Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my three years in Andong, South Korea. Certain characters are inspired by real people that I love dearly and incidents are a mish-mash of things that have happened to myself and others. Hoya is definitely a real person and Indis is definitely a real place that he runs, and he’s a gem of a human being. Go there and visit, but just don’t stand up and walk around to other tables, as that makes him frown. There might be more installments in this, as I have three years’ worth of material.
As has been the case since the dawn of alcohol, there is a bar.
This bar is in the Okdong neighborhood in Andong, a small city three hours by bus from Seoul. (Give or take; depending on the highway traffic and the sanity of the driver.)
The bar is called ‘Indis’. There is a patio at the front, the entrance flanked by statues of a cowboy and Native American of questionable political correctness. All the tables are empty, it being only seven o’clock, and not wanting to be eaten alive by mosquitoes, you opt to keep them that way. You head inside and are immediately greeted by the tall, curly-haired owner, who smiles and asks you about yourself.
“Table?” he asks. You shake your head. He ushers you to the island by the bar and pulls out a stool for you. Before he leaves you alone, he gives you a menu and a bowl full of little peanut things that are suspiciously addictive. Two pirates of the same make as the statues outside can be seen nearby staring into infinity, the female probably wondering how her breasts remain buoyant with the lack of any meaningful support, and everything is lit through lights filtered through empty drink bottles collected, cut, and glued for that purpose.
You open the menu.
“Pork cutlet’s quite fine,” says a voice to your right. It belongs to a woman, obviously an ESL teacher who might occasionally moonlight as a grizzled Yukon prospector. You notice a curious crescent-shaped scar on her cheek. You do not want to ask about it – you were not raised in a barn – but she notices your interest and is not offended.
“Now that’s a story and a half,” she says. “Let me order you a beer and I’ll tell you all about it. Hoya! Cass oh-baek du-gae ju-sae-yo.”
As she launches into her tale, ‘Step by Step’ by New Kids on the Block begins to play…
Now I ain’t one to toot my own horn, but I can hold my liquor right well. There was a time that weren’t the case, though, back when I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young thing, who’d never taught a kid outside a practicum.
I’ll skip the whole sorry mess of orientation – they’d never brought up compasses during that whole two weeks, not once – and skip straight to our lot’s arrival here in Andong. See, there was a whole pack of ‘em just like me, who’d only even found out what city we’d be in the other night. Some of us didn’t have our apartments yet and of those of us that did, not all of us had a bed to lay ourselves down in.
So there I was in my apartment, tryin’ to puzzle out the floor heating controls and laying out my clothes in a strategic manner on the laminate, when my laptop made a ‘ding’! See, we’d all signed up on an online group and some old timers found us and invited us out for drinks at this very Indis. And it being Friday night in an unfurnished apartment, I was champing at the bit to go. Took me ‘bout an hour to find this place, even though it’s ‘bout a ten minute stroll from where I was living at the time.
Soon as I arrived, it was pretty clear to me that lots of other folk had the same idea and good ol’ Hoya here had made sure they all had a cold glass stein filled with that unfortunate Cass beer in front of ‘em. Most of ‘em were loud in their happiness, which annoyed the Korean clientele some, but the old timers knew how to smooth ‘em over – bottle of soju, with compliments. (That’s a trick you ought to remember, because you will be annoying ‘em, despite yourself.) But there were two old timers that particularly caught one’s attention: a large Australian gentleman of Indian extraction and his tiny white South African sidekick. Or should I say, co-conspirator. They plotted their business at that long table in yonder corner there.
The gentleman – we’ll call him ‘S’ – had a smile like that particular Buddha, one you’d be inclined to trust down to the pits of hell and back. The lady – shit, they had the same initial, let’s go with ‘A’ – was more of a hippie-type, the sort you’d find up at a yoga retreat. The two of ‘em had certain implements arranged on the table space in front of their persons: bottles of soju, bottles of Coke, small glasses from which one obtained the bounty of the beer tower that had been ordered for our collective enjoyment, and smaller shot glasses.
I’d been to university. I should’ve known those two were up to no good. But I ignored my gut and paid heed to their seductive words. Grant you, those seductive words came between genuinely useful know-how ‘bout how not to go anywhere but a pharmacist for meds and the best place to get some tolerable cheese, but still now.
“Nah, you haven’t tried a so-maek-col yet?” asked A. ‘Course, I shook my head. “You really have to, man. Rite of passage.”
S appeared to agree, but also appeared not to press the point when I shook my head, which was a feat of obfuscation, if you get my meaning.
So you understand the next events better, this is how you prepare a so-maek-col: you pour in the beer – the maek-ju – in that small glass. You carefully layer the coke over top. (Or is it the other way ‘round? Nevermind.) Then you fill that shot glass of soju, drop it into the concoction, and slip the whole thing in front of some unsuspectin’ hick.
Such as myself.
Soju-maekju-cola. So-maek-col? Y’see?
Gradually-like, the conversation seemed to go all quiet-like and even more gradually, I realized that I was the focus of the quiet. I looked down and what did I see? A perfectly prepared so-maek-col. To my left, S – the undoubted creator of the monstrosity – smiled in a reassuring manner. To my right, A was mouthing those words, ‘do it, man, come on.’
I did it, swallowing it all in one shot. Foul stuff, surprisingly drinkable, and it hit you like a sledgehammer. It got all that much harder to say no to the second, third, fourth as the night grew old and the room started spinning and I soon found a powerful need for the bathroom. Fortunate me, the second of the two stalls for women-folk were free and I hung on to that toilet like it was my dear ma.
I must’ve spent some time in there, ‘cause I felt a hand on my shoulder. It belonged to a creature that looked like A, talked like A, but my heart thought it knew better at the time.
“You are not ‘A’,” I said, in between my upheavals. “You are a devil imposter from the pits of hell, sent to drag me into the eternal pits of torment.”
“Let me help you up, love,” said A, throwin’ aside these base accusations in the interest of righting her wrongs. I remember tryin’ to fight her, but talking to A afterwards, she just remembered me kinda wiggling my arms like a dizzy gorilla. “We’ll get you home.” She led me out the bar, bought me two Powerades at a 7-Eleven, and made me chug one of ‘em with some ibuprofen she had in her purse before sending me off in a taxi.
Yes, I did get home all right, and I got into my apartment building all right, and I even got into my one room all right. ‘Til I found my school saw good to bring in my furniture while I was out gallivanting, by way of walking into my new desk, stumbling, tripping backwards, and landing cheek-first on the corner of my bed. And that’s how I got this here scar. I’d like to say I got it in a more heroic way than that – say, in a bar fight – but I pride myself on honesty.
Saturday came quickly after that, and the day was largely spent feelin’ regretful. But as social media taught me then, I wasn’t the only one, and I took a certain amount of peace in that.
“I’d like to say I’d never over-indulged in such a fashion again, but that’d be a damnable lie,” she finishes, just as the pork cutlet is delivered to you – bigger than your face, with a heap of rice beside. You silently pledge to yourself that you will finish this meal, and maybe one more beer after the present one, before returning to your one-room apartment. You will be clear-headed and sober this weekend as you explore the city and prepare for your first day at your new school.
As more and more of the foreigners trickle in over the course of the evening, this pledge proves to be a lie.