The Bohemian Experiment

The Kimchi Chronicles (Volume III: Happy Hour in Hades)

Posted by beckert10 on January 27, 2010

The smell on the 63-1 bus is a distinctly Korean blend of booze, garlic breath, fresh ginger and grooming products. I get a text message from Seth asking where I am. As I type my reply the old woman sitting next to me looks on out of the corner of her eye with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. To her, it must be strange enough to witness the advent of hand- held electronics. That a foreigner is using one next to her on the bus in a post Hermit Kingdom Korea must indeed hearken the dawn of a 21st century Bizarro world. Still, at least she chose to sit next to me. Many Koreans will opt to stand for the entire route rather than share a seat with a foreigner who is almost certainly an STD riddled criminal.

A bell tones and an automated woman’s voice announces my stop. I muscle my way down the packed aisle and towards the doors. As I swipe my transit card on an electronic reader the same female drone says, “Kamsahamnida,” which means “thank you” in Korean. I grip the hand rail tightly not so much to steady myself on the moving vehicle, but to hold my ground against other passengers. A man bashes into me as he reaches to scan his card. An old lady cuts in front of me, her elbow landing dangerously close to my groin. The pressing bodies leave me in a compromising position, my face mere centimeters from a fat boil on somebody’s neck and what I hope is the edge of a parcel pinned against my anus.
The doors open and the clump of bodies spills out onto the street. Again I am pushed, elbowed and generally treated like I don’t exist. I keep my head down and absorb the blows for a few blocks until I’m able to dart down a side street and escape the jostling madness of the main avenue.
When I first arrived in Korea I was astounded by the lack of courtesy I received in public places. The way people shoved and cut made even notoriously rude New Yorkers seem downright chivalrous. For a while I held to the belief that I was treated like this because I’m foreign, but after a couple of months it became obvious that Koreans treat each other in a similar manner. This led to further hypotheses such as the passionate but un-empirical “Koreans are rude savages” and the more plausible “Densely populated urban areas lead to a reduced standard of personal space.”
Nowadays I’ve given up trying to explain the phenomenon. It has, like many other things, just become part of my daily life in Korea. As I cross a pedestrian bridge and come upon a circus of neon lights that marks the bars, shops and restaurants in this part of town, I’m reminded of my arrival here, when the busy streets were incomprehensible. Now, watching drunk men hold hands on the front steps of a business is normal. Young guys with Rod Stewart-esque feathered mullets and tight fitting clothes are commonplace. Cauliflower decoratively planted in pots doesn’t earn a second look, nor do tanks outside of a restaurant full of live eels, squid and writhing fish that look like penises. The occasional whiff of raw sewage is mundane.
It no longer shocks me to walk down a street such as this one where side by side, vendors sell vegetables and bootleg DVDs, a monk asks for donations and a pushy housewife tries to convert you to Christianity, where one story homes with pagoda roofs lie in the shadow of a fifty-story glass high-rise. It’s safe to say that after living here for nearly six months, the sensory-overload bazaar of juxtapositions that is Korea fails to get my attention.
Well, almost.
An elderly woman squats on the sidewalk unpacking vegetables from boxes and laying them out for sale on a blanket. A young boy, presumably her grandson, says something to her. She points towards some low-lying bushes. He steps behind them, pulls down his pants and craps. The woman wipes him clean with a napkin and goes right back to sorting her goods.
Scenes such as this are a firm reminder that while Korea has come to feel like home, it still has the ability to leave me thinking “Where am I?”

I ignore Seth’s second and third text messages and proceed towards our meeting point. I cross a pedestrian bridge that spans a busy road and step into a public square with some benches and small trees. Seth’s unmistakably loud voice is audible even amidst the bustle of Seoul on a Friday night. I make my way towards it and see him sitting on a bench, surrounded by Korean men in suits. They cheer him on as he tips back a can of beer, chugs the contents and throws it down with a resounding belch.
“Good, good!” some of them say.
This explains his excessive texting. While Koreans err on the side of xenophobia and can be notoriously stand-offish towards foreigners, those with a few rounds in them demonstrate there is also an intense desire to get to know us, to put a human touch to the foreign language and culture that has inundated their homeland. Once you get on a Korean’s good side there is seemingly no limit to their generosity and eagerness to give you an authentic Korean experience. While this is a welcome respite from the many grouchy, mistrustful glares we foreigners receive, it can be too much at times. Seth is surrounded. For some reason, Korean men are almost unnaturally attracted to his flowing, curly mane, stubble-lined face and boisterousness. He seems to be some kind of forbidden fruit for them.
I hang back a bit, watching the scene for my own amusement. One of the Koreans offers to call a taxi and take Seth downtown. Such a proposition is always tempting although ultimately ill-fated. Everything will be paid for, right down to a late-night round at one of the claw-grab machines that dot nearly every street corner, but will hardly seem worth it when waking up deliriously hung-over on the floor of a love motel surrounded by liquor bottles and snoozing men still wearing their suits. Koreans drink with what can only be described as reckless abandon. I’ve seen grown men fall flat on their faces, vomit, and crawl across busy intersections after a night out. When they get down to business (which generally happens 3-5 times a week) it makes the excesses of a frat party look like a Boy Scout fundraiser.
A man grabs Seth by the arm and tries to pull him towards the street. At this point I step in and rescue him from his over-eager assailants. The sight of a second foreigner leaves the group momentarily speechless.
“Quickly, let’s go.” I say.
He leaps up and follows after me into the maze of buildings, saying over his shoulder, “Sorry, thank you,” to his would-be friends.
“Jesus dude, what took you so long?” he says.
“You ungrateful bastard.” I say. “You were one beer away from giving in. You’re lucky I came when I did.”
He doesn’t argue.

We walk another five minutes in silence until we’re outside of the building that houses YES Bar. It is the local foreigner hangout…an island of westernness among a sea of Korean. On a Friday or Saturday night this is where the expats gather to drink, converse, shoot pool and try their best to feel as if they are not impossibly far from home.
We climb up the stairs and out of the neon-lit bazaar. We push through the entrance side of the double glass doors into the dimly lit, smoky confines of YES. Mrs. K, the owner and bartender, gives us a broad smile. She’s a kind, decent woman and I can’t help but feel a bit bad that she’s fallen into the trap of catering to debaucherous foreigners.
“Hello, boys. What’ll you have?”
“A couple of beers, Mrs. K.” I say.
She pours out two pints and slips them to us at the corner of the bar with a wink.
Seth and I stake out a booth near a window and settle in with our beers. 9:30 is still a subdued hour at YES Bar but in a little while it will be standing room only, packed wall to wall with foreigners downing pitchers of flat, flavorless Korean beer. YES on a Friday night has the vibe of a saloon in purgatory where it’s difficult to say whether the person sitting across from you is a mad saint or a maniacal fiend. Every time I come here I end up talking to somebody who is unfit not only to teach children, but to hold a post higher than town drunk. Indeed, it seems that many who come to Korea do so because they never quite fit in at home. It takes a certain type to willingly pack up their life and ship it halfway around the world… the type that doesn’t have much to lose…and those without much to lose can be very dangerous.
Combined with Korea’s lax standards for prospective English teachers, it all adds up to an influx of shady characters. They are a dirty little secret of the English teaching business in Korea. While the government has taken preventive measures such as requiring a background check and a drug test, this does little more than deter outright criminals. There is still a significant proportion of teachers that are just cracked eggs. They may not have a rap sheet or dirty piss, they may have a university degree and be native English speakers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t alcoholics who live with their parents or part-time chicken farm security guards who whack off to vampire porn. True, anywhere you go there are likely to be folks harboring freakish tendencies, but there’s something about the cathartic anonymity of this small Asian peninsula that attracts such people in bulk. Far from home, free from the burdens of reputation and habitualness, people can be whoever they want. For some, this means a whole new crowd to frighten. For others, it is a chance to start over.
Take Seth, for example, who got the hell out of Dodge because of heroin addiction. He thought he’d never be able to kick the habit if he remained surrounded by a network of pushers and users. Moving 6000 miles away took him out of that trap. By contrast, binge-drinking and legal stimulant abuse is living the clean life.
I look around the bar and see more of these damaged denizens. There’s my other co-worker, Joe, a black, gay man from Mississippi. It goes without saying he didn’t feel comfortable coming out in the former Confederacy. Now in Seoul, he’s not only out of the closet, but apparently on a mission to suck every cock in the city. There’s Steve, the paranoid Kiwi who once smashed a man in the face with a mug of beer and bit off a piece of his ear because he thought he was talking about him. (He wasn’t) Randy, a near-midget Carolinian of Armenian descent, regularly gets so drunk he shouts obscene comments, pisses himself and falls off the bar stool (not necessarily in that order). Laura from South Africa is a pathological liar who makes outrageous claims such as, “Nelson Mandela is a personal friend of mine.” (No he isn’t…shut the fuck up.) Then there’s Rick, a seven-foot Aussie who talks almost exclusively about how his life is in danger because of the bizarre conspiracy he’s uncovered in the Australian government involving dike cops, rigged slot machines and prostitution rings (I usually stop listening around the time he claims he’s the only man in the world to be formally accused of thoughtcrime).
Of course, it’s unfair to generalize about all of the foreigners here. I’ve met people who are quite normal and probably aren’t seeking an escape across the Pacific. For every nut job there’s somebody who came to pay back student loans or save for grad school. Others, such as myself, have ambitions of world travel and adventure. A few are devoted educators who genuinely love teaching. Many just want to try something different.
However, I’ve had enough run-ins with unstable foreigners here to make me wary of even the most unassuming person. If one isn’t vigilant they can end up in the company of some desperate freak who will drag you into their sordid personal universe. The musk of these wounded animals is thick in here. Strange vibrations abound…there is a hint of danger…yes… one must tread carefully in this place…

Read: Part IV: The End of The Beginning

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11 Responses to “The Kimchi Chronicles (Volume III: Happy Hour in Hades)”

  1. Yeah, we all eventually give up explaining why Koreans are the way they are… An old saying goes, “Trying to explain why a Korean does ANYTHING is a pointless endeavour.”

    I’ve met a few weird foreigners, but most of them are simply total losers. Real social misfits – not dangerous, but just backward. They fit in the best, I think.

    • beckert10 said

      yeah, I think that there was something special going on near my first school…a disproportionate amount of psychos… but in general, I’ve found the percentage of weirdos in Korea is off the charts.

  2. Nate from South Korea said

    You posted this blurb on couchsurfing and got some negative feedback, but I rather enjoyed reading the article because you are an entertaining writer. Also you compared Koreans vs. foreigners – I like that.

    So, your six months in and that’s the impression you have… Seoul – yeah that’s about right, but the rest of Korea meaning even just outside of Seoul is no where near this description. I formulated a lot of negative opinions about Korea my first year here but I started learning Korean and when they found out I could speak and understand what was going on I got a lot more respect.

    and yeah, there are a lot of misfits here, but there are a lot of decent expats as well. I’m sure youve met the decent people by now…

    • beckert10 said

      It’s good to hear from somebody else that I’m not a racist monster. I did write this to be entertaining and some people seemed to take it way too seriously. yeah, I did some generalizing, but it’s not as if I totally distorted the truth.
      I know there is more to Korea than Seoul, even though it is a fairly uniform country. I have indeed met many very cool expats. Perhaps I will continue this series if only because it has gotten so much attention, both good and bad. Thanks for reading.

  3. Kevin said

    My problem with the essay is contrary to what some others have said, I don’t think it’s particularly well-written. Okay, sure, your grammar is fine. But it’s not good writing. It’s a bunch of gross generalizations packed in a mundanely simple and derivative narrative.

    In describing ‘this strange foreign’ land the narrator is doing a “Gorillas in the Mist” type report, but amazingly without any sense of irony. It’s like it’s modeled after Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad”, but lacking the sense of humor and observational powers. You shouldn’t be surprised to learn people don’t take well to their actions being described with the same type of grouping of motivations as simpler animals.

    There is no denying the narrator himself has a very superior attitude. You can easily know this because he reduces every other person mentioned to some horrible aspect — imagined or not. Many people have said how it can be seen as offensive to Koreans, but it’s no lighter on English teachers that come to Korea. Apparently almost every single one has come here only for horrific reasons. Well, except for the narrator himself.

    And To call him the “hero” of the story is maybe the only hint of irony here, he’s not even developed enough to be an anti-hero. And that’s the main problem for me. The protagonist and his friend are mere caricatures. The rest of the Koreans and English teachers mentioned aren’t even developed enough to be that. The essay as a whole is lacking nuance.

    The beginning is the best part, I wonder if more time was spent on that. It begins as an exploration of the narrator’s view and the development of his views to Korea. Unfortunately, he quickly gains certainty in that viewpoint and every other from there onward, and the tone is cynically judgmental and yes, as someone said earlier, ethnocentric. And yet I doubt if the narrator would really even understand his own culture.

    [/end literary snobbery]

    • beckert10 said

      That is quite a bit of snobbery, indeed, though not totally inaccurate, I admit.
      You mention Mark Twain’s book, which is over 600 pages. My series of essays is 10,000 words, which does not allow for much nuance. I tried to summarize my whole Korean experience into about 25 pages, which I think I’ve done with some success. Yes, I have generalized and created caricatures, but was forced to by the brevity of this piece in relation to the scope of subject matter. Given the length of the narrative, I had to make some very hard choices. I made what I thought were good choices. Some people would disagree with that.
      My goal was to show the experience of Korea, not myself or those around me. I developed characters enough to move the plot along. They were a means to an end, and not an end in themselves. This was never intended to be a character-based piece.
      OK, so I felt a little need to defend myself, but not too much. I’ve heard from some people that it’s great writing, entertaining, accurate, and from others the near opposite. As I writer I can’t be swayed too much by peoples’ reactions; I must make my own decisions.
      To be fair, the wealth of potential descriptions deserves a much larger body of work in which many different characters can be developed, thus strengthening the piece. Maybe some day I’ll get around to it; maybe not.
      Thanks for replying. Cheers.

  4. Kevin said

    IMHO, in most good literature the author doesn’t describe what he’s describing. Hemingway said that when we talk too much of the thing, we kill it. That is to say you can write just as effectively in short pieces as in longer form, it just (arguably) takes a more skillful approach. Leave things in the margin, omit certain things, but make sure they are still there. (The Iceberg Principle and the Theory of Omission are his relevant ideas.)

    I myself am doing a great simplification now, but I would say if you want to elevate your writing, start by describing a setting by describing the characters, and their action/reaction/interaction. Describe characters by describing their setting. In fact, you have done this last part to some extent, and that is why I have a low opinion of your ‘hero’.

    (BTW, while “The Innocents Abroad” is hundreds of pages, it spans Twain crossing the ocean doing a Great Tour (France & Italy) and a pilgrimage to the holy land. It might be helpful if you’ll read just a few chapters. Generally, the chapters are short and cover just one stop on the trip, much how you’re attempting to do Korea (or just Seoul?) in 25 pages)

    Also, I feel some need to mention that it is said that traditionally it is important to Koreans to humble oneself. If your narrator ever had a sense of humility, it would do much to ingratiate him with the reader. Remember that people don’t likes characters with hubris until their cathartic moment. However I don’t think this will be a tragedy, so you needn’t take it so far.

    • beckert10 said

      I do find it useful to take lessons from the masters while honing one’s own, unique style. I will have a look through “The Innocents”. It is best, when possible, to show vs. tell, and admittedly I have talked my way through much of this piece.
      I’ve taken away some good and some bad from the feedback. It is indeed why I wrote The Chronicles…I suppose why any writer writes, because while it is a very private process, the fruits of one’s labor always long for the public eye. It is best to not be overly swayed by readers’ comments, but there is always something to take away from them because ultimately, one is always writing for other people, no matter how personal the motivation to write.
      Are you, yourself, a writer? You seem to know something of the craft. Send me some links, if you have anything.

  5. EvilLikeNoOther said

    You got quite a bit of backlash and a warning on CS. This is on point and very honest about some of the more grim days in Korea. Awesome!

  6. mel said

    It’s writing. It’s a version not too far off a version most in your situation share or can admit too experiencing if only can admit to themselves. I’m happy to see a male version (fairly close to my own while there- which I get critisized for speaking up about. But my defense, If I absolutely hated the place I wouldn’t of stayed, but I wasn’t blind, take the good with the bad). Keep up the good work, even if not on this topic.

  7. Howie said

    Wonderful stuff; funny and informative. Keep it coming!

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