I arrived in Osaka, tired and jetlagged- a stopover from London to pick up my Korean work visa. Even the train journey from the airport was stunning- the morning September sun dazzled on the sea with the promise of new life, new adventure.
Killing time while my visa was being processed, I wandered the shopping streets marveling at all the sights and sounds and, let’s face it, the hot Japanese women.
If Korea is even half as good as this, I thought, I will be in for one hell of a year. As it turned out, it wasn’t even a tenth as good and was a genuine hell in many respects.
Many hours later and soon into the car journey from Incheon airport to where I would be staying I felt my stomach and heart and kitchen sink. Why hadn’t I just stayed in Osaka? It looked cool and fun and funky. Out here, patches of Korean restaurants and fake flashing palm trees drifted past in a way that lowered my mood with each passing mile.
As we arrived at what would be my shared housing, two white guys came out to meet me. The thin one beamed at me. The other, who was morbidly obese, smiled weakly and waved his hand in an almost apologetic way.
“Hey buddy, you must be Rick, right? Great ta meet cha. I’m Ethan!” said the thin one.
“Hi,” I said. He was impressively warm and genuine. You can always tell. “Rick.”
“Hey. Peter,” said the other guy.
I shook his hand also. “Rick. Nice to meet you.”
They carried my bags upstairs, all the while Ethan giving a running commentary about the job, the hagwon, the boss Patricia which I was too tired to process any of. “Anyhow,” he said, “Who cares, right? You wanna go grab some beer and chicken? There’s a place just down the street.”
Sitting, knackered and jetlagged in the midnight street, we ordered beer and waited for the chicken to arrive. It was impressively warm for late September and the buildings towered over us, a mess of neon signs and incomprehensible Korean letters. The drink was disappointingly watery and tasteless, however.
“What’s this beer called?” I asked.
“Hite,” said Ethan, “But we call it Shite. All the beer here is crap.”
He gave me the rundown on the rest of Korea’s hop-based beverages. There was also O.B. (B.O.) and Cass (Ass). The only ‘decent’ choice was the much-reviled Budweiser which, dreadful as it is, was and is much better than the domestic brands.
“Or you could just drink soju. It’s great with this plum thing in it.”
“Is there any weed in this country?” I asked.
“Nope. I mean, that’s public enemy number one as far as the cops are concerned,” said Ethan. “Even a gramme and you’ll be toast.”
My feelings of dread panic started surfacing again. I was already withdrawing and I knew it. How would I even sleep, jetlag or no?
Once we had got the important stuff out the way, talk turned to who we were and what we were doing in Korea anyway.
Ethan L Newtslap, to give him his full name, was a fairly recent graduate from America, in his second year in Korea and taking time out to decide on whether to do a Masters in Mathematics. He was thin, wiry and hairy with a quicksilver wit and bags of caustic optimism. Over the weeks that followed, he would prove to be a superb foil for me. Whatever I said that was funny he would immediately top, causing me to try to top that and so on. It was in his company that I eventually ended up saying the single most funny thing I have ever come out with off the cuff. Sadly, I was drunk at the time and had totally forgotten what it was the next morning.
Peter, by contrast, was all down in the dumps about his life and life choices. I won’t be too hard on him because he was a nice guy stuck in a self-defeating cycle of eating litre tubs of Haagen Daz ice cream, all the while sobbing about his size. Ex-US military, he was convinced he had been the victim of a bizarre and convoluted Masonic plot and, who knows, maybe he had been.
Of course, not much of this spilled out while we were waiting for chicken. When it arrived it was so hot and spicy that I couldn’t eat any of it.
“That’s fucking gross,” I said. “Is all the food like it?”
“Nah,” laughed Ethan. “A lot of it’s worse. Wait ‘til you try kimchi. Jesus.”