Hump Day Soju

“Three is good, two, no good,” I said, at once believing myself and wondering why I mentioned how much I like to drink. Stopping in to my surrogate Korean mom’s restaurant so she could cook me my favorite pork cutlet with brown sauce and all the trimmings. I bumped into the bus drivers at my kindergarten. I forgot that they would most certainly ask me to sit down, and that they would even more certainly be drinking soju.

I was recalling my second night in Seoul when I entered a place that the pictures promised fried chicken and beer, aka, a chicken and hof. As I sat down and ordered a giant plate of chicken fingers and a bottle of soju, the locals at the table in the middle of the floor asked me to come join them in recognizable body language.

They proceeded to get me wasted with the soju, not one bottle but maybe two or three. Who can really remember after a few shots? They never took one, but kept filling my glass up. Those tiny clear shots really start to add up after a while.  I ate my whole plate of about 20 chicken tenders and loved every bite.  The man next to me, around 60 years old, kept kissing my cheek and calling me “handsome, James Dean.” My hair was short and slicked back, so I took it as a compliment. He kissed me an inordinate amount of times, but never sexually, and I let it pass as cultural differences. After all, it was my first weekend in the new land.

We had a few great hours talking about god knows what could translate and letting me finish my food and pay and be on my way on a Sunday night. The next morning I woke up about 3 hours before work with that terrible feeling of being hungover, jet-lagged and having to give birth to a food baby. I went back to sleep for a few hours and pulled myself together for a quick meet and greet at my new school. It was not a bad day and I easily made it through.

The hard part was not feeling hungover, that was unavoidable, it was not looking hungover. I didn’t want to give the impression that two days into my stay I had gotten wasted with strangers and come to work expecting to coast. Much of Korea relies on how things look, not so much how they actually are. The touchy-feely couples on the subway who are actually not into each other anymore, the Sunday morning high heels with barely visible band aids. It reminds me of an old saying of any dysfunctional group: “As far as anyone knows, we are a nice, normal family.”

Nevertheless, I made it through the first month. There were two unforgettable hangovers in that month, two wonderful, wandering weekends and two terrible Mondays that I thought would never end. Now, here it is, six months into my contract, I walked into my favorite local haunt, and there are the two elderly gentlemen who drive our kindergarten buses.

I gleaned through my discussions that one is a rich gentleman, and the other fought in the Vietnam War on the American side. He said the Americans used to give him Cutty Sark, and he would give them soju. I can’t picture a worse combination aside from octopus and cloves.  I definitely had no idea America recruited Koreans for Vietnam.  But, here we were, he said something like, “No questions,” which I took to mean, don’t ask me any questions, but could have meant, there are no questions why I went.

I sat down with them, having seen them many times before this day, and never wondered about their life or their ideas. We sat and slowly drank soju as I ate; I asked them if she had good food. They replied, “We order food so we can drink.” The nice old lady who runs the place popped on her helmet as we were dining and dashed off on her motor scooter. Odd, I thought, I’d never seen her do a delivery before. But, she was actually running out to get soju for the guys I was drinking with. They ran out of booze, and she went to the corner store for more. They had asked for a favor, she had indulged, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to drink what my Korean mom went out to get for us.

We talked about why I wasn’t married, how the kindergarten teachers were attractive but hard to talk to, how he was wearing a special tie today with lots of glitter because the parents would all be present today for the kindy graduation. The one who spoke the most English, and was the most pleasant was my Korean co-teacher’s uncle and never seemed that nice before. He was charming. He was so interested in talking to me. I ate my dinner, they paid, and I thought they were walking me home. It turned out, we were headed for a second place to talk and drink soju. I told them I had to go home.

Here I am writing, getting drunker the more I write, as the drink keeps hitting more of my body.  It’s the Hemingway kind of drunk, where things still seem new and exciting.  It’s not the Bukowski kind of drunk where you just finished hitting your wife, and you’re feeling guilty so you drink kind of drunk. I really would have loved to hear more stories, but I know the drunker you get the worse your foreign language gets but the more accessible it is to your mouth. It’s like you have more words, but less grammar, making for a terribly incoherent but verbose rant about nothing. It was a decent Wednesday.