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18 October 2010 Stories and Appreciations 4,732 views No CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

It was a just my second week in the country, a Tuesday night. I had arrived in Korea during the height of the summer, and it was hot – tropically hot, Burma hot. I was restless and sweaty and decided to attempt to cool down by sipping a few cans of cold beer at one of the plastic tables set up in front of the convenience store at the base of my apartment building. In contrast to the so-called “Land of the Free,” you can drink a beer outside in Korea without being hassled. No worries. No cops. No problem. This is a refreshing thing, liberating, even. As I sipped on my nice, satisfyingly icy beer, two Korean businessmen and a woman sat down at the table next to me. The men had obviously just gotten off of work, as evidenced by their rumpled white shirts and ties. The woman was more casually dressed, sporting jeans and a t-shirt.



“Where you from?”

Koreans are often anxious to try out their English, especially when a bit of alcohol dampens their initial shyness, which can be debilitating when sober. She introduces me to the businessmen, Mr. Park and Mr. Young. Park, Cho, Young, Kim, and Lee are the dominant surnames on the Peninsula. She tells me her name, which I immediately forget. I’ll refer to her here as Margaret Cho, due to her resemblance to the somewhat well-known Korean-American comedian.

Suddenly, my new Korean friends get up from their table. Margaret Cho gestures to me to come with her palm down. This is initially confusing, since it quite resembles the western gesture for get the hell out of here. I stand up and walk towards her. She grabs me by the arm and pulls me into a taxi. Then we’re off…

“You… want… gae-bah?” she says. “Gae-bah?”


“You know… gae-bah?”

The men are behind, following in another cab. A blur of neon signs streaks past the window. She holds my arm and pulls me closer.


Rapid-fire Korean to the cab driver. Gestures, voices increasing in volume. Laughing. Then shouting. Are they now arguing? People in this part of the country are known for their loud and rough demeanor. They often sound like they’re ready to stab each other, when, in fact, they’re only talking about weather.

The two taxis pull off into a busy area by the beach. We get out. Margaret Cho again glues herself to my arm and we go into a nondescript building, climbing three flights of stairs.

I am then led into an empty nightclub bathed in blue neon. The place is immaculate and designed with the utmost economy. Silver, white, and black are the dominant colors. Nothing superfluous exists. Sleek minimalism reigns.

We sit at a bar facing the dance floor and are immediately joined by two of the most striking Asian transvestites I’ve ever seen. These “women” are tall, sleek, and elegant. They’re gorgeous. Gloved hands are extended.


Demure looks, lingering hands.

My hosts utters some orders and soon there is a spread on the counter consisting of a beautiful platter of fresh fruit; a dried, flattened cuttlefish with various dipping sauces, several glistening bottles of beer, cans of juice and cold tea, and two large bottles of whiskey. We get right to it, eating and drinking communally, as is the manner. In Korea specifically it’s considered the height of greed and rudeness to pour your own drink or to sip from an individual bottle. One bottle is always opened and used to fill everyone’s glass, usually from eldest to youngest, though a foreign guest may trump even an old man. So the whiskey starts flowing, followed by beer, bits of cuttlefish, and more whiskey. My hosts then gesture to me, to one our “hostesses,” and to the karoake machine that sits at the head of the dance floor.

“You go. You go.”

A karoake book is thrust into my lap. The selection is dizzying, with thousands of songs in Korean, English, and Japanese. I settle on the Eagles’ “Desperado,” and am lead to the machine.

As I belt out the ballad, one of our “hostesses” dances to the slow beat of the song. “She” is a good six feet tall in heels and wears a form-fitting dress. She performs a serpentine writhe as I give it my all. Applause. Ovations. More whiskey. Margaret Cho gives me the eye along with a certain, unmistakable, glint.

Our “hostesses” sit across from us and make conversation, flirt, and put ice cubes in our glasses. They imbibe as well. Their English is good. We are then joined by a third hostess, a stunning beauty wearing all white. I get up and dance with her and make small talk; she tells me that she is a real woman. I want to believe her and do. The others, despite their beauty, are still quite tall and a bit too angular to be the genuine thing. I look for a prominent Adam’s apple, a giveaway for a man. I see none. I ask my hosts for confirmation.

“Yes, she girl.”

“My sister,” says Mr. Young.

I step back up to the karaoke machine and Mr. Park joins me for a song. I choose the Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the UK.”

“I am the AntiChrist… I am an anarchist!”

Mr. Park yells it out with me in full punk rock glory. He is a bit pudgy, with glasses and a now-loosened tie – straight out of Asian businessman Central Casting. Sweat beads up on his forehead as he hits each note with a quivering vibrato. It’s a Tuesday night. Where am I?

We stagger away from the “gae-bah” towards a Japanese-style restaurant/drinking establishment. We sit down on wooden benches, facing each other. Koreans never just drink. They always eat while drinking and drink while eating. The food comes out quickly – some hot soup and a pan full of tiny octopuses in red pepper sauce known as nakji bokum, searing in its spiciness. Bottles of soju – the local firewater – appear and our shot glasses are continually filled. I follow none of the conversation and laugh when they laugh, which is frequently. My tongue is burning. We are all getting very drunk and Mr. Park suddenly becomes worried about me. Perhaps he’s never drunk with a foreigner before and doubts my tolerance.

“You okay? You okay?”

“Sure, I’m fine!”

“Too much drink-y, no?”

I am fine, my head turning to jelly and the packed wooden restaurant now taking on a glimmering, crystalline look. I keep drinking with fervor, my face now steaming red from the booze and spice.

Margaret Cho looks at me longingly. Mr. Park gets up and goes to the restroom. Mr. Young knowingly nudges me.

“You like? You like?”

He openly points to Margaret Cho. She feigns embarrassment, shooting me looks in between.

“She like you. You go… You go her home?”

Mr. Park returns to the table. He senses something afoot.

He looks to Margaret and then locks eyes with me.

“She my girlfriend. She… she… my… (finger thumpsing on his chest) …my girlfriend!”

He knows the score and defines the terms. He then pays the bill.

We stagger outside. Margaret Cho takes my arm. I slither out of her hold.

“She my girlfriend. She my girlfriend.” Mr. Park forces himself between us, much to my relief. There are times I welcome the c–k block.

She looks at me. Mr. Park grabs her upper arm and barks at her in Korean. She gives back and the argument is now on.

I take the opportunity to make my escape, running into the dark and taking in the sea air.

Chris Tharp


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