from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #24: My Father’s Wedding (or, My Sixteen Dads)

with 7 comments

The other week, on one of those rare occasions I put on a suit and tie, I made the trek (every trip that takes longer than 20 minutes is a trek when you’re lazy) up to the north of Seoul to attend a wedding. I was late—by the time I made it to the ballroom, the ceremony had ended and the families of the newly married couple were up front taking pictures—so I just planned on paying my respects in monetary form and taking off. I didn’t want to stick around but not because I didn’t know anyone at the wedding. On the contrary, I wanted to leave in the case that there was someone I knew. Several of my former gochams (higher-ranked conscripts) would surely be in attendance, and it would be a test of my patience to treat them with civility. I stuck around, however, for one reason: the groom was my “father.”

Actually, he was one of sixteen “fathers” I had while I was in the Army. In the Army, there is a rigid hierarchy structure, but there are simulated versions of the family unit and, like modern family relations, they were loose and dysfunctional. The bonds exist between conscripts who started their military service in the same month: those that started the same year as you are your donggis, kind of like brothers, and those that started the year before are your “fathers.” The term of service was shortened from twenty six months to twenty four shortly before I started, but had I started a year earlier, I would have been able to have met my “grandfathers.”

It’s odd how Army life echoed real life. Both of my grandfathers passed away before I was born, one just months before. My father was never around and, aside from a one or two of my company “fathers,” most never showed me much attention, either. My donggis were my siblings, but most of the time I felt that they were just pitying me.

A “father”-“son” relationship in the Army doesn’t count for much. There are only two situations where it amounts to anything. The first is for the benefit of the “son.” On the days leading up to the “son’s” 100th-day leave, the “father(s)” are responsible for making sure the “son” looks presentable for his first foray into society. This means ironing the “son’s” “grade-A”* uniform so that there are crisp creases in accordance with the unit’s standard and polishing the “son’s” “grade-A” combat boots to a mirror shine by heating the shoe polish with a lighter before applying it to the hard, black leather. For an illustration, refer to Entry #20.

The second is for the benefit of the “father.” On the days leading up to the “father’s” ETS (End Term of Service), the “son(s)” are responsible for preparing “rolling papers,” sheets of A4 paper with pictures of the hottest actress at the moment and taking them around to each squad so that the other conscripts can say their farewells on paper, akin to a middle school yearbook.

When the call came for the friends of the bride and groom to come to the front to take pictures, my fear came true. Bad memories welled up inside me while I said my formalities through gritted teeth and stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the biggest turds to be shat by the Korean Army. Although I haven’t been in a fistfight since junior high, I’m not a peaceful person. I just prefer to keep my enemies as far away as possible. Out of sight, out of mind.

I left promptly after saying my congratulations to the groom; I didn’t need to test the limits of my patience and didn’t want to ruin the festivities by initiating an altercation.

If you want to know the deeply hidden, true disposition of a man, there are two situations in which you can achieve this. One is through getting shit-faced on alcohol. Inhibitions melt away, taking with them the carefully constructed facades that men adopt to be socially accepted. The vast majority of men show their true colors—horny and belligerent. I am no exception. (Thankfully, I have a habit of falling fast asleep when plastered although I’ve been known to run for no apparent reason and hit on girls who have boyfriends.) But there are a scarce few who remain the same jovial people they are when completely sober.

The second is, of course, the Army. Anyone can be civil in society but again it is only a scarce few who can be civil in the Army. The groom was one such person, the only reason I showed up to the wedding. The majority of the rest were not, the reason I left promptly afterward.

Do people change? I don’t believe so. You can candy-coat a turd but I’m not going to eat it. This is one of the reasons I find dating stressful; inevitably the girl will want to try and change me because I’m a mess in so many ways, and I don’t see the point in engaging in such endlessly annoying and futile behavior. I am a fucking Rock of Gibraltar, an utter useless waste of space except in my identity as a stubborn and immovable object. This is also one of the reasons I will never go to a high school reunion; the assholes you knew in high school will be the same assholes when you meet them decades later.

* “Grade-A” (A-geup) is misleading. There are no dress uniforms in the Korean Army for regular conscripts. The grade-A uniform and boots are simply an extra set of uniform and boots that the conscripts only wear for leaves or special occasions. What sets them apart from the other sets that conscripts have is that they are not worn when training, cleaning, or shoveling.


7 Responses

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  1. I wouldn’t have went. Most of the guys I met here wouldn’t be given a rats ass by me back in civilian society. My “father” isn’t a bad guy, but I wouldn’t make the effort to meet him since we barely know eachother. Some of the guys are decent people but I have nothing in common with them, since I have I very few in common with the average Korean. None of them are really friendship material, donggi or senior. Some, I wouldn’t wanna meet out of fear I would smash my fist into their jaws. The tight brotherly bond between soldiers that you see in American war movies don’t really seem to happen here. Also, weddings are terribly boring.

    I don’t really set apart my Grade A uniform. I use them both for work and training. The one I take for leave is the one that looks cleaner. You hear though? Apparently next year we’re gonna get issued digital patterns.


    October 16, 2010 at 9:06 am

    • For the most part, I avoid my former “comrades” as much as possible, but like I said before, the guy getting married was one of the most decent people I met while in the Army, where being an asshole is the norm, which is more than I can say for many of people in attendance at the wedding.

      The amount of time soldiers use in making their “grade-A” uniforms look nice is ridiculous because it all looks the same anyway. I didn’t hear about the digital patterns coming out next year. Personallly, I like the really old single-color drab olive green uniforms.


      October 18, 2010 at 10:59 am

  2. Like back in WW2? Personally I’m looking foward to the digital camo since I can finally look like a soldier from the 21st century. I don’t really expect it to be any more effective though (not that I really care) since the uniform (like everything else here) seems like a very sudden development when you consider the US Army and Marine Corp spent years developing their digital patterns. Ironically, the USMC pattern blends in much better with the Korean environment than any Korean camo.


    October 20, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    • Yeah, the WW2/Korean War era uniforms, the CS uniforms you wear during basic for “individual combat training.” One thing I didn’t want to look like is a modern soldier. I guess I’m just a geezer at heart.


      October 20, 2010 at 7:18 pm

  3. Damn, you used the single-color uniforms during basic? You have a lot of 짬 bro. My CS uniforms were the same as the ones we wear now, just more worn out.


    October 21, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    • Don’t really have that much jjam. I didn’t go to Nonsan. I went through basic at the 37th Division in Jeungpyeong. The place was ghetto, to say the least.


      October 21, 2010 at 8:38 pm

  4. […] post by a friend of mine on the Korean military reminded me of another similarity. In the Korean […]

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