When I exited Lotte Mart, I pivoted my plan and decided to sip some soju at a Korean restaurant. On the airport-hotel-lined block, I saw a second-floor sign that read “Soju Hof.”
“Sounds promising,” I thought.
I climbed the stairs, entered the establishment, and found it completely deserted aside from three people who worked there. It looked like a family-run operation. I was excited. I’m all about supporting local small businesses (when it’s convenient).
“An-young-ha-say-yo,” one lady said. I replied the same and bowed slightly.
“Soju?” I inquired.
A perplexed look overcame their faces. What happened? Did I say it wrong? By the looks they gave me, I might as well have walked into a Mexican restaurant and ordered a sushi roll.
“Just soju?” the girl said.
She shrugged her shoulders and gestured me to a table. They brought me a bottle of soju and a small shot glass. As I cracked open the bottle and poured myself a small glass, they also brought me a small ramekin with what looked like marinated beef. I tried a small piece. It was delicious. I asked one guy what it was. He told me the name in Korean. I repeated it back to him. He nodded. I promptly forgot what he said, but thought it best to move on.
Looking to my right, I noticed a collage of soju caps. They hung by their safety seals from a small wire, forming a chain. I looked at my cap and realized the safety seal was completely severed.
“Damn,” I thought. “You could have left your mark on this place. Now you’re just another faceless foreigner.”
Lamenting at my missed opportunity, It became the perfect excuse to drink. I sipped slowly like a fine bourbon. It tasted good – like a weak vodka with a slightly sweet aftertaste. That evening I learned that my soju of choice would be plain and unflavored. I poured myself a second.
Several days later, I would taste a lemon-flavored soju and gag from the oppressive sweetness. It reminded me of my early drinking days when I consumed alcohol solely for the feels. I masked every inkling of alcohol with excess sugar and consequently punished myself with excess hangovers.
Several sips later, the drunchies struck. I studied a bit of Hangul on the flight and decided to try my luck at menu roulette. I squinted my eyes and stared at the characters like a kindergartener reading his first words. The girl who served me noticed, turned to her co-worker and said, “Does he know how to read?”
Ordinarily, I would just say no, but the soju emboldened me to practice. “Tek-kol-bi” I feebly said without a lick of confidence.
“Tteok-gal-bi,” they graciously corrected.
“What is it?” I asked.
One guy formed a circle with his hands. “It is like a beef patty.”
“Oh hell yeah,” I said. “Tteok-gal-bi-ju-say-yo.”
I continued to sip my soju and shifted my gaze to the TV. A Korean baseball game punctuated by nonsensical commercials had my rapt attention. The Samsung Lions led the Lotte Giants 10-2, so the commercials were more exciting at the time.
One man proceeded to deliver scissors, tongs, and an appetizer plate to my table. I was so confused. The alcohol didn’t help. Several minutes later, they brought me a marinated beef patty, exactly as advertised. I stared at my food and utensils with classic foreigner naivete. At least it smelled good.
The man, catching sight of my consternation, showed me how to use the tongs and scissors to cut the patty into bite-size pieces. My Korean was hopelessly limited, so all I could muster was a childlike “whoa” and “wow.”
I then asked for vegetables. They had no idea what I was talking about. I asked about seaweed, only to be met with the same confounded expression. They conferred with each other in Korean, turned to me, and said, “We have pickles.”
“Great,” I said. It was far better than nothing.
As I sipped my soju and sliced and diced my patty (I felt like a little kid again with tiny pre-cut pieces of steak), they brought me a small plate of lettuce, pickles, and onions. I ate them with the beef, creating an improvised low-carb hamburger. It was delicious. After watching more baseball and finishing my soju, I settled the reasonable tab and departed.
Once I made it to the street, I was humbled by the power of soju. I felt like I had drunk a bottle of wine in an hour. While I wasn’t the sloppiest, I wouldn’t be comfortable driving (even back in America). I felt good.
After a short stint of sleep (jet lag is a cruel mistress), I woke up around 4:00 A.M. and felt much less good. By 7:00, a headache set in and learned firsthand the dangers of soju. After some water, coffee, and a dash of exercise, I was ready to meet my teaching cohort – the fellow native English-speakers I would be spending a week with at orientation.
We went hiking in Wolchulsan National Park. I mentally drooled over the lush scenery. When I snapped out of this trance, my friends were gone.
This bar needs a sign like “No Lames or Jinxes Allowed.”
Free exercise parks are very common. One night I hit the pull-up bar with my shirt off. Old people stared for so long I started passing out souvenir photographs.
Even signs warning pedestrians of construction sites are cartoonishly cute.
The Mokpo Love Tunnel. Normally reserved for romantic pictures of committed couples, it occasionally doubles as a funny foreigner photo op.
One of my students drew a picture of me visiting Peace Park in Mokpo. Am I wearing a trench coat or a provocatively short dress from the 1800’s (ankles, ooh-la-la)?