A Spirited Debate: Soju vs. Baijiu

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blog baijiuAs a teenager, I can remember hearing people in movies talk about brewing “moonshine” and thinking that was so bad ass. There was this sort of back-woods, law-breakin’ appeal to moonshine that I admired. Then, some twenty years later, I moved to China and found that moonshine is basically available everywhere and is the drink of choice around here. You know how there’s widespread popularity for Bacardi Rum and Absolut Vodka in the USA? Well, that’s the kind of mass appeal that moonshine has in China. Only they call it ‘baijiu,’ and you can buy it for basically nothing at any store that sells things.

blog sojuBut before we go on into baijiu further, let’s stop for a second and address South Korea’s drink of champions – soju. Soju is kind of like baijiu’s wimpier kid brother. It’s not as strong, not as mean, and seems quite substantially more refined. Soju is sold everywhere in Korea and everybody drinks it. College women, old men, kids in fifth grade. Everybody. It comes in green bottles and apparently compliments everything from barbeque to beer extremely well. Koreans even judge each other’s worth based on how many bottles of soju they can drink. A real Korean can down around ten bottles, or claims to at least. I’m highly skeptical when Koreans reveal how many bottles of soju they can drink. Especially since ten bottles is enough alcohol to kill multiple frat boys.

So today I’m pitting soju up against baijiu in a battle of national liquors. May the best poison win!

Contender #1: Soju

blog soju adWhat is it? – Soju can be distilled using almost anything. I’ve most often heard that it comes from rice, although apparently it can be made quite easily from wheat or potatoes too. It’s colorless and tastes kind of like watered down vodka. Soju is almost always taken as a shot. Sometimes people will sip it but that’s weird. Another common way to drink soju is to pour it into your beer (‘mekchu’ in Korean) – a devilish elixir referred to as ‘so-mek.’

Strength – Soju ranges from 16 – 45% alcohol by volume. 20% is the average.

Fun fact – Jinro Soju is the top selling alcohol brand in the entire world.

Personal experience – After being challenged by a Korean colleague, I successfully drank three bottles of soju by myself. This led to possibly the worst hangover I’ve ever had in my life. And a higher degree of respect from my colleague.

Contender #2: Baijiu

blog sorghumWhat is it? –  Baijiu is made from sorghum. What the hell is sorghum, you ask? It’s a kind of grass…just look at the picture. Unlike soju, there are seemingly a million different kinds of baijiu, and the quality can vary depending on the price. Baijiu comes in cool looking bottles, often cased in neat boxes, and appears to the untrained eye to be a rather fancy product. Baijiu is over 5000 years old and tastes exactly like how I would guess rubbing alcohol tastes. Similar to soju, baijiu is most often taken in shots, although it also can be mixed in cocktails (by westerners who are desperately trying to mask its hideousness).

Strength – Baijiu ranges from 40-60% alcohol by volume.

Fun Fact – The word baijiu literally translates to ‘white wine.’ Despite that, baijiu bears little resemblance to Riesling.

blog baijiu bottlePersonal Experience – Yes, I have gotten quite heavily intoxicated from baijiu on multiple occasions. But having said that, I’ve never gotten too enormously ripped off it. I think this is because baijiu is so strong, one is always conscious of its power and knows better than to mess with it. Baijiu is kind of like an enormous maniac with a tattoo on his neck. You just don’t push it too far. Soju, on the other hand, is more like a skinny guy trained in martial arts. You think you can take him, but in the end he whoops your ass.

Winner – Soju

It was tempting to pick baijiu, since it’s so extreme and I feel manly drinking it. But given the choice, I would much, much rather drink soju. Even if soju sneaks up on you like a ninja and knocks you out dead in the middle of the street (or on the Seoul subway), at least it’s a pleasant experience up to that point. There is nothing pleasant about baijiu. Drinking baijiu is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer until you feel warm and fuzzy. All while gargling nail polish remover.

So there you have it. The winner of this round is soju.

And the loser is my liver

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Drunken Malaise, One Year Contracts, and Tired Barhopping in Bupyeong

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Toronto was leaving on Saturday, so we thought it would be a good idea to go out drinking one last time.  Of course we did – drinking is what people do to say goodbye.  Toronto was flying out of Korea and heading back to Canada.  He didn’t have a job to go back to but his time here was done.  Maybe he’d come back, he told us.

“I’ll be here,” I said.  Toronto would be another in a long line of friends who had gone away.  That’s how it goes when you live in a foreign country: work visas eventually expire and people get sucked back to their homes.  Their real homes.  Permanent ones.  In the last month, most of my friends had vanished.  Perkins went back to South Africa, Pierre back to Canada, Cindy to Chicago, Clare to England, and the list goes on and on.  It sort of reminded me of how much I used to hate summer vacation when I was at college.  For two months, everyone just picked up and took off.  I’d have to leave my fun apartment and move back in with my parents until school started back up.

I had never thought “vacation” and “punishment” could be synonymous until those awful summer breaks.

For Toronto’s going away party, it was only him, TTD, and me.  We started with a few drinks at Underground, and then went over to a popular Western bar called Goose Goose.  I sat at the bar and smoked and ordered whisky and cokes.  Thursdays at Goose Goose used to be packed; the place would be full of life, young people yelling and drinking.  There was an excitement there.  A community.  We used to go to Goose on Thursdays and everybody we knew would be there.  It was the place to go to play trivia and to complain about work and to plan the weekend.  But on this night it was dead and dreary, with just a few people sitting around a table or playing darts.  There was nobody there to talk to.  We ordered more drinks and decided the best thing to do would be to get drunk.

Goose was getting depressing so we left and went to Who’s Bar.  Toronto had something to do and stepped away for a bit.  TTD and I went in and sat at the bar.  The place was empty with the exception of the owner, Won Seok, and some of his Korean friends.  They were playing poker at a table.  We told Won Seok not to bother getting up and stepped behind the bar and poured our beers ourselves.  We sat there talking, and then TTD said, “Hey, you know…I’ve known you for a year now and I never asked you before…why did you get divorced?”

I tried to come up with some kind of a coherent answer.  The marriage felt like a lifetime ago.  Why did I get divorced?  I didn’t know.  My life three or four years ago had been so different.  I remember when Betty and I bought a house in Charlotte together.  The realtor gave us the keys early and we drove down at night, just to walk in our new home and know that it was really ours.  We went in and I remember how damn happy Betty was.  This would be the place where we would make our life together.  Our first real home together.

About a year later, I moved out.

After, when I came to Korea, I wanted to show my students pictures of the house back in the States, so they’d have an idea of what “back home” looked like.  Betty lived there now with her new boyfriend.  I typed the address into Google and I found it on a Real Estate website.  She was selling our house.  I had no idea.  For some reason, everything sunk in right then.  It was like someone highlighted a huge portion of my life and hit the backspace button.

TTD and I were bored and starting to feel miserable.  We walked back to Goose.  Everyone had gone.  The bartender was asleep and the rest of the staff was busy playing slow Korean music on the jukebox.  Toronto called and we went back to Who’s Bar.  There were two strangers there this time.  They were happy to see some signs of life, and they bought us Flaming Dr. Peppers and we all drank.  It was after three in the morning and the booze was starting to do its thing.  TTD and I were drunk and we told the strangers that we were a couple and that we met at an orgy.  The strangers seemed to believe that, or maybe they were just so drunk they would’ve believed anything.

Toronto sat there laughing at all of us.  I would miss him.

We decided to ditch the strangers and go to McDonald’s.  On the way, we passed an old man sitting on the ground and drinking soju by himself.  TTD didn’t see him and nearly stepped on him.  He shouted at her in angry Korean.  I can’t eat when I drink, so I let Toronto and TTD go into the McDonald’s and I sat down with the old drunk Korean guy.  He had a Dixie cup and he drank shots of soju from it.  I sat there chain smoking while he rambled on and on in Korean.  I would nod and sometimes say “ne.”  He pointed towards the McDonald’s every so often and his voice would get louder.  He seemed upset.  I didn’t know what he was talking about so I kept nodding.

How the hell did I end up here?  In Korea, on the ground with a drunk old Korean guy.  Where was Betty now, and who was living in our house?  It was all so confusing.  I couldn’t get a grasp on anything, and the old man kept talking.

Two days later, Toronto flew back to Canada.  He emailed me the other day to say that he just bought a new washroom cabinet and some pillow shams.

It seems like life has a funny way of moving on, even when you don’t really want it to.

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Things I Didn’t Do In Vietnam

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“In Cambodia,” Perkins said, “you can pay $150 to shoot a bazooka.”  He said that as we looked down at a rusty old RPG sitting in a glass case in Vietnam’s Army Museum.  RPG stands for Rocket Propelled Grenade; an RPG sits on the shoulder of the person that fires it and was designed during WWII so foot soldiers would have something to shoot at tanks. 

“What do you fire the bazooka at?” I asked him.  If one was going to shoot a rocket, it seemed to make sense that there should be something there to stop it.

Perkins didn’t know.  “A house,” he finally said. 

I didn’t think about firing an RPG again until we met a strange character named Santiago while slurping down bowls of pho in a small restaurant near St. Joseph’s Cathedral.  Santiago had heard that a person could fire an RPG in Vietnam if that person had the right connections.  Since Santiago seemed to have looked into this, I asked him the same question I’d asked Perkins.

“What do you fire it at?”

“A cow,” he said, not missing a beat.  “I’ve seen videos of it on YouTube.”

The videos Santiago referred to show men in large open fields firing rocket launchers into the distance.  The videos stop short of showing exploding cows, which is what I’d pictured in my head.  I’d seen a cow detonate into a mushroom cloud of blood and bones, letting out a pained “mooo!” as it burst like a bubble, leaving behind nothing but a pool of pink milk. 

“I don’t think I could shoot a cow with a bazooka,” I said.  It seemed cruel.

“What animal could you shoot?” Perkins asked.

I thought for a second.  “Maybe a bear.”

Both Perkins and Santiago seemed appalled.  “Oh no, not a bear,” they said, showing disapproval.  “I could never shoot a bear for fun.”

Shooting a bear, obviously, is not fun.  Not as fun as eating a snake.  In the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, Perkins and I signed up for a live snake dinner.  I was quick to tell anyone I came across about it.

“They take the snake,” I’d say, “and they cut its heart out.  Then you eat the heart while it’s still beating.  And after that, you down it with a shot of blood!”

This wasn’t the only strange thing we found that involved snakes.  The Vietnamese also put snakes in jars.  They then pour alcohol in the jar and let it sit for two weeks to pickle.  At that time, the lid is removed and what you’re left with is some sort of potent drink that apparently, due to the mixture of alcohol and poison, has psychedelic effects.  I saw a woman on Monkey Island dropping limp snakes into jars, preparing the drink on the beach while a group of people huddled around her to watch.

Yet by the time I left Vietnam, I hadn’t shot anything with a rocket launcher.  Our beating heart dinner was canceled, and I never tried the snake wine.

When I came back, I found myself telling people more about the things I didn’t do in Vietnam than the things I actually did.  It was as if I had a whole imaginary trip to go along with my real one.  The exploding cow.  The snake’s heart about the size of a kidney bean, beating and hopping around in the palm of someone’s hand.  The way things would look after drinking the wine, like how a snake would see the world, through a thick window of clear liquid and glass, watching everything from inside a jar.

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Alcoholism in the Present Tense

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Sunday Morning

I’m still drunk when Melanie wakes me.  She has to go, and I’m presented with a choice: I can either leave now or stay until she gets back at 4 pm.  That’s a long time.  Since I’m hopeful that Courtney might want to see me, I decide to leave.  Walking to the bus, I find that I’m off balance.  I try to get my head straight by smoking a cigarette.  I just want to talk to Courtney but I fear that the night before – which I can’t remember all the way – didn’t go so well.

Let’s look at the most important fact: I went out to be with Courtney, and I woke up in Melanie’s bed.  That, my friend, is what we call a bad sign.

On the bus I text Courtney, “Hey, you awake?”  It’s 10:30 in the morning.  I lean my head against the bus window and fall asleep.  An hour later the bus will be parked at the terminal, and the driver will shake me until I’m awake again.

July 2009

NoDa is the trendy arts district in Charlotte, and on a hot summer afternoon I’m having lunch with my father, my mother, and my wife.  My father has been intolerable to be around.  Earlier in the day, he walked down one side of the street while me, my mother, and my wife walked down the other.

“I want a beer,” he says, looking over the menu.  “Have a beer with me.”

“I can’t,” I tell him.  I don’t tell him that I’ve stopped drinking.  That I’ve been in AA and that I’ve decided alcohol is destroying my life.  “You go ahead and have one.”

He looks at me.  “Why can’t you have a beer?  Come on, have a beer with your old man.”

“If I have one beer, I’ll want more,” I say.  “And if I don’t have more, I’ll be thinking about it all day and I’ll be miserable.”

“It’s one beer,” he says and laughs.  “Come on, have a drink with your dad.”

“He doesn’t want a drink,” my wife says.  “Please, you go ahead and just have one yourself.”

He looks irritated.  “Well, if he’s not having one, then I’m not either.”

It’s hard for me to figure why my father doesn’t understand.  He’s seen me before.  He knows how things get when I drink.  I don’t know why he doesn’t remember the Thanksgiving when I couldn’t stop drinking and cursed at my sister, or all the nights I spent in the basement drinking by myself.   Or the time I went out in his station wagon and when I came back I was drunk and it was smashed. 

“I’d really like a beer,” he says over and over again during the course our lunch.  Finally he orders one.  He takes a long gulp and says, “Are you sure you don’t want one?  Come on.  One beer.”

Sunday Evening

Courtney hasn’t responded to the two texts I’ve sent.  This is not like her at all.  She has never NOT responded when I’ve texted her.  The second text I sent was a vague apology.  I know she’s mad at me but I’m not sure why.  I’ve spent the whole day in bed.  I can’t think and I can’t move.  All I remember is drinking beer and later rum and doing shots and singing “Don’t Stop Believing” and having Melanie talk on the phone to the cab driver to tell him where to take me. 

I’ve had this feeling before.  The feeling that I’ve done something awful that I can’t remember.  It’s the worst feeling in the world.  Lying in bed, I wonder how many people hate me after my black out night and I wonder how much they hate me.  The “why” isn’t even important anymore.

Monday Night

It’s about 8:30 at night, and Courtney finally decides to speak to me. “Don’t do that again,” she says on Facebook chat.  “You freaked me out and it was fucked.”

I type, “To be honest, I don’t remember everything.  What exactly did I do that was fucked?” 

There’s a long pause before she answers.  Maybe it isn’t that long, but to me it seems that way.

“You pushed me into the corner of the bar, and you wouldn’t let me go.  You yelled at me and called me a bitch.”

I feel devastated reading this.  I apologize.  Over and over again.

“I know that isn’t you,” she writes.  “I guess it would be best to forget it and move on.”

That she could want to “forget it and move on” makes me feel worse.  We talk for the rest of the night about other things.  Fred Phelps and dead soldiers, abortion and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  The entire time I think back to Sunday morning, when I texted her and I thought we could do something fun.  How could I have had no idea that I’d taken her by the arms and held her so she couldn’t move? 

Tuesday Morning

My sister Kim sends me a message.  I had sent her one earlier, telling her what I did, because I felt I needed to tell someone. 

“She’s an angel for even wanting to forgive you,” Kim says.  “Well, bro, the only way to get your shit together is to lessen the booze or stop completely.  I don’t think it’s doing you any good.  I mean, honestly speaking, do you want to be like this the rest of your life?”

Some Morning about Five Years Ago

“The marriage counselor says I should leave you,” Betty tells me.  I’m curled up on the couch.  My school had a field trip today and I missed it.  I teach at an elementary school.  I wonder if my kids are having a good time.

“Do you remember last night?” Betty asks.  I don’t.  The only thing I seem to remember is watching Ryan Howard strike out during the Phillies/Braves game.  “You were out of control,” she says.  “You threw your glasses against the wall and you were screaming.  You called me terrible things.  I sat at the computer crying.  Then you wanted me to hit you, and you kept screaming about it and I wouldn’t do it.  I was scared.”

I remember how it started.  Betty came home and I had already drunk about half a bottle of Vodka by myself.  We sat out on the porch.  I was thinking about baseball.

“I can’t wait to have kids,” I said to her.  “I want to be their baseball coach.  I’ll be really good at it.  It’ll be so much fun to teach my kids how to play baseball.”

She stares off into the day.  “I’m not having kids with you,” she says.  “Not like this.”

Friday Night

It turns out Courtney and I will be at the same bar Friday night.  She doesn’t sound too enthusiastic about it.  I tell her that I won’t be drinking.  It’ll be a sober night.  I don’t go into why because I assume she knows.

At the bar, I try to have fun.  I cheer my friends on while they play in a beer pong tournament.  Other friends joke around with me.  I feel strong in my conviction to not drink.  People try to buy me drinks and I tell them I’m having a sober night.  Then they tilt my head towards the light so they can see the scar from when I fell down on a beer mug a few weeks ago and split my eyebrow open.

Courtney shows up, walks near to where I’m standing, and doesn’t even make eye contact with me.  When she looks at me, we awkwardly wave ‘hello’ and have a very short conversation.  I don’t want to pester her or make her feel uncomfortable.  I walk over to some friends.  An hour passes.  Courtney hasn’t moved and I don’t feel she particularly wants to talk to me at all.  Maybe I’m wrong.  She could just want to hang out with her co-worker friends, and it’s my shame that makes me think this.  Still, it’s hard to take.  Only a week earlier, I felt really close to her.  Tonight, the longest we speak is when I put on my jacket, walk over to her, and say goodbye.

Leaving the bar, I think about all the people I’ve lost to alcohol.  I lost my wife, Betty.  I’ve lost too many friends to count.  Now I suppose I’ve lost Courtney too.  I feel shattered.  After I take a cab home, I go to the store and buy two large jugs of beer.  Sitting in my apartment by myself, I start drinking.

Then I remember that this is supposed to be sober night.  The beer isn’t doing it for me anyways.  I’m exhausted and I simply don’t want to drink.  I put my beer in the refrigerator, saving it for another night, turn the lights off, and go to sleep.

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