The holidays in a foreign country provide for some mixed emotions. On the one hand, you miss your friends and family and the insanity of going home and living in your old room again – even for a couple of days – and then driving back across the frozen destitution of Iowa and Nebraska to Colorado, adult presents like towels and a new comforter crammed in the trunk. It’s all quite exciting and life-threatening, on a number of fronts. On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to saunter casually through a holiday season, staring dumbfounded at skinny Koreans in Santa suits, stopping in the middle of the rabble of a shopping venue and listening to some live yuletide hip hop, and decorating your apartment with parachuting Santas and blow-up reindeer. But most of all, spending time with your expat friends, the only family you have in a foreign country, makes for some interesting experiences. You thought your uncle – tugging on grandpa’s old cough medicine hidden in a flask on his lap beneath the dinner table – got drunk. Well, he did. But not as drunk as expats on holiday.
Andrew, a young first-year teacher from Washington state, rang me up one Saturday night a couple weeks before Christmas, informing me of an evening out at a local pub, called Wa Bar. Then Scott – one of those expat friends you stay in contact with, even if they are Canadian – called to say he’d drop by after our school’s holiday party at a local business venue, called Kintex. Thomas the Brit, Sean the Floridian, they were on their way.
Scott sidled up as Andrew, Thomas, Sean and I were tucking into our first beer of what would likely become a very long evening. The guys, who had all gone to the Kintex holiday party, regaled me of the event’s highlights, of which there were none. Andrew wore earbuds through the festivities. No one spoke English, anyway. Musicians, comedians, rambling speeches, all in Hangul mal, a bunch of English teachers picking lint out of their belly buttons and staring at their cuticles and slumped over asleep in the audience. Most left early. Scott stayed until the end. Mystifying, the polite and accommodating disposition of the Canadian.
Sean, a comic book dilettante and lover of horror movies, wisely steered the conversation from Christmas work parties. He illustrated the stunning and twisted nature of many an expat in Korea, which brought great holiday joy and wonder to the table. He noted that last weekend he’d met a fellow at another local watering hole, Bar Boom, who had offered a sampling of homemade pornography captured on his cell phone. Sean had politely declined the offer, numerous times, until the freak thrust his cell phone into his face and clicked on a video. Our man mentioned that this particular scene was but a tasting of all the women he had conquered in Korea. Sean was host to top shots, bottom shots, sideways shots and upside down shots. Shaky cam, all, as the humper also assumed the responsibilities of cinematographer.
The girls obligingly played their starring roles, and as one would imagine, Sean mentioned that these were not the types you’d bring to dinner on Christmas Eve. Neither was the videographer. The pornographer went on and on about his conquests as Sean’s face grew green and then ashen. The pornographer finally introduced himself as Gabriel. His name has not been changed for anonymity. I wish I knew his last name. More on Gabriel later.
Andrew, a vaguely unsullied fellow, made a hasty retreat after hearing of Sean’s sordid encounter and the remainder of our gang walked through Ilsan’s downtown promenade for some darts at Bar Boom. The bar was empty and the dartboard vacant. As we approached one of the many open tables near the dartboard Sean grabbed my shirt-sleeve and whispered, “That’s him! That’s Gabriel!” He pointed to a guy flipped through his phone, alone, leaning back in his stool at the bar counter.
“Who?” I asked.
“The porno guy! Gabriel,” Sean hissed.
“Ah,” I said. “How fantastic.” I snuck a peek at Gabriel’s cell screen, relieved to see text messages scrolling by. Amazing luck, I thought, to study this vile creature in his natural habitat. And flying solo. Perhaps he was on the hunt!
The bar began filling up as our darts generally missed their marks and careened to the sticky floor. We had arrived early for Korea, and as the minutes slipped towards midnight bar space shrank. There’s no hurry in Korea, as the bars stay open either all night, or until the last tottering patron decides to pack it in and pass out in the middle of the street. The crowds really begin to thicken around midnight, with the bell curving and sloping down around 3:30. By 4 o’clock, only the die-hards remain, caught in the throes of hopeful bedding or unmitigated swilling. By 6 o’clock, all hope is lost, yet stragglers remain, slurring and spilling and pin-balling about the great hollow barroom expanse.
Four fellow teachers, all Korean, joined us at a nearby table; two familiar girls, one guy named Casey and another gentleman whom I only vaguely recognized. I remembered his humongous head wobbling atop his diminutive frame, fearing it might gyrate off onto the floor. The only time I had ever spoken to this peculiar fellow more than a cursory “hello” was at my first dinner for our school, a couple days after my arrival in Ilsan. He was so sponged full of booze all he could blather about were the Red Sox, the Yankees, other assorted baseball teams. Curse my Red Sox cap. He blinked his drunkenness at me and sputtered, “Clemens, very good,” or “Big Daddy,” presumably meaning Big Papi, “very good.” He carried on until he barfed on the sidewalk, his head bobbing up and down like a mighty oil rig horse head gone spasmodic on its walking beam.
Bar Boom’s walls were bending with the vast roaming humanity when a curious thing occurred. A gaggle of six Korean girls sauntered into this mostly expat filled bar, cozied up to a table, and ordered some oddly colorful mixed drinks. Like spilled blood spreading in the sea, the sharks began circling. Honestly, you won’t find a more astounding sociological experiment than throwing a handful of attractive Korean girls who speak English – even in its most rudimentary applications – into an expat bar. Especially when the gals are devoid of male chaperones.
Don’t think for one moment that the girls didn’t know it. I could tell from the get-go that these princesses had absolutely no intentions of letting any sharks into the cage. To mix the analogy, none of these barroom puppies was getting past the butt-sniffing stage with the girls. Of all the bars to choose from, they picked damn near the most popular expat bar in Ilsan. There’s a certain amount of adoration folks need in life, a moment of fawning over. Even if but for a fleeting second. These girls knew where to find it, god bless them.
Like numbers clicking off at the bank – Number 34? Number 34? – foreign dweebs stumbled over themselves on the conveyor belt, sometimes four at a time. Beer in one hand, they leaned their free paw over a girl’s shoulder, offering their lead offs and introductions, dead horses all and beaten relentlessly. Assure yourself they weren’t offering holiday greetings. And boy. These guys. They would never approach girls at home that looked like these gals. Some disheveled, some slovenly, some shit-canned, some massively obese, others straw thin, others mongoloid, others having chosen to wear a V-neck sweater over a t-shirt. Swirl the scene around in your head…
But no, nothing would stop them! They swooped in and were shot off into space like trajectory missed, eventually regaining their inertia and sighting the target again and once more bouncing off orbit into the darkened recesses of the bar. A bunch of Plutos, relegated from planets to dwarves, destined to circle the sun in frigid darkness and shame. These girls, impervious through their force field.
I generally don’t like “the game,” or “playing,” or whatever the hell folks call it nowadays. More than that, it makes me cringe to see it all play out so pitiably. Yet, I couldn’t tear my gaze away. This speed dating from Hell held me captive, quite willingly. I was starting to have fun. To my great detriment, I even talked Thomas into going over to the table and giving it the old college try. He and Sean, neither a specimen of great beauty but both first-class fellows, slid from our table, folded their beers to their stomachs like Bar Boom Napoleons, and sauntered into the dark Korean cosmos, inertia spinning them dangerously out of control.
Sean returned first, muttering something about uselessness. Then Thomas, explaining the pain of being ignored, resumed his seat and began fondling the darts. He elucidated his sneaking suspicion that the girls were mocking him but letting him carry on his charade of hopefulness. I threw an entirely miraculous bulls-eye to win the game of darts as I harbored a fantasy of each of the girls hooking up with a mongoloid in a V-neck sweater.
As I made my way to the bar for a beer, our man Gabriel noted what pathetic dart players we were. He informed me that we should never be allowed to play again under any circumstances. Anywhere. I courteously replied that we had paid for one more game, and that, indeed, was that. Taking my new beady beer in hand, I held it to his smirking mug for a very elongated beat, and turned away.
To my chagrin, that was not that. During our second game he pulled up a chair to our table and asked, “You guys like magic?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head emphatically. “Does anyone like magic?”
Shock danced across his face, his outstretched palm holding a lighter slightly quivering. “Some, but whatever.”
“Well, we aren’t a table of toddlers at a birthday party, but go ahead, man,” I said, folding my hands. “Give us some magic!”
No doubt, the caustic blood was bubbling after his dart comment and hearing Sean’s story earlier in the evening. Yet, I didn’t really want to start a fight. Rather, if I started a fight, I didn’t want to have to be the one to actually do the fighting. So, Gabriel charged forth on his magical steed and he made his blue lighter levitate over his fucking palm. I haven’t the slightest idea how he managed it. That sort of ignorance can enrage a man. In chorus, our table asked how he had suspended the lighter and he knowingly tucked it back into his jacket pocket, quite aware of his small victory. Gabriel silently retired to his solitary stool at the bar, where no one could challenge his sorcery. He gazed at our dartboard, aloof, patiently awaiting our assured ineptitude.
Against all probability, the night continued on its goofy trajectory. Casey informed me that a young lady sitting at a table nearby wanted to dance with me, that “she likes the beard,” which I had just grown. I was immediately suspicious of any girl that likes a beard. Of course, she spoke zero English and my Korean remained…vestigial. We did a lot of innocuous grinding in the bar’s darkened corner, but I received no early Christmas gifts.
Eventually, a couple of expat teachers joined our table after Thomas left, feeling ill, and we all chatted in that amiable netherworld of unshared and discordant histories. Nothing serious required, just a story. One fellow from New Zealand struck up a conversation with Sean about the B-movie horror gluttony of Peter Jackson. They huddled over the minutia of zombie lawn mower slaughter, or some such holiday cheer. Scott and I listened while the other gent, a huge-bottomed Canadian, whimpered about how he’d given a paper flower to one of the Korean girls at the Princess Table and that she had harrumphed into his frumpy face. I mean, honestly. Like you can’t help but feel a bit sorrowful after hearing that tale, listening to this hefty lad gripe about not being taken seriously by a gang of girls that in the States would be encircled by star wide receivers, quarterbacks in letterman jackets, and class presidents. Country to country, culture to culture, some things remain eternally the same, like Groundhog Day in junior high.
The conversation was going swimmingly when Gabriel the Magician and Amateur Pornographer swaggered up, leaning his elbows on the table between Scott and I.
“Nice fucking hat, man. Trucker hats are really stylish.” He said just that to me. I specified I wasn’t wearing my Schlitz beer hat for style and mentioned that this fact should be obvious to anyone taking the time to notice my wardrobe. I wore it, I said, because I liked it. I told him I was far too old for teenage style trends and whipped off my hat, waving it in his face.
“Look at me. Do I look like a guy trying for style?”
“Bald, too,” he said with a merry guffaw. “No wonder you wear that hat.”
Alright. There remained little doubt what the magician was looking for. Fisticuffs. He sniffed me out as the slightest fellow at a fairly large table and went in for the kill. Merry Christmas.
“Fuck you, man,” I said, combing through my mental thesaurus. “Why did you come over here? Just to get in my face, to make fun of the little guy, the guy with the funny hat? Nice work. Get out of here and carry on.” And I swept my hand away, like some bored magnate releasing the hayseeds from my audience.
“Fuuuuuuuck you,” said he. I noted the intellectual turn our bon mots were taking. It was nearly 3 o’clock in the morning, after all. Vocabulary, like my starring pate, grows thin into the wee hours.
“Listen, I’ll smash your face into a curb if you don’t get out of here.”
“I’d like to see that,” Gabriel said, suddenly standing erect with his arms thrown to his sides, his back arched as if he were about to launch into a gymnast’s routine. In a way, he was.
“You punter,” I said. And then, some words I had never strung together but always pined to glue into a massive, triumphant, altogether crushing sentence, “You want to step outside?”
“Yes,” he answered, very quickly. Oh Jesus, I thought. This is going to happen – a fight. I’m going to get bloodied and Gabriel’s going to bleed and this is just going to be an awful mess. I like neither the notion of smashing someone’s teeth in nor having my own dental work displayed willy-nilly upon a barroom floor.
“Just one thing,” he said, sneaking closer. “We gotta make a deal first.”
“I don’t call the police, you don’t call the police. No matter what.”
This was all going terribly south, and during the holidays, no less. I was just sliding off my jacket when a thought occurred to me, a revelation I had heard many years ago in high school from my wrestling coach.
“You know what, magician? I’m going to impose a rule of my own. We’ll fight, and maybe you’ll kick my ass, or I’ll kick yours. Don’t worry about that. I can guarantee you that I will not quit fighting for 30 minutes. You can knock me out and walk away and 15 minutes later I’ll follow you and find you and we’ll keep going. Or, maybe I’ll knock you out in 15 minutes. I’ll keep knocking you out for the next 15 minutes. That’s my rule.” I noted that I may break his neck on a street curb and that he may leave me on the ground bleeding to death, but the 30 minute rule applied. We both remained calm, chatting to one another with evil intentions.
Alas, these engagements so rarely ripen to bulbous richness. Indeed, some third party usually dives in and parts the churning waters, thank god. The Peter Jackson obsessed Kiwi karate chopped his arms between Gabriel and I and put an abrupt end to the madness. He berated the magician for getting in our faces, uninvited, as we quietly chatted amongst ourselves. The reproach continued two minutes longer, for both of us, until Gabriel returned to his magical barstool, sulking, probably thinking of jumping me on my bar exit. I almost immediately forgot about him.
Crisis averted, just like that, over in less time than it took Gabriel to levitate his blue lighter. The tubby fellow with the paper flowers informed me, “Dude, I don’t think you wanted to fight that guy. I saw him kick the shit out of two dudes a couple weeks ago.” My shoulders went up and down.
“Two dudes who don’t know how to fight don’t pose much of a challenge,” I harrumphed, swimming through an ocean of false cockiness.
Secretly, I thought I may have snuck out of a very nasty situation. Scott, returning from the bar, informed me that the magician had confided, “I don’t think I wanted to mess with that guy, anyway.” Hence, my arrogant and foolhardy confidence in my undersized fists remains intact to this year of our lord, 2011.
No blood was shed. Scott and I took off after we finished our beers. And so another happy holiday evening came to a wobbly end in South Korea, the land of the skinniest Santas on the planet.