from the Korean Army to being published

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

Entry #35: Drinking with Hoju

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     I’m cleaning my apartment. I admit it’s not really “cleaning” per se. I’m just putting dirty dishes in the sink and throwing the empty bottles near the door. Nevertheless, it’s very unlike me. I only sweep when the dust on the apartment floor turns the bottoms of my feet black and the mop I bought from Costco was a waste of fifteen bucks. It’s no wonder I still find tiny shards of glass every once in a while. I’m reminded of a quote from Charles Bukowski,

“I decided to clean up the apartment. I thought I must be turning into a fag.”
– Factotum

     A person will come up with any excuse to put off going to an appointment he doesn’t really want to go to. I should be getting ready to head out. I should already be out the door. It’s fifteen minutes before the meeting time and it’ll take me at least forty to get to the meeting place. But I tell myself I wasn’t told exactly where we’re meeting. I didn’t get a call today and I’m not going to call first. I’m hoping that the night will pass and the whole thing will be forgotten. Then the phone rings.

     “Hyeong, you’re on your way, right?”
     “I’m on my way,” I lie. I hate lying, even white lies, but I’ve been getting used to it lately.
     “I’m at a place called Ddeokssamshidae. You know where the Asahi place is? If you walk out the exit and take a right at the first side-street, go straight past Asahi and it’ll be on your right.”
     “Okay,” I say, but I have no idea what he’s talking about.
     “How long will it take you?”
     “Maybe twenty minutes?” Three for three.
     “Okay, see you soon.”

     I throw on pants and a jacket and head down to the subway station. I don’t want to go but I’m on my way. I don’t want to go but Hoju is getting married next month.

     When I get to the restaurant, Hoju is sitting at a long table by himself, fumbling with his phone. He looks the same as he did seven years ago. I ran into him last year at Sang-mok’s wedding last year as I was hurrying to get out the door and stopped just long enough to exchange business cards. He’s put on some weight since then, but he looks the same.

     Seven years is a long time, and to be honest, we weren’t that close back then. We couldn’t be. Seven years ago I was a private and he was a corporal. After I was discharged, I told myself that I wouldn’t see any of my gocham*s, never see any of those sadistic bastards again.

     But Hoju was different. He bought me a new battle cap when I was a private (the ones they give you in basic are shitty). He’s the one who encouraged me to go on deployment to Afghanistan, having just returned from deployment himself as an Arabic linguist. We even discussed going to graduate school, which I eventually did after my discharge.

     I have no problems with Hoju. He’s a good guy and I wanted to congratulate him in person. The reason I didn’t want to come out is the same reason Hoju is sitting at a long table. Hoju grew up in the UAE and the only friends he has in Korea are the people he met in the Army. Because he was a corporal when I was a private, all of his friends will be my former gochams. I don’t like confrontation but I don’t know if I’ll be able to be civil this time.

     The second to show up is Sang-mok, which is a relief. Sang-mok is a good kid, too, the reason I bothered showing up to his wedding last year. He was one of the first people I met at the HHC and he paid for my unit insignias to be stitched on my uniform on my first day at my permanent station. When I was in pre-deployment training in Ansan, he was the only person (along with another corporal from the unit personnel office) who sent me a letter, something I rarely got while I was a soldier.

     The next to show up is Myeon, a PFC when I was a private. He was a quiet one, a skinny kid with a big round head like a lollipop. I don’t have strong feelings for him either way. He never crossed me and so I don’t mind that he’s here. In the Army, if someone doesn’t pick on you, they’re decent.

     “Hoju used to give the kids a hard time, didn’t you?” Sang-mok jibes. “Myeon, did he pick on you?”
     Myeon doesn’t answer. He just smiles quietly. I guess some of the Army discipline has remained.

     I read a paper once that said that pure altruism doesn’t occur in nature. The need for survival has caused altruism to become a recessive trait in animals, and that’s exactly what soldiers in the Korean Army become, animals. A form of altruism exists, however, but only among “family” members in order for the young to survive to maturity. Hoju had been an asshole in the Army, but he was nice to me. It’s not because I was pitiful. I was, but the Army is not a place where the weak are protected. It’s because both Hoju and Sang-mok were my “fathers.”**

     Hoju pours us all somaek, a beer and soju concoction, and we drink together for the first time as civilians. We reminisce about the Army, which isn’t fun for me but the alcohol numbs me and I join in. We talk about Ballerino and Hoju tells me that there were other interesting things that happened that I wasn’t aware of, like the soldier who had AIDS.

     A couple more come and I don’t know them. They try to gain some higher footing by trying to lord it over me that they started their service before I did but I do my best to make it clear that I don’t give a fuck. The night goes on and we get wrecked on soju and beer, Hoju’s fiancée makes a brief appearance and takes him home, and I catch a cab, fall asleep and pass my home, and end up drunkenly stumbling the last 15 minutes home and into bed.

* Gocham is a word that means someone who has seniority in a particular workplace or, in the case, the Army. Gochams in the Army are typically rat bastards who enjoy spending their spare time tormenting their subordinates.

** A conscript who starts his service the same month but one year before another conscript. There is some kind of reciprocal relationship involved. For more information, see Entry #24: My Father’s Wedding (or, My Sixteen Dads).

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Written by Young

October 15, 2011 at 9:31 pm

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