On the Back of a Scooter, Soju in Hand

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On the back of a scooter, soju in hand, we zipped across speed humps over narrow side roads behind buildings on our way to the apartment.

It was the first time I had ever been any substantial distance on a motored bike. I was trying to branch out, meet people, get to know those I’d drank with at Zio Ricco on Wednesdays. Some of them were hanging out at a house on the other side of the Hadaedong district, where I lived. I think they were in the same district. Time blurs the lines a bit.

It was cold, I do remember that. I remember the haze, that constant companion floating under street lights, a dirty mist. Korea being the size it is (really small) with as many people it has (a whole lot) who drive cars (also a lot) and who worship at the temple of technology, it’s easy to see why there would be a slick of pollution to coat everyone and everything.

On the back of a scooter, soju in hand, we zipped across speed humps over narrow side roads behind buildings on our way to the apartment.

It was the first time I had ever been any substantial distance on a motored bike. I was trying to branch out, meet people, get to know those I’d drank with at Zio Ricco on Wednesdays. Some of them were hanging out at a house on the other side of the Hadaedong district, where I lived. I think they were in the same district. Time blurs the lines a bit.

It was cold, I do remember that. I remember the haze, that constant companion floating under street lights, a dirty mist. Korea being the size it is (really small) with as many people it has (a whole lot) who drive cars (also a lot) and who worship at the temple of technology, it’s easy to see why there would be a slick of pollution to coat everyone and everything.

The soju is cheap there. It should be, that’s where it comes from. A sort of watered down vodka, it’s easy to drink, even easier to get a hangover because it’s so easy to drink. Some claim there’s more to it than its easy to drink abilities. Some even say it carries slight hallucinogenic properties like absinthe. Three bucks (3,000 won. Who knows how the currency conversion has changed since 2005) gets you three bottles. That and a pack of Dunhills and I was ready to go.

One of the other teachers, we’ll call him “Elliot” because I honestly cannot remember his name and will likely never, said he’d pick me up from the main road because directing me through the backroads to the apartment could get a bit confusing. I grabbed my booze, my smokes, my coat and headed outside.

Did nature once live in Jinju, South Korea? Of course it did; it lived everywhere at some time or another in history. But, in many parts of this mid-sized city (350,000 is by accounts rather diminutive for South Korea), nature has long since been swept underneath concrete, asphalt and steel. Sure, there’s Jinju Castle, there’s the outskirts, where Bettina and I walked and found ourselves at a roadside restaurant that also had bungee diving from 50 feet up in the backyard. But, in Hadaedong, there were a lot of buildings, a lot of roads, and its own peculiar, mysterious charm. I would like to go back today and explore it thoroughly.

Smoking is hard when you’re freezing, and one hand is holding a paper bag with booze, the other trying to keep its grip on the cigarette. Shivering most of the way, I passed by the “toastie” place, the little fast food restaurant that makes sweet tasting egg sandwiches on white toast. I remember sitting inside the small, white, plastic-y eatery while the kind middle-aged woman made my sandwich, her husband offering up a bit of small talk in what little English he could muster. I returned the courtesy with as much Korean as I could muster, which wasn’t much. The circular heater, resembling an oscillating fan with a heating coil in place of a fan blade, buzzed and whirred heat onto its recipients, myself, the husband, the woman and their teenage child. Most people went up to the window on the side of the restaurant to order their sandwiches.

I passed by the bike shop, where I’d paid $60 (60,000 won) for a pretty nice bike. It was a bit heavy, certainly a lot heavier than what I had rode back in the States, but it was solid, and certainly good enough to transport me and Estevez on a great trip around Jinju, which led us to Shinandong, the movie theater, and a viewing of War of the Worlds that rattled my already tenuously hinged brain.

Getting to the intersection for the main road that sliced through this part of Jinju and over the bridge to parts unknown took only about five minutes. Nothing else besides those two businesses really interested me. There was the school I taught at, the high school adjacent to it, the P.C. Bang at the end of the road, the bread shop next to it, and the chicken place that sold, like every other chicken place, significantly overpriced food, but the rest of the unnamed road was relatively uninteresting. At least that’s how I perceived it at the time.

I crossed the highway and walked into the light of a Hyundai-operated gas station, waiting for a few minutes before “Elliot” puttered up on his scooter. I hopped on, clutched my soju in one hand, his waist in the other as we sped off on my first motored bike ride over narrow roads behind buildings, on our way to the apartment.

~ originally written July 4, 2007; revised Dec. 19, 2009

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We arrived at the apartment.

I had attempted to consume as much information as possible about Korea before I left the States. One thing that had continuously come up in travel guides, blog entries and other forms on Internet information was that, like Japan and other modern Asian countries, space was at a premium. There wasn’t a one-child limit in Korea like there is in Japan (is it? Or is it China? And is there a limit in Korea that I am not aware of? I don’t think so), but there were cars driving both ways on roads smaller than one-ways in the United States, and by all accounts my second-floor loft was a pretty nice size. But, here was an apartment fit for a king, or, at least, three western English teachers. Multiple bathrooms, multiple rooms, multiple floors?! It would not be until I visited Patrick and Sarah’s apartment soon after in Shinandong that I thought this to be a rarity among rarities in South Korea. It’s still probably rare.

I met a man at this little gathering who, for all my memories, did not seem a bad sort. I remember him being tall, somewhat handsome in a sun-bleached blond bum kind of look. Ladies seemed to like him for his easygoing personality. But, if you asked me to point him out in the perp walk, the man would go free. And yet, it was on this night a seed in my mind would be planted where, for some reason, I would not like him and I would for some reason think he was horning in on my attempt at forgetting home, forgetting R., and forgetting about trying to make a break for it, a midnight run, out of South Korea.

One night — it could have been that night, I don’t remember hanging out with that group all that much during my brief stay there, a group of us went out for a late night noraebang session. Most of us were pretty loaded, loud, uncouth foreigners. We love Korea’s odd singing rooms, we do.

I loved them. It had only been about a year since Margaux had convinced me, at some lame hotel bar in Maryland, to just get up and sing karaoke. Who cared? What did it matter? I was in a bar in Maryland surrounded by drunks. Why should I be embarrassed? I sang Dave Matthews Band’s “The Space Between” and the rest was history.

On this night in Jinju, South Korea, my song would be HIM’s “The Funeral of Hearts.” I was very fond of goth metal at this point, and still to this day, HIM’s “Killing Loneliness” can take me back to South Korea because I played it so damn much while I was there. Four years later, it never fails.

I picked the song and, when it came up to my turn, began to sing. I think I have a pretty decent voice and, being as drunk and sensitive as I was, thought the ladies in the room would agree. “Isn’t he so sensitive? And such a good singer! Let us welcome him into our group. Let’s make his stay in this foreign country more agreeable!”

No one paid attention. Everyone was paying attention to that sun-bleached dude. Were they? Was he even there? Was he out of the room, taking a leak? Were they not paying attention to him but flipping through the song book? Working on some dried squid and a can of Hite? My memory tells me I was being ignored. I know it’s pretty false; everything else about that night I remember, have written about or have not written about, is just a series of snapshots held so tenuously together by suggestions or outright fabrications, if someone were to question whether or not I was even in the room, I would not argue too deliberately against them.

My song finished and, for some reason, I stepped outside. I think we were waiting for someone and I volunteered to stand in the drizzling rain for them because, as anyone who has been to Korea knows, addresses are pretty hard to come by there. Plus, my fragile ego needed a moment alone. I smoked my Dunhill’s or Esse’s, thinking about the sleight I had received. How could they possibly not notice my talent? Could someone just please give me a reason to stay in this goddamn country, please?

The rain bouncing off the gray buildings on this downtown Jinju side road lent the scene a rather eerie quality. It’s a shame I was so inside my head to mark it at the time. It’s a shame I didn’t try to get to know those people more. I’m sure the sun-bleached hair dude was not a bad guy. Not that I could have possibly noticed.



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