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October 1, 2011

For those of you who are baseball fans, the title of this post is a triple play on words.

So I managed to expand the flight into a whole post with silly pictures. That’s excellent blogging tactics right there. This next one is going to be all text, but it’s a much more interesting story.

I arrived at the Incheon airport with no problem and was greeted by a driver who spoke very little English. He gave me a thing of vitamin water and drove me for about 45 minutes to the lovely city of Ilsan. He didn’t offer much of a tour on the way in, so I did my best to read as many signs as I could (at this point I could understand about 10 or 12 symbols in the Korean alphabet). He took me to the school to introduce me to the director. The school director wasn’t there, so I was told to go to my “temporary housing” until 9 pm, when all the teachers and school staff would be going out to dinner.

I’ll write more about the temporary housing later, but they described it as “like a university dorm… only smaller”. It was a closet that doubled as a bedroom that doubled as a shower. I got footage of it with my camera. It’s literally the most depressing place I’ve ever lived in my life of white privilege.

Anyway, back to the story. At this point I’m running on about 5 hours of sleep in the last day and a half, so I immediately fall asleep at about 4 in the afternoon.

I wake up to the sound of a knock on my door, completely disoriented (“Am I in Korea? Daaaamn”) in a pitch black room. There’s a Korean guy at the door frantically pointing to a phone he has brought to me. I see that it’s 9 pm and I’m late for the dinner. Way to make a good impression.

I threw on a nice shirt and tie and ran downstairs to where a car with several school staff members picked me up and drove me to a parking lot, from there we walked to a restaurant in a very busy section of Ilsan. I hope you’ve been paying attention to the smaller details in the story up until this point, because I certainly wasn’t.

I’m greeted by all the teachers and school staff at an outdoor Korean BBQ place. They all seem like really nice people and I’m trying desperately to not look as absolutely exhausted as I am. I tried to make conversation while enjoying some pretty good food.

But there wasn’t just good food, there was good drink. Soju, the national beverage of Korea, was being served like crazy. I’m sure I can devote a whole post to the stuff, but for now let’s just say it’s a rice based vodka-ish drink. It’s 20% alcohol and it costs a dollar for a bottle. Koreans, I have learned, don’t drink to get a mild buzz for an evening of jocularity. No no, they only know how to be blackout drinkers. They also believe that they can’t really trust you or be your friend until they’ve seen you drunk.

(All of these things were very quickly explained to me by one of my coworkers who was sitting next to me)

I should pause the story to tell you a bit about myself, in case you’re not awesome enough to know me. I’m social enough, but I’m not a drinker. At all. Ever. I’ve never seen the point of it, never liked the idea of it, and never once in my life truly partaken in it. I don’t really feel the need to go into my reasons about it, but it’s important to mention my principles here and now on the blog, because in the next few paragraphs they’re going to get tested.

I meet with my employer, the school director, and he pours all the teachers a shot of Soju. Now, it’s terribly impolite to refuse a drink from your “social superiors” in this country, especially during a welcoming and ice breaking event like this one. At this point, the man has spent thousands of dollars flying me from Toronto all the way to Korea and he’s more or less just hoping for the best. I stared at the shot of Soju for quite some time.  I didn’t want to get things started on the wrong foot, but I also really didn’t want to drink any…

Soju actually doesn’t taste awful as long as you don’t taste it. If you pour it straight back you get a little hint of a strangely toxic but inviting flavor. If you hold it in your mouth your taste buds writhe in a kind of primal agony as they scream at you to swallow as quickly as possible. Naturally, this is not a beverage for someone who was planning on sipping their way to victory like me.

I’m not sure any of my coworkers or employers actually suspected my incredible level of noobishness when it came to the world of alcohol. I say this because they wouldn’t fucking stop pouring more. I was constantly trying to offset the Soju shots with food and water in between, because I have no idea what my actual limit is. Sure, I have strong Irish blood, but I also have a liver that has yet to be introduced to large quantities of ethanol, not to mention the skinny figure of a well DDRed nerd. Who knows how much will get me drunk and how much more will knock me unconscious?

After what I have later reconstructed as a bottle and a half of Soju, my employer looks at me and says I look completely exhausted and should go home. I see this as the social escape rope that it is (points for those who get that one) and I take it. The school director pairs me up with one of the other teachers and gives him directions to my temporary apartment and we start walking home.

Let this be the moment of revelation where we flash back through all the details I’ve given you thus far and show you that you were really stupid for not figuring out Bruce Willis was dead the whole movie… or something like that.

I drove in to Ilsan in the afternoon and went from the school to my apartment. It was now the evening and we had driven from the apartment to a parking lot and then walked to the restaurant, meaning I had NO bearing on where I was relative to… anything. I’ll remind you that I was trying to find the CoCo residence, but only knew a few letters of Korean and that I had had more to drink in the last two hours than I had even contemplated having in my whole life. Also, jet lag.

But that’s okay, I’ve got this other teacher here to show me the way, right?

Yeah. Korean addresses don’t use street names and numbers. That would be too easy, so they use building names and districts instead. I later learned that this other teacher and I wandered around through Ilsan for close to an hour when we could have made it home in five minutes. The teacher I was paired up with passed me off to another teacher, who also didn’t know where the building was. As a side note, I saw this teacher vomit on the floor and then drink another shot of Soju less than 60 seconds later, so I didn’t trust his sense of direction. After twenty minutes of trying to get a Korean cab to take me home, I somehow managed to piece together two mental images in my alcohol addled mind and find my building.

This was how I became acquainted with this country and the people I’d be working with. I left before the drinking really got out of hand, like I always do, and it was still a hell of a night. But come on, this is supposed to be my Korean adventure year! What better way to begin than with a combination of culture shock, disorientation, and trying new things?

More posts to come soon! Man, Soju leaves you with a mean headache….


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  1. James permalink

    Escape rope… Pokemon….
    Cmon man! Scheazy!

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