Tag Archives: Soju

Me and the Mountain

18 Apr

There’s a 3rd grade homeroom teacher at my school who considers himself to be my older Korean brother. I like to call him  Mr. Boastful. You might remember him. He’s the one who got me shit faced on soju one night following a staff dinner. He’s the type of person you always enjoy being around but who in some ways, scares the shit out of you because you never know what type of hijinks he’s gonna pull. Following my recent staff noraebang experience, he tried to physically hold me hostage until I agreed to let him come downtown with me to meet a friend for beers. I pulled a spin move to shake free before running to catch a cab. He’s really a nice guy, just a tad pushy.

Now Mr. Boastful is quite the outdoors man and a couple weekends back he invites to go rock climbing with his climbing team on Guemjeong mountain in Busan. Earlier in the year I had expressed some interest in going climbing while he was showing me cell phone pictures of a recent expedition.

I should mention that of the two times in my life when I’ve gone rock climbing, neither of them was on a mountain (let alone real rock) and neither was high enough to brag about. I contemplate coming up  up with an excuse for why I can’t go (afraid of heights, bad knees, expected Saturday morning hangover), but instead agree to go.  He takes my shoe size and tells me that he will prepare every thing I’ll need for the climb–harness, shoes, helmet, climbing pack, etc. At this point I realize he’s more excited about the climb than I am.

He picks me up Saturday morning and we head off for the mountain. With us are two members of his climbing team (a couple college aged girls fully decked out in climbing gear).  The hike to the climb site is short and when we arrive at the site one of the girls gives me a crash course on how to prepare and put on a climbing harness. She barely speaks a word of English so she carefully performs each task on her harness in front of me and I attempt to do the same on mine. I  pay close attention because I’m already nervous and the last thing I want is be in the middle of the climb and have something go wrong because I didn’t attach or tie something properly. My angst is heightened when one of the other team members tells me “Don’t worry. With good harness you don’t never die on mountain!”

Up until that point, the notion if dying hadn’t even crossed my mind. I was completely naive to the possibility that I may not make it back from the mountain alive. I give her a thumbs up accompanied my a nervous smile and proceed with readying my gear. The words “you don’t never die” would become my motto for the rest of the day.

Before starting the climb I reach into my pack and grab the pair of climbing shoes that have been prepared for me. I can instantly tell they will be too small (even for climbing shoes, which are generally smaller than a normal pair of shoes) but I try to squeeze my feet into them anyway just to say I did. After several attempts I decide to simply do the climb in my Reebok running shoes.

Everyone is tied off and we start the climb with one of the girls going first followed by Mr. Boastful then myself. I watch them make their way up the first stage taking mental notes on their route and technique all while thinking “there’s no fucking way in hell that I can do this.” When it’s my turn to start I try to do the same route but quickly find myself  slipping and struggling to find a good hold. Luckily Mr. Boastful takes pity on me and, seeing me about to throw in the towel, begins to hoist me up until I can find a proper hold to continue under my own strength. Despite what you might think, this in no way impedes on my feeling of accomplishment after I complete the first part of the climb.

Just before we start the second stage, I notice two other men have joined us on the climb ( other members of Boastful’s team). One is in full climbing gear and looks like he knows what he’s doing, and the other is a legitimate ajossi with no gear whatsoever; just a small backpack and a pair of lime green Nikes.  This second gentleman ended up doing the entire climb as a free climb. No ropes, no harness, no helmet, all balls. During one stage of the climb I start before him and arrive at the top to find him relaxing on a rock smoking a cigarette. A feat that has earned him the title of Mr. Bad-Ass. I can be positive, but i’m pretty sure he lit his cigarette with his bare hands.

In general Mr. boastful is helpful during the climb; coaching me up rough sections, showing me how to position my body, telling me I “don’t never die” to make me feel at ease.  However there are certain parts of the climb, usually when I’m struggling the most, when he tells me to stop where I’m at and look up for a photo. Here I am clinging for dear life to the face of this fucking mountain, sweating like a slave in my too-small-for-dreadlocks helmet, and I look up to see the man who’s supposed to holding the rope keeping me from falling to my death, grinning and pointing a camera down at me. Several times this happens. Several times I almost panic but keep my cool and muster up a smile. Damn Koreans and their paparazzi tendencies.

We make it to the peak where we plan to have lunch before repelling down, but before I can break out my kimbap and nacho cheese chips, I’m told that I need to hop a gap about five feet wide to get to the flab slab of rock where we will eat. Below the gap is drop that is easily 100-120 ft. down. I look over at Mr. Boastful and Mr. Bad-Ass who are already on the other side waiting and laughing and begin to think they’re actually anticipating that I won’t clear the gap. Again, Mr. Boastful takes out a camera to document the feat.

I clear it just fine, but the same cannot be said for the girl behind me who spends an entire 45 minutes trying to work up the courage to take the leap. When she finally does make it over, she completely breaks down in tears and can barely eat her lunch. And I thought I was the rookie?

When its time to repel down, Mr. Boastful goes first and I follow after leaning how to attach the rope to my harness. He gives me one last “you don’t never die” and snaps another photo before my feet are planted firmly on the ground.

On the ride home I am asked several times if I had a good time and if I would ever do it again. I say yes and Mr. Boastful says that it makes his heart “vely happy.”

“But,” he adds. “Next time you bring soju!” I nod my head and look out the window while mouthing the words “fuck no.”


Kimchi Dreadlocks


Teaching from the Bottom of the Totem Pole #4: 6 Months Down (6 More to Go)

3 Mar

Yesterday was the official start of the new school semester and the (unofficial) halfway point of my one-year contract.

I’ve been here 6 months. How do I feel about it?

The end of last semester was fairly  confusing, to say the least. My sixth graders took off for middle school and while there was a big ceremony commemorating their time elementary schoolers, many of the teachers seemed to take it pretty lightly. I brought a camera to possibly take some photos with some of my students before their departure and hoped to shake their hands and wish them good luck. Instead they were promptly marched out of the auditorium and out of the school to the sound of applause and cheering from their families and fellow classmates. As far as I could tell, most of the other teachers in the school went back to their rooms or to the teachers’ office to finish out the rest of the day. I took no pictures, shook no hands and congratulated no one. The ceremony, it seems, was mainly for the students’ families. Not that I have any problems with this, but I would’ve thought that many of the teachers would be little sad to see their students go. I certainly wasn’t shedding any tears on the matter, but over the course of six months I have developed a fondness for my students and admittedly (cue the violins) was somewhat sad at their rapid departure.

It then dawned on me that in Korea teachers and administrators move from school to school quite frequently and are very used to these sudden changes. They come and go almost as much as the students so when it’s time to move on, the goodbyes are short and everyone continues on with their assigned tasks. Sorry Mr. Dreadlocks. There is no time to dwell on your previous kids. We must prepare for the new semester.

As is the norm, change brings about confusion and this situation is no different. New textbooks are being used (though much of the material is the same), I have a new co-teacher (my former one moved to a new school), and my schedule has been jostled a bit. Surprisingly I’m taking it all well. If the past 6 months have taught me anything, it’s that in Korea it’s best to roll with the changes and (as much as you can help it) let the stress fall by the wayside. To do anything else might drive you into a state of depression.

A few thoughts about my first six in the classroom:

–Getting used to my completely illogical teaching schedule didn’t take as long as I expected, but I still have problems understanding how they came up with it. Why am I only seeing my third and fourth graders once every other week?

–Classroom rewards can be useful to foster participation, but they’re a pain in the ass to manage. I’ve written about this before.

–What is the benefit of placing special education students into my classes if I’m expected to completely ignore them? Everything about this seems unethical. *Chris (now gone from Korea) over at Kimchi with Eish wrote a good post on this a while back.

–Playing soccer with the students outside beats desk warming any day of the week.

–Instant coffee isn’t so bad…especially when it’s all you got. I just close my eyes and pretend it’s hot chocolate.

–I never expected to be told that I look like a “strong African warrior” during my time in Korea; let alone be told by someone at my school. Truly, the assistant principal is my homeboy.

–Soju hangovers will not improve your teaching ability, but it will make your breath smell like the inside of a Korean squatter toilet. Never again.

–Teaching my students how to beat-box and pop-lock (in addition to teaching a few hip handshakes) are some of the best ideas I’ve ever had.

–Simply put, the old textbooks were horrible and the new ones show little promise of being any better.

–Dong-Chim was created by satan.

All jokes aside though, the first half of my teaching contract hasn’t always been a breeze, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it and am looking forward to another six months of last minute staff dinners, desk warming and perky Korean students throwing up the peace sign as I pass them in the hallways.


Kimchi Dreadlocks

* On a side note, welcome to all the new EPIK teachers who just started. Words of wisdom for the “newbies” in Busan: KSU on Saturday nights can be bad for your health. See you there.

Subway Nuisance

11 Jan

Riding the subway never fails to provide a little excitement and entertainment.Believe it or not I’ve actually started to enjoy the anticipation that comes right before I enter a subway car packed full of unsuspecting Koreans. I stroll in, take up a spot by the doors on the opposite side of the car and await the random looks of bewilderment and pointing that often accompany my unforeseen presence. I’ve read accounts of foreigners being quite annoyed at this, but I often find it amusing.

When I notice someone starring obsessively at me, I like to stare back with as little expression as possible. Do doubt, their probably wondering where I’m from (a lot of Koreans swear I’m from Jamaica) or if my hair is real, but there are things that I’m curious about as well, and the starring provides me with a good opportunity to relentlessly observe and ponder all the shit that continuously blows my mind about Koreans. For example:

Why, sir, do you have what looks remarkably like a woman’s Louis Vitton purse slung across your arm? Is a backpack or messenger bag not sufficient?

Excuse me miss, but it seems you have an addiction to applying pink lip gloss in 30 second intervals in addition to combing your bangs and starring into your pocket mirror.

You seem to have some flem stuck in your throat madam  and I respect your persistence in trying to hawk it up, but your method doesn’t seem to be working.

Now some of you might consider  this as rude or inconsiderate, but I think of it more as Korean cultural awareness. As I said before, it might be easier to allow the incessant staring annoy me,  but I’d rather use it as an opportunity to learn something.

That being said, there are times when I’m just not in the mood for subway nonsense and therefore would rather zone-out until I get where I’m going.

Once when making my way back from the Busan KTX station after a long weekend in Seoul and Daegu, an ajosshi decided to plopp down next to me on the subway. I hardly notice at first because I was enjoying watching Superbad on my ipod. Seconds later I notice the rank stench of soju and b.o. wafting around me, and as I look up and turn slowly to my right I am greeted by an old korean man smiling toothlessly in my face. He was so close I though he was leaning in to give me a kiss.

Startled, I jerk backwards, and before I am able to resume watching Superbad, he begins clapping his hands and happily yelling something at me in Korean, spewing out spit and soju stench with each word he spoke. Not wanting to cause more of a scene, I do the first thing that comes to mind: I point to my ipod and offer to let him watch Superbad with me. He lets out a loud “ahhhh, ok, ok, ok” then scoots closer for a better view. I look at the subway map and notice I’m still seven or eight stops from my apartment. I figure if I can keep him distracted until I reach my stop, I can make it home peacefully and return to breathing unsoiled air. Unfotunately, my friends, I’m not that lucky.

He begins speaking to me again, seeming to ask me an array of questions which I do not understand. This time I try to ignore him which only makes him lean in closer as to catch my attention. I glance across the subway and notice I now have a full crowd of onlookers, some who seem to feel sorry for my situation, others who look as if they’re curios as to what I’ll do next. I look down again and continue to ignore the toothless admirer which brings about more yelling and hand gestures, all while wafting more funk fumes.

With two more stops to go, I finally look over and tell him (in as calm a voice as possible) “You smell really really bad and it’s making me nauseous. Please stop talking to me.”

He clearly had no idea what I said, but it didn’t matter because after a quick pause smiled and yelled “American” and opened his arms as if to invite me in for a hug (which I decline).

I reach my stop, go home and proceed to cry myself to sleep. In a perfect world, me and the toothless fellow might have been friends.


Kimchi Dreadlocks

Eat and Be Merry

22 Nov

*First off, I should apologize for not posting in nearly two weeks. I wish I could say it’s because I’ve been busy or because I temporarily lost use of my fingers, but this would just be a lie. The truth is I’ve been having a stint of writers block and thus have been spending more time outside of my apartment during the week as opposed to staying in to write. No worries though. The juices are flowing again. Enough said.

Among the perks of teaching in Korea, one of my favorites is the mandatory staff dinners. Unfortunately, I’m not lucky enough to have co-workers that regularly get plastered and spend weeknights slaughtering songs at the local noraebang, so I have to take whatever opportunities I can to cut loose with my fellow teachers.

In my situation, the staff dinners occur with no regularity and–as with everything else that goes on at the school–I’m almost always the last to find out about them, usually just minutes before I make my escape for the day.

Still, I look forward to them. Why?

For starters, we always eat Korean barbeque, but for me it might as well be crack because that shit has me hooked. Ever since my first run-in with it shortly after I arrived in Busan, I’ve been chasing the high.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s bulgogi, samgyupsal, or kalbi; if I go one week without my fix, I damn near experience withdrawal symptoms. My fear is that without it, my co-teachers may have to pay a visit to my apartment after I don’t show up to work and they’ll find me laying naked on the floor in the fetal position shaking, fists tightly clenched around a pair of meat tongs and a clove of garlic. It’s that bad, people.

Additionally, I never have to pay. Not that I’m a cheap bastard, but a free meal is just that–free. There’s no point in shelling out several thousand won (or more if you’re a moron like myself and decide to grocery shop and cook your own food) when your school is more than happy to feed you at their expense.Well, i assume they are more than happy to pay. Usually when the meal is winding down I put a dumb look n my face and try to find a ride home as quickly as possible.

Even for it being free Korean barbeque though, staff dinners have a dangerous side to them as well, and as most of us already teaching in Korea know, that dangerous side is the amount of soju you consume, not by choice per se, but because you usually feel obligated to due to the fact that all of your co-workers (principal and vice principal included) are knocking the shit back as if they’d loose their Korean citizenship if they didn’t. Friends, if you never head any of the bullshit advice I spew on this blog, head this: never attempt to go shot-for-shot drinking soju with Koreans.

This is somewhat hard for me as I rarely get to interact with the men in my school because most of them are homeroom teachers that I don’t see on a normal basis. The staff dinners are really the only time I get to split off from my c0-teachers and other women I work with and shoot the shit with the males. It seems nothing brings them more joy than to plop down next to me with a bottle of soju looking to exchange a few simple words in english along with a few doses of the green bottled monster. Even the principals get in on the action.

During the last dinner, one of the homeroom teachers– we’ll call him Mr. Boastful–decides to come over to my table and share a few shots. Before doing so he announces to the other teachers that he feels like I am a global citizen and that he is quite fond of having me in the school. Naturally I cannot refuse his accompanying offer of soju, right?  After all the man has just given me a compliment. Immediately after we toast and drink, the Vice Principal comes over, holds my hand and proceeds to give his own speech before pouring several more shots. Again am I supposed to tell him no? I’m sure it’s written somewhere in my contract that if the vice principal of your school holds your hand and gives a speech about you in Korean, you have to join him in a celebratory toast of Korea’s most potent adult beverage.

Eventually my co-teachers stand up to leave and tell me they can give me a ride home, when Mr. Boastful interjects, assuring me that help me fetch a cab later if I would opt to stay. Because I’m still a bit hungry and there’s still meat on the grill (and because the soju has me feeling jolly), I accept his offer.

Almost two hours and several soju bottles later we’re at a completely different restaurant eating clams and loudly professing that we are indeed brothers from different mothers.

Through broken Korean and English we discuss some of the reasons I decided to come to Korea and his reasons why Korea is a far better country than China or Japan–boisterous  and a bit crude, but endearing nonetheless.

Before deciding to take off, we finish off one final bottle, and for whatever reason, I decide to pay for the meal which we barely ate. He was quite pleased and my gesture, and I was out 30,000 won–so much for the free meal.

We split a cab and the entire way home Mr. Boastful continuously reminds me of our new found fraternal connection, and that we should soon go mountain climbing as he is an expert.

The next morning I wake up earlier than usual, almost fully clothed, with breath that smells like kimchi sautéed in raw sewage.

Should I be embarrassed by all of this? Maybe, but I’ve since written it off as nothing more than enjoying a Korean cultural experience. Though next time I’ll probably fill my shot glass with water and spare myself the morning poo-poo breath.


Kimchi Dreadlocks

Fresh Breath

27 Oct

No doubt,  I talk a lot of shit on this blog.  I can’t help it. There’s so many quirky Korean oddities to comment on. However not everything I come come across in the land of soju and shiny suit ajosshis is a mindfuck. Sure, I don’t get the public toilets or traffic lights, but there’s a lot still plenty about Korea that makes perfect sense.

An example?

After a few weeks on the job I begin to notice that all the teachers in my school disappear after lunch. Five minutes before the afternoon classes start I’m the only adult in sight,  then all of a sudden teachers seem to be dashing from random corners, making it into their classrooms just seconds before the bell rings. The students don’t even seem to notice. I started thinking I was missing out on some daily post lunch party. For all I knew my co-workers were taking off to slam shots of soju and huff paint in the back parking lot. Whatever it was, I wanted in. Not being invited made me feel like an outsider. I love a good workday buzz as much as the next man. Turns out that after scarfing down lunch, all the teachers ritually head off to the little boys and girls rooms to brush their teeth.

This, my friends, is shear Korean brilliance.

For those that don’t know, a great deal of Korean cuisine–as good as it is–can leave ones breath smelling like a poo paper bin in a subway station. Take kimchi for example–fermented fucking cabbage. This is served everyday at lunch (and damn near every other meal for that matter). I eat in in small servings whilst holding my breath. The smell is just that bad.

Once on the subway, I was accosted by the kimchi breadth of an ajosshi who insisted he hold a conversation with me while standing several centimeters from my face the added rank soju stench only made matters worse. My eyes teared up every time he exhaled and it gave me the bubble guts for close to an hour after I reached my destination.

Now imagine being a poor Korean student held hostage by his english speaker’s stank ass breath. The kiddies would sing harsh playground songs about you. Everytime you leaned over to help a child one-on-one, they would quickly cover their nose for fear of inhaling the toxic fumes coming for your mouth. They’d probably even run home and explain to their parents that their learning is being hindered by your lack of dental hygiene.
“What did to you lean at school today Sang Jun?”
“Not a damn thing. Teecha’s smelly breath make my head hurt!”

My co-workers clearly  want to avoid this dilemma, which is why they take the time to address their kimchi ladened breath everyday after lunch everyday before returning to their classrooms.

I now follow suit with the post-lunch ritual and keep my desk drawer fully stocked with a toothbrush, toothpaste, Listerine, floss, and gum. After eating I retreat to the fifth floor bathroom and go to work on my pearly whites. It’s a routine I expect to take back to the states. My mother would be so proud.


Kimchi Dreadlocks

Soju and Home Pride Don’t Mix

22 Aug

Usually when I embark on a new adventure or take an extended trip to a new country, I try to wait a while before I go about making an ass of myself.  Most of the time I can keep a lid on the craziness until I can decipher what’s appropriate and what could potentially get me arrested. Unfortunately my dear readers, this has not quite been the case for me in Korea, and I have Soju to thank for that.

For those of us who don’t know, soju–often referred to as “toad juice” by good old Mr. Wonderful–is a popular type of booze in Korea similar to cheap watered down vodka. The only difference is, the shit is mucho strong. Now in all honesty I should have known better. In my research before coming to Korea I read plenty of blogs that outlined in great detail the horrors of a night spent drinking soju. I know how it can make even the most experienced drinker beg for mercy from the killer hangover it causes. How it can make you toss your cookies all over the street, pick a fight with a complete stranger, then pass out in an apartment elevator or some other random location. I knew all this, and still proceeded to soju it up all night with total disregard for its power. Here’s the story.

With the medical exam and drug tests out of the way, all the EPIK trainees (myself included) were feeling the need to cut loose a bit and go out for night of drinking and socializing. Up until this point none of us knew each other very well and it seemed only right that we get better aquatinted  while knocking back a few adult beverages. Plans were made and slowly we left the dorms in hordes of 10 or 15, heading for the tiny strip of bars and restaurants down the street from campus.

Things started out great. We found a place called Hop Chicken (or something of that sort) that had 10,000 won (roughly $10) mammoth size pitchers of beer, pizza, and all the fried chicken you could handle.  The scene was beautiful. You had Brits, Aussies, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, Irish and Scotsmen all drinking merrily under one roof, at least until the soju got flowing. What started out with one shot turned into several bottles and at no point did I hold back on the beer (actually there were times that I simply combined the two to make–you guessed it–soju bombs. I hadn’t realized how drunk I was when I walked up on a table of a few brits and a couple of Americans. One of the Americans was wearing a Chicago Cubs baseball cap on. That’s when all hell broke loose.

From what I can remember, it didn’t take much–if any–provocation before I was pounding on my chest and screaming at the top of my lungs about how the Minnesota Twins are the best fucking team in all of baseball. Reports from those present fill in the blanks: I wasn’t being mean or aggressive, just overly proud and obnoxious. Apparently I would scream about the Twins, sit down for a bit then stand up and start the whole thing over again. One of the fellows was so fed up that he told me to shut my fucking mouth, to which I responded, “but I’m talking bout the Twins man!” Even after a girl I met earlier asked me to shut up, I kept going.

The next morning I barely remembered a thing, my t-shirt and one of my socks (yes, only one) was soaking wet–still don’t know why–and I had the worst hangover I’d ever felt in my life. It felt like a group of midgets was practicing Riverdance on top of my skull.  I asked my roommate what happened, but all he knew is that when he got back to the room I was passed out on my bed. In fact, I woke up to him tapping on my chest telling me I had 20 min. to make it to the first training lecture of the day. Great.

As I was walking/running through the halls on the way to class, I couldn’t help but notice the weird looks I kept getting from people. I instantly knew I had done some dumb shit. After the first lecture, one of the guys stopped me in the hallway and asked if I was less rage-filled than the night before. Right away I began apologizing. He told me that had it not been for one of the girls explaining to him hat I was actually a pretty mellow person, he would’ve hated me for life. A bit harsh if you ask me, but then again I don’t remember much of what happened. It could’ve really been THAT bad. Really, I was lucky they didn’t decide to kick the crap out of me that night.

For the rest of the day I made it my mission to find everyone who was at the table, or even in the vicinity of the table, so that I could humbly apologize. It wasn’t that hard. All day long people kept shouting “MINNESOTA!” at me. I knew instantly that they were one of my victims. On the bright side, a few people thought it was jovial, and I did get a good nickname out of the deal. One that I will never be able to live down.

That night, we went out again and I apologized once more to the fellas I offended, and bought a pitcher of beer for the table to seal the deal. I think that was the icing on the cake. I would like to say I stayed away from soju that night, but I put down a few shots then stuck to beer and stayed off the general topic of sports.

So there you have it: in just a few days in Korea, I made friends, made an ass of myself and all I got was the nickname of “Minnesota.” Home pride is a bitch.


Kimchi Dreadlocks

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