The Bohemian Experiment

The Kimchi Chronicles (Volume IV: The End of The Beginning)

Posted by beckert10 on February 3, 2010

(New Readers: Start at Volume I)

By about 10:30 the bar begins to fill up.  As patrons file in and gather with their friends I’m reminded of how cliquey the expatriate community is in Korea.  Upon my arrival here I expected all foreigners would share instant rapport because of our common experience.  Rather, I found many of them went out of their way to avoid looking at me when we passed on the street.  Even on a Friday night with the liquor flowing freely, not many stray from their small group of friends.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that most people who take the plunge into Korea gain a certain pride from their bold endeavor.  Their egos are further boosted by the fact that many are treated like local celebrities in their neighborhood.  Even though much of the attention from Koreans is akin to the ogling of a deformed midget at a county fair, it is abundant nonetheless.  There is a slightly uneasy truce at expat gathering places such as YES Bar because we serve as proof to each other that we’re not as unique as we’d like to think.  Here, we’re just another foreigner who ended up in Korea.
The second reason for coteries is that the friendships one makes here tend to be very strong.  Korea can at times feel very unwelcoming to a foreigner.  Seoul in particular tends to feel like one sprawling, polluted megalopolis of towering concrete structures, snarled traffic and scant nature, from which the only escape is a boxy, cramped, smoky establishment filled with locals you can’t meaningfully connect with.  Fellow expats are a buttress against the loneliness Korea can inspire.  They become symbols of a more familiar and humane world.  Without them, life here would be unbearably forlorn.
Your friends are also a support group.  It’s typical for one’s feelings about Korea to swing wildly up and down.  You might wake up Monday with fresh eyes and walk around with a newfound curiosity in the minutiae of this little country.  By Tuesday, nothing short of you standing atop a pile of Korean corpses, pointing an automatic weapon skyward with a barbaric scream, will bring relief.  On days like this your friends here are a lifeline.  Nobody at home knows the despair of an anti-Korea kick.  Only a fellow soldier on the battlefield can relate.  They lay next to you in the foxhole and say, “Don’t worry we’ll get out of this alive!”  When it seems there is no coming back from the dark side, they can pull you towards the light.  For this we love them profoundly and are forever grateful.
Meeting up with a friend from Korea after you’ve left there is like a reunion between two war veterans.  Even if it’s been years and your lives have gone in completely different directions, you’ll always have Korea.  We talk about our time there with a verisimilitude that isn’t possible with people who never went over.  Only with each other can we authentically recall the madness.  Reunited on the other side, we know how sweet and precious freedom is.

It’s now past eleven and YES is reaching capacity.  People fight for a spot at the bar and pack into the remaining booth space.  I slide in and make room for James, a Canadian with a sleazy-looking goatee and a t-shirt that’s too small for him.  I don’t particularly care for the guy.
He leans in and says in a half-whisper, “I’ve got something you boys might be interested in.”
He’s the closest thing there is to a pusher-man in Seoul.  He knows some Nigerians in the city who can get him weed.
“I don’t want any more of your over-priced, shitty dope.” I say.
“Ahh, I’ll do you one better tonight.” he says.
“What’ve you got, blow?  I don’t even want to know what that costs.  I’ll just con the doctor out of adderol.” says Seth.
James has a smug little grin.  “Boys, boys, boys, your lack of faith disappoints me.  Trust me when I say this is an exclusive.”
“Alright alright out with it.  What’ve you got?” says Seth
“What I’ve got is LSD.” He draws the three letters out dramatically.
Seth and I look at each other.  James sits back, his smug grin widening.
“No way you’ve got acid.” I say.
“Oh, it wasn’t easy to get, but I’ve got it.”
“Forget it, I don’t want any.  This country makes it feel like I’m tripping as it is.  You go out onto the streets with a head full of that stuff…you’re done for.” I say.
“How much?” says Seth.
“15 apiece…3 for 40.
“Let’s see it.”
James takes little squares of paper out of his wallet.
Seth hands him 50,000 won and says, “Gimme 4.”
James pretends to weigh it in his mind and then obliges.  He stands up.
“You sure nothing for you?” he asks me.
“I’m very sure.” I say.
“Well then, boys, I’ve got business to attend to.  Cheers.”
He says something to the girls at the next table then plunks down and begins his same pseudo-hustler act.
“Come on man, do it with me.” says Seth.
“No way.  Not a chance.”
He shrugs and digs a hit out of its wrapper.
“Bombs away.” he says and presses the square to his tongue.
I see James hand something to the girls.  In about an hour this place is going to be a hive of twisted foreigners.  Things could get ugly.
“Oh my god!  Hi!  I haven’t seen you in so long, honey!”
Heather, a tall slender blonde, plops down next to Seth.  She would be sexy if not for the desperate availability she exudes.  At one point or another she’s thrown herself at pretty much every guy in the place.  It appears tonight is Seth’s turn.  I use their conversation as an excuse to get up and move around.  I walk up to the bar and order a beer.  British Dave is sitting at the far right end with his customary bottle of wine.  I squeeze in next to him.  He’s bald and very serious.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the man smile.  He sits at this spot every Friday night with his overpriced merlot like some brooding aristocrat.  Without any salutation he launches into one of his somber observations.
“Alcohol is a shit drug when you think about it.  I mean, what does it do for you, really?”
“Well, for starters, it brings us all together in this fine establishment.” I say.
“Precisely.” he says.  “It’s a crutch.”
“Do explain.”
“Why can’t people get together and enjoy each others’ company without being totally inebriated?  Most of us are anxious creatures with low self esteem.  We need alcohol to loosen up and be ourselves.”
“What’s your crutch?” I say.  “Your undying faith in mankind?”
“Pessimism is certainly a crutch of mine.” he says.  “Believing that nothing will turn out well releases me from the mental angst of not trying to do good.”
“So you’re defining a crutch in the same way Marx described religion as an opiate.” I say.
“Yes, only on a nuanced, personal level.  Religion is certainly a crutch for many, but atheism could just as well be.  Any belief or practice can become a crutch.  Us weak sentients all need something to lean on.”
“It’s commentary like that that keeps me coming back.” I say.  “I’m a glutton for your stoicism.  But listen, if you want a better drug, James has some acid.”
“Are you mad?  Take that stuff in this country?  I’ve got a crutch right here, thank you.” he says, patting his bottle.  “I don’t need a bloody wheelchair.”
“I’m with you there.” I say.  “Listen, I have to rock a piss.  I’ll talk to you later.”
As usual, the stall is filled with vomit and there’s a long line for the urinal.  I duck outside into an alley to take care of business. It’s nice to have relief from the stifling interior of YES so I decide to have a couple of beers outside of a convenience store.  I watch each person who passes and wonder what they would say their crutch is.  An hour and three empty cans later I get a text message from Seth asking where I am and I head back upstairs.  Stepping through the glass door, I walk right into the belly of the beast.    The music has been cranked to about 100 decibels and googly-eyed foreigners dance with a fluidity that is only possible on drugs.  Several of them cling to pitchers of beer that slosh and spill with the rhythm of their bodies.   Mrs. K looks on from behind the bar with concern.  Though she has witnessed many booze-soaked nights through the years, nothing could have prepared her for an LSD bash.
I scan around for Seth.  I spy him at the back of the bar staring straight ahead.  I navigate through the maze of people toward him.  One girl crawls across a table cackling and knocking over empty bottles and glasses.  People huddle together in booths, their eyes shifting furtively, speaking in drug-induced vernacular.  I see James and he gives me the thumbs up, as if he’s taking all of the credit for the scene.
I can tell by Seth’s face he’s in trouble.  His journal lies open in front of him with cryptic marks scrawled in it.
“How are you feeling buddy?” I say.
“My cricket stump…my bloody cricket stump…” he says, trailing off.
Heather dances up and puts an arm around him.
“Hey…you gonna come dance with me or what?  If you want to get with this, you have to dance.” she says, gyrating suggestively towards the impromptu dance floor.
“The pussy…I know I need to get the pussy but…”
The thought of sex while under the influence of psychedelics is horrifying.  I’ve got to get him out of here.
I look over at the bar and see Dave is still sitting in his spot.
“I’m not fucked up enough to appreciate this and my buddy needs to get out.  You want to come?” I say.
“Yes.” he says.  “Where shall we go?”
“My place is close by.  Let’s grab some drinks and head there.”
We agree to meet outside of a shop near my apartment.  I go back to Seth and try to coax him into leaving.  He remains glued to his spot, his eyes darting around like a cornered animal.  I order him to listen to Johnny Cash on my iPod.  The soothing baritone calms him and he follows me out.  I drop him off at his place with an ample supply of beer and Disney films.  The booze and G-rated plot lines should safeguard him against any overwhelming terror.
From there I go to meet Dave outside of Family Mart.  We stock up on beer and soju and proceed to my apartment.  Inside, I put on some tunes and begin to roll a couple of cigarettes from a pouch of Drum tobacco.  Dave mixes up some soju cocktails in the kitchen.
“What a scene at the bar, huh?” I say.  “I’m really glad I decided not to go that route.  I probably would have ended up like poor Seth.”Dave offers a slow, “Mmmmm” in reply.
I hear him approaching from behind and turn around, expecting my drink.  Instead, what I find is Dave’s pants around his ankles.  His partially engorged cock is mere inches from my face.  It is large.  It is uncircumcised.
For a few seconds I’m too stunned to react.  After the initial shock wears off I calmly tell him to pull up his pants.  We remain where we are in awkward silence.  I break it by asking,
“What the hell was that about?”
“I was hoping we could…you know…well, that we were going to fuck each other tonight.” he says.
“Why?” I ask.  “What possible hint of that was there?”
“Just I thought…it seemed to be leading that way.”
It seems that propositioning men for random gay sex is another crutch of his.
Something about having a near-stranger’s penis in my face causes me to question the direction of my life.  I consider the strange existence I lead here in this ugly, barren city… surrounded by capricious foreigners…misunderstood by the natives…trying to teach my native language to people who botch it so badly I’ve come to question my own ability to tell good English from bad.  The truth is, I don’t really want to be in Korea anymore.  It is such a unique, particular niche of humanity that it’s nearly impossible for a non-native to fully assimilate.   On good days Korea is quirky, vibrant and strangely fascinating …you feel like a tenderfoot Luke Skywalker in the Mos Eisely Cantina.  But on bad days Korea is a misanthropic film noir set fifty years in the future where human drones eke out a shadow of happiness through digital entertainment and alcoholism.
I came here wanting adventure; something fresh and unfamiliar.  My first six months here have certainly provided that.  It’s been like an extended viewing of Cirque du Soleil: uncommonly entertaining; hallucinogenic, even.  There have been incredibly fun, unforgettable moments.  I’ve become more tolerant and understanding of other cultures and made great friends from around the world.
Despite these upsides, at this point Korea is mostly something I just tolerate.  The entire country could be razed to the ground and as long as I got my final paycheck I wouldn’t really care.  And yet, I’ve already considered extending my contract.   Many foreigners agree that living here is a bit soulless and teaching English is unfulfilling, but a good portion of them stay on for a second or third year…some beyond that.   It’s the Korea trap.  The schedule is great and the pay and benefits good enough that it makes it difficult to realistically consider teaching in a different country, or to return home and enter the rat race again.
But every teacher knows that ultimately, Korea is a dead end gig.  Upward mobility in this business comes in the form of incremental pay raise and moving from field slave to house slave status.  You will always be regarded as a foreigner and therefore, a second class citizen.
While some may go on to make a career out of teaching English, nobody wants to end up doing it here for the rest of their lives.  Anyone who says they do is mentally ill and should not only be disregarded, but sterilized as well.  A teacher that stays on more than a few years in Korea has the sad air of a boxer past their prime who slogs through the doldrums of an amateur circuit.
Yet as certain as I am that there is no future for me here, I also know that I’m not quite ready to leave.  Korea supports me through these years of itinerant restlessness.  It props me up during this quarter-life, ruminative odyssey.  A crutch…a trap…as far as I’m concerned Korea is both of these things.  I accept it because the alternative is starting over again in another country or going home and settling into a more permanent career.  The former holds no promise of being a place I like any more than Korea, while the latter is something I’m just not ready to be ensnared by yet.  For now, I’m fine to limp along in Korea, which sucks, but at least is dispensed in 12 month intervals of suckiness that I’ll someday walk away from without an ounce of regret.  Someday, I will live in a place I’m truly connected to and make a living doing something I really care about.  Someday, I will be off the one year installment plan and locked into something serious; something real.

Someday…a crutch if ever there was one.   For all I know I’ll be sitting in YES Bar ten years from now, eyeing a fresh female recruit over a mug of piss Korean beer.  I’ll make my move and she’ll sense my desperation…that I’m a creepy older guy who’s been here for too long.  On the defeated walk home I will get a text message from Jean, who is still my boss and still speaks horrendous English.  Unable to take another day of this life, I’ll throw myself off of an overpass.  The next morning thousands of Koreans will read the headline, and while they may be a bit disappointed that the foreign suicide victim isn’t black, overall they’ll feel a bit better knowing that there’s one less drug-using carrier of homosexuality in their country.

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8 Responses to “The Kimchi Chronicles (Volume IV: The End of The Beginning)”

  1. beatdomdavid said

    Your first paragraph is more like an essay than the rest… I like it, though. You nail something that most people in Korea don’t talk about.

    As for the LSD… I’ve never seen that on sale in Korea, but I’ve heard a thing or two.

  2. Crashey Mc P said

    oh. my god. THAT night. you’ve done an amazing job at summing up the big picture, but in a very specific and relatable way. (but maybe that’s just because i was a fellow soldier). anyway, it’s excellent. love the sad boxer analogy…

  3. Alex said

    Absolutely Fantastic. More please!

    • beckert10 said

      Thanks, Alex. I don’t know if there will be any more Kimchi Chronicles. It’s been fun but time now to move on and do other things. As much as there is to say about Korea I have much more to say about many other topics…but thanks again for the support.

  4. Stacy said

    Hey — fantastic. loved the chron. Looking forward to what (and where?) you move on to next.

  5. Gary said

    Yo B,
    Interesting night. Is it bad that I recognize these people? Especially that creepy old guy eyeing the young teachers…;)
    I saw some comedian do a sketch about the old guy at the singles bar and decided that wasn’t going to be me. there are those who left the ratrace in the west to relax also. Aspire to the UNI job.
    the Ok Buddha

  6. rantingcynic said

    Nice, I really like this.

  7. Howie said

    “Something about having a near-stranger’s penis in my face causes me to question the direction of my life”. Exquisite! How funny is that? The four chronicles were a fast and great read. Keep it up as you travel the world. I’ve learned stuff about Korea I never knew! In my day it was traveling the country; your generation travels the world. Keep us posted where your next writing takes you.

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