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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3 Bottle Soju Challenge

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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

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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

In spirit, we are brothers.

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.

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Bar Compliments from the Land of Obscurity

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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.

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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.

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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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