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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Fast Times in Boracay with a Finish Film Director

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I took a walk down the beach to see the girl in the bikini.  Rusty had advised me too.  “I wonder who is the man she’s with,” he said, gazing off in their direction.  The girl was stunning, with dark brown skin and a perfect figure.  The man she was with was short and round; if she was an hour glass, he was a stop watch with a head on it.  Moving past her, I made sure I got a good look in, then went back over to where Rusty was sitting.

“Yeah, she’s gorgeous,” I said, agreeing.

“I should go to them and say ‘Can I get a drink for you and your brother,’” Rusty said, looking out into the ocean.  “Then, if it is not her brother, he cannot get upset because it is obviously a misunderstanding.”

“It’s probably her brother,” I said.  The sand on the beach at Boracay is soft as powder and I took some in my hand and let it slide out.  “That guy can’t be her boyfriend.  It doesn’t make sense.”

The sun was out and the girl in the bikini ran into the water, where her mystery companion was waiting for her.  “Who goes to the beach with their brother?” Rusty asked.

It was a fine question.  I thought about it.  I would never, ever want to go to the beach alone with my sister.  Especially if she was wearing a bikini.  That would be weird.

I took my shirt off and went into the water myself.  Off to the side I saw Rusty walk over in their direction.  I moved onto my back and floated on the water while the sun shined bright on my face.  “If I could only be like that,” I thought, enviously.  “What I would give to have the courage to go up to someone and just start talking.”  The water was warm and I moved back onto my feet, crouching down so the crests of the small waves decapitated me.  There was Rusty, talking to both of them.  They were laughing.  I wondered what he was saying.

About 15 minutes later, I was back on the white sand.  Rusty came over, lying down, beads of ocean water sunbathing all over his large white body.

“Fiancé,” he said he said through his teeth.

*

Boracay is a beautiful place.  A paradise.  It’s the place everyone seems to mention when they hear you’re going to the Philippines.  “Going to the Philippines?” they say.  “You gotta go to Boracay.”  Lonely Plant says its White Beach “meets or exceeds all expectations.”  I spent three days there and found it to be the kind of place that pulls you away.  It makes a person start to think, “Hmm, what if I just dropped everything and lived here, on the beach, for however long.  Without a job but it wouldn’t matter.  Without any worries.  Just quit everything and stayed until the money ran out.  Maybe I will.”

And it was at Boracay that we met Rusty, though no one knew what his real name was.  We knew he was from Finland and that he spoke in a heavy Scandinavian accent.  He told us his real name but it was too foreign to remember; it started with an R and so we started calling him Rusty and he didn’t seem to mind that (his real name, it would turn out, was Rostislav).  When I first met him, he sat at our table trying to dry out the cellphone he’d just accidentally gone swimming with.

“It is fried,” he said, shaking it.  Then he launched into a story nobody could make heads or tails of, something about getting drugged at a club and seeing Santa Claus.  He was older, clearly in his forties, stout, balding, with eyes at least four shades of blue lighter than the color of the Speedo he wore.  He was in the same hostel room as one of my friends, and he’d sort of latched onto us, not knowing anyone else in Boracay.  That was fine.  When you’re paying 200 pesos a night for a small bed in a room right off the beach, in a place hidden by coconut trees, where two diseased-looking dogs run about freely and the beer is cheaper than water, you expect to pick up some colorful characters along the way.

At night – our first in Boracay – we piled into my friend’s room, and Rusty showed up with a bottle of rum, some coke, and a bag of ice.  He put everything on his bed and started making drinks.  There was a lovely British girl named Nikita with us.  “I plan on getting cucumbered tonight,” she said.  “Do you call it that in the States?  In England, we call getting really drunk getting cucumbered.”

Rusty raised his drink.  “Here’s to getting ca-coom-bered,” he said.  His pronunciation was so horrible, we all laughed.  “It’s a difficult word to pronounce,” he said.  “Like vegey-ta-blais.”

Much later he’d return, drunk as ever (or perfectly cucumbered), to find that he’d forgotten the bag of ice on his bed.  His sheets, just as his cellphone had been earlier, were soaked.

He went out onto the white beach by himself and slept on the sand.

*

That night was not a good one for me.  It’s hard to say exactly what happened.  We were out at a club and suddenly I felt apart from everything, like I was invisible or as if I was watching everything on a television screen.  I stood in the corner, covered in nervous sweat, drinking and smoking and pretending to have a good time.  There was something about the place that made me feel sucked up inside of myself.  I didn’t want to dance and I felt extremely out of place.

Rusty was the complete opposite.  He bounced around the dance floor and leapt up onto the stripper pole, where before scantily clad tourist girls had danced.  “He has no shame,” I thought, watching him go.  “None.  He doesn’t care who’s watching him.  In fact, he seems to want people to watch him.”

Apart from Rusty, everyone in the club was about a decade younger than I was.  They drank some red liquor drink called a “Zombie” and danced the night away.  All of them – my friends, the strangers, the Filipino men and women – were vibrant with life, practically glowing.  In distinct contrast, I felt out of place, miserable, not so much like I didn’t want to be there, but like I shouldn’t be there.  I felt twice as old as the place and I left and took a walk down along the beach.  In a dark cove I found two dogs sitting there, looking bored.  I sat down near them and smoked a cigarette.  I tried to look out into the ocean at night but it was too dark to see the water.  Everything was black.

“Sometimes,” I thought, “I wish the whole world was old with me.”

One of the dogs blinked its eyes and its ears twitched.

*

The next night it rained hard, poured, and we crowded into a huge dance club named Summer Place and Rusty bought me rum and tonic to drink.  It was actually quite good and strong.  When the rain would stop, we’d wander out into the narrow lane between the club and the beach, where prostitutes and police officers hung out.  One old prostitute kept putting her arms around my waist.  Rusty was a puddle, completely sloshed, and he’d giggle and push her away and shout, “Keep your hands off my boyfriend!”

“Don’t joke like that, man!” I said, now trying to push both him and the prostitute off of me.  Around four in the morning we all lost each other.  I was as drunk as I’ve ever been and staggered around, talking to Filipino girls.  The next morning, I woke up in a hut in bed next to one of them.  I could barely remember anything, and the sun was up and there was a statue of the Virgin Mary upright on a table facing us.  The girl gave me her phone number and then started asking me for money, to buy food and for her brother and I’m not sure what else.  My head was spinning.   I opened my wallet and gave her all the pesos I had.  The beach was empty in the morning and I walked down the one lone path to where I was staying, where I bought water and had them put it on my room bill since I had given away all my money.

Rusty was sitting out at a table later on.  He looked depressed.  “They stole everything,” he said.  “I was too drunk.  Ca-coom-bered.  They pick pocketed me.  My cellphone is gone and so is my money.”

I had known Rusty for two days, and in that time he had ruined one cell phone and had another one stolen.  This second one was his phone from Finland.  From his home.  They’d also taken his money.  He shook his head.  He looked defeated.

At dusk, the sun settling down on the beach, tourists piling into restaurants to eat their dinners, Rusty walked back down to Summer Place to talk to the prostitutes.  He told them that if they found a phone from Finland, he would come and buy it back from them.  He had everything in that phone and needed it badly.  I’m not sure if they ever found it, or if they even agreed on how much it was worth.

*

In his career, Rostislav A. has directed 16 documentary films, most of them shorts.  He made his first film in 1994 and has been working in the Scandinavian film industry since.  In 2002, he directed a feature documentary that was nominated for the Nordic Council’s Film Prize and which won the Jury Award at the Newport International Film Festival.  I got that information off IMDB.  From the independent research I did hanging out with him for three days, I learned that he drinks like a (Nordic) fish, laughs loudly, and is an incredibly fun and charismatic individual.

“There is no clee-max,” Rusty told me out on the beach one day, talking about his film, the one that had won the prize at the film festival in 2002.  “I could’ve made one in editing, but I didn’t.  I wanted it to be true to life.”

The last time I saw Rusty, he was sitting in a bar at night, drinking and watching the Filipino locals play a cover of “Ooh Baby I Love Your Way” by Peter Frampton.  I’m not sure what exactly he was doing in the Philippines.  I don’t know what he was going back home to.  I’m fairly certain, though, that he didn’t want to go back home very much.  That we had in common.  I said goodbye to him and walked back to my room, mildly surprised to find a goat with enormous testicles walking around outside my door.

The next morning I woke up, got dressed, and left Boracay, leaving behind the white sand that had, only a few mornings earlier, slipped through my fist like it was falling to the bottom of some wonderful old hourglass.

*

Don’t Pee on the Laptop (An Important Life Lesson)

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There are things that happen in this city that you’re not supposed to see.  Things that are ugly, that don’t make much sense.  Some of these things happen in dark places.  Some of them involve the people you care about, but most involve people you’ve never met before.  And a lot of them happen in bars, sometime between six and seven in the morning.

Ok, that previous paragraph was me trying to sound as though I was writing the opening to a crime show.  Really, I’m not sure what the hell I was talking about.  There was a purpose, though, and that was to set the tone.  That’s right.  I was setting the mood, like how restaurants dim the lights or Zalman King movies utilize the saxophone.  Yes, I just made a Zalman King reference and I’m not ashamed of it.  How many times have I seen Gone with the Wind?  Once.  Two Moon Junction?  At least 30.

Sherilyn Fenn: A dominant figure in my adolescent life.

Or parts of it, anyways.

Let’s focus.  I was attempting to set the tone because I did indeed witness a crime the other night, in a bar at about 6:30 in the morning.  Since I’m not sure what to make of the events that transpired, let me cut straight to the facts and tell you what happened.

At the time of the crime, there were exactly eight people in the bar.  No – check that – seven.  The drunk Irish guy had gone.  I was relieved.  That left me, TTD, Kent, the three bar staff, and the perpetrator.  Earlier in the night, we’d been drinking and having a blast.  Kent and I talked baseball (it’s amazing how time flies when you’re debating Elvis Andrus versus Yunel Escobar), and TTD was having fun flirting with the drunk Irish guy.  At one point, the drunk Irish guy tried to talk to me and Kent.

“What’re you talking about?”

“Baseball.”

“Aye, baseball,” he said, and pretended to have fallen asleep.  Then he snapped back to attention.  “Hurling.  Now that’s a real man’s game.  You know hurling is the fastest sport in the world?”

“Faster than hockey?” Kent said.  “How many countries play hurling?”

“One,” the drunk Irish guy said, holding up a single finger.

I exited that conversation as quickly as I could.  I had no idea what they were talking about.  After the drunk Irish guy went back to hitting on TTD, I sat down with Kent.

“Isn’t hurling when they sweep the ice so that thing slowly rolls along?  That can’t be the fastest sport.”

“You’re thinking of curling,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.  “What the fuck is hurling then?”

“It’s on a field, with a ball and a stick…” he paused.  “I don’t know.  Nobody plays it.”

Just then the guy who would eventually perpetrate the crime came staggering in.  He was older, maybe in his late thirties, and he was completely bombed.  The guy could barely walk.  He stumbled over to a couch and collapsed on it.

“Shit man!” I said, alarmed.  “That drunk fucker just sat on my coat.”

“Go get it.  I’ll get the next round.”

I went over to the drunk guy and yanked my coat out from under him.  Right next to him, there was a laptop for people to type in songs they wanted to hear – kind of like a jukebox.  The music wasn’t keeping this dude awake, and as soon as I’d gotten my coat from beneath his rear end, he fell soundly asleep.

Hours passed.  We paid the guy no mind.  TTD sat next to me in a booth, with the drunk Irish guy and Kent on the other side.  Suddenly, the drunk Irish guy got angry and glared at me.  I gulped.  He looked like he was about to rip my head off.

“You,” he said, pointing at me.  “Tell me one good thing about my country.”

I panicked and said the first thing that came into my head.  “Um…hurling is really fast!”

Kent and TTD shifted around uncomfortably.  Later they would tell me that I sounded like a sarcastic asshole.  I didn’t mean to – I thought he’d like that.  He didn’t, though, and so Kent started trying to talk him out of killing me.

As he did, the bartended came over to us.  “Do you know him?” he asked us, pointing to the older dude sleeping on the couch.

“Nope.”

The bar owner shook his head.  “He is so drunk he pissed all over himself.  The couch is soaked.”

“I’m leaving,” the drunk Irish guy said, shoving a full beer bottle into his pocket.  He gave us all a dirty look and wobbled away.

The bar staff was trying to wake up the dude who peed on the couch, and I turned to TTD.  “You know,” I said, “that guy probably wasn’t angry with me about the hurling thing.  He’s probably pissed off cause you flirted with him all night and then came and sat with me.”

“I know.”

“Well, you could’ve gone home with him if you wanted to.  No judgments.”

No!” she said, appalled.  “I wouldn’t go home with that guy!  I have no interest in him.”

“But you flirted with him for hours.”

She shrugged.  “Yeah, well…I’m not interested.”

“Hmm,” I thought, “women are really nice.”

We were about to leave, but the urinator was now awake and attempting to run out of the bar.  The bar staff chased him down the stairs and onto the street.

“We’re the only ones in this place,” Kent said.  “Let’s raid the bar.”

That was a good idea, but we didn’t have enough time.  The bar staff was back, with the guy in tow.  They had his shirt pulled up over his head and they threw him down into a chair.  The bar owner held the music laptop.

“You pissed on the laptop!” one of the workers said.  “It’s fucking fried, man!”

“I will call the police!” another worker said, opening his cell phone.

The perpetrator of the crime – the crime being property damage via public urination – started begging them.  “Please!  Please don’t call the police!  I’m sorry!  I told you I’m sorry!”

“You fried his fucking laptop man!  You peed all over his couch!”

“Don’t call the police man!  I don’t want to go to Korean jail!  I can’t go!  I can’t go to Korean jail!”

“Well then pay us some fucking money!  Pay us or we call the police!”

“I don’t have any money.  I’m sorry!  Please let me go!”

“We’re not fucking letting you go!  You pissed on his laptop man!  You gotta pay for that!”

It was a wretched scene.  Humanity at its lowest.  We decided we had to get the hell out of there.  Not so much because of the bad scene…we wanted McDonald’s breakfast very badly.

“Help me!” the perpetrator called to us.  “I don’t want to go to Korean jail!”

As we stood there, not knowing what to say, one thought kept going through my head over and over again: Thank freaking God I got my coat out from under that guy.

*

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.

*

Totally Krossed Out, Totally Stitched Up

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Here is the lie I told my school on Monday, March 28th, when I walked into the teacher workroom with a giant bandage across my head:  I didn’t mention anything about backwards clothing, the 1990s, or the beautiful moment my face and the dance floor got to meet.  Instead, I told them the following:

“On Saturday, I was over at Bupyeong Middle School with my South African friends, playing football.  You know I’m not athletic, but they’ve been trying to convince me for awhile to join up and play and since it was such a nice day, I finally cracked.  Well, anyways, we were playing football – American football, that is, cause they needed a break from soccer or something – and I went out for a long pass.  I was running and looking over my shoulder, and that’s when I ran straight into my friend Matt.  Bang!  Knocked our heads right together.  I was down on the field, thinking why, oh why, did I agree to this?  Then I was off to the hospital to get stitches.  I’ll tell ya this – I am NEVER playing football again!”

Did my school buy it?  I have no idea.  They seemed to find it funny though.  Admittedly, the idea of me on the football field is ridiculous enough to warrant laughter.

“How long were you playing?” Hye Jeong asked.  “Five minutes?”

The real story isn’t exactly better, but it’s far more believable.  On Friday, March 25th, I went to a ‘90s theme party thrown at a bar called Underground.  I wanted to dress up but I didn’t want to spend any money, so I threw my jeans and a football jersey on backwards, turned my hat to the back, and went as 1/2 of the rap group Kriss Kross.  I suppose I was the one with the lighter skin, although I only know the verse first verse of the song, the one by the kid with the darker skin, who was obviously the more talented of the two.  “Don’t try to compare us to another bad little fad/I’m the mack and I’m bad/give ya somethin’ that you never had.”  The song played on a continual loop in my head, taking me back to the ninth grade, when I would ask someone “You down with OPP?”, get the response “Yeah, you know me!” and walk away not knowing at all what the question or that answer really meant.

It was a tough time to go through puberty.  Kurt Cobain died, OJ was found innocent, and the Broncos won not just one but two Super Bowls.  I grew up with the world turned upside down.

But back to Underground, the ‘90s party, and my accident.  At around 2:30 in the morning, I was good and drunk.  Like a fool, I listened to the alcohol when it talked to me: “I’m delicious – have more of me”; “You look really cool with your backwards clothes”; “Know all those times when you’re sober and you tell people you can’t dance?  Well you’re wrong!  Get out there on the dance floor and break it down Hammer style!”  Out to the dance floor I went, trying to shake it with a tall blonde friend dressed as Brittney Spears.  For a few blurry minutes, I was completely enjoying myself, drinking my beer and shaking it with Brittney.  Life couldn’t get any better.  Like the real Kriss Kross, though, my stay at the top was short lived.

Quicker than you can say “Oops, I did it again,” Brittney started to fall.  It all happened so fast.  Somehow I was falling too.  Down to the floor we went.  She ended up on her back (as Brittney often does), and I ended up slamming my face into a beer mug.  Wondering whether the fall was caused by Britt or my sagging backwards pants, I could feel the blood pouring down my face.  A few minutes later I was holding a tissue above my left eye, standing in the bathroom, occasionally bringing it down and looking at the massive red gash in my forehead.

I showed everyone my wound, waiting sullenly for the inevitable look of horror and the recurrent utterance of the word ‘stitches.’

The owner of the bar called an ambulance, and I was off to Gil Hospital.  Waiting in the emergency room, I snuck off to the bathroom.  The hospital staff hadn’t really seen me yet.  There was something I had to do before the CT Scan, before the nurse cleaned my divot with some kind of salt solution that made me wince in pain, and before the surgeon weaved the stitches through my face.  I was drunk, bleeding, and didn’t speak a word of the language.  Still I had a little pride left, at least enough to force me into the bathroom.   I didn’t want to look any more foolish than I had to.

In the bathroom I undressed.  I put my football jersey on the right way.  I pulled the jeans up so that the zipper was in the front.

There was no way I could sit in the emergency room with my clothes on backwards.  The ‘90s were over.  I searched for my insurance card.  “I’m a professional teacher,” I thought, holding gauze to the cut, composing my story, bit by bit, about how it all happened on a sunny Saturday morning at a football field for teenagers.

*

Dan Has Beer

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It wasn’t hard for me to say I was an alcoholic at my first AA meeting.  On the other hand, it took me at least four or five meetings to walk up and pick up a white chip.  The white chip signifies nothing other than the admittance that your “life has become unmanageable” and the understanding that by taking it you are expressing a sincere desire to stop drinking.  I still have my white chip in a drawer in my apartment.  It’s the only chip I ever picked up. 

When I stood up, walked across the room, and took my white chip, everyone clapped like I had just won a Grammy or something.  The guy in charge of the chips was young and thin.  He hugged me and said something to me that I don’t remember.  I saw him at a few other meetings.  He always referred to himself as a “recovered alcoholic.”  He hadn’t had a drink in five years.  I wondered why he had to include that word “recovered” when he introduced himself.  He must’ve been one of those people that couldn’t say he was an alcoholic, not like I could.  What would he say if he had a relapse?  He would have to take the word “recovered” out, I suppose, and say “I’m an alcoholic” like the rest of us.  I bet he wouldn’t go to the meetings anymore if that happened.

I remember one meeting when we were going around the room and introducing ourselves.  There was a man in a red shirt with sweat on his face.  He was nervous when he spoke.

“Hello, I’m Dan and I’m an alcoholic,” he said, a little too loudly.  “I just bought a twelve pack of beer.  It’s in the trunk of my car.  I think I’m gonna go home and drink it tonight.  It’s been two and a half years since I had a drink and today I just stopped at a gas station and bought some beer.  Two and a half years and I don’t want to drink it but I think I’m going to.  I came to the meeting ‘cause I don’t know what to do.  Please don’t say anything to me.  I just want to sit here and think.”

“Thanks Dan,” the group said.  Just like he asked, no one said anything to him.  No one else who shared mentioned Dan.  People didn’t look at Dan. 

Maybe that’s because when Dan said he had a twelve pack of beer in the trunk of his car, I could almost hear a collective gasp fill the room.  He might as well have said he had a dead kid in there.  The atmosphere was a little heavy for the rest of the meeting.  It was our great fear, and it was there in the room.  That one day, just out of the damn blue, something makes an alcoholic go and start drinking again.  It’s scary, knowing that in April you’re working on your third year of sobriety and in May you’re no better than the guy picking up that first white chip.  That you can call yourself a “recovered alcoholic,” but you’re never really “recovered,” are you?  The worst part was imagining how awful Dan felt, sitting in his chair and listening to people talk, knowing very well that he’d feel so much better after having five or six of those beers.

I don’t know if Dan drank the beer he had in his trunk.  I’d like to think that he didn’t, that the people at the meeting helped him and they stood in the parking lot of the clinic where the AA meeting was and poured the beer out onto the asphalt.  I’d like to think that Dan drove home with a great sense of relief, got home and slept, knowing there would never be a time when he wouldn’t need someone’s help.

The next day maybe Dan woke up in the dark of the morning, still going on three years.  He might’ve sat outside, a little ashamed and a little saddened, in the warm North Carolina air, waiting for the new day to open like a spring magnolia.

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So-Mi the Seaweed Girl

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There was no way I could call the girl I had met over the weekend without asking my Korean co-teacher, Hye Jeong, for help.  And because Hye Jeong is extremely inquisitive, I had to explain the entire situation to her.

“You see Hye Jeong,” I said, “when the girl put her number into my phone, she wrote her name in Korean.  I have no idea what it says.  So I need you to tell me what this girl’s name is.”

“You don’t remember her name?” Hye Jeong asked.  I responded by making a drinking motion with my hand.  “Oh,” she said, “you were very drunk.”  I nodded.  Thankfully, Hye Jeong didn’t have any more questions.  She looked at the name entered into my phone.

“Her name is So-Mi,” she said.  Then, because she’s nosey, Hye Jeong added, “You will tell me tomorrow if you have date.”

Calling a girl for the first time is always nerve-wracking.  It’s even worse, though, when the girl is Korean and doesn’t speak much English.  Normally, I would ask a girl out in a roundabout sort of way, making small talk and stalling, poking around the question until I had a fair idea of what the girl’s answer would likely be.  But with a language barrier, there’s none of that.  There’s no banter, no warm-up jokes to build character.  There’s just the question, plain and simple.

I called So-Mi around eight at night, not expecting the conversation to turn out at all like it did.

“Hello?” she said, after about 10 seconds of silence.

“Hi, So-Mi.  This is Bill.  We met at Who’s Bar Saturday night.”

“Oh!  So sleepy!”

“Sleepy?  Okay.  Do you want me to call back some other time?”

“No no.  Oh, headache!  So sleepy!”

“Really, I could call back later.”

“It’s okay.  I’m sorry.”

“Okay, I’ll make it quick then.  What are you doing Thursday?”

“Thursday very busy.  No no.  Very busy.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.  Can I see you next week?”

“Next week very busy.  We will go out next year.”

“I’m sorry?  Next year?  What do you mean?”

“Next year.  We will go out 2011.”

“That’s four months away, So-Mi.  How about Saturday?”

“Very very busy!  We will go out January, 2011.”

“You’re not free anytime before that?”

“Headache!  I call you then.  Next year.  Bye bye.”

With that, we hung up.  It wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for.  Looking on the bright side, though, I did have a date.

As it would turn out, So-Mi didn’t call me in 2011, but in November instead.  “It’s party night,” she said, and we agreed to meet each other out at the same bar where we’d met the first time.  It had been a long time, and I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize her (especially since I didn’t really remember what she looked like to begin with).  Luckily, though, when I arrived at Who’s Bar, So-Mi was the only one there.

“Hey, So-Mi!” I said, although my facial expression surely wasn’t as enthusiastic.  She was quite chubby, with enormous glasses and a gigantic green knit hat on her head.  “It’s pretty warm in here,” I told her.  “Don’t you think you can take the hat off?”

“Oh no,” she said.  “It is my style.  It is like college student.”

So-Mi didn’t go to college, but instead worked at Home Plus, which is kind of like the Korean equivalent of Target.  She wanted to go to a university, though, to study cooking.  We got drinks, and she slammed hers down before I’d taken two sips of mine.  With her hands free, she began eating the rectangular squares of dried seaweed that the bar had set out.

“Boy,” I commented, watching her shove fistfuls of seaweed into her face, “you really like that seaweed.”

“I am very funny,” So-Mi said, smiling.  Then she began taking little bits of the seaweed and sticking them to her face.  “Ha ha ha!  So funny!” 

She put spit on her cheeks and stuck more bits of seaweed on.  “Yeah,” I said, “that’s really hilarious.”

After we’d removed the seaweed off of her, we tried to have a conversation but it just wasn’t going very well.  So-Mi put her head down on the bar after every sentence.  “Oh, headache!  So drunk!”

In horror, I realized that a friend of mine had come to the bar to watch the football match.  I slipped away from So-Mi, who was alternatively putting her head down on the bar and whacking back more seaweed, and went over to my friend.  I hesitantly admitted that, yes, I was with the girl at the bar and, yes, I would eventually have to go back to her.

But when I turned my attention back to the bar, So-Mi had somehow vanished.  She was gone without a trace.  That wasn’t really a bad thing, so I sat with my friend and drank.  Two hours later, So-Mi suddenly re-appeared.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“Hi!  It’s party night!”  She had no explanation whatsoever for where she had been, nor did she seem aware at all that she hadn’t been at Who’s Bar.

It probably goes without saying that she and I never had a second date.  When people ask me about Korean girls, I usually end up telling them about my date with So-Mi the Seaweed Girl.  It may be mean.  Unfair to the poor thing.  But I imagine that somewhere So-Mi is sitting with a group of Koreans, and perhaps they’ll ask her if she’s ever had a date with a white guy.  And maybe she’ll shake her head in disapproval and tell them about the lousy guy she went out with once, who didn’t laugh at her humor, and who didn’t act in any way that made the slighest bit of sense.

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