Posts Tagged Soju

Extreme River Crossing

Early in the summer I went on an “extreme hiking” trip with a cool group of coworkers. Well, it was supposed to be extreme hiking. The only extreme thing about it was the extremely bad judgment of our tour guide, and the drinking later on that night.

After work on a muggy Friday night, eleven of us (all foreign teachers) take the KTX  to Busan. We arrive in Busan close to 1 am. The bus is leaving for the hiking expedition the next morning at 9 am, so we decide to try to find a place to stay near the bus station to play it safe.

Standing outside of the bus station weighing which direction might lead to suitable accommodations for the evening, an affable Korean guy approaches and is quick to make conversation. Many English-speaking Koreans have an English name. I have a Korean name that I almost never use. After answering five multiple-choice questions Facebook crowned me with the Korean name Lee Dong Yeol, meaning “eastern passion.”  I never truly appreciated the prevalence of the English language until actually going to another part of the world.  With that said, I prefer to learn someone’s real name, even if I butcher the pronunciation. Maybe they feel differently. At any rate, he is called Johnny.

Johnny is ostensibly inebriated, yet composed. He wants to help us find decent, affordable lodging because when he was studying abroad many Aussies helped him along the way. We go from one hotel to another as Johnny negotiates for the eleven of us. Things heat up when Johnny  is talking to the owner of a motel. Johnny feels we are getting a raw deal and expresses his discontent with the middle-aged owner. Eventually we find a place that costs $10 per person which Johnny is okay with. Our room doesn’t have any beds. It is a traditional room with floor mats, an AC and a bathroom –  its ten dollars. We go to a chicken & beer restaurant until 4 am.

In Korea I find many people to be helpful, especially the younger crowd. The most sound explanation is that they are more comfortable communicating, speaking English. Or, it may be more rooted in having a different worldview, being more open-minded than the older generation. I feel most older folks are either thrilled to see a mayonnaise face like myself or put off by it, without much middle ground.  Either way I usually have been able to find someone to aid me when needed.

We wake up at 8:30 and drag ourselves to the bus station. It is raining heavily. Four hours of sleep on the floor with a stomach full of beer has got me primed and ready to do this extreme hike. Woo! We take off at 9:15 – a bus load of foreigners and a Korean tour guide, Charles. Charles is thinly built with parted hair, glasses and a permanently wide grin.

Despite the rain everyone is in good spirits. Over a microphone Charles introduces himself and explains the itinerary. He then passes on the mic to the rest of us to introduce ourselves and say a quick something. My brain searches for something witty. Not many synapses firing. I say something lame about being happy that one of my coworkers made it on the trip. Instantly I regret not saying I was a recovering heroine addict or something along those lines. Oh well.  There will always be another time to pretend to be a junkie.

The time passes. When I look out the window I see one green mountain after another. Korea is about 70 % mountainous making the roughly 50 million inhabitants much more mind-blowing. It seems that any relatively flat land is either farmland or a city. The bus ride is filled with chatter and faint music coming from an array of headphones.  Sensing uneasiness about the heavy rain Charles takes the microphone: “Um as you see, it’s berry rainy… we have to cross riber … but I don’t know what it’s like … maybe it is berry strong … we will try. It’s kind cold so I think maybe we should drink soju now.” Soju is a popular clear liquor that is cheap as hell and will knock you on your ass before you know it. He passes the bottle around.

We finally arrive. It’s close to 1pm. The rain hasn’t let up, but it hasn’t deterred anyone’s spirits. We’re ready to do this hike, except for two girls. One says that she is staying on the bus because she is still recovering from a torn ACL, the other doesn’t want her to be alone. The rest of us get off the bus and we stand in the rain for 20 minutes. Then we go down a small walkway to the river. I envisioned hiking a few hours and trekking across a river at some point. I am wrong. The river is the first challenge. Due to all the rain the past two days the river is deep and flowing at a good pace. The ankle-deep water quickly swirls to waist-level and presumably eye-level for a little person. There are no little people on the trip. In fact, I didn’t see one little person the entire year I was in Korea. Something to think about…

The river was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to send soup back in a deli.

Charles asks for a volunteer to wade across the river first. Apparently, on a normal day, without torrential downpour, crossing the river is not a sizable challenge in any respect. The next day I would see a brochure of this spot on a clear summer day and it was filled with children and their families playing in the water.  Today there was nobody by the river … except for 40 foreigners, and Charles.

 “I’ll do it”, voiced a well-built product of Texas.

 I’m not sure if he had too much to drink, wanted to impress his girlfriend in attendance, or if he was normally this cocksure, but he started across. About five guys hold one end of a rope and the Texan carries the other end with him. The water climbs to his waist. Holding the rope he steps gingerly in order not to lose his balance. After about 10 long minutes the Texan makes it across unscathed. The rain continues to fall.

 The apprehension manifests itself now, written on faces of most in the group. Math has never come easy to me but I do a quick calculation in my head:  bus load of people + heavy rain + river crossing = NO FUCKING WAY.

 After working out the numbers in my head I turn around to find about 20 Koreans standing under umbrellas up on the side of the road watching what is going on down by the river like they are watching a band of monkeys at a zoo exhibition. Some point, some laugh, others look genuinely concerned.

 “This is not going to happen,” exclaimed a woman grasping the hand of another woman. “Where did Charles go?”

 I look around and I don’t see our tour guide.

 Next I hear police sirens, followed by a voice on a mega phone.

 He is speaking in Korean but you get the sense that they want us out of here.

 A Korean man comes down the bank speaking in Hangul. He says we have to go.  I said I understand and tried to explain in piecemeal Korean that our “leader” (I don’t know how to say tour guide in Hangul) has left.

  The bus that parked on the side of the road is no longer there.

“Did Charles leave on the bus?!” cried an Englishman with a cigarette tucked behind each ear.

A few people motion to the Texan that he has to cross back to where we are all standing on the other side of the river. Now the water is even higher and the current has gained strength. Without much deliberation he ties the rope around his waist and slowly descends into the agitated river.

The Texan labors to the midway point of the river and is then knocked off his feet. Everyone gasps – including the Korean spectators by the road. He starts drifting down with the current. More guys quickly take the rope to haul him before he is swept further down the river.  As I see this unfolding I run toward the rope and grab ahold of the rope with the others (you can call me a hero). Later the Texan would explain that every tug of the rope dragged his body and head under the water making it impossible to get a full breath of air. In little time, the Texan is pulled across. Upon reaching the dry rocks that border the river his girlfriend runs to where he lay gasping for air. Later that night when the rain finally took a  break we all went to  the beach that was close to the pension house where we stayed and we had a good laugh about the whole thing as the Texan showed off the severe rope burn across his torso.  

You’re probably wondering where Charles disappeared to. At some point during the Texan’s struggle to make it to shore he reappeared.  Apparently he was on a mission to get more rope so that we could all cross the river faster. Charles was not in the least fazed by the whole ordeal and actually had the idea to relocate and try to cross the river at a different spot before his idea was shot down by a crowd of uneasy, cold, wet foreigners.

We spent a lot of time on the bus that weekend navigating through the rain (it was monsoon season) but we did have some nice meals together, partied on the beach and went to a beautiful wind power plant on the way home. Overall it was a fun adventure, albeit a much different kind than what we had anticipated.

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Bi-winning

A few weeks ago a new foreign teacher arrived in Daegu. At our hagwon and from what I understand at every other school, all foreign English teaching positions are for one year. As every teacher has a different start date it is a revolving door of teachers coming and going throughout the year. The new teacher essentially replaced a guy who fulfilled his one-year  and is now back home in Hawaii. I’m not jealous or anything…really.

Five out of the six foreign teachers on my floor (elementary) will be leaving in May so there will be a major change in the landscape of the office during that time. I was excited to meet the new teacher because he will be here for the duration of my stay. Right now there are 11 foreign teachers in all at our school and not one female.  At our last meeting our manager promised us this would change even using this as a bargaining chip to convince some of the teachers to resign for another year:

“I know some of you have to go, but some of you should think about resign. You know, I can help with international girls. Now that I’m here we will be bringing in more women teachers. That’s part of being happy with a good vive (vibe), you know.”

Even though the latest arrival is not a chic it was still nice to meet someone new. Before he came, at our daily FT (foreign teacher) meeting we crowned him with the moniker  “Colonel”. This was not an arbitrary decision. You see, his name is Kevin, but we already have a Kevin. The new Kevin if from Canada-> Kevin From Canada->KFC->Colonel.

I like the Colonel. He is easy-going, friendly and up-beat. His arrival triggered some memories of my first few days here in Korea, like my inability to read anything at all on a restaurant menu, getting lost on a run through the city, and I will never forget the morning after trying soju for the first time. The Colonel had a rough time during his first trip downtown. You easily could have mistaken him for Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s shortly after he got his first taste of drink in a bag.

This Friday a girl from Texas will touchdown in Daegu. There is mild concern among a few that we may have to tone down the “guy talk” that has become so customary when we go for lunch or dinner. I will be sure to filter what comes out of my mouth her first few days, properly gauge the desired level of appropriateness and then go from there. I get the sense that everyone is looking forward to the new dynamic that will result from adding a female to the mix. Hopefully she grew up in a household with a lot of guys.

Our manager explained that she is attractive and that it why he hired her, pointedly assuring us that appearance is the top criterion in the hiring process.

“Guys I look at everything… beauty is important… I’m talkin’ height … weight… body type … all of that stuff.”

Side note: I  am still reeling after my favorite basketball player (Deron Williams) was traded away from my favorite team (Utah Jazz) to the lowly New Jersey Nets last week, but I am starting to come around. I tried to vent  my frustration, confusion, and uncertainty about the situation to my students but they didn’t seem concerned or the least bit interested.  How NBA player movement is not on these young Korean kids’ minds is beyond me. You should have seen their eyes roll when I began discussing the stagnant collective bargaining negotiations.

Side, side note: I spent a good part of today watching Charlie Sheen’s new interview on 20/20, perusing other random Youtube footage of Charlie talking about how “epic” his lifestyle is,  and then reading articles surrounding his career and life. When asked whether he thought that it was possible that he might be bipolar Sheen quickly responded, “I’m bi-winning… I win here, I win there.” I highly recommend you take a few minutes out of your day to watch his interview on Youtube. Epic stuff.

 

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Put the Bang in Norabang

“Drinking in Korea is not only well accepted, it’s encouraged and often necessary at certain social functions (such as business dinners and family gatherings). ”  – Robert Nilsen in the traveling handbook  South Korea

Avalon school (hakkyo) threw a work party for new teachers arriving to the school -like myself – and teachers who are on their way out. We went to a bbq place which the foreign teachers at my school call ‘Mountain’ because there is a picture which appears to be a mountain on the light up sign outside. We enjoyed dweji gogi (pork) on the grill with an array of spices and vegetables. I am beginning to like eating entire chunks of garlic, people conversing with me close range probably don’t.   It was at the restaurant where my first encounter with the soju occurred. Soju is extremely popular because it is dirt cheap and it gets you wrecked in no time. It is a clear liquor usually made from rice, similar to vodka. My boss made sure everyone had a drink in their hand at all times throughout dinner and if you didn’t than a shot of Soju mixed in a cup of maekju (beer) ensued. Apparently, when you are out socially  with co-workers there is not a level of professionalism that needs to be maintained in South Korean culture. The more you drink at a function of this sort the better. It’s safe to say I made a fine first impression.

Bulgogi (bbq) Dinner.

 

My awesome boss is on the top right ensuring that everyone is wetting their palete.

 

After dinner and drinks we all made our way to a karaoke establishment called a norabang. We drank more soju and maekju and sang into the early morning hours. There was a mixture of Korean songs and American classics and the highlight for me was Living on a Prayer and Hey Jude …

 

 

Na na na, na-na na na
Na-na na na, hey Jude
Na na na, na-na na na
Na-na na na, hey Jude


The norabang is much different from what karaoke bars are typically like in the States. We went inside this dark room with a giant screen in the middle and bench seats surrounding the area where you stand up and sing. It was a cool atmosphere and you really can’t help but to have a good time. The teachers I work with are a fun group. England, Ireland, the US, Ecuador, and  Scotland are all represented.  The English Dan told me that our boss asked him if he could speak more American-like when he started out at the school. In order to prevent any confusion I am Daniel at the school. I have never really been called Daniel throughout my life so it is taking some getting used to.  When people call me Daniel I feel the need to act in a more sophisticated manner. The Dan in me is itching to come out.

The Korean teachers at my school are somewhat reserved but always cheerful. I don’t know if I have improved my level of humor since I’ve been here but they are constantly laughing at things that have no intention whatsoever of being funny. This is how a conversation went with a young  Korean teacher that I said looks like Cameron Diaz after a wee (the Irish influence) bit to much soju (she looks nothing like Cameron Diaz).

Cameron: Hi.

Me: Hello, how are you?

Cameron: Good. You?

Me: Excellent.

Cameron: Ha ha ha ha ha

Tomorrow I am going to try ‘wonderful’ and see what I get.

 




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Korean Culture 101

The first few days of being in Daegu was a time of great exploration, fascination, acclamation, and fornication. Not really fornication, I was testing your level of concentration.

It takes about 25 minutes on the subway to get to the heart of downtown- not a bad right at all. The subways are so smooth and tidy that spending time on them is not a hassle. There is a certain section designated for the elderly. It is things like this that remind me that I am in South Korea, and the fact that I am constantly being stared and pointed at by children because I am such a minority. The only issue I have with this is that if I have food or something on my face I won’t be clued in by people staring because it’s such a regularity. Needless to say, I have been thoroughly wiping my mouth after each meal.

A large pack of bikers in downtown Daegu. I think they were riding for a good cause, like my arrival to the country.

 

On my second day I woke up to the ringing of the phone on my wall. Naturally, I answered it. Apparently it is my door bell which I realized as someone was yelling something from the outside hallway.  I opened the door and a small gentleman briskly walked passed me with a large box. He dropped it in the middle of my room and made several more trips, each time delivering more things. I really liked him because he assembled my bed and dropped off a desk, a chair, and a small dresser. Now I’m just waiting on my refrigerator, TV, washer, and my life’s purpose.

My favorite thing about my place is the shower. There is no separate area in the bathroom to shower or bath, rather the shower head is connected to the sink which results in a wet floor after each shower.  The floor is at a slight slant so the water flows down the drain on the floor. I don’t really mind that I have to wait a little bit for the floor to dry. You just have to make sure to brush your teeth and do other bathroom related shit before showering. Why I like this setup so much I don’t know myself, maybe its merely the appeal of new and different things.It causes some inconveniences : 1)  it takes considerably skill to avoid getting my toilet paper wet, 2) on more than one occasion I soaked myself while fully clothed because I failed to notice that nob was turned for the water to flow from the shower head rather than the faucet.

I have fully adjusted to the 13 hour time difference here but I wake up periodically in the night because of buzzing in my ear. The mosquitoes here must be a different breed. They prefer to hover around your ear for a while before drawing blood as if to taunt you, and they can because they are hard to catch. They are quicker and much more deceptive than lazy American mosquitoes and they are also able to jump. I learned this when I woke up at 3 am,turned the lights on, and struggled for ten minutes to squish one little bastard.

The food here is really good. After the delivery man left on Saturday I ventured out into my neighborhood solo. Throughout the day I had no idea what I was ordering and I limited my dining options by only going to places that had pictures of the food. I would point and say ‘chuseyo’ meaning ‘please give me’ in Korean. I do not deal incredibly well with spicy food and most dishes here have hot pepper in them. I can tell the servers and patrons get pleasure out of seeing me struggle with the spice. Pork is featured in many dishes and beef and chicken are more expensive because of the lower supply of them in the country. I have taken a particular liking to mandu.

Elderly people here are very active and many of them are out hustling selling produce and prepared food.

On Sunday I went for a run to get my heart pumping and to take in the area. I got lost and ended up running for an 1 hr and 10 minutes rather than the 45 minutes that I had originally planned. There are two parks in the general vicinity. Without internet service I couldn’t check out a map so I ended up trying to follow street signs to Aspan Park. As my legs became heavy I asked a young guy if he knew where the park was and he pointed toward a mountain and said “too far, take taxi.” I ran back home.

The weather has been perfect: Warm sunny days in the 70’s and pleasantly cool evenings. The fall and spring seasons are the best time of year to be outdoors in South Korea.

It is good etiquette to remove your shoes inside many restaurants. When I take them off I feel like I should be going inside of a planetarium or jumping in a giant ball pit rather than enjoying noodle soup.

My first days at Avalon school have been smooth as I am doing my training before assuming full teaching responsibilities. All of the foreign teachers have been cool and the Korean teachers have been quiet but friendly. There is an interesting dynamic in the office and I think I am going to like working there. Basically I have been required to sit in on classes and observe the teacher and take notes. The students ask me who I am and what I am doing. Some tell me to leave while others like to interact. Their familiarity of New York consists of ‘I Love NY’ tees and the Statue of Liberty. The observation has allowed me to understand what works and what doesn’t. I get the feeling I am going to be playing a lot of hang-man.

Dining at a BBQ place with some of the teachers.

 

Preview for next blog post: Introduction to Soju and Norabang

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