commemorative bricks that pave the walkways and a computerized Fountain of the Rings where children bob and weave among the punches and jabs of the unpredictable, but rhythmic water spouts. The park is the hub of downtown Atlanta and is surrounded by points of interest like the Georgia World Congress Center, Phillips Arena, the Georgia Dome, the Georgia Aquarium, CNN Global Headquarters and the American iconic company, Coca-Cola.It is here that I pause to drink in some nostalgic refreshment and learn how an Atlanta pharmacist’s recipe for a new soft drink became the most recognized product in the world. The 2-story facility hosts 12 different exhibits which I gulp down in about an hour and a half. I am amazed to discover that Coca-cola can be found in every country in the world except for two — Cuba and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and has 64 unique varieties of sodas available around the globe, all of which are on hand for sampling in the tasting room. My favorites are the spicy Stoney Ginger Beer from Zimbabwe and the pear flavored Frisco from Estonia. While I seem welcome to stay and drink myself into a carbonated coma, the Coca-cola Polar Bear beckons me to take my complimentary bottle of Coke Classic® as he grins and ushers me into the gift shop. It is the epitome of the 1980’s advertising campaign that urged everyone to “have a Coke and a smile”. Then, and now, I comply.
As we chat about the differences in dining out between our two cultures, we devour the delicacies leaving only rib bones and chopsticks on our plates.
After a little R&R for everyone, we convene to finally take advantage of Mr. Jong’s dinner proposal. It turns out that all three of us are sushi fans and the concierge has some nearby options for us. Mr. Jong wants a place with a noted Japanese-trained chef, but it appears that the most convenient spot, a restaurant called Rise has a Chinese-American chef by the name of Tony Wang. I tease Mr. Jong, “that with a name like Tony Wang, perhaps the chef is actually Chinese-Italian”. I later learn that whatever the chef’s nationality, he is indeed a noted master sushi chef having served a 3-year tutelage in the art of sushi under Chef Yamatason, one of Japan’s most highly decorated sushi chefs. The restaurant design has a Zen feel to it, in that it is simple, clean and orderly. There is a 360° stone topped sushi counter, backlit gossamer curtains that cover painted brick walls and dark wood tables that sit under fabric lanterns. We all share in the dinner decisions by one of us choosing a salad — the ahi tuna atop mixed greens; someone else choosing an entrée — the spicy Kalbi beef, which is actually a Korean rib dish, and each of us choosing 2 different kinds of sushi that affords an exquisite assortment of Maguro (tuna), Sake (salmon), Unagi (eel), Kanikama (crab), Ika (squid), Ebi (shrimp) and Saba (mackerel). As we chat about the differences in dining out between our two cultures, we devour the delicacies leaving only rib bones and chopsticks on our plates. As if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Jong asks to see the menu again and proceeds to order the shrimp & vegetable tempura and Udon noodle soup. And of course, the American dining experience just wouldn’t be complete without dessert — ice cream! But much like the fusion friendship of Heejin and I, the sweet ending to our dining experience is both American (ice cream) and Asian (red bean and green tea flavored), and is rich and smooth and satisfying and complete.
It’s just the two of us with a whole day to be tourists. We start with breakfast at Sear, the upscale restaurant inside our hotel before we head out to hit the highlights of “HOTlanta”, which is anything but hot today. The sky is overcast and we have gusty winds pushing us through this hub of happenings, so we breeze into the CNN Center, a massive mall of sorts where the Atlanta studio and Global headquarters of “the most trusted name in news” is located. For just thirteen dollars we take a ride on the world’s largest freestanding escalator into a 50-foot world globe where footage from 25 years of news broadcasts begins the Inside CNN Studio Tour.
It’s no news that Heejin is sleepy again, so I suggest that she take a nap while I take advantage of some of the hotel amenities — perhaps a dip in the pool, possibly a workout in the fitness center, or better yet, a drink in the lobby bar, Pulse. While Heejin snoozes, I sip the “special spirit” of the day — the Piranha Bite, and we both revitalize ourselves in preparation for the enlightening exhibition of Dialog in the Dark.
I am amazed and impressed, and overwhelmed with admiration and respect for this awesome individual who has the brightest spirit I’ve ever seen (without my own eyes)!
Four stops on the subway train, MARTA, and we find our way to Atlantic Station where we come to our senses…literally. Guided through total darkness, our eyes are opened to an incredible new world by way of every human sense except sight. Our blind tour guide, Michael, meets us in the lightless lobby and leads us through the proper use of a white cane and ushers us through everyday environments such as a park, grocery store, restaurant, and a roadway intersection where we are challenged to perform simple, mundane tasks that every visually impaired person must undertake regularly, such as finding a public receptacle and disposing of personal trash, identifying and picking out ripe produce at the market, reconciling a cash tab in a commercial establishment, and safely crossing a busy street.
In his lilting West Indian-accent, Michael articulates the essence of existing in, and the accommodation of, the sighted world. The grace and ease with which Michael illuminates these unseen events of life is staggering. I am amazed and impressed, and overwhelmed with admiration and respect for this awesome individual who has the brightest spirit I’ve ever seen (without my own eyes)!As we reenter the lighted world, and make the return trip to downtown where we sit and share our last meal together, we recount all that has occurred over the past three days and then retire to our hotel room where our own ‘dialog in the dark’ makes it very clear how…“once in a while you meet someone, and soon you both discover that the two of you are truly something special to each other. You share your thoughts and feelings so relaxed, so openly, and right away you know your friendship’s truly meant to be.”
That’s the way it is with my friend, Heejin.”