from the Korean Army to being published

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

Random #41: Explosive Ordnance Disposal

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SGT JT Sanborn: “I’m ready to die, James.”
SSG William James: “Well, you’re not going to die out here, bro.”

SGT JT Sanborn: “Naw, man, I’m done…. I mean, how do you do it, you know? Take the risk?”
SSG William James: “I don’t know. I guess I don’t think about it.”
SGT JT Sanborn: “But you realize every time you suit up, every time we go out, it’s life or death. You roll the dice, and you deal with it. You recognize that, don’t you?”

– The Hurt Locker

     My Korean has gotten a lot worse since I left the Army over five years ago. Despite the fact that I have chosen to eke out a living in Korea, I almost never have an opportunity to speak in Korean. It’s the dilemma of the anti-social English teacher. Aside from ordering food and drink, my drunken conversations at the jazz bar are pretty much it.
     “What did you do last weekend?” Tae asks, popping off the cap of a bottle of Cass and putting it in front of me.
     I take the bottle and savor that first sweet swig of beer. “On Friday, I went out to Gangnam,”
     “Gangnam? What was the occasion? A girl?”
     “No. A grad school friend was in town so I went out drinking. Me, Hole, GK—you remember him, right?—and a guy you don’t know, Mark.” We’re all that remain from our old drinking crew. Everyone else has left the country or just gone on with their lives. Even Hanon, the friend visiting for the summer, had gone off to the States to attend law school. We assembled at Uncle 29 in Gangnam and reminisced about the good ole days while finishing off two bottles of Absolut on top of whatever beers or cocktails we started off with. For the second stage of the night’s festivities, we headed off to U City, a night club which caters to a slightly older crowd. Why we ended up going is a mystery but I’m sure the vodka had a lot to do with it.
     “How was it?”
     “Just so-so.” There had been a steady flow of girls coming and going and a steady flow of whisky down our throats but the quality—of the girls and the whisky—were sub-par. “Actually, the end of the night was painful.”
     “What happened?”
     “This girl was sitting next to my friend for a while so I told him to take her and leave. So he took her by the hand and they left the room. I thought it was a done deal but a few minutes later, he came back alone. He said he needed two of us to help him. He said she had two friends and he needed… wingmen. Do you know what a wingman is?”
     “Wingman?”
     I guess Top Gun hasn’t had the cultural influence in Korea as it has had in the States. “Uh… let’s say you are at a bar and there’s a hot girl you want to talk to but she’s with her girlfriend. Her friend’s ugly and so you need a friend to keep her friend busy while you try to pick her up. If your friend doesn’t keep her friend busy, her friend might try to cock-block you.” Cock-block is one of the words I taught him previously. Butterface is another. He doesn’t really want to learn English and I don’t really want to teach any more than I have to so we settle on things like that.
     I see his eyes light up in comprehension. “Ah. You mean ‘bomb squad (poktan jegeo).’”
     “Bomb squad?”
     “Yeah. Because your friend has to take care of the bomb.” In Korea, bomb (poktan), contrary to the late-90s American English usage, is used to describe the severely unattractive guy/girl in a group.
     “Makes sense.”
     “Why is it called ‘wingman’?”
     It takes me some time to explain that one fighter jet usually flies lead and the others fly next or behind him for support. This is one situation where I can actually use some of the language I picked up in the Army in actual conversation. How often do ordinary people talk about fighter jets? “Anyway, I was bored and Mark has a girlfriend so we went with him as bomb squad.”
     “How were her friends?”
     “Old. Really old. And big. I didn’t want to sit down.” I take another long swill of my beer because the memory’s coming back to me. “What’s worse is that they wanted to leave the club and get breakfast.”
     Breakfast had been painful. One of the cougars had tried to kiss me on the way to the 24-hour seafood place and so I sat across from the other, bigger one. She was being coy, which isn’t normally a problem (I could just ignore her) but I was flying wing and had to keep her occupied and put up with it. I wasn’t going to jump on this grenade but I’d at least try to defuse it. It was the most excruciating wing experience I’ve had to date and the only way I could handle it was by drinking even more. Soju is one poison my body can’t break down well but I downed shot after shot even though I was already sufficiently drunk on beer and cheap vodka and whisky.
     After thirty minutes, I got a call from GK. Thank God, reinforcements were coming. The club had closed and he and Hole were looking for us. As I went outside to get them, Mark grabbed my sleeve, desperation in his eyes. “You better not run away,” he whispered. It’s a shitty thing to abandon a friend while the bombs are ticking. “Don’t worry, I’m going to get help.”
     It was a four-man job, two teams of two each, and we somehow managed to defuse the bombs. Hanon left in a cab with his girl and the rest of us promptly went our separate ways, our mission completed.
     “Sounds like you had a rough weekend.” Tae hands me another beer over the counter. “It’s on the house.”

Korean expression of the day: poktan jegeo. A more direct translation would be “bomb removal.” The Korean equivalent to “wingman.” It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.

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Written by Young

September 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm

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