Ten Bottles of Soju
By: Daniel Guerra
Last night was a night. As work was winding down a few teachers who could speak decent English approached me at my desk and informed me that there was a meal in the gym for all of the staff. From what I could gather the meal consisted of raw squid, fish, and soju. I was exhausted from teaching and looking forward to being alone in my apartment, so I politely declined, and even hinted that I may meander down as soon as I was done typing whatever I was half-heartedly typing. Two more colleagues, however, rushed to my desk to invite me as well, and I simply did not have the heart to decline another offer. In the gym I ate a very small portion of the raw squid and imagined, as Mary had advised me a few weeks earlier at the fish market in Sokcho, that the tentacles were merely cold noodles, like leftover pasta. I did not stay longer than twenty minutes and two shots of soju. By now all I could think of was my apartment and my books and the music that I would listen to. Alas, the universe had other plans for me. As I left the gym Young Shee, one of the PE teachers, invited me to dinner. Apparently all of the male teachers, including the office staff as well as the principal and vice principal, would be going. Etiquette demanded that I attend. I agreed, hopped in a jeep with Young Shee and the principal, and headed off to dinner. Young Shee, whose broken English was by far the best of the entire group’s, remarked that we were going to eat beef. That’s fine with me, I thought, I can handle that, especially after the squid. As we sat down lotus style to our dinner, Young Shee corrected himself – indeed, it was beef, but to be exact it was the tendons and cartilage of a cow’s kneecap, served in a warm broth. It was chewy, like an enormous wad of gum marinated in beef. I clumsily ate a respectful portion and consumed every shot that my peers passed my way, remembering to turn away and hide the shot glass as I consumed the alcohol. I believe there were only ten of us present at dinner and we easily had twelve bottles of soju (a single bottle of soju is 360 ml and 19.5 % - a formidable foe by all accounts). By the end of the meal we were all rather tipsy, if not considerably drunk. I figured by now we would hail a few taxis and head home.
The men were merely warming up. We slowly made our way over to a billiards room and stayed for about thirty minutes. Alcohol is not served at such establishments, and I took the opportunity to catch my breath as the men smoked cigarettes, laughed and spoke in a language I simply could not follow. After a few games Young Shee asked if I was ready for the next meal and another round of soju, since all of the teachers and office staff were still hungry and thirsty. I nodded and remarked, “Sure, why not?” We walked a block to a place called The Goat or something of that nature – the logo for the restaurant was an image of some sinister looking goat, baring his teeth, forehead furrowed and eyes the color of crimson and obsidian. We quickly found a table and the men ordered more soju. By now there were only eight of us left (the principal, after paying for the dinner and billiards, went home, as well as the third grade teacher) but we still managed to plough through six more bottles. Over the course of the drinking we ate a bowl of some sort of bug/larvae, which was rather oily and I ate without really looking at it for too long. This creature, of which I never could obtain the name, is to soju what roasted nuts are to beer. In addition to this snack we also ate a pizza-like dish (if I can call it that) with seafood toppings. I ate two pieces, which included shrimp, head attached. The shots kept coming and the men were thrilled that I did not refuse any. The mélange of soju, raw squid, cow knee caps, insects and shrimp pizza was starting to kick my ass, and I believe it was after another round of shots with the vice principal that I nearly threw up on the table and had to rush to the restroom. Fortunately, I was able to hold it in, and simply splashed a little water on my face, pissed out the booze, and headed back to the table. After a final group shot we were all ready to go home. I thanked everyone profusely and told Young Shee we should go out again soon. He seemed delighted. I was assigned to ride home with two teachers who lived in my neighborhood. Between the two of them I think they knew ten words of English, and three of those words were, “One more bottle?” How could I say no?
Thus I ended the night in a small restaurant in Buyeung, a few blocks from my apartment. We ordered one more bottle of soju and three bottles of beer (my request- I swiftly learned how to say beer in Korean). The waitress also brought out a bowl of water and ice which contained peaches and grapes, which I considered a delicious and welcome option after all that I had consumed over the course of the evening. On the severely inebriated walk home one of my new companions held my hand, which is an absolute norm in Korea and not at all considered a homosexual advance. I felt slightly silly, but did not dare to insult my friend. Both of the teachers were singing and laughing uproariously, and continued to do so even after they dropped me off in front of my apartment.
I was home by 10:10 on a Tuesday night, just in time for Gossip Girl.