As I have described before, a job in Korea stamps you with an instant expiration date, and from the time you meet, you know the exact date during which your new friends will be leaving the country for good. When placed in a situation like moving across the world, many people try to sink in to the most solid lifestyle imaginable, and a big part of this includes building a stable group of friends. Because of our shared experiences and situations which have brought us here, I have found that while in Korea, you bond with people much faster than in any other stage of life I have experienced thus far. It is a strange and surreal experience saying goodbye to friends. This week my friend Stephanie will be leaving to move back to Seattle, and just last month our friend Blake left Korea to go to Law School in California. Each goodbye comes with a somber weekend of one last hang outs, and it was during one of these hang out sessions that the blog worthy event that I am about to share with you occurred.
During Blake's last weekend, a group of us reminisced on experiences together and heard Blake's stories of humorous interactions with locals. One such story, told on his second to last night in the country, was of a young Korean man by the name of Min-chul. On a side note, please understand that I am in no way trying to talk down on this culture, but we do frequently find ourselves being placed in situations with very drunk Korean strangers who are more than excited about the prospect of making a new Western friend. The friendship boundaries are very different between the two cultures, and these overly friendly situations can range from awkward but funny to get me the hell out of here. Interactions with Min-chul have landed closer to the latter.
Blake first met Min-chul late one night while walking back to his apartment. Min-chul, seeing a tall foreigner walking alone, read the situation as the perfect opportunity to make a new best friend. Not worrying about the fact that he really doesn't speak any English, he took it upon himself to stumble on over, lock hands with Blake, and inform him that he would be accompanying him on the walk home. Over the man made river and through the apartment complex playgrounds they walked, hand in hand* (one significantly more sober and uncomfortable with the situation than the other) all the way back to Blake's apartment. Upon arrival, Blake informed his new best friend that they had arrived at his building and it was time to say goodbye. "I come see apartment?" asked Min-chul. "Well, no." replied Blake.
Blake encountered Min-chul several more times during his stay in Korea, and each incident produced pretty similar results, with consistent levels of sobriety on Min-Chul's end. A seasoned expert, Blake was wise and remembered the most important rule one must follow when in a Min-chul-esque situation. Don't give out your phone number. They will always ask for your phone number. We laughed at his story, all creating images of Min-chul in our minds, images we, at the time, did not know would soon be corrected by the walking (stumbling) talking (slurring) version of Min-chul in real life.
On his final night in Korea, only one day after we had all learned about the existence of Min-chul, we were sadly sitting around a table, eating our final meal together and preparing to say goodbye to a good friend. With his back facing the door, Blake didn’t notice the young Korean man stumble inside. “Brake?” said the man. Blake turned. “BRAKE!” said the man we soon learned was Min-chul, who was just as sober (or not) as we had imagined.
Without a moment’s hesitation he pulled up a chair and, despite our cries of protest, ordered the group a bottle of Soju. He proceeded to confirm all of the details Blake had shared with us about the awkwardness of the Min-chul experience, and we threw in the necessary lies we felt were needed for a quick exit once the bill was paid. Table conversations included the most amount of conversation that can be expected from two groups of people who don’t really speak the other’s language, though he did know enough to inform Jenny and Stephanie that while they were both beautiful, he thought Jenny was the most beautiful. Thank you Min-chul.
Our lies had painted a story that had the four of us going our own separate ways post dinner and strongly indicated that Min-chul’s presence was no longer needed. Unfortunately ‘strongly indicated’ was just not strong enough. Both Jenny and Stephanie hadn’t followed the ‘no phone numbers’ rule and both succumbed to the constant requests to exchange numbers with the wasted individual whom they had just met. I, however, felt really smart and claimed to be the one person in the world without a cell phone. Though I thought this seemed like a really good idea at the time, I never expected that it would actually secure me a spot as the most vulnerable person in the group.
Seeing as I didn’t have a phone in which to store his number, it only made sense that we would have to stop by a convenience store so he could write down his information on a napkin. Clearly, I would be calling him really, really frequently. In times like these one relies on their friends to take their equal shares of the awkward person burden, and as we neared the convenience store, I was horrified to hear Stephanie yell, “HAVE A GOOD NIGHT PETER” and turn to see the three of them running off down a side street. Great. Just me and Min-chul. I got the napkin with the number and I announced I was really exhausted and would be sure to get in touch soon, only to learn firsthand that history really does repeat itself. “I walk you home.” Fantastic. Hand in hand, we began the walk to my apartment.
After what felt like the longest 2 minutes of my life, we arrived at my apartment, and for the 157th time that evening, I told Min-chul that it was “really great meeting (you). Have a good night.” He stumbled around for a moment not sure what to say next, while I took the opportunity to bolt inside my building. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am not the type of person who will run for anyone or anything, but I broke this personal rule and ran like the wind, ignoring Min-chul’s yells of “WAIT! WAIT” in the background.
I reached my apartment door and, hearing that Min-chul had followed me inside and was climbing the stairs in to my building, I pounded in the key code to my door with the intensity of a high school cheerleader in a 90s’ slasher movie. Just as I began to open my door a breathless Min-chul rounded the corner. @#&%!. “I use bathroom?” “Ok,” I said, feeling defeated and on the verge of tears. This is how, just a day after hearing Blake’s story, I found myself sitting alone in my apartment with none other than Min-chul, the 20 year old, foreign stalking, Korean alcoholic.
He was in my bathroom for several minutes, though in all fairness, what comes in must come out, and when taking into consideration just how much he had to drink that evening, it is no surprise that it was quite a lengthy stay. He had barely stepped foot out of my bathroom before I all but pushed him out my door. He came up with every question imaginable to prolong his departure, and after several minutes of me telling him that really, I absolutely had to go to bed right that minute, he turned to me with a huge smile, said in very broken English that he was so happy to have made a new foreign friend, and then dropped the big one. “In Korea ok to say to man… I love you Peter.”
“Ok, good night!”
After he finally left, I sat on my bed, still in shock about what had just happened. I was soon joined by Blake, Stephanie and Jenny who had been hiding in an alley outside, giggling as they watched for Min-chul's exit. I can honestly say that I never expected to hear the L word after knowing someone for 45 minutes, and now that I have, I can say from first hand experience that it is not quite as one would hope. I fortunately have not seen Min-chul, the Korean who loves me, since that night, but I round ever street corner with fear in my heart that I will once again be escorted home by the friendliest, most awkward individual whom I never called back.
That is all for now, stay tuned for updates on my recent vacation back to Busan, visitors to Korea and details on the time I flung a full cup of pepsi all over a nice little Korean family.
In the States this situation would most likely be seen as a homosexual pass, but I assure you that in Korea this simply not the case. It is not uncommon to have conversations with Koreans who firmly believe that there are no gay people in Korea, and, with wide eyes, will ask if you have ever seen a gay person before. This means that straight men are not at all uncomfortable with being overly affectionate with their male friends, because no amount of hand holding/cheek grabbing/hand resting on crotch action will be viewed by their fellow Koreans as anything bordering gay. I frequently will see a male construction worker taking a cigarette break while sitting on the lap of his construction worker friend or two old business men walking down the street hand in hand. And while I think it is great that Korea is a very openly affectionate culture, the invasion of the bubble by wasted strangers can take some getting used to.