Male Bonding | Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely
I didn’t know when I arrived, but after my first few months in South Korea, a reality about life there became clear: Koreans liked to drink. Even more, many liked to get drunk. Like any and all observations based solely on one's own experience, I was possibly biased in making this generalization.
But I don't think so.
What first brought me to this conclusion was the regular nighttime scene of Korean men walking through the streets in zig-zag patterns. Coming from local bars and restaurants, their right foot became their left foot, and their left foot became salami. In groups comprised mainly of older men, they hugged each other and gushed non-sexually to the man closest to them.
These sights, along with the plethora of bars and alcohol advertisements that would put to shame the best efforts of beer companies in the ghetto, all told me that I was now living in a drinking culture.
I occasionally indulged in it.
At one of my first staff dinners, I ate enough Korean egg soup and grilled pork for three men, and drank enough booze to get one Alex vomiting in his toilet. At one point in my life I’d spent five years with no alcohol of any sort, now I was accepting a drink everywhere I went.
Before my last year in Korea finished, my school held its annual teachers’ training meeting. As was told to me by another teacher, however, "It is called training, but we usually just talk about teaching only during the main meeting for about an hour or so."
Mr. Yang (양) looked down and sucked air as he tried to think of subtler words for what he wanted to say. His fear of being overly blunt made this his habit.
I grinned, and he said, "Really, it is a trip to a part of Korea we vote on, and we just try to enjoy ourselves."
What I understood was that it would involve a bunch of teachers drinking soju (소주), makgeolli (막걸리), or other rice-based drinks I didn’t yet know.
The drinking this year was going to happen in Andong (안동시), a city known for its historical sites, and the plan was to travel through a few of them and witness traditional Korean life. It was expected that I would follow the rest of the group and join in the trip. Not following everyone else might’ve been considered rude or anti-social, but I wanted to go anyway. So with no hint of irritation I said I would.
"Sounds like fun," I said.
The bus left early in the morning, and I sat in the back next to the art teacher Mr. Choi (최). He was the cool teacher that everyone’s had at least one of in their high school. Mr. Choi was young, outgoing, handsome, and dressed trendy, but he was totally unpretentious, and hated suits. He also spoke English pretty well.
I said, "Hey Mr. Choi!"
He smiled back happily, "Hi Alex!"
The bus was full of cheerful noises and we added to them. He told me a little about his new girlfriend, and after showing me her picture, we chatted like men for a minute or so.
Afterwards I asked, "So what exactly is there to do in Andong?"
He shook his head, "Well, I do not really know. Andong has many traditional things. The schedule says we are going to a kind of museum.”
“Yes. Many kinds of them, actually."
Mr. Kae (개), a middle-aged teacher who often passed me in the hallway without much notice, even when I said hi, turned in his seat and handed me a hamburger. I didn’t want it, but I recognized the new niceness of the gesture and didn’t want to offend him. So I took it and said thank you.
“감사합니다,” I said, and immediately put it in my bag.
With a mind full of guilt I planned to discreetly toss the thing into a ditch the first chance I got. Mr. Kae was one of a few teachers who previously said nothing to me, but now he asked me questions and started conversations with blunt English questions.
The rest of the teachers asked me what I thought about Korea, and as the bus started its engines and moved us forward, I gave short, positive answers. There were the inevitable pauses that occur on a long road trip, but things remained cheerful in the back of the bus as we arrived at the first site. It was an early private academy where the children of Korean royalty were taught mathematics and the fundamentals of Buddhism. At least that’s what Mr. Kim (김), the social studies teacher, said to me.
He pointed out monuments and told me historical facts. The slim newlywed wore his bookish ways on his sleeve and despite being the same age as me, confidently shared his knowledge like I was a high school student. I listened with genuine interest. As we walked up a hill, I asked him how it felt to be married.
He sighed and said, “I have escaped my solitude.”
I chuckled at his odd, but correct, phrasing.
We toured buildings that looked old, but had been recently restored so that the feeling of being around ancient things was missing. We stood before what was supposed to be a traditional food-storage house made of stone, but when Mr. Oh (오) knocked on it with his middle knuckle, we heard the deep bong sound of hollow plastic. Easily the happiest (and slightly insane-looking) Korean man I’d ever met, Mr. Oh laughed like he didn’t care about anything in the world except the pleasure brought on by his own laughter.
We all laughed at the fake antiquity. The much quieter Mr. Jo (조) hit it as well and said some words to the men standing around. The words were Korean and outside my understanding, but everyone laughed again.
Mr. Jo said to me with a big smile, “Not real!”
Against a backdrop of real and not real things, I took pictures with Mr. Choi, Mr. Kim, Mr. Oh, Mr. Jo, and the many other Misters who smiled with me as our group traveled around for hours visiting the historic sites and natural settings.
Mr. Choi and I were the last to leave the area. We played around a frozen river, and like fearless children, we edged onto the thin ice. As my right foot cracked the sheet under me, Mr. Seo, one of the kindest men I’d ever met, and the busy organizer of our trip, yelled from beyond the shore.
“Let’s go. We are leaving!”
We chuckled as we ran off the ice and towards the bus. Our final stop was another private academy that had been built on a mountainside. At the top, a few of us sat on any available tree stump, tired from a day full of walking trails and kicking dirt. I leaned against a pole and looked out at the horizon. There were only a few clouds in the sky, and from where we were, we could see mountains and smaller hilltops fade into the horizon. With the sun setting, things gave off a beautifully surreal glow, and it all seemed to have been drawn by some skilled hand using only varying mixtures of orange juice, water, and wet earth. I gazed at it for a few moments and thought about my time in South Korea, a beautiful country with beautiful people to whom I would, sooner or later, have to say goodbye to.
Mr. Yang prompted me to get ready to leave. His smile was warm and constant, and he told me it was time for dinner. We talked about his family while walking down together. He told me that his two-year-old son had started talking, and I was happy for him.
The school staff of fifty or so people sat in rows at a barbeque beef place. With our shoes off, we grabbed chopsticks and waited for the plates of raw beef to arrive. Like most of the trip, the few female teachers and staff kept to themselves in pockets that were barely entered by men. The farthest I went was to glance every so often at Ms. Kim, who would catch my gaze and look me in the eyes right back. She spoke almost no English so I kept my thoughts to myself and sat on the floor with my legs bent, waiting for the food to come.
When it did, the noises from the men got louder. The beef sizzled on the communal grill and shot glasses began to go around. Mr. Choi sat across from me and offered to pour me a shot of soju. I remembered my promise in the back of the bus.
During our three-hour ride he plainly said, “I want to drink with you, Alex.”
“Okay,” I chuckled. “We’re gonna get drunk tonight. As soon as we get to the restaurant.”
He smiled and said, “Cool.”
I let him pour me a shot.