Thursday, January 8, 2009

EE-Cha Rant

So tonight was one of those nights you just have to go along and see where the celestial bodies take you. Tonight SungJoo and I left all the sadness of her maternal family with their stories of suicide and bankruptcy and misfortune and we headed up the beach to meet old friends, old Nike Pusan friends, whom we haven’t seen in years. There was SooMin, who brought us groceries when we were first married and struggling because SungJoo was working late hours and I taught night classes and we couldn’t catch a moment together. There was YoungMi, who’s husband worked the cruise to North Korea and she saw him only five nights a month and used to sleep in our apartment and we’d take her out dancing on weekends to forget. There’s HeeJin, a Nike wife and expatriate, whose inquisitive speech and gift to gab are legendary. And there is HoDong, my Korean brother, dressed in pinstripes and a camel haired coat whose drawings of sports stars have been signed by Michael Jordan, taking me aside and laughing at my week long beard, saying, “Big Brother, you are my hero.” And the others. So many friends. They were all there and so we talked about the time Grace Lee returned from Thailand with a boob job and nobody said a word, and about the time SungJoo’s old boss was fired for accepting this golden turtle statue bribe, and about the time the factory almost burned down, and when SungJoo got death threats when she worked on the counterfeit raid team and the night was full of warmth and the sudden smiles that come with remembrance of things past.
Now, a Korean evening is marked in “cha” or places visited, and by numbers “il” one, “ee” two, “sam” three”, ect.
So “il-cha, one bar, ee-cha, two bars, sam-cha, three bars, sa-cha, four bars, makes for a great night of bar hoping in any language.
After bar-b-que and desert and sweet tea, we hit our fourth restaurant O’Kims, the most famous Irish pub in Korea along Haeundae beach in the Westin Chosun hotel. I’d been here dozens of times. It’s a place to see and be seen, where the average Korean would never set foot, $20 draft beer just too rich for their blood.
We sit. We order. And the chatter begins. Women chatter. Discussing their stale marriages and stale children and stale routine sex with their husbands, but most of all it’s the struggle, the search, the sojourn toward survival in this country. Attaching themselves to Nike, putting their hopes in English and America to lift them out of their hard Korean lives, out of being strong, determined women in a male dominated society, out of being career minded instead of domesticated. How they had hit the glass ceiling, found their limitations, and been forced to swallow their lot without a chance to escape. It is always like this, I think, listening to women, their private thoughts always so fascinating. Their honesty. Their ability to drop pretense when they are among other women. At any age, high school, early parent, middle life, being allowed to eaves drop on women’s conversations has always proved so insightful to me. Yet tonight I felt evasive, like because it was my second language the women felt safe to reveal themselves while I sat beside them at the table unable to properly judge and so I tuned them out and just scanned the room instead. The crowd had changed since my days as a wild bachelor. Now the bar was full of middle aged traveling salesmen.
Around the pool table, a group of Pakistani men in moustaches and flannel shirts tucked high into their jeans with black belts and black loafers racked eight ball and sized up difficult combination shots. Beside them a group of Brits discuss the volatile stock market over wine in tall glasses, swirling the drinks around and around and elaborating upon their holdings across Europe and South America. To our right an unusual scene, a woman in a gray A-line skirt sits with her boss, a ruddy faced Korean man who resembles a Kiebler elf whom she is obviously having an affair with and drowning herself in large mugs of beer before their love making begins. I turn my face away from the crowd and out the window overlooking the ocean. The dark waves crashing against the sand and the brilliant lights of the city glowing along the shore and up into the hills seem to call to me. When I first came to Korea I loved these nights. I would run through the city chasing this elusive, romantic moment where I knew that I was alive. Would there be a bar fight I might narrowly escape from? Or a girl all alone at the end of the bar I might entice into a midnight kiss? But what I was really chasing I could never tell. Was it that I knew I would only be given a thousand of these nights and so I was going to make the most of it? Was it that I was chasing the very essence of night before the rising of the sun? Was I chasing my own youth, and how no matter how fast I was I could not outrun growing old? What was it? I mentally come back to the table and the faces of these women, these old beautiful friends, have gotten so old. Their hair is streaked with gray and their faces, like mine, show such wear and tear.
HeeJin tells a story that catches my ear. It is about an old friend, another female worker at the old Nike Pusan Office whose name is Sandra and her boyfriend, a Deutsche engineer named Frank. They dated for two years, and Frank loved that Sandra had grown up in Korea but attended American high school in Texas. That she would slip into this unmistakable twang when she talked with her lips rolling upward into a Stetson curl. Yet he broke it off because the cultures were too different and later, after SungJoo and I had moved back to Portland and Sandra was visiting, he came to find her with a ring ready to propose. I remember we stood in the bathroom of our tiny condo in Tigard and he was shaking and crying and I told him that if he had followed her all the way across the world, and if he really wanted to marry Sandra, he had to just ask her. And so he went out of the bathroom and to my surprise Sandra quickly darted in and locked the door. She was also visibly upset and said that she did not love Frank and what should she do. And so I told Sandra, if she didn’t love Frank she had to break it off.
She did. And Frank drove back to the airport and got on a plane home.
We all sat around the table as I finished the story, these women sipping on their fruity drinks out of long straws. It was then that HeeJin said Frank died two years later of cancer and my heart sunk. If you had told him seven years ago that he would be dead in two, would he still have chased Sandra half way across the globe? Would it have meant anything? Proved anything?
There was no way of telling. The dead can’t speak. Only the living can, and I was still alive, wasn’t I?
As we were gathering to leave and all the pictures were taken and the hugs and numbers exchanged and updated, I swiped a beer glass off the table. Just thieved it like Bilbo Baggins. I had planned on giving it to someone who needed it. Who would hear that story about Frank and know the importance of a stolen cup acting as an elixir, to be filled with life and drunk on impulse. One of the waitresses saw me, and was speaking into this headset as I exited the hotel, and as we moved passed the main entrance the flashing lights of a police car could be seen turning up the main road. I knew that it wasn’t for me, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be chased. I wanted to outrun. And so I bolted. My legs like lighting, tearing off down the road, and to my surprise the police car followed. Its sirens blaring, coming faster and faster until it was right on top of me. My heart raced. My lips spreading into this joyous smile as I cut quickly left and flew down a staircase to the open sandy beach, the police car speeding away. I kept running though. Through the soft, loose sand until I reached the hard packed granules and the roaring surf. Just me and my glass treasure and the night and the waves. The tide was moving out and I jumped, splashing down hard on edge of the surf, and rolled out to sea.


  1. Oh 'H' it's nice to hear your voice jumping off of my computer screen. I miss you. Everything is great here in college, finally in an apartment. Hope all is well with you on the otherside of the world. I'm considering doing something crazy like a dine and dash in your honor. But if I don't it'll be your fault for helping to fill my head with all these ideas of honor and nobility haha. Drop me a line when you get the chance.

    -Chris Tillett