Month: April 2014

Tales of Savage Moderation in South Korea

by Ralph Karst


Our friend Mr. Motgol has a great, pithy summation of the relationship between South Korea and alcohol:  “This place is like Disneyland for alcoholics.” Ho ho—it’s funny because it’s true! No closing time for bars? Check. Beer, wine, soju and even scotch available 24 hours-a-day in convenience stores? Check. Ultra-cheap local swill (soju) that’ll get you royally hammered for a few bucks? Check. Cold beers sold on the trains? Hell yeah! Come to work with an atomic hangover, your pores oozing sour mash? No problem! Pass out drunk in a bar, sidewalk, park, taxi—and wake up still in possession of your wallet, smart phone, and both kidneys? Yup. Blue laws? HAHAHAHAHA! Korea may keep a tight clamp on pot, speed, narcotics, hallucinogens, prescription painkillers, even Valium and Xanax.  But liquor? Anyeong, Dionysus!

But I have a terrible confession to make. My name is Ralph, and I am a moderate drinker. [Hello, Ralph] Well, it happened again last Friday. My friends were all telling me, “C’mon, get drunk with us, Ralphie!” And I wanted to, man! I really really wanted to! But there I was at the bar, three or four Stellas in, and, I’m telling you, I totally intended to order another beer.  But it was like I opened my mouth and another voice came out, like I wasn’t even in control—it was my damn moderation that had taken over. And I heard myself say, Can I get a cranberry juice? And the bar girl said, “Cranberry juice and what?” So she was giving me an out, a second chance, but I pissed it away, just like so many other chances I’ve had to get rip-roaring drunk. Just cranberry juice, please, I said, and she rolled her eyes and went “Oh, okay,” and when I got my pathetic glass of juice and came back to where my friends were hanging out, they saw what I had in my hand—they knew it wasn’t a vodka-and-cranberry, they just knew—and I could see the disappointment in their faces, the shaking heads, the looks of pity, the looks of disgust.

Yes, sometimes the virtue of being a moderate drinker seems like not a virtue at all in South Korea.  It’s a useless virtue—like being the world’s best Betamax repairman, or an honest used-car salesman.  At best, nobody cares, and at worst, it works against you.  It seems women I date (both Korean and Western) gravitate to the extremes.  Either she’s a virtual teetotaler and thinks my drinking two bottles of Hite with our samgyeopsal is some sort of Leaving Las Vegas-style mega-bender, or I get Lil’ Miss Tipsy who pounds ten 500cc’s and then wants to hit the soju-bang at 4am for some C1 and raw octopus.

I know it can be far worse for Koreans—not drinking can literally hurt your career. I have a few Korean friends in low-level office jobs, mostly young women, who live in dread of the company’s  after-work “team building”. If you have a boss who judges you by your drinking “talent” (yes, that’s a phrase they use here), you can kiss promotions good-bye and say hello to lots of shit-work. Either find a “white knight” (a co-worker, usually a man, who will be willing to drink your drinks for you) or learn the skill of secretly dumping your soju shots in the potted plant next to your table. Thankfully the culture of enforced company piss-ups seems to be on the wane. An increasing number of women in white collar jobs has dampened the “old boys’ club” spirit, and a 2007 Seoul High Court case found that forcing employees to drink was illegal, awarding $32,000 to a woman who’s boss threatened her with “drink, or else!”

Now, I know there are lots of foreigners who don’t particularly dig the liquor-soaked social scene here and stay away from the bars. The thing is, I like beer. I like whiskey, tequila shots, and the occasional kamikaze. What’s more, I like bars. I like the energy, the good craic, live bands, stand-up comedy, and trivia nights. I like the possibility (kind of hypothetical, but still) that I could meet the love of my life, or pull a hot no-strings-attached one-nighter. But there inevitably comes a time when the night’s joie-de-vivre takes a turn for the ugly, the sloppy, the slurry, the repetitive, or even the violent and hateful. Mr. Motgol, on a recent sober stretch, likened it to running an Olympic marathon, and suddenly realizing that you’re competing in the Special Olympics.


I often find myself invoking my 2 a.m. rule—after 2 a.m. (give-or-take an hour or two on either side), I either want to be sleeping, or screwing. Exceptions can be made for a bar where there’s a good live band, or the occasional late-night casino run. But after 2 or 3 a.m., nothing good is going to happen at a bar. Conversations will be either incoherent or repetitive or both. You are not going meet someone new—or at least meet someone new in such a way that the meeting will be a positive one. True—I miss out on some truly spectacular human carnage. But really, you’ve seen one bar fight, one fat guy passed out in a toilet stall, one hot girl jump on the bar and do a striptease until her boyfriend drags her out the door, you’ve seen ‘em all.

This is not to brag. It’s not an issue of self-control. It’s not like I crave that next drink and I shut myself off with iron willpower. In fact, there’s evidence that suggests my craven moderation is more a result of genes than conscious decision-making.  My father’s side of the family is solidly Eastern European Jewish, and “Jews don’t booze” is a well-established cultural stereotype. However, this is a stereotype with some solid science behind it.  Just as studies have shown that the Irish and Native Americans are two ethnic groups that may be genetically predisposed to alcoholism, research suggests that the Ashkenazi (European) Jewish gene pool has a higher than average prevalence of the ADH2*2 gene, a gene associated with lower rates of heavy drinking.

It may also be as much nurture as nature. My mother’s side of the family was Polish-Catholic, and lived much closer to us, so we spent way more time among the goyim than among the tribe. Now I’m not saying that my mother’s relatives were total lushes, but weddings, birthday parties, Father’s Day reunions, etc. always featured a fair slice of tipsy aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., and once in a while someone would get rather blotto. My father would sometimes call me and my brother over, point out the stumbly uncle, screechy aunt, or belligerent cousin, and tsk tsk his disapproval. It’s a shonda, he said, using the Yiddish word for “a shame” or “a fool.” He told us that the reason why he seldom drank at all among his non-Jewish in-laws, and the reason why Jews everywhere drank very guardedly was that you didn’t want to be a “shonda for the goyim”—in other words, act shamefully in front of non-Jews, therefore shaming all Jews in general and fueling ancient hatreds.

But really, when I pull my 2 a.m. Saturday night disappearing act, bouncing out of the bar at the first signs of an impending meltdown, ass-out, or argy-bargy, I’m not thinking “don’t be a shonda for the goyim.”  I’m not thinking about anti-Semitism. Nor am I casting judgment on my friends who choose to keep hoisting into the wee-hours.  I’m actually trying actively to not judge. While moderation is indeed a virtue, smug superiority and arrogance is not. My father could be that way at times—I never get drunk so therefore I am  morally superior to you! I’ve got to be on my guard against adopting such a douche-baggy attitude. Judge not lest ye be judged. And if people do judge me to be a totally lightweight, a complete and utter pussy when it comes to drinking, so be it. L’ chaim, my friends! Really, I’m just thinking about getting some sleep. While I like bars and drinking, I probably like sleeping even more. I’ll hear about the late-late-night chaos I’ve missed the next day, or on Monday, or read about it on this blog. And is there anything more soul-crushing than during the winter, waking up the next day at 4 or 5 p.m. with it already dark outside? Morning comes twice a day or not at all—a great line from an Uncle Tupelo song and as pure a drinker’s lament as has ever been written. (Think about it.) My mornings come once a day and are usually in the morning. Not as sexy, but so what.


The West’s Confucian Confusion: How More Confucianism Might Have Saved the Sewol

by John Bocskay

Whenever a tragedy strikes Korea, many Western observers can’t resist the urge to attribute it to Korean culture. This tendency owes much to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, in which Gladwell attempted to pin a fatal 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam on Korea’s Confucian-inspired practice of showing deference to one’s guam1seniors. Since Outliers, Confucianism is the prime suspect in just about every Korean disaster short of an earthquake, so when the Sewol ferry sank in waters off Jindo on April 16th, taking with it over 300 young Korean souls, I braced for the wave of western cultural critique.

I wasn’t disappointed. Writing for the South China Morning Post, Andrew Salmon wondered whether the accident was made worse by Confucianism. Salmon noted that in the initial minutes of the accident, the captain ordered passengers to stay where they were, and most of them obeyed “even as the ship listed steeply and water flooded in.” Based on this observation he asks whether the high death toll “was a symptom of a hierarchical culture in which young people are taught to obey authority figures without question.”

Ralph de la Cruz of The Dallas Morning News was more blunt, calling it “death by obedience,” and opining that the tragedy was so terrible because in Asian cultures “compliance is de rigueur.”  He then provides the inevitable comparison of the young Korean victims to American teens, whom he contends “would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry,” presumably because they are taught to “think rather than simply obey.”

There’s some irony in de la Cruz’s analysis, as his home state of Texas has recently seen measles outbreaks for the first time in years, precisely because many Texans “think” that the vaccine is linked to autism, despite overwhelming evidence that it isn’t. If you’ve been keeping score in Texas, your card should read: Obedience – 1, Thinking – 0.

There are also a few assumptions at work here, not the least of which is that rational and effective emergency management is the inevitable result when hundreds of scared teenagers ignore orders in dangerous situations and start “thinking” –whatever that means. Another assumption is that it should have been obvious to the students that by staying put they were endangering themselves, and that when it did become clear they needed to get out, that they were physically able to do so. Jakob Dorof’s April 21st piece on makes a strong case that by the time it was apparent that the students needed to get out, it was already difficult or impossible for many to escape.


The stricken ship, listing hard to port.

As Dorof’s piece and subsequent survivor testimony should be making clear by now, to believe that the passengers’ hierarchical culture overrode their more basic animal instinct for self-preservation requires one to accept a series of increasingly dubious suppositions: that from the initial minutes of the predicament it should have been immediately obvious to a large group of 18-year-olds, nearly all of whom have never been on a large ferry before, to not only determine that a listing ship was absolutely going to sink, but to be so certain of it that he or she would feel emboldened to ignore a series of direct orders from the captain, and then, assuming the angle of the ship still made movement possible (which, by most accounts, it did not), to climb to a higher deck and jump down several meters into a frigid and turbulent sea, at least some of them without a lifejacket and before any rescue ships had arrived.

Viewed from this perspective, their compliance with the captain’s order to stay where they were in the early minutes of the unfolding calamity doesn’t seem to require a patently irrational preference for social hierarchy but simply a combination of confusion, immobility, and common sense.


A free-thinking Black Friday shopper struggles to pursue her own rational self-interest.

Salmon also states that the students who survived were those who ignored the orders and “took personal initiative”, much like de la Cruz’s idealized American teens would have done, but this assertion now appears to contradict much of the evidence that has emerged from survivors who were plucked from inside the ship by rescuers who shattered windows to reach them. At any rate, the implication is clear: Koreans would be better served in an emergency by having hundreds of free-thinking adolescents ignore the orders of authority figures and independently make prompt assessments of chaotic situations, and then to pursue the course of action that each person had decided was best for him- or herself.

Why doesn’t that strike me as a recipe for effective disaster management?

Because it’s ludicrous. It’s at moments like these, when a disaster occurs and the tendency to panic is greatest, that obedience is most essential, which brings me to one of my biggest beefs with Confucian Theories of Korean Disasters: to these critics, Confucianism is nothing more than a mindless system of deference to one’s superiors, who may or may not be worthy of the public trust. Confucianism demands obedience, they point out, so those at the bottom “blindly” follow those at the top, sometimes with disastrous consequences.


The most misunderstood 6th century Chinese philosopher of all time.

What these critics never bother to understand or to point out is that Confucianism is not a one-way street that merely demands unconditional deference to one’s seniors; it is a system of reciprocal duties that just as clearly describes the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, ruler to subject, and by extension, of captain to crew and passengers. In a well-oiled Confucian system then, obedience is never blind; it is always underwritten by a social contract that obliges leaders to be virtuous and to carry out their duty with the best interests of their subordinates in view at all times.

At its core, Confucianism is relentlessly meritocratic, and seeks to ensure that leaders are chosen for their superior virtues, not their seniority, their money, or connections. In other words, those at the top of the Confucian social pile don’t enjoy their positions for nothing – they must be deserving of the public trust, and the same responsibility flows right down the pecking order. Just as the emperor occupies his station by possessing virtue, so is he obliged to promote people below him according to their fitness to lead.

Does that sound like an accurate description of Captain Lee and his crew? To be fair, there is a lot we still don’t know at this stage of the investigations, and stories of the heroic actions of some crew members are also beginning to come out. At the very least, we may note that the captain and crew members who fled the ship, by saving their own lives first while hundreds of their charges waited aboard the doomed vessel, did not discharge their duties in accordance with these fundamental Confucian precepts. Where was the concern for the lives of the passengers? Where was their virtue? And was Lee’s decision to put an inexperienced 3rd mate at the helm in unfamiliar waters in any way characteristic of the Confucian injunction to promote subordinates according to their merit?


Captain Lee Joon-seok

If Confucian deference turns out, in retrospect, to have been misplaced, who will deserve blame, those who held up their end of the social contract, or those who didn’t? Why do none of the peanut-gallery Confucianism experts ever say, “Ah! The ferry captain clearly failed in his Confucian duty! If only he had been more Confucian this disaster might have been avoided.”

If there’s any one question pertaining to the connection between Korean culture and tragedy that is worth asking, it’s this: Why is there a recurring temptation to see Koreans as hapless victims of a defective national culture, rather than as victims of a merely human tendency to occasionally fall short of living up to what are otherwise sound ideals?

Early indications are that this is precisely how many older Koreans are viewing the tragedy – as a failure of officialdom and its shocking lack of protocol or concern – a key point that a recent L.A. Times article managed to miss:

          The botched rescue also has cast a harsh light on a Confucian culture in which young people are taught to respect the older generation.

          “I feel embarrassed as a Korean. We failed our children,” said Kim Seun-tae, a 50-year-old minister whose son attends Danwon High School,…

          The minister said he was struck by video from survivors’ cellphones that showed the mostly 16- and 17-year-old students sitting dutifully in their seats. “They were good, well-behaved kids. They followed instructions,” Kim said. “Everybody is in a state of shock and depression. We can’t look each other in the eye or speak.” [emphasis mine]

You may wonder, as I did, what exactly Kim believed his failure to be when he said, “we failed our children,” or why the parents “can’t look each other in the eye,” but the Times reporter doesn’t ask Kim to elaborate and appears content to reach for the default narrative and suggest that the parents were blaming themselves for teaching their children to “respect the older generation.”

But is that really what Korea’s elders are now beating themselves up about? That’s not the impression one gets from this Joongang Ilbo story, which deals more explicitly with the reasons parents and concerned citizens “blamed themselves for letting down their own young.”:

 “Students are in the cold sea because of irresponsible and unethical adults,” read a message on a web page dedicated to the tragic accident. “I feel ashamed for being an adult in this country and also for not being able to do anything for them.”

Another message read, “Children just listened to what the adults were saying but could not escape. I feel terrible that I’m one of the older generation that made this ugly world.

Total strangers are accepting joint, generational responsibility for a world so poorly and cynically run that the Sewol ferry did not seem to have had a proper safety examination and the  passengers were not given any safety lessons in advance of the tragedy.

 “Adults escaped first, leaving the children in the sinking ship,” said a 46-year-old office worker. “I assume greedy adults who didn’t bother to fulfill their duties caused the accident. When other big accidents occurred in the past, I was surprised but didn’t feel guilty about it. However, I feel terribly sorry for the students this time because I’m old enough to have contributed to this terrible world.” [emphasis mine]



A relative of a Sewol victim smacks a government official.

The people quoted in the article all strike a common chord: the problem, as they see it, is that they failed by teaching their kids to have faith in authority without fulfilling their end of the deal and ensuring that the authority figures were deserving of their children’s trust. “A big part of Confucianism – respecting older generations – has gotten shook up,” says professor Cha Seong-hyeon of Chonnam National University in the Joongang Ilbo piece, and he identifies the challenge ahead to be to “try to regain the intergenerational trust.”

As hard as it will be to regain that lost trust, something tells me that it will be even harder to persuade Western critics that sometimes a little more Confucius may be just what Korea needs.

Defending the Lady’s Honor

by Mr. Motgol

Ha-bin was always a messy drunk. Every time she went out she got catastrophically hammered. British chick wasted. A weaving, incoherent puddle of babble and drool. But unlike a British chick, Ha-bin wasn’t tall or brawny, with ancient, boozy Viking blood pumping through her veins. Instead, she was a small Korean woman with zero natural tolerance for alcohol. As a result, every time she touched the stuff she turned into a chaotic wreck. You could set your watch to it.

This night she had been particularly indulgent. We all had. We had just closed a show, an English language production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. It was a reasonably big to do, with plenty of attention from the local press, and decent crowds of both foreigners and Koreans showing up for the limited run. I played the main role and Ha-bin was the producer. She had put the whole thing together and it had been a resounding success, so after the show the cast and crew headed down to Ol’55 bar to drink until we all fell down and saw in triplicate. We were in Korea, after all.

drunk 1

Ha-bin cornered me in the bowels of the club. She was dressed in her usual regalia: tinted round glasses, army fatigue pants, and a black fisherman’s cap over cropped hair. The getup gave her the look of a Bolshevik lesbian.

I was literally leaning up against the wall while she mumbled on in slurred and hopelessly broken English, something about “foreigners together… Koreans… you know… beautiful… hip-hop… musical.” She seemed to be pitching her next project and after thirty minutes of this circular, one-way conversation, I grew restless and excused myself.

I found Big Brent at the bar. He was high school buddy who had also moved to Korea to try out the waters. Brent was a monolith of a man, tall and thick, whose glasses, gentle manner and quick wit undercut his raw, physical power.

“I’m getting kind of hungry,” he said, taking down half a mug of Cass in one gulp. “Wanna grab some food?”

“Good idea. It’s past three and nothing good can come out of staying here. I know a meat place around the corner.”

We were just walking out the door when Ha-bin grabbed me.

“Yaaaa…” She swayed, holding onto my shoulder. “Wherrrrre you going?”

“Uh… we’re going to get some samgyupsal.”

Ah, mashiketa!” She said. “I come too.”

“Uh, sure… okay.”


It was only a five minute walk to the little restaurant, but somehow we lost her.

“Did you see where she went?” asked Brent, as we sat down at our table. The place was dark and smoky, jammed with customers eating, drinking, and jabbering loudly over the constant sizzle of meat.

“No idea.”

“Me neither.”

“Well maybe it’s for the best,” I said, waving to the server. “She’s pretty wasted. Hopefully she just jumped in a taxi and went home. Last time we drank together she ended up passing out in the street.”

Two bottles of beer and some side dishes arrived. As Brent went to fill my glass, my phone rang. I checked the screen. It was Ha-bin.

“Wherrrre you?” she asked. I could hear garbled voices in the background.

“At the restaurant. Where are you?”

“Family Mart. Come get me! So hungry…”


The Family Mart was a convenience store just around the corner from Ol’55, part of a Japanese chain spread throughout Asia. It was open 24-hours, and served as a magnet for the drunkest scumbags of Busan’s expat community. Like many convenience stores in Korea, plastic tables were set up outside, and it was perfectly acceptable to buy beer, wine, soju—anything really—and then proceed to sit down and drink it right there. The result, during the warm weather months, was a boozy pack of expats guzzling well into the dawn. The later it got, the sloppier and rowdier they became. The place was always a molten, shameful mess, ground zero for the stupidest drunken shenanigans from the city’s foreigner set, and this steamy June night would be no exception.

As I approached the brightly lit store, I saw Ha-bin seated at a table with a group of Westerners. I recognized my friend Matt, along with a young, dark haired woman and a wiry white guy with a scraggly beard and dreadlocks.

Ha-bin, was half slumped over, mumbling. A skinny cigarette burned in her right hand, more ash than tobacco.

“Hey, Ha-bin!  Let’s go eat. Come on. You’ll feel better.” I grabbed her hand.

“Ees zees your beech?” a voice stabbed out. The accent was strong and unmistakably French.

I turned to the source. “What?”

“I said: Is zees your fucking beech?”

Before we proceed, I must come clean: I hate white guys with dreadlocks. Can’t stand them. One look makes my skin want to rebel. This is a visceral, irrational prejudice, and while I’m sure there are and have been very decent, upstanding white men with natty dreads, I have yet to meet any. And even if I did, I probably wouldn’t give them a chance. I’d have hate them just on principle.

I let go of Ha-bin’s hand and addressed the mouthy Frenchman.

“She’s not ‘my’ bitch. She’s nobody’s ‘bitch.’

“No, she is a mozerfucking beech. She seets and talks sheet. Take your fucking beech away.” He waved his hand for full effect.

Already heated by booze, my blood turned to fire.

“She is my friend. Who the fuck are you to talk to her like that?”

“She is a fucking beech!”

“And you are a white dread shitstain!”

“What? You are tough guy, huh?” He stood up.

“Eat my ass you Trustafarian bag of cunts!!!”

“No, fuck you man!”

“Come on! I’ll pound your ass into the dirt!!!”

“Oh, you will keeck my ass??? You want to go! Let’s go! Come on mozerfucker!!!”

He kicked his chair to the side and stepped. It was on.

The dark haired girl screamed in French as he came at me. He was smaller and sinewy and like me, very drunk. He threw a couple of ineffectual punches and missed. I immediately got inside and, remembering my wrestling days, took him to the ground, where we scuffled and rolled around on the filthy pavement. I managed a couple of blows to the side of his face, but could get no real power at such close range.

His girl waved her arms and shrieked some more. I tried to subdue him and get another shot at his face, when suddenly I was grabbed from behind and dragged up from the ground. Another guy got a hold of him and pulled him away.

“All right, break it up, guys!.” Matt yelled, stepping in between.

Chests heaving, we stared at each other over Matt’s shoulder.

“Okay okay.” I threw my hands up and was released.

“Fuck this… let’s get out of here Ha-bin.” I waved for her to come, then turned and walked toward the restaurant. My head was reeling. I needed a smoke and a beer.

“FUCK YOU MOZERFUCKER!!!” echoed the voice of my nemesis as I walked away. “COME BACK HERE!!! I KEEL YOU!!!”


Brent was seated where I left him when I returned to the restaurant, tending to the fatty strips of pork in the small grill in the middle of the table.

“You won’t guess what just happened,” I said, plopping onto the stool and lighting a cigarette.

“Oh? Do tell…”

A minute later my phone buzzed again.

“Wherrrrrare you???” Ha-bin’s voice moaned through the speaker over obvious shouting.

I hung up. “Fuuuuuuuuuck. I’ll be right back.” Brent, shrugged and continued grilling the meat.


The scene was much the same as I left it, though now Matt was now restraining Ha-bin, who was now in berserker mode. She unleashed a banshee’s wail of invective toward the Frenchman and his girlfriend.


As soon as I approached I was spotted by the natty Gaul, who pointed, eyes ablaze: “You! MOZERFUCKER!!!”

He was on me before I knew it and knocked me off my feet. I felt the sharp scrape of the pavement against my shoulder as he pressed down. Now on top, he  jumped from side to side as I attempted to scramble out from under him. Finally I made it back to my feet, staggering. We squared off, throwing sad, drunken punches that never hit their marks.

“Knock it the fuck off!” Matt screamed, pushing me away with his meaty arm. “If you don’t stop the cops will be here.”

“Okay okay.”

Once again I threw up my hands.

“Just get out of here!”

I turned away and grabbed Ha-bin by the wrist, dragging her along. She jerked and screamed, swinging her free fist toward the couple.


“You walk away???” the French guy yelled back. “I find you mozerfucker! WE ARE NOT FINEESHED!!!”


Back at the restaurant we joined Brent, who peacefully dug into his meal and chuckled as I recounted the latest round. Ha-bin could barely sit. She leaned on an elbow and puffed on a skinny smoke, muttering to herself.

We ate and drank for fifteen more minutes. I was relieved to be out of the action. I had only been in a few fights in my life and hated them. And this asshole was hardly worth the effort.

Just then I saw him, outside of the restaurant, walking past with his girlfriend. Our eyes met and he stopped.

“MOZERFUCKER!!!!” he screeched, bursting through the door and tackling me at the table. Bottles, plates, silverware and glasses crashed to the floor around us, as we grappled in the greasy floor of the restaurant.

Big Brent sprang into action. He was lethally quick for a man of his size, and immediately he seized the raving pseudoRasta and, club bouncer-like, fucked him out the door like a bag of wet laundry. The French dude hit the pavement but was soon back on his feet, pacing back and forth and screaming to me.

“You come out and with fight wiz mee, mozerfucker!!!”

I had to give the guy credit for persistence.

At this point the owner of the restaurant was heatedly holding forth with Ha-bin as the smattering of other customers gazed on in semi-disbelief.

The Frenchman paced and raved outside of the door, ignoring his girlfriend’s pleas to move on. It was now very early morning, and the glow of the  day’s first light began to seep down the building sides surrounding us.

I took a breath and walked out the door, ready for round three.

He came out swinging, grazing my cheek but landing nothing. Again I took him down. I wanted to end this thing once and for all, hoping to use my size advantage for the old “ground and pound.” But he was a slippery son of a bitch and before I knew it, he was behind me, with an arm over my throat, attempting to choke me out.

He wrenched down tightly, and I gasped for air, but nothing was coming in. He had me good. My mouth moved and gulped like that of a goldfish that had jumped out of its bowl. I couldn’t let this happen; unless I did something, now, I was done. So I mustered all my strength and flailed my body while pushing up with my arm. This seemed to work. I felt him release and leaped back to my feet, sucking in the clear morning air. We stood there, staring.

“Are we finished?” I asked.

“No we are not fineeshed! We are never fineeshed!”

He came at me again, but never made it.

Big Brent had had enough of our pathetic spectacle. With amazing speed he flashed through the door, past me and went straight for the Frenchman. With his huge left paw he grabbed the guy by his nest of dreadlocks and forced him onto his knees. The dude’s girlfriend screamed for him to stop,  but Brent was in total control. Brent then balled up his right hand into a fist, and bore it down like a warhammer on the top of Frenchy’s head: BAM! He repeated this three more times: BAM! BAM! BAM!

This managed to stun our Jamaican Pierre, who stood up and staggered, his eyes now black holes.

“That should take care of him for a while,” said Brent, just in time for the cops to arrive.

A Korean police station lit up at night

They kept us separated at the police station. Brent, Ha-bin, and I were on one bench, the Gallic couple on the other. Ha-bin was an exploding rage-filled hairball the whole time. She screamed, cursed, wailed and repeatedly bum rushed our foes on the opposing bench, only to be grabbed by intervening cops, who she clawed, slapped, and even bit at. I was amazed at their ability to handle such abuse. They gently took control of her, holding her back and quietly asking her to calm down. They were obviously used to such goings on. Just another night at work for a Korean peace officer, it seemed.

After a few hours—enough time to sober up—they let us all go with a warning. I’m sure they were more than happy to have us out of their hair. Frenchy’s ire had not yet cooled. Unsatisfied with the outcome of our melee, he repeatedly offered to continue it at a time and place of my choosing.

“Any time! I weel be there! This is not fineeshed, mozerfucker!!!”

He even shouted out his phone number, three timeslest I have trouble tracking him down.


I never saw him again. It turns out he was an international student at the end of his stay. And though he was clearly out-of-line–an obnoxious, arrogant, champion drunken shithead–I had to grudgingly grant him one crumb of respect: the guy was driven. He didn’t give up.

How much fighting does alcohol cause? Too much to count. It’s the primary fuel much of human aggression, though there can be an upside to fighting dead drunk. Sometimes both parties are just too wasted to do any real harm to each other. This was certainly the case with us. Had we been a little more sober, somebody would have probably got their ass kicked.

A few weeks later I ran into an Irish buddy of mine who had witnessed part of the fracas. He was none too impressed with either of our prowess. In his musical Cork brogue, he only had this to say:

“You looked like a couple a Polacks dancin’.”

Brent moved back to America. During a recent visit we recounted the story over steaks, beers, and cigars, laughing at its patent absurdity and praising Korean cops for their unbelievable powers of forbearance. Silently, I recalled how nice it was to have him on my side.

As for Ha-bin? Her drinking days are long behind her. Soon after this incident she found God. That’s right, she got right with Jesus and became a born-again-Christian. Today she runs a Christian café/bookstore with her similarly devout husband. No longer does she slap dudes and bite cops. These days, the only thing getting thumped is her Bible.

I haven’t been in a full-on fight since. And it should come as no surprise that the experience did little to temper my disdain for white dreadheads. If anything, it’s exacerbated the bias. It’s made it to where I can barely travel in Southeast Asia anymore. Just picture it: There I am, trying to relax in paradise, wanting to murder every third backpacker I see.



One Shining Moment: March Madness, Epilogue


By Pablo Harris

3am was the loneliest time for Paul on the deserted streets amidst the hundreds of high-rise condos in Myeongji New Town. But it was there, in those late nights/early mornings, that he always felt a contented kind of loneliness. So he walked down to the Family Mart, dropped W12,000 on a calling card that would give him 47 minutes to call the West Coast and cracked a tall boy of Cass. He walked down to the water and sat on a concrete wall along the estuary of the Nakdong and began to dial.  

A growly voice answered with a simple, “Hell-low?”  

“Hey, Big T, it’s Pablo. What up, man?”  

“Ehrmm, yeah, what’s up man?”  

“Not up to much, just checking on you, man. It’s been a while.”  

“Yeah, it’s been a while. But, yeah, I’m good.”  

“Cool. You know, just checking, wondering; how’d the rest of Hutty’s bachelor party, Vegas weekend go?”  

“Ah shit, man. Yeah, I told you that Raj ordered up a couple of kind Vagitarian Delight pies to Hutty’s suite, yeah?”  

“Yes you did.”

“Ah, Ginger, yeah, we would’ve had to restrain you from her.” 

“Yeah you told me that, too.”

“Shit, I know I called you from the Caesar’s sportsbook but I don’t know what we talked about. I just know sittin’ there all day, bettin’, drinkin’, and watching all those games, hoping to hit a parlay.  And with all the pony madness going on. It’s a fucking beautiful strange magic. Wish you were there, brotha.”  

“I can imagine the magic, the nervous energy which turns to excitement in direct proportion with how many bloodies and Heinekens are drunk, then the bitterness after buying a few Jame-os because a piddly exacta finally came in and the parlay hasn’t been totally blown yet and you think your luck has changed. And here comes the heat streak but no dice Chino, ‘colder than a well-diggers ass’. Yeah, March Madness and ponies, I’m sure that’s pretty cool and if I was there with all you guys, all that action, all those titty balls, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. But, actually, I did a little gambling of my own that weekend.”

“Oh yeah. Tell me about it.”

* * *

The road out of Tongyeong was at a standstill. Paul and Ellie both felt chills from the palpably frozen silence. After what seemed like hours, Ellie finally broke the ice.

“It’s going to take over three hours to get home. And I just want to go home.”

“Well, yeah, but we’re stuck here. Maybe then… Maybe we should talk about what happened at lunch?”

“I don’t know. Why? Why did you snap at me like that? You were really mean and I’m so foolish for thinking that you really cared.”

“Look, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I snapped. At first, I was excited to hear my boy call me but then it sent me on a weird one. Big T was giving me shit for not being at this bachelor party and not being in this wedding coming up. And then, well, I feel remorse for not being there last month when his father died. And where was I last year when my Aunt Cecelia, my favorite aunt, passed away? Sometimes, I can’t be there for my family and my best friend when they need me and it eats me up. I don’t know how to deal with it. I either deal with grief and regret by drinking on the quiet or lashing out at someone and I’m sorry for that. And maybe I freaked out because I’m scared of falling for you and don’t know when I’m going home again because I’m stoked here. With you. In Busan. In Korea. And my life here. I don’t know how to deal with these conflicts and, even worse, don’t know how to deal with happiness.”

Ellie unclasped the belt and leaned over, placed her hand on his knee, and kissed his neck three times. She smiled and comfortably retreated to her seat.

“Yeah, sweetheart, let’s get home, make out, and make up.”

“Yeah, but this Sunday traffic is the worst. I told you It’s going to take over 3 hours to get home.”

“Nah, this will break soon, it’s gotta break soon, right?”

“I think it’s going to take a few hours to get home.”

“Nah, relax, it’ll break.”

“Do you wanna bet on it?”

“Yeah, Ellie, didn’t know that you were a gambler but, sure. Let’s bet.”

“Ok, how should we do it?”

“Well, maybe an ‘over-under’ bet?”

“What’s that?”

“Well, you pick a time, like say, 2 hours in traffic, and then I bet whether we’ll be in traffic for over 2 hours or under 2 hours, if I’m right, I win. If I choose wrong, you win.”

“Ok, but how about you pick the time and I pick over or under?”

“Ok, I say we are going to be stuck in this jam for one hour.”

“We are definitely going to be in traffic for over an hour, you are going to lose my friend, I pick ‘over’.”

“Ok, bet’s on.”

“How do we know when traffic’s break and someone has won and lost?”

“Don’t worry, we’ll just know.”

About 15 minutes went by, they’d moved maybe 3 miles or so, Paul asked: “You know, we never said what we’re playing for, like what do I get if I win?”

“Well, whatever you want.”

“Let me be clear,  ‘whatever I want’?”

“Yeah, and I get whatever I want when I win.”

“Wow, you are a gambler, Babe.”

“Maybe. I am Korean, you know.”

“Great. Now move out of the way you mother fuckers!”

“Paul, jeez.”

“Sorry, uh, I don’t like to lose.”

“Either do I but you don’t have to yell at these people. Anyway, they’re not going anywhere and we’re not going anywhere for a long time.”

“Son of  whores,” Paul swore dejectedly under his breath.

“I heard that. Anyway, what do you want if you win?”

“Do you really have to ask?”

“Really? Guys are so simple, come on.”

Paul just shrugged and nodded.

“Well, what do you want if you win?”

“I don’t know, but it’s going to be nasty.”

“Hell yeah!”

“No, not like that. I can’t pick anything sexual because you’ll just like it. It’s going to be nasty as in really mean, nasty.”

“Yeah, like what?”

“I don’t know yet, I got to think about it. How about at 4:30 we’ll say what will be our prizes.”

“Good idea, I suppose I should try thinking a bit instead of just going with the usual go-to.”

“What’s your usual go-to?”

“Tell you at 4:30.”

Another fifteen minutes go by, another 3-5 miles, then Ellie inquired about the prize: “So what is it you want if you win?”

“Well, I decided I can’t just go with my go-to blowjob with -”

She interrupted, a bit perturbed, “Come on! I just gave you a blow job yesterday, I give you blowjobs all the time!”

He glanced at her with a raised eyebrow.

“Ok, maybe not all the time but I’m not shy about it either.”

“Fair enough. You are right and that’s why I decided I can’t just choose a blowjob for this victory but you didn’t let me finish what I was going to say: a blowjob with your glasses on.”

What he really wanted to request as his reward was a facial on her glasses a la but figured it’s too early in whatever you call this relationship to go for that.

“Jeez, do glasses really matter that much to you?”

“We’ll discuss that later. Back to the issue at hand. So, like I was saying, I couldn’t go with the usual because you did such a good job of taking care of me yesterday and I thought about making you dress up and do something special for my birthday -”

“Dress up how?”

“Haven’t figured it out yet. But then I thought it’s my birthday, I shouldn’t have to use my capital from winning a bet on my birthday.”

“True, it’s your birthday, it’s your day and it only happens once a year.”

“Then I thought about making you spend the night with me tonight because you’ve never slept with me on a school night and last night was great and I just ate a ton of raw fish and oysters this weekend, you know what that does to me -”

“All right, tell me already, come on!”

“Do you know ‘Spanish-style’?

After about 45 white-knuckle, sweaty-palm nervous minutes, Paul saw the freeway split: one way going up through the middle of the country through Daejeon to Seoul, the other, a veer to the right onto the Namhae Highway to Jinhae, Masan, Busan, up the coast to the DMZ. As he hit the on-ramp he got over 40km for the first time in three-quarters of an hour. 46 minutes after the clock had started, he was doing 120km.

She conceded. Paul raised one finger in the air and triumphantly proclaimed, “Winner, Winner, baby-oiled breasts for dinner!”

“So, Spanish-style, uh, does that mean, like, titty fuck?”



“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t like my breasts. My mom says they’re too big because she says I’m fat.”

“Ridiculous. Just because a tall, curvy girl in all the right places gets judged for somehow being overweight? Bullshit.”

“And, really, that’s what you want for your birthday?”


“Such a boob guy! But I’m glad you are.”

* * *

Big T sarcastically replied to Paul, “That’s great, Pablo. And I thought I was a big winner because I left Vegas only down a couple hundy.”


“And now you’re going to do some perverted shit to this poor girl. I know you, you sick fuck. I fucking hate you now more than ever.”

“Yep. I understand.”