Fear, Anxiety, and Salad


Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time alone in coffee shops, sipping on an Americano and writing in a notebook.  I’ve done this for years, in places all over.  I remember being in Amsterdam, having an omelet and an espresso by myself on Christmas day, writing about the snow.  That Christmas, being in the Netherlands by myself, a feeling of total isolation came over me.  I was away from everything, frightened to talk to people.  I also found myself obsessing on nearly every small detail of my own behavior.  There were several times (like walking through the Rijksmuseum or watching a band play on Christmas night) when I was surrounded by people but felt as though I had completely faded away.  This feeling stayed with me for months.

That April I decided to drive to Queens to see an old college friend, and it was on that trip that I had the bad experience with the Mexican Salad.  On opening day of the baseball season, I left my car parked outside her apartment in Astoria and went into Manhattan to watch the games.  My friend had to work, so I went alone all the way to Times Square, anxious to see Roy Halladay’s Phillies debut.  After looking around for the perfect place, I eventually settled on some sports bar that was a bit more upscale than I wanted.  It had a huge screen, though, where I saw Placido Polanco place a grand slam into the seats in left field.  The bartender brought me a beer and asked if I wanted to eat anything.

“No thanks,” I said, forcing a smile.  I’ve always had trouble eating in public.  When I was a kid, my father would have the restaurant bring me my meal in a box because more often than not I couldn’t touch it until we got home.  It’s something about the lights and the people that makes me nervous and when I’m nervous I just can’t stomach anything.  All that said, I was starving that day and looked enviously at what the upscale NY businessmen ate.  Burgers and wings, sandwiches and pasta.  It looked amazing.  I wished that I would be able to stand a chance against it.

Around 4:30, when the Mets game was over, the place cleared out.  I’d been drinking for hours and was ravenous.  The bartender – an older blonde woman with a Ukrainian accent – brought me a menu.  I was still aware that I was feeling anxious about eating, so I avoided ordering a burger or a sandwich.  Too heavy.  Instead, I ordered a Mexican Salad.  That would be light enough to handle, I figured.  I ordered another beer to help me relax.

By that point, though, I had interacted with people so little that I felt almost completely sucked into myself.  Ordering beer was the only time all day I had said any words.  I felt like I was a part of the bar the same way the oak tables and the electronic dartboard were.  The other people there didn’t seem real to me, but instead were as distant and two dimensional as the baseball players on the television screen.  This is what I was thinking when the bartender placed the salad down in front of me.  I looked at it, and that’s when panic started to settle in.

It didn’t look at all like a Mexican Salad.  There were no tortilla chips, salsa, or guacamole.  “What if this is the wrong salad?” I thought.  “Maybe I shouldn’t eat it.  Maybe there’s been a mistake.”

I sat there and stared at it.  Finally, I took my fork and began to eat.  It was damn delicious, but it didn’t taste especially Mexican.  That made me more nervous.  I looked around the bar to see if there was anyone else there waiting for a salad.  I imagined the bartender, with her thick accent, rushing over to confront me.

“Stop!” she’d say.  “That isn’t your salad!”

“Oh,” I would say, playing dumb.  “Really?”

She would glare at me.  “Didn’t you order the Mexican Salad?”


“Does that look like a Mexican Salad to you?”

“Um, no, not really.”

“Do you see any salsa?  Where’s the salsa?”

“No salsa.”

“What about guacamole?  I don’t see any guacamole.  Do you?”

“No!  I don’t see any guacamole!  It’s Manhattan…I thought it was some fancy fusion thing!”

I ate faster.  I had to finish the salad before they would realize what I had done.  If the salad was gone, I could just say that yes, it was in fact the Mexican Salad.  They would never know.

After I had finished and the bartender took the spotless plate away, I realized how strange I was being.  I had gotten the correct salad, obviously.  I smoked a cigarette and felt ashamed of myself.

“Eating shouldn’t be this hard,” I thought.

Nor should talking to people.

Or being around people and not wanting them to go away.

I paid and left.  I was supposed to meet my friend to go see the screening of a new Greek film.  As it happened, I missed her, and found myself wandering through SoHo, where I used to hang out when I was in college.  I sat on a bench and thought about all the good times we had back then.


Swoopers Must Die!!!


John was a swooper, and he had to go down.  Not that what I did necessarily took him down, as it probably came off more as a minor inconvenience, but it was a decent try anyways.  It all happened in Who’s Bar about a month ago, when I snapped like a neck in a Bruce Lee movie and tried to fight John UFC style.  In this instance, though, there was no octagon and no Joe Rogan, just a bunch of beer that I knocked over and spilled on the floor.  In retrospect, it was an embarrassing moment in my life.  But hopefully it will send a message to whoever needs it, like when a pitcher knocks down a batter or like when your girlfriend files her second restraining order against you.  The message I was trying to send should have been clear: Swoopers must die.

Well, maybe not die.  Let’s try that again.  Swoopers must…um…have beer spilt on them.

Before I get into my altercation, let me explain what “swooping” is.  It’s a practice widely used here in Incheon, and perhaps around the world as well.  To illustrate, I will give an example.  Say you are out at a bar.  Guy X is also at the bar.  You sit down next to a lovely young lady and begin chatting.  Things are going well.  An hour passes, and you are still talking to her.  Then you have to momentarily leave – say for a bathroom break or to get the next round of drinks.  When you return, you find Guy X sitting in your seat, talking to your new acquaintance.  You, my friend, have just fallen victim to a swooping.  Guy X waited for the gap, and as soon as it appeared, he swooped in on your girl.  Now you must hope the girl tells him to go away quickly.  If not, hand the girl her drink and prepare to stand there uncomfortably. Swoopers don’t leave on their own.

A known swooper – like John – operates under a fairly understandable concept: as long as a girl isn’t someone’s certified “girlfriend,” she’s not taken and is thus fair game.  To the swooper, if boundaries aren’t clearly defined, then they don’t exist.  I suppose that objecting to swooping is, in a way, somewhat territorial – as though by talking to a girl first, I’ve somehow claimed her.  Perhaps it’s not so much the idea of swooping that I object to, but the timing of it.  Hey, swooper, if you want to talk to the girl, talk to her.  Don’t be a punk and wait for me to go to the bathroom and then jump in.  In the future, I’ll just wear adult diapers to the bar and then I won’t have to worry about it.

Although many guys in Incheon swoop, John was the worst, and he was the worst because he was really good at it.  Girls liked him.  He was a smooth talker and knew what he was doing.  In the past, he had successfully swooped girls from me.  He even sent me a message on Facebook once apologizing for it.  Mind you, things might not have played out as they did if I wasn’t drunk as a skunk, but let’s consider that a minor detail.  I took a stand against swooping that night, and it went like this:

A female “friend” and I arrived at Who’s Bar already drunk.  I went to the bar to get myself some water and then hit the bathroom.  When I returned, there was John, chatting her up.  As always, he was doing well.  He had her laughing.  I stood back and waited for her to move away from him but she didn’t.  Then (and I could be mistaken here), it looked like he offered to buy her a drink and she accepted.  That was it.  I was sick of watching this particular swooping session.  I took the girl by the arm and told her I wanted to leave.  We made it to the doorway, and that’s when she flipped, calling me a control freak and saying she wasn’t leaving.  It escalated from there into a full blow up.  By the time it was done, she had told me that we were “over” and she “didn’t want to see (me) anymore.”

Obviously this was John’s fault.  No swooping would have led to no controlling behavior which would have led to no fight.  Simple.

I walked back into the bar.  As soon as the girl was back at the table with her friends, up came John.  She tried to motion him away, maybe aware that I was about to lose control.  John was persistent.  He kept talking to her even though her head was turned away.

Fuck this shit, I thought.  I ran over there and tackled him.  Now I’ve always thought that, since I’m a weakling, if I got in a fight, I would have to resort to some Royce Gracie tactics and try to choke the person out.  This is where my head was at the moment.  Suddenly the two of us were on the floor and I had him in a choke hold, trying my best to get him to tap out (or something).  In retrospect, as John is smaller than I am, I believe I went for the UFC chokehold too soon.  To any degree, I did it all wrong.  I didn’t wrap the legs and I didn’t lock it properly with my other hand.  When we were pulled apart, I don’t think any damage was done, other than the damage inherent in making myself look like a total lunatic in front of everyone at the bar.

The next night, I got high fives, congratulations, and thanks you’s from a lot of guys.  One guys said, “I’m happy someone finally did something about him.”  Another guy told me that, in attacking John, “You did it for all of us.”  It was pretty clear that I wasn’t the only one getting pissed off by the swooping.  Still, it was of little condolence.  The girl was gone, and I was thus left with no one for a swooper to come swoop away.


Raise Me Up, BMW Buttercup



I’ve never been a big Norebang guy.  When it comes to singing, I like to keep it private, much like using the bathroom or watching 90210.  Norebang – for those who don’t know – is basically the Korean equivalent to Karaoke.  The main difference between Norebang and Western Karaoke is that, in a Norebang, you don’t sing in front of a big group of strangers in a bar.  Instead you and your friends get your own little room and a machine that scores your singing.  You also get two tambourines, as the tambourine is the official instrument of Norebang.  And since the English selection is rather limited you better drink up on Cass, because that will help prepare you for the inevitable “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the end of the night.

On a Thursday in Bupyeong, two of my homeboys (yes, I use the term ‘homeboys’…shut up) and I decided to check out a place called BMW.  We had heard that the place was a little shady and, as our year together was winding down, we were in the mood for that kind of vibe.  Korea has lots of slightly shady – or maybe just odd – establishments.  For instance, Korea has “talk bars.”  At these places, men pay double what they normally would for drinks in order to converse with a pretty Korean bartender.  Just imagine having your own bartender who will stand there and chat with you all night, and who also happens to be a tad sexy.  That’s what a talk bar is.  But nothing more happens.  The bartender doesn’t offer you a lap dance or sex in the kitchen or anything like that.  Paying the higher prices gets a person some small talk and a little dish of seaweed pretzels.

It cost 150,000 Korean Won (about $130 USD) to get a room at Club BMW for an hour.  The “madam,” if you will, brought us into a plush space with a Norebang screen and told us to be seated on the long sofas in the back.  Soon after, a guy came in with ten beers and six cups.  We knew that girls would be coming sooner or later and we joked around nervously.  Really, we were paying for female company – and when I say that, I really mean “company” in a literal, platonic way.  Although we weren’t quite sure about that.  There were stories that sometimes at BMW, things get a little R-rated.

“I’m not letting any girl touch my crotch,” my friend who has a girlfriend said.  “Do you think I’m allowed to say ‘no’?”

“Well,” I said, “they can’t, like, molest you.  That’s against the law.”

“You’re right.  I must be firm.”

The door opened and three girls walked in.  They were all really attractive, nicely dressed and done up and in their early 20s.  Two of them had long hair and one had a cute bob.  One girl sat down next to each of us.  I felt the girl that sat next to me was the best looking, and that was intimidating.  I mean, really, she only had a split second to choose.  What if, after sitting down, she wished she’d sat next to one of my friends?  I secretly wished the least attractive one sat next to me, although any of them were arguably the “most attractive.”  Really, it didn’t matter which one of the three sat with me – pretty girls make me nervous; beautiful ones give me ulcers.

I’ve often told friends, “Yeah, I know I really like her because my stomach is f**king burning.”

But I digress.  The six of us drank.  The girls barely spoke any English and none of us spoke Korean.  We asked them if many foreigners come in and they said, “No, you are first.”  They seemed a bit uncomfortable, possibly bored.  The girls lead us through the standard Korean small talk – where are you from, what is your job, do you like Korean food, why do you have a small head, etc – and then, since we were all looking to have a good time, the Norebang began.  Trading in my beer for a microphone, I found myself singing a four-way duet (quaret?) of “You Raise Me Up” by Westlife.

With shame in my voice, I tried to belt out the lyrics: “You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains/You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas/I am strong, when I am on your shoulder/You raise me up, to more than I can be.”

You ever hit a moment where you say to yourself, “What the hell am I doing with my life?”  This was clearly one of those moments.  At the end of the song we all clapped and sighed in relief, knowing that as long as I didn’t come back to BMW, I would never have to hear Westlife ever again.

In the minutes that followed, much beer was drunk, many a stilted conversation was had, and several horrible songs were a sung.  The girls were really sweet and seemed like good people.  They didn’t try to molest any of us and, when our hour was over, the madam opened the door and said “times up” and the three girls waved ‘bye’ and left.

Walking back out onto the streets of Bupyeong, it dawned on us that we had just paid over a hundred bucks to sing bad pop songs with Korean girls.  Was it fun?  Not really.  Did it have any meaning or lesson?  Absolutely not.

As the stupid saying goes, “Living on Earth is damn expensive, but it does include a free trip around the sun.”



Bar Compliments from the Land of Obscurity


Drunk guys are funny, especially if you put one around a woman.  On a Thursday night in Goose Goose, some drunk dude staggered over to my friend Kelsey and offered to buy her a drink.  She accepted, of course, because she’s the type of gal that takes advantage of intoxicated philanthropy.  The guy tried to hold a conversation with her, but it was impossible.  He had drunk himself into a state of social awkwardness that he couldn’t get out of.  Nevertheless, he didn’t give up, not seeming to mind that Clare and I were listening to everything he said.

 Throwing small talk to the wind, he went with flattery instead.  “You have great pipes,” he said.

 A few minutes later he wandered off and we were left to wonder what he meant.  It’s not as if Kelsey was singing.  How would he know how great her pipes were?

 “Pipes must mean something else,” Clare concluded.  “Maybe he meant you have great breasts.”

 “Why would pipes mean breasts?” she asked.

 “I don’t have a clue,” Clare said.  “What else would pipes be?”

Because it was a matter of great importance, we asked a bunch of random people at the bar what they thought the guy meant.

“Pipes are legs.  They call legs pipes in England.  Was he British?” 

“Pipes are…eyes?  I don’t know.”

For some reason – no, not some reason, the reason would be that we were drunk and had nothing better to talk about – it became really important for us to know what the guy meant.  We called the guy back over and asked him, “You said she has great pipes.  What are pipes?”

“I didn’t say she has great pipes!” the guy said loudly.  “What the hell does that mean?”

“We don’t know.  What did you say, then?”

“I said she has great pips,” he slurred, ordered another drink, and walked off to talk to some other girl.  Presumably because her pips were better.


Black Man Field Trip


Sang Sang has big ears and wears huge Woody Allen glasses.  His head is thin, his hair is short, and he laughs every time he speaks English.  I’m not sure why, but I generally laugh when he speaks English too.  Sang Sang is one of the best English speakers at the school and yet it’s an adventure when we try to have a conversation.  Typically, we’re both baffled by what he’s saying.  Unlike other Korean high school students, though, Sang Sang isn’t embarrassed into silence due his (can we say) developing English ability.  He’s amused by it, the same way I might be if you dressed me up in pads and skates and threw me out into the middle of an ice hockey rink.

I know that when Sang Sang cracks up, he’s really just trying to tell me, “Listen, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now.  Enjoy it for what it’s worth.”

My most memorable conversation with Sang Sang happened during the English Interview Contest my school had me do about a month ago.  In a nutshell, students signed up to come into a classroom and have me interview them.  After doing the interviews, I would pick a winner.  It sounded easy enough, especially because my superior, Peter Teacher, gave me a brilliant list of questions to use.  It contained such gems as:

“Do you enjoy reading?”

“What is your favorite book?”

“What was your favorite part of the book?”

In dealing with the brilliant but inflexible Peter Teacher, I’ve learned not to question anything.  If he wanted me to ask them these questions, that’s what I would do.  On the day of the contest about fifteen kids showed up, all giggling nervously.  One by one they came into the classroom and I gave them the 3rd degree about their favorite books.  Most stumbled through descriptions of The Alchemist, grabbing their faces in frustration every now and again when they fell into a pit of indecipherable babble.  The agony showed on them like they were players on a football team that had just lost its fourth straight Superbowl (Go Bills!!!).  Somehow their second language had failed them and they blew it.  Peter Teacher glared at them sternly.  For my part, I was very nice.

“Oh,” I’d say, trying to help, “that sounds interesting.  Do you like colors?  What’s your favorite?  Blue?”

It was with a sigh of relief that I greeted Sang Sang, sitting down for his interview, a big goofy smile already on his face.  He talked about reading and his favorite book.  I don’t remember the name, nor do I remember in detail what his favorite part was, but it had something to do with racism.  The book was set in the US, and in the scene, a black man asked a white family for directions and was ignored simply because he was black.

“Why was that your favorite part, Sang Sang?” I asked earnestly.  The other students liked the action scenes, or the parts with the greatest drama.  Why on earth did Sang Sang like a scene in which a white family gave a black dude the Danny Glover taxi treatment?

“Because I like black people,” he said.

This was interesting.  Odd, yes, but interesting.  There are very few black people in South Korea – most are soldiers, either from the US or Ghana.  Koreans typically know nothing about black people other than that they exist, in places other than Korea.  Two years ago, during my first stint in Korea, I asked my class to name as many black people as they could.  Here was their list:

Michael Jackson

Michael Jordan


George Washington Carver

It’s insane to me that George Washington Carver, of all people, is known across the Pacific.  This is even more interesting when you take into account the fact that Koreans don’t really like peanuts and peanut butter at Homeplus is incredibly overpriced.  (In time, the students would reveal that they knew more than those four – their minds must’ve gone blank when put on the spot.)

Anyways, I digress.  Back to the interview.  Despite the ominous presence of Peter Teacher, I broke from the script.  “Sang Sang,” I said, “have you ever met a black person?”

Sang Sang lit up.  It was like a parent talking about a child or a film director talking about his next movie.  “Yes!” he said excitedly.  “Last year we had a field trip to Itaewon and I talked to a black man!”

Itaewon is the area of Seoul where the US troops are stationed.  “On the street?” I asked Sang Sang.  “Where did you talk to him?”

“He was in a room,” Sang Sang said.  “The school wanted us to meet a black person, so we had a field trip to Itaewon.  We were all able to talk to him and ask questions.”

I really wanted to know more about this.  Who was this black man – was he someone important?  Sang Sang didn’t think so.  He was just a regular guy.  I was dumbfounded.  Had Mansu High School really conducted a field trip to Itaewon – a good two hours from the school – for the sole purpose of having the students talk to a random black person?  I wondered how they approached the dude with the idea for the field trip:

“Say, our students only know who four black people are, and two of them are dead.  If you’re not busy this week, would you mind sitting in a room and having fifty Korean boys stare at you?”

How many students did they really take on this trip?  Did they need permission slips?

“Sang Sang,” I said, “is that the only time you’ve ever spoken to a black person?”

“Yes!” he said, nodding his head enthusiastically.  “I will never forget it.  It was a great experience!”

Koreans must spend a staggering amount of time talking to other Koreans.  Here was a high school full of boys who can’t sustain a simple English conversation even though they’ve taken English class for the last 10 years of their lives and many of them go to hokwons (private tutoring centers) to study English outside of school.  But the English classes in public schools are taught by Korean teachers, and hokwons are expensive.  For my students, English is still a very Korean thing.

I tried to picture, in my head, what the bus must have been like the morning of The Black Man Field Trip.  Were the students excited or were the scared?  Nervous.  Was the bus filled with talking or silence?  I wondered if the students realized that this was the first and maybe last time they would ever talk to a black person.  What went through their minds (in Korean, of course, not English)?  Did they wonder how different he’d be, or did they wonder how much he’d be like them?