Editor’s Note: This is part two of several of a self-reflection from a well-known expat from in and around the HBC hood. Due to the honest and perhaps incriminating events in this reflection and the 420- friendly ones in the parts to follow he is sticking with his code name: HBCTravis
The Christmas holiday season of 2010 was a mangled mess. On Christmas Eve, there were about five of the usual suspects sitting in the HBC Bar smashed out of their minds. Kenny had the night off due to it being Christmas and him being too drunk to tend the bar. He had done several 48-72 hour shifts at the bar over the last couple of weekends and needed the time off. He came in for awhile, but he was pretty fucked at that point in the night and was not allowed to dole out any booze, except for what he was drinking. There was Mizaru, rocking out, bobbing and weaving like a boxer while play-listing on the jukebox. There was Mel, a big titty and sharp witted gal from northern Canada, sipping vodka/apple juices and cackling wildly. There was David, a quiet and timid middle aged guy from England, who would trash talk and hope he had an audience while finishing up a two day bender. And there was “Jersey Shore.” She was a tall skinny blond from New Jersey with the mouth of a turn-pike trucker and acting like she wanted a Christmas slamming from anyone who would give her one. Mikey was raising toasts and filling us with the Spirit the best he could, yet despite the scene playing out in front of him he was always looking around wondering where his partner and owner of the HBC Sunny was.
Another local dreg known as Davie K’s roommate showed up and brought along a couple of gays from the States to let in on the madness. The more faded of the two was flamboyantly gay and sloppy drunk. He sauntered around the bar and up to anyone with a tube steak between their legs and gave it a try. The other less swoosh gay guy’s name was “Fabio.” He was the real Fabio’s HBC doppelganger equivalent, a spitting image of the man. He had been involved in a punch out with “Tommy from Boston” in the HBC Bar a month or so prior and to some locals this was remembered as, “The night that Tommy tooled Fabio.” And it was known by all that “Jersey Shore” was the instigator of the fight. She was truly a disturbed minx. However, all was forgiven on Christmas Eve and “Fabio” and Jersey Shore were allowed in the bar.
Fabio was pissed off at nature from the moment he strolled in. Someone had apparently stolen his Versace coat in a night club prior to them arriving at HBC. That or he was too trashed and just forgot it. No one was sure which it was. He was storming around the bar and bursting out into fits of rage. He would say to Jersey Shore,
“It’s not fair! People are just jealous of me because my good looks and my nice things!” Jersey Shore playing fag-hag replied, “I know and people should be jealous of you! Look at you!”
I was happy to see Fabio’s coat get stolen. He was a self centered prick and if a few punches to the face and a missing coat were all that karma dealt him, he was also lucky. There were far too many volatile ghosts and ghouls haunting the bar that night. I needed to get out of there fast. I sat in the scene swirling around me, and began texting. I texted any woman in my phone who I thought I had a chance with. I didn’t want to spend Christmas alone or with the mad-hatters in the bar. I thought the chance of anyone responding was slim to none considering it was about three in the yuletide morning. Me being about 10 beers deep wasn’t counting on the odds either. In fifteen minutes I got a reply from a, whose name I saved in my phone as “Wine Bar Yoja.” We had met each other through “Blow Job John,” a mutual friend –whose nickname is easily understood– during the summer. She was a Korean woman in her mid thirties and owned a small wine bar in Hongdae. I was surprised she responded as we had not had spoken with each other for several months. She said she was drinking at an out-door drinking tent, “po jag macha” in Hongdae with a couple of friends and that I was welcome to join in. I lurched out of the bar into the frigid Christmas night and hailed a taxi to Hongdae.
When I arrived Wine Bar Yoja was already well on her way. She was drinking soju with a couple of musicians. Her friends were interested to chat with a foreigner and ended up singing a few tunes for the cheer-filled crowd in the tent. She looked different than I remembered. She looked like a person who had seen all the crap that life can throw at anyone and it stuck to her. Age was beginning to creep into her face. She looked real. She looked happy, sitting next to the heater, in the freezing tent on Christmas morning. Shots of soju were shared and the Spirit of Christmas was in us all. After drinking for a few hours we said our goodbyes to her musician friends and dipped out back to her place. It was small, cramped, and poorly lit. Not the kind of apartment you would think of for an aspiring business women. She cleared off some space and uncorked a bottle of red. We sat there, in the cold stale air of the morning, and enjoyed half a bottle or so talking about life, where we were going, and where we had been. We shared ideas and feelings and criticized each other’s way of living. She was angry that I hadn’t phoned her in months. It just wasn’t going to happen between us. We would meet once in awhile share some drinks and then not talk for months. Then out of the blue one of us would call. It was done. But on Christmas, on Christmas anything could be. We crawled into bed and slept tightly next to one another under the thick down covers. I awoke, still drunk, at about eleven in the morning. I had to go. There was a Christmas party to attend and Wine Bar Yoja had to work. I agreed to meet her the following week for lunch kissed her goodbye and left the apartment. That would be the last time we met.
I emerged from her apartment to the blaring sunshine of a snowed over Christmas day in Seoul. The wind was blowing cold and heavy and there were no taxis to be found. It seemed they had all knocked off for the day. After waiting for around twenty minutes a cab stopped and took me back over to Haebangchun. My roommate was awaking from his slumber and readying himself for the party our friend “Frankie” was holding. Frankie’s parties were known for the great food and the quantity of drink consumed, and a variety of sexually suspect characters who attended. My roommate and I sat around and talked shit for a bit about the previous nights events, collected ourselves, and headed out. On the way, we stopped at the local corner store Kobawoo and I picked up a box of red. I figured with that many boozers the box would at least keep me in the round.
Frankie greeted us, eagerly showed us around, and introduced us to everyone. He sat us at the table with the least-sober people in the room. Everyone was sitting around in various states of hammered; eating, yammering away about whatever was on their mind, and enjoying an estranged holiday ambiance. Wine bottles were being uncorked and drank at breakneck speeds. The conversation at the table was a free for all that night. Topics of life and death, politics, marriage and divorce, the drudgery of expat life, sanity and insanity, bowel movements, war, and religion were all being discussed openly and freely. There was a sense of dark happiness amongst those gathered at the table on that Christmas evening. Some of the more sensitive Koreans at the party were shocked and appalled by the conversation. Others were amazed by the frankness and openness of the scene that was playing out in front of them
About halfway through the party and halfway through my fourth or fifth bottle of wine, I got a call from an unrecognized number. The woman on the other end could barely speak English. I managed to take away from the conversation that she was a former student’s mother, she was dying of cancer, and that she needed to see me that night. I informed her that I was wasted at a party and that I had no idea who in the hell she was. She said it was urgent and insisted that she needed to see me that night. I asked Frankie if it would be OK if the total stranger/potential maniac could come over and he agreed. About twenty minutes later a portly looking ajumma in her mid 50’s, wearing a parka and a red cap emerged from a taxi. She informed me that she was a preacher’s wife, she was dying of cancer, and that I had taught one of her son’s at ***** Elementary School. I couldn’t recall ever seeing this person before in my life. We let her loose on the party and it was a scene.
She was preaching to us about Jesus and about the need to find god in our lives.
“Do you knowuh Yeasuneme Christoh? My husbanduh the preachuh.”
The party couldn’t have cared less about this women’s condition or the message she was giving that Christmas night. We were un-house broke pagans doing our thing; not Greeks sharing in a symposium. This lady was killing the buzz. She was an elephant in the room. People were drinking, smoking, swearing, cursing god, and generally starting shit with her. It must have been like visiting the gates of hell for this lady. She ate, slowly wandered around the room, looked at us all a bit, and then was shown the door. To this day, I have no idea who the woman was or why she called me that evening. Maybe I was one of her boy’s teachers, but calling a total stranger on Christmas night, on your deathbed, is beyond me. I felt pity and sorrow for her. Maybe that was her trick.
The overalls themes of Christianity and the afterlife that were swirling around me that Christmas and for the ongoing year at the Christian hagwon were unnerving. The dropin-in Christian woman from the party phoned me a few times, but I never picked up. There was nothing wrong with her, but she was another person from that time that I didn’t want to remember. I felt haunted by ghosts of living and dead, of past and present. I felt shaken to the core from all that drinking and all the cloudy living.
I vowed to myself to change my ways. Not necessarily with a belief in religion, but in how I lived life. I spent the next week at home relaxing and recovering from the post Christmas glut, crapping out all that strange shit that had occurred. I did some work around the house, slept off the holidays, watched documentary films, and did some reading and writing. I reevaluated my priorities and decided 2011 would be the year I left Korea. No matter what.
I was lonely and decided to go to my old fall back of getting dates via online dating. On January 1, 2011, I went out on my first date with Minz. She was a short, cute, and soft spoken Korean girl who wore wide rimmed glasses and liked to dress in a pair of skinny jeans. She was an interior designer. She was very caring and paid great attention to the details of life. She seemed to have me pegged from the beginning. She didn’t drink alcohol, but was OK with me drinking as long as I didn’t make a scene when we were out. She wanted to be with me always. She seemed genuinely concerned about me. We fell in love and spent the winter going through the puppy dog phases of a new relationship. She didn’t want me going out to the bar as much, but allowed me to drink at home. I followed Bukowski’s mantra on drinking at home as much as possible.
We hung out with each other nearly every day for the next two months. We stayed home and had big meals of Japanese food, we shared smiles and warm hand squeezes under the table. We were inseparable. My health was slowly coming back to me and the ghosts had retreated, but in the back of my mind I still remembered those dark holiday days and the New Year’s resolution I made to myself. I knew that if it was to work out between Minz and me, a move to Cambodia wouldn’t mean the end. My life in Korea finally came to an end when I decided to overstay my tourist visa. Maybe I overstayed as a pretense to leave Korea. You always need a reason to leave somewhere. The first week of overstay I thought that everything was going to be fine and dandy. I tried to play it cool. I would think to myself, “People overstay tourist visas, right? RIGHT?” As the weeks passed, I became increasingly anxious and worried about what was to become of me when I did finally leave. With some reluctance, I decided that it was time to pack up shop and go. I waited out most of February before I decided to buy the ticket. I sold my things and pawned my piece of shit apartment off on another unfortunate soul. It was time to flee and the sooner the better. I could feel the bastards closing in with every passing day. I was nearly thirty days delinquent and had no idea where I was going. I needed to make a decision fast.
Leaving a comfortable if scrambled life for one of uncertainty is never easy. All the money had been spent and all the drinks had been drunk and were finally accounted for and straight in my mind. Maybe not straight, but good enough for my conscience to digest. Good and bad deeds had been done while I was in Korea. People loved me and despised me. Life had happened and life is sometimes messy. I had been fucked and had done my share of fucking. It was time to pay the tab and go.
I packed up my belongings, settled debts, said goodbyes to friends, and bought a one way ticket to Phnom Penh. I promised my girlfriend I would remain faithful to her while in Cambodia. I tried to tie up the loose ends in my life. Unfortunately, after six years some things are too complicated to be wrapped up completely and things have to be left unresolved. Fuck the crazy Christian school and the manic money lady. Fuck this shack above the VFW Bar. Fuck the boozed out days and the wasted six years. Whatever was holding me to the peninsula for the last six years had released its grasp. Goodbye to all that.
Dread crept over me as I prepared to board the bus for Incheon. It was February 28th. The sky was dark and overcast. It was still cold and windy in Seoul, with the feeling of early spring barely creeping into the cold city day. My girlfriend tried to reassure me on the bus that everything would be OK. I knew that they could fuck with me if they wanted to. It was immigration’s job to fuck with people. I had been working illegally in Korea for over a year and if they wanted to question me, I had given them good reason to do so with the overstay. I was hoping they would go easy on me. I had barely enough cash for the ticket out and to survive in Phnom Penh until I found work. I was hoping for a nice stern warning and a relaxing flight to Guangzhou, China.
I entered the airport and went to the immigration office, located in a dingy back office. There was no one in the room except me and two middle aged female clerks. I went up to the clerk who looked the most kind of the two and said, “I think I may have overstayed my visa and not realized it.” She looked at my passport, looked at me for a moment, rolled her eyes, and said, “Fill out this form please.” The form was an admittance of guilt on the overstay. I gladly signed the document and handed it back to her. She smiled, stamped my passport and said, “Don’t do it again sir. Please respect the Korean law. Have a nice flight.” That was it? “Don’t do it again. Have a nice flight.” No questions about what the hell I had been doing in Korea for six years? No concern for all the coming and going? Here’s to bureaucratic incompetence. Here’s to Korea. I was pleased as punch. It had all been too easy, the whole messy affair. I sat back in my seat and smiled with broad satisfaction as the plane departed Incheon. I decided that I would get drunk on the way to Guangzhou.
Time doesn’t dull the emotions and if anything it makes them sharper. All the wasted years, youth, and potential had finally been realized completely. I had killed my twenties on the peninsula and didn’t have much to show for it. We all gotta kill that time somewhere. Was it wise to spend all those years in Korea? The years went by in a blur, in half realized blips of boozed out consciousness. They went by in flashes of classrooms and children’s faces. They went by in the long nights of Seoul life. “Whoa, what in the hell happened to me after university? Did I actually move to Korea? Had it really been six years already? My parents must be getting up there in age now. I should probably go home for a visit soon. Life really is as short as they say. I think I am going to be dead someday. It’s coming at you like a speeding bullet.”
All those put off thoughts rushed over me as I drifted off to sleep on that flight. All the regret and missed opportunities of the last six years of living came to me. All those ghosts came back for one last visit. Leaving Korea was a victory, but it certainly didn’t feel or taste likes one. I left, stumbling blindly into an unknown future, into an unknown country, another life yet unlived and yet unrealized. I had next to nothing in my name. I had escaped with some clothes, a few bucks, and the memories. I was starting anew and it felt much too late for new beginnings. Sometimes we are the most free when we realize that we have absolutely nothing at all. Goodbye Korea. Hello Phnom Penh.
To Be Continued.