My first week in Korea, I was bombarded with so many questions – Where are you from? What is your blood type? Why do you wear clothes that are too big for you? (That one was thanks to Hye Jeong, my coteacher at the public school, who also wanted to know if my shoes made my feet sweat.) And then there was the question that Peter Teacher, aka Mr. Saw, would ask me over and over again throughout the course of the year:
How many bottles of soju can you drink?
Soju is Korea’s pride and joy, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice that comes in little green bottles, conveniently priced at around $2 a pop. It’s Korea’s version of sake, kind of, and tastes like cheap vermouth. I’ve seen Koreans drinking soju at all hours of the day and at many different occasions; when Koreans drink beer (called “mek-joo”), they top it off with soju, creating a dangerous mixture called “so-mek.” Soju is quite strong, having around a 20% alcohol content. Considering its strength and price, I believe Korea is the ideal place to go if you’re a drunk and you have no money. Everywhere else is too expense. Have you seen malt liquor prices these days!
Koreans go big when it comes to soju. One doesn’t only have a shot or two. That would be silly. Koreans seem to prefer to get blackout drunk off it, then becoming dead weight and having to have their friends carry them away like a football player being taken off the field on a stretcher.
“William,” Peter Teacher would say with a crooked smile on his face, “how many bottles of soju can you drink?”
“Hmm,” I answered, “I’m not sure. I’ve never really kept track of how much I was drinking. Maybe three?”
“Oh no,” Peter Teacher said. “Three bottles is very much. I think you can only drink one.”
Peter Teacher ran the English department at the public school and was my superior. He was arrogant and power hungry
and secretly I despised him. This was okay, because he despised me too. The dislike was mutual (and far reaching, as everyone in the school hated him and he, in turn, hated everyone in the school). So when Peter Teacher said I could only drink one bottle of soju, I clearly had to take it upon myself to prove him wrong. Yes, I weighed 130 lbs and looked like I’d been on Survivor for the last 5-7 years, but that didn’t matter. Peter Teacher didn’t know how much alcohol I’d consumed since college, and how I consider myself to be pound-for-pound one of the world’s great drinkers. The Manny Pacquiao of lushes, if you will.
On a Monday night in August I had nothing to do and no work the next day. The time seemed right to take the 3 bottle soju challenge. I went to the GS 25 by me and bought two bottles. I’d drink those and see how I felt. That Thursday I would be headed to Vietnam and I wanted to pick up a few things for the trip the next day. Two bottles seemed like a nice amount to aim for – not as much as I prognosticated but more than the bastard Peter Teacher thought I could do. I cracked open the first bottle and started drinking.
I was cheating somewhat, because I had orange juice to mix the soju with. A real Korean drinker takes it straight. By the time I’d downed the first bottle, I realized that I was already a bit tipsy and that my skin had turned bright red. My chest had wicked blotches all over it, like it had the time I went to Thailand and got seriously sunburned. I threw water on my face, as if I could wash the discoloration away. Without pause, I opened bottle number two. Native Americans are red, and that never stopped them from drinking (I kid the Native Americans). To stay entertained, I put on the ESPN Fantasy Baseball Podcast.
“These guys are hilarious!” I shouted to myself, drinking and laughing as Nate Ravitz and Matt Berry talked about baseball stats. “Listening to this is just like having two friends right in my own living room!” I finished bottle number two and decided I should go all the way and get that third bottle. If I said “three” then damn it, three it would be! I felt what I call “scotch drunk,” because it’s the way I feel when I’ve had a lot of scotch. My mind was focused, sharp, but my body was having problems. I could feel myself weaving down the sidewalk on my way to the GS 25, and when I bought my third bottle of soju, saying thanks to the check out lady was nearly impossible.
I don’t recall much about the third bottle. All I know is that I woke up the next day on my bed, fully dressed with
all the lights still on. “My god,” I thought, “what time is it?” It was noon. The three chingus – meaning the three soju bottles – sat proudly on the table. They were empty. I had done it. Two hours later I got out of bed, ran to the toilet and threw up. I was still drunk and lightheaded. My heart pounded. Around five o’clock I threw up a second time. I lay on my bed and talked to myself, “I can’t get up. I can’t breathe. I’m going to die.”
Why the fuck had I done this to myself? I was 33 years old, and I had basically drunk myself into a coma because I wanted to tell an old Korean guy that I could handle three bottles of soju. “I’m a cocky American,” I slurred. “A damn cocky American. Just like the stereotype.”
Somewhere Peter Teacher was shaking his head and laughing. In a menacing and evil way, of course. Maybe this was his intention all along; maybe he was trying to kill me. “Don’t think like that,” I said to myself. “You drank the three bottles. You are one of life’s winners.”
Then I ran to the bathroom, because I had to puke again.