Korean Quickie – Male Bonding
I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at the time, but after my first few months in South Korea a reality about life here made itself clear: Koreans like to drink. Even more, many like to get drunk. Like any and all observations based solely on one’s own experience, it’s biased, and I accept the fact that I may be totally wrong in this generalization. But I don’t think so.
What first brought me to this conclusion was the regular nighttime scene of Korean men walking through the streets in zig-zag patterns. Coming from local bars and restaurants, their right foot became their left foot and their left foot became salami. In groups comprised mainly of older men, they would hug each other, and gush non-sexually to the man closest to them.
These sights, along with the plethora of bars, and alcohol advertisements that would put to shame the best efforts of beer companies in the ghetto, all told me that I was experiencing something unique. I was witnessing a drinking culture.
I occationally indulged in it.
At my first staff diner I ate enough Korean barbecue for three men and drank enough booze to get one Alex vomiting in his toilet. At other outings I would accept drinks when in the states I had spent five years without alchohol of any sort.
A few weeks ago my school had its annual teacher’s training meeting. As was explained to me by another teacher, “It is called a training, but we usually just talk about teaching only during the main meeting for an hour or so.” Mr. Yang (양) looked down and sucked air as he tried to think of subtler words for what he wanted to say. This was often his habit. I grinned and he said, “Really, it is a trip to a part of Korea we vote on, and we just try to enjoy ourselves.” What I understood was that it would involve a bunch of teachers drinking soju (소주), makgeolli (막걸리) or other rice based drinks that I didn’t yet know.
The drinking this year was going to happen in Andong (안동시). It’s a city known for its historical sites and the plan was to travel through a few of them and witness traditional Korean life. It was expected that I follow the rest of the group, and join in the trip. Not following everyone else might’ve been considered rude or anti-social, but I wanted to go anyway, so with no hint of irritation I said I would. “Sounds like fun.”
The bus left early in the morning and I sat in the back, next to the art teacher Mr. Choi (최). He’s the cool teacher that we all had at least one of in our high school. Mr. Choi (최) is young, outgoing, handsome, and dresses trendy, but is totally unpretentious and hates suits. He also speaks English pretty well, so I said, “Hey Mr. Choi.”
He smiled back happily, “Hi Alex!”
The bus was full of cheerful noises and we added to them. He told me a little about his new girlfriend, and after showing me her picture we chatted like men for a minute or so until I asked, “So what exactly is there to do in Andong?”
He shock his head, “Well… I do not really know. Andong has many traditional things. The schedule says we are going to a kind of museum.”
“Yes. Many kinds of them, actually.”
“Coming from local bars and restaurants, their right foot became their left foot and their left foot became salami”
Another teacher, a middle aged Mr. Kae (개), who often passed me by in the hallway without much notice, turned in his seat and handed me a hamburger. I didn’t want it, but I recognized the new niceness of the gesture, and didn’t want to offend him, so I took it. “Kam sa hap ni da.” I immediately put it in my bag and, with a mind full of guilt, planned to discreetly toss into a ditch the first chance I got.
Mr. Kae (개) was one of a few teachers who previously said nothing to me, but now asked me questions and smiled. They asked me what I thought about Korea. As the bus started its engines and moved us forward, I gave short, positive answers and the group of us continued our back and forth in good spirits. There were the inevitable pauses that occur on long road trip, but things remained cheerful in the back of the bus as we arrived at the first site.
It was an early private academy that Korean royalty used to have their children taught mathematics, and the fundamentals of Buddhism. At least that’s what Mr. Kim said to me. The Social Studies teacher pointed out monuments and told me historical facts. The slim newlywed wore his bookish ways on his sleeve and despite being the same age as me, shyly shared his knowledge like I was a high school student. I smiled with genuine interest.
As we walked up a hill I asked him how it felt to be married. He sighed and said, “I have escaped my solitude.” I laughed at his odd, but correct phrasing.
We walked around buildings that looked old. Much of them, however, had been restored, so the feeling of being around ancient things was missing. We stood around what was supposed to be an traditional food storage house made of stone, but when Mr. Oh (오) knocked on it with his middle knuckle we heard the deep “bong” of sound echoing through hollow plastic. Easily the happiest (and slightly insane) looking Korean man I’ve ever met, Mr. Oh laughed like he didn’t care about anything in the world except the joy brought on by his own laughter. Though no one could replicate it, we all laughed at the fake thing. The much quieter Mr. Jo hit it as well and said some words to all of the men who were standing around laughing. The words were Korean and outside my understanding, though everyone laughed again. Mr. Jo said to me with a big smile, “Not real!”
Against the backdrop of real and not real things I took pictures with Mr. Choi, Mr. Kim, Mr. Oh, Mr. Jo and the many other Messrs who smiled with me as our group traveled around for hours looking at historic sites and natural settings. Mr. Choi and me were the last to leave the area. We played around a frozen river, and like fearless children we edged onto the thin ice. As my right foot cracked the ground under me Mr. Seo, one of the kindest men I’ve ever met, and the busy organizer of our trip, yelled from the beyond the shore, “Let’s go. We are leaving.” We chuckled as we ran off the ice and towards the bus.
Our final stop was another private academy that had been built on a mountainside. At the top a few of us just sat down on any available tree stump, tired from a day full of walking trails and kicking dirt. I leaned against a pole and looked out at the horizon. There were only a few clouds in the sky, and from where we were we could see mountains and smaller hilltops fade into the horizon. With the sun setting, things gave off a beautifully surreal glow and I got the impression that it was all drawn by some skilled hand using only varying mixtures of orange juice and wet earth. I gazed for a few moments.
I thought about my time in Korea. A beautiful little country with beautiful people that I would, sooner or later, have to say goodbye to.
Mr. Yang (양) prompted me to get ready to leave. His smile was warm and constant, and he told me it was time to for dinner. We talked about his family while walking down together – his son had started talking and I was happy for him.
The school staff of fifty or so people sat in rows at a barbeque beef place. With our shoes off we grabbed chopsticks and waited for the plates of raw beef to arrive. Like most of the trip the few female teachers and staff kept to themselves in pockets that were barely entered by men. The farthest I went was to glance every so often at Ms. Kim, who would look me in the eyes right back. My erections became uncomfortable as I sat on the floor with my legs bent, but I stayed where I was until the food came.
When it did the noises from the men got louder. The beef sizzled on the communal grill and shot glasses began to go around. Mr. Choi sat across from me and offered to pour me a shot of soju. I remembered my promise in the back of the bus.
During our three-hour ride he plainly said, “I want to drink with you Alex.”
“Okay.” I chuckled, “We’re gonna get drunk tonight. As soon as we get to the restaurant.”
He smiled, “Cool.”
I let him pour me a shot. Mr. Choi, along with five other teachers, crashed their glasses into mine and said, “Cheers.” They laughed and we all drank. Another round went by, and we all drank again.
Korean drinking etiquette dictates that if someone’s glass is empty it means that they want it filled. Etiquette also dictates that you don’t pour yourself a drink. Lastly, you shouldn’t refuse a drink offered to you by an elder. These three rules combined that night to create a magical phenomenon: no matter how much alcohol I drank, there was always more, seemingly out of nowhere. Aside from soju and makgeolli there was some exotic blackberry drink I had never had. It was delicious, and we “cheers”ed it away.
Soon drinking games began and Me, Mr. Choi, Mr. Kim, and Mr. Shin used Mr. Kim’s smart phone to play craps. Shaking the device rolled some digital dice on the screen and revealed random number. Whoever guessed a number farthest from what they rolled had to drink. Mr. Shin lost four times in a row. The laughter became raucous and in another bit of magic Mr. Shin pulled out a bottle of Bacardi 151. I stared, took a picture, and had him poured me a shot, then another.
As I started to get a little tipsy I looked around the room. Everyone seemed happy as they stuffed themselves, grabbed each other by the shoulders, talked loudly and swung glasses of beer everywhere like Vikings, or stonecutters. In all of this I saw in person what I knew long before coming to Korea. People need other people, but it’s such a hard thing to admit sometimes. For better or for worse, alcohol seems to dissolve those created barriers that separate is from others. When drunk, people expand and contract based on new borders that are constructed anew each second. I don’t think booze is necessary for that to happen, but some need the help.
Feeling not-drunk-yet I walked with the rest of the teachers to the hotel, and laid on my room’s floor, which I shared with two other teachers. I ate the hamburger sitting in my bag in a moment of gluttony and fell asleep.
After the teacher’s meeting the next day, we had a lunch that was a toned down version of the night before – lots of camaraderie, alcohol, and fermented soybean paste soup. After getting stuffed, we got on the bus to go home. Waiting in the back, I saw a few teachers walk in with smiles, and decorated shopping bags. Some sat right next to me as they pulled out bottles of soju that were home-brewed by the restaurant where we ate lunch.
“Very strong.” Mr. Shin tells me as he pumps his fists. “Fifty percent.”
Having no idea what that meant I said, “Wow. Really?”
“Yes. You want?”
I bow my head slightly and tell him I’m okay. “괜찮아요.”
As the bus ride progresses there is more drinking of this very strong soju. It’s being drunk out of paper cups, being mix with beer, and some teachers are dunking tangerine slices into it – something I had never seen, but thought was a novel idea. Mr. Choi offered me a cup, but I politely told him no. The drinking happening at this point was a little less jovial, and most of the other teachers in the bus ignored the increasingly loud sounds coming from the back.
After about an hour and a half, Mr. Seung, a teacher my age who I had never said a word to me inside our school, began to talk to me. He could hardly speak English, and his past-drunk state didn’t help, but he leaned over Mr. Choi to tell me, “Alex… you… you… this great…” He told me more complimentary gibberish, and I nodded. He swung to his right side to talk to some other teachers and Mr. Choi asked me questions about my lesson plan for the next week.
While we talked the driver slamed on the breaks. It was a sudden stop after moving at a high speed and from over Mr. Choi’s shoulder I saw Mr. Seung’s body launched forward from his seat. Like a sped up movie reel I saw everything in slow motion. He was so drunk that his reflexes didn’t kick in and his body remained in the sitting position as he flew through the air from his elevated back seat. He landed on his face in the aisle of the tour bus with a loud thud that surprised everyone. Some laugh. I laugh.
After a second or two, however, we realized that he wasn’t moving. I rushed over to him, and Mr. Choi and me pulled him up. He was bleeding from a nasty gash above his right eye – but he didn’t care. He smiled as we put tissue on it, and as the school nurse applied a gauze patch.
We would wait until we were near enough to take him to a hospital; me and Mr. Choi would get off the bus early and take him to an ER; they would tell him that he needs a specialist with experience in cosmetic surgery.
While waiting to do that, however, I listened to Mr. Seung gush all over me. I smiled and looked into his eyes like he was a baby. He never tried to make conversation with me the day before, but there he was, leaning his head again my shoulder, uttering one English word at a time. He needed me, and though I was completely sober I didn’t mind being there.
“We… you… we brothers. Okay?”
“Yes, we are brothers.”