When in Korea… – South Korea, Asia
Oh my God, I’m gonna hurl.
Those were the only words I manage to sputter as I sprint from my computer to the bathroom in my small, high rise apartment. Peeling myself up from the floor of the dank, cold, pink tiled floor, I can’t help but wonder what had just happened, and how. Several reasons come and leave my mind, but a few manage to stay for a bit longer than the interlude between dry heaves in the direction of the porcelain. Maybe it was consuming the seventeen gallons of beloved Korean alcohol, soju, last night. Perhaps eating my body weight of bottom feeding ocean dwellers may have caused my predicament.
But now, it all comes rushing back to me.
A Cultural Adventure
Yesterday afternoon, there was a bus parked on the playground outside my classroom waiting to depart on the annual, “Jumbong Elementary Staff Friendship Trip". As delightful as this may sound, reading between the lines of Hangul writing, and considering the Korean drinking style, you can assume this adventure is only going to be laced with shenanigans.
Living and working in a foreign land in which you cannot speak or understand the language, has its positives and negatives. One example of this, leaning more towards the negative side of the pendulum, is the likes of which you must put your unyielding faith in those around you, and hope they steer you in the proper directions. You can be considered no more than a baby, coddled and cared for, and led from place to place virtually by the hand – all without having any say in the matter.
Motioned to the rear of the bus, I sat at a seat to the right of the highly revered principal of the school and his entourage. There, a table awaited. Before we even hit the interstate, calls for, “one shot", rang throughout the back of the vehicle. Doing my best to fit into this rich culture, I looked at the clear liquid petrol sloshing in my small shot glass, took a deep breath, and swallowed down any reservations along with the soju. Instantly, the fluid took control of me, burning every inch of my throat on its way down to my very core, rattling me into a cold spasm reaction. It scorched my tongue as I took my first, almost painful, post drink breath.
“Kon bae!” – more drinks were poured.
Two hours of this debauchery went on – soju shot after soju shot, consuming, dolling out drinks following the specific Korean style pour, symbolizing a show of respect to the other. The routine consisted of some yelling, a group shot, followed by some snacking on dried fish and slices of pork. A person would then volunteer to graciously fill up the principal’s glass and the practice would start all over again. If "three sheets to the wind" is officially inebriated, I was getting more than just one hand hoisting that third sail into the breeze off the West Sea.
Dusk was finally settling down upon the dimly lit back alley when we finally rolled to a stop. The staff disembarked the bus, falling in line to a staircase taking them up the side of what looked like an abandoned warehouse. Out of curiosity, I peeked through a window on the first floor and witnessed a cacophony of sea life.
I redeemed my golden ticket at the door and entered the seafood version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Through the alcohol induced haze, I maneuvered around the bedroom sized tanks of eels, reservoirs holding every kind of fish but Nemo, vats everywhere overflowing with mollusk creatures straight from science fiction movies. I believe I even stepped over a chocolate river running through the middle of the building. It was an assault on my eyes seeing the myriad of sea life in one building, and the organized chaos of the knife wielding workers.
As if we hadn’t set the one day soju drinking record, I staggered up the steps to be greeted only by more raised glasses pointing in my direction as I emerged from the doors. There must have been six shot glasses shoved in my face, and a chorus of, kon bae, from all the staff. Trying to cover my wavering, outstretched hand, I grabbed a glass and unleashed what I thought to be a, “cheers”, to the crowd. What came out of my mouth is yet to be determined, but it was met with a roar of cheers as I dropped the shot down my throat, and settled my numbing body at the dinner table. This toast was the Superbowl kickoff to the beginning of the end for this guy.
Twelve plates of beautifully presented raw sea creatures were brought to the restaurant from the market below, and set out in front of me. I managed every ounce of energy I had to my lips and concentrated on moving them. I leaned to my left and asked, “What do you call all this? Korean is okay.”
“This is snail of ocean, this crab. I show you how to eat. Here, I believe, cuttlefish. This, I don’t know, but delicious. Halibut, and ah, do you know blower fish?” He blew air into his full cheeks; instantly recognizable.
“Yes, yes. Only a little bit poisonous, not to worry.”
“That fish is poisonous? When in Rome, I guess,” I said under my breath, mostly just to come to terms with my impending meal. “What about all the others?”
I started to notice the whole world around me slowing like a train with the emergency brake just pulled. I first noticed that the steam rising from the plates took on the look of distant smoke, the mouths of a faraway conversation screeched to a near halt, when suddenly, the words from my left jarred me back.
“I tell you six. Six plates, yes, that is all.”
Oh my lord, I was a mess. My third sheet, officially in the wind, then I ate some kind of a poisonous fish. Where along the journey of my life did I see this as a step in the right direction? Yet, for some reason, in the recesses of my mind, I feel it was a step in the right direction.
I’m sitting here, getting a chill through my back as I lean against the cold bathroom tile. I’m staring at the toilet that is far too dirty to be this close to, my head is deciding for itself if it will explode or not, and I’m decidedly content with what happened last night. Perhaps in other situations I should be worried if I embarrassed myself in front of my coworkers, I should be regretting comments I whispered in some unsuspecting female ear, maybe hoping people will overlook my belligerency and dismiss me as yet another strange foreigner.
I remember the dinner, the singing and dancing at the karaoke room, a full moon watching the late night ramen noodles on the shore of the west sea, the corners of my mouth turn slightly up. Have I been accepted?
"When in Rome, do as the Romans," is one of those cliches that is funny to think about, even more funny to use with your best Will Ferrell, Anchorman, voice, but I think there is a thread of accuracy to it.
The Korean drinking culture is no secret. My lack of drinking culture I make no secret, either. What I’m content with though, is not that I was seeing double, or nailing the 4 Non Blondes song later at the singing room, but sharing an important part of the culture with those who are proud of what and who they are. Drinking the gnarly soju transcends the simple act of drinking or getting drunk itself; it is a way for you to show your acceptance of your surroundings. It is a symbol that, with a sense of open mindedness and respect, binds people of two backgrounds together, if for only a short time. There is honor in learning the culture of one another; respect is given when respect is received. Today, more than the pounding in my temples, I feel that.
What brought me to this place, the dirty bathroom floor? It was the gallons of soju. It was eating a smorgasbord of poisonous bottom feeders, the singing. It was everything I did last night. Most importantly, it was the outpouring of respect I received by my friends who gave me a window to their world for a night. That’s how I got to be in this fetal position on the bathroom floor, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way
But, wait, I think I’m gonna hurl.