by Mr. Motgol
Over the last couple of years there has been a proliferation of what I call “small beer” joints in the city I call home. These places are great. I can now can grab a cheap, cold, very drinkable glass of lager in my neighborhood without being required to purchase any anju, the often pricey “side dishes” that are de rigeur in any Korean bar. These small beer joints are cozy and friendly. They’re the very antithesis of the dark, sequestered, giant-couch vibe that used to dominate the Korean beer-drinking scene, an arrangement that purposely discouraged interaction between patrons. These places are bright and stylish and take a cue from Japan and the West, with both tables and bar/stool space, all crammed together with an eye for aesthetics. They’re usually run by hip younger folks who don’t spazz out at the fact that a foreigner has sidled up at their counter, even if I come alone. I am a regular at several and they never fuss or stare or bat an eye, but rather treat me just like any Korean patron. But the best part, for me, is proximity. There are five or six of these places within a couple minute walk from my house. No longer do I have to jump on the bus or subway or pay taxi fare just to make my way to one of the sanctioned watering holes for my kind—the so-called “foreigner bars.” I live in a bustling neighborhood with plenty of nightlife and almost no expats, and am tired of the tyranny that one or two districts have held over the drinking options for the waegookin. Finally, I have a local. Well… a few locals, to be precise.
Tuesdays are a grueling day for me this semester. I teach 9 to 9, and though I have an extensive break in the morning, I usually fill it up with my non-teaching work, which often means writing. By the time the day is done I am zapped, and usually ready for a cold, wind-down beer. So last week I headed to the newest small beer joint in my ‘hood, a great place called “Hero Salon.” The proprietor is a skinny, long-haired artist who has done the whole place in a superhero theme, with numerous pop art paintings and murals featuring Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, borrowing heavily in style from the late Keith Haring. Like many small beer joints this one has not one, but two tiny outside counters just a step up of the street. As it was late summer and still warm, I sat my ass at an outside stool, ordered a cold one, and proceeded to get lost in Kindle world.
For a moment, I had found basic bliss. I had finished a long, productive day of work; I was on a quiet side street just minutes from my house, sipping a beer, engaged and transported by the book in front of my eyes. It was proper unwind alone time, and at that moment I couldn’t have been happier.
I glanced up from my reading as a man approached from the street. He looked familiar.
“Do you remember me?” he asked
I then recognized him. He was a professor from my school. A colleague.
“We work together at Suyeong College. I saw you at the restaurant a while back with your wife.”
“Of course…” I said. “Hello.”
“Are you waiting for someone?” he asked. His English was good.
He appeared confused by my answer, as if the idea of a man enjoying a drink alone was too much for his brain to process.
“I’m just reading,” I said, motioning to my Kindle. Please. Go. Leave me alone.
“Oh. Do you live near here?”
I stifled the impulse to lie. “Yes, just around the corner.”
“Me too! What … what a… what’s the word?” He searched the files in his head.
“A coincidence?” I offered.
“Yes, yes… coincidence. But I was thinking of another… hmm… oh: fate. I think our meeting is fate.”
Red flag. Red flag.
With that he took a seat next to me. He would not be fucking off anytime soon. Lucky me. I now had a “buddy.”
He was from Seoul, but worked in Busan. His wife and kids stayed up north, while he sent them cash and maintained a tiny apartment just up the street from the bar. He just came back from playing ping-pong with a friend. He asked me if I ever played ping-pong. I told him that I have only ever really played ping-pong once in my life, twenty years ago, and that it had been a disaster.
With that he switched gears.
“What is your religion?” he asked.
I knew at once where he was headed.
“Uh… I am a Catholic.”
This is true: I am a baptized Catholic, though my beliefs now firmly run on the agnostic side. But when I sniff an overzealous Christian trying to suss out where I stand with God, I always affirm my Catholicism. Being a member of the One True Universal Church can sometimes work as fundie repellent. This can sometimes appease their missionary zeal, though with others, winning me over to “their side” becomes an even more attractive challenge.
“Oh, I see.”
I shifted on my stool, grabbed the beer, and took a big gulp.
“I am a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Do you know about this church?”
“You’re a Mormon?”
“That is right. What do you think of Mormons?”
“Well… I have a lot of respect for Mormons. I just find their beliefs a bit too conservative for my tastes.”
“That is right. No smoking or drinking. I quit 25 years ago.”
With that I ordered another beer. He ordered a Coke. Shit. He’s camped. He had no wife in town to go home to. He was bored and lonely and now had a mission: To win my soul for Joseph Smith and the gang. I would not be getting back to my book. I would not be left in peace. I would have to come up with an exit strategy, STAT.
“What is your wife’s religion?” he asked.
For fuck’s sake.
“She’s a Catholic too.” This was true, her family was as Catholic as mine, but like me, she stopped attending mass years ago.
“I see.” He smiled. “So, what do you usually do on Sundays?”
I usually recover from soul shattering hangovers by drinking goat’s blood.
What he wanted was so nakedly apparent. It was obvious that he was feeling me out, fishing for a chance to try to invite me to his church or rope me into some kind of Mormon’d up activity. It’s happened so many times before, that I can feel it coming. You know how some people have great gaydar? Well I have a highly developed sense of Modar. I remember ages back, 1989 or ‘90, sitting in a park in Lacey, Washington, with three friends, stoned off our asses. We had a guitar and were jamming a couple of songs. Suddenly a couple of clean cut kids our age showed up and asked us if we were hungry, that they were having a barbecue and had extra burgers, hot dogs, and pop. We were in the grips of the munchies and took them up on their offer. As soon as we arrived I felt the zombiefied fake happy/enthusiastic Christian vibe (the weed helped attune me), and sure enough, the whole posse of them were Mormons. They shared their food, only to then push us with the hard sell. They pressured and leaned on to join them at their church the following Sunday. We told them, very politely, to go fuck themselves.
But this guy was a co-worker. He was a professor, a colleague. I had to tread lightly. I needed to occupy that middle ground where he would know, in no uncertain terms, I would never, ever, attend his church, even if they were giving out fistfuls of free cash. But I also had to be nice about it. After all, like most Mormons, he was a nice guy. If he hadn’t played the religion card so early in our conversation, I just may have made a bit of time for him. But probably not. Like I said, I was very happy alone, more than content to NOT participate in new Korean buddy interrogation time.
Now that I knew that what he wanted and that he would not leave me alone that evening, I feigned receiving a text message from my wife.
“Oh, man. I gotta go. The better half requires my presence at home.”
“I see. But we must meet again!”
“What is your phone number?”
I was trapped, so I gave it to him. He even called me right then and there to make sure it went through (it’s harder to just give a bogus number these days). Luckily I saved his name in ALL CAPS, my particular code for DON’T EVER TAKE THIS CALL. EVEN IF YOU ARE ON FIRE.
I paid the bill—including his Coke—which he took for an invitation for him “treat me next time.” And as I walked to the store across the street (I had to buy a few things for home) he followed me, lingering outside for a disturbingly long time while I did my shopping. Finally, when I emerged, bag in hand, he was gone.
I have lived in Korea a long time now, and am pretty accommodating when it comes to slight acquaintances or strangers approaching me to try out some English. I am not one of those douchey foreigners who moans about being a “free English lesson” any time a local wants to talk a bit with a real, native speaker. I know how it can be. I remember when I was learning Spanish, all those years back, and would sometimes approach a Spanish speaker to attempt a conversation. My heart would be beating through my neck, and the first few times I tried the words got jumbled like unevenly shaped stones in my mouth and I came across like a gasping fool. I try to smile and be welcoming of most any folks who address me here out of the blue, but this is only when I know that they’re doing it out of pure curiosity and kindness. I don’t deal well with shallowly hidden agendas.
And sometimes, just sometimes, I really want to be left alone. This was one of those times. I wanted, more than anything, to sip a couple of beers and enjoy the rich harvest of my reading in peace. I didn’t want to talk to ANYONE, foreign or Korean, friend or family. And then when my tranquility was shattered, when I was forced into a conversation that I had no interest in being in, it was with a guy who pretended to want to get to know me as a friend, when we both knew all along that he really didn’t give a shit about what I was really about. He didn’t care about the real me at all. He only wanted to get me to go to his church, in hopes of converting me and earning a notch on his tally of souls. I’ll never have time for that.