from the Korean Army to being published

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

Entry #56: Reunions

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“Hyeong, we’re having a SROKA reunion next Friday at 7:30. Do you want to come?”

I got this text message from Richard on a Thursday while I was on my way to the office. A SROKA reunion? Shit.

“Ken and Ho-ju are going to be there.”

“Let me think about it,” I said although I was sure that thinking about it wouldn’t make the idea any more appealing.

I don’t have any fond memories of my time in the Second ROK Army and the few people I could stand I meet on occasion. I didn’t go to my 10 year high school reunion and I don’t understand why people do.

Richard was persistent. Hyeong, are you coming? Can you come on Friday? Can you come? In the end, I gave in and agreed to stop by briefly. It had been a couple of years since I saw Richard, a year since I last met Ho-ju, and I’d blown off Ken a couple of times the previous week. Besides, I figured seeing some old faces might be of help in remembering stories for the book.

On Friday, I took the subway out to Seolleung and took the time for a few cigarettes before walking into the izakaya where we had arranged to meet. The woman at the counter led me to a room at the far end of the hall. I took a few breaths, took off my shoes, and walked through the sliding doors.

There are only three people sitting around the table, working on a sushi platter. Two I recognize as sergeants when I was first stationed in Daegu and the other I’ve never seen before. One of the sergeants worked in the same department as I had, Mobilization, but in a different office. What was his name? Gwang-something.

“Hey, you look familiar,” he says to me as I take a seat in the corner. “Oh, you’re the American kid.” He’s talking to me far too familiarly and too condescendingly, the way that you’d speak to a little kid or a sergeant would speak to a private. He has this big, coddling grin on his broad, pimply face.

I grunt my confirmation. If he’s going to be rude, there’s no need for me to bother being civil. I’m already walking into this reunion with a chip on my shoulder.

“Wait, how old are you?” he asks using the same condescending tone. Myeotsalini? instead of Nai eoddeokke dwoeseyo? He doesn’t seem to like that I’m standing my ground. There’s no rank between us now so he’s going to the age card.

“36. You?”

His face immediately runs through a succession of shock, contrition, and toadery. “Oh, we’re the same age. Let’s be friends.”

In the Army, you could only be real friends with other conscripts who had the same serial number as you, defined by the month of your start of service. In Korean society, you’re technically only friends with people of the same age.

“Yeah, whatever you want.”

“Wow, you look really young for your age.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Looking young for your age isn’t always a good thing in Korea. I’ve been in many situations like this, where some guy will be a complete dick to me until he finds out how old I am. It wasn’t a good thing in the Army, either. Rank always trumps age but at least there’s a little respect afforded to the older conscripts. Instead, I had little kids who were still suckling at their mothers’ teats when I started grade school treat me like a child. I had to put up with their shit during those two years but I’ll be damned if I’m going to put up with it now.

There’s an awkwardness in the room. Where the hell is Richard? I didn’t come here to talk to assholes I don’t know. I didn’t come to hear old men talk about the Army. I order a beer and start fumbling with my phone to see if I can move on to my second engagement any earlier.

Richard shows up and Ken not long after that. They’re getting along fine and the awkwardness is mostly gone, just a small pocket around me. The pimply kid mentions to Richard that he’s kind of scared of me now because he wasn’t too nice to me in the service. Richard says some nice things about me, which makes me feel uncomfortable and a bit perturbed because I don’t feel the need to get to know anyone new.

The table resumes their conversation and I do what I usually do when I’m drinking—I drink and observe. From what I can tell, the range of serial numbers represented at the table is considerable, but Richard is close to them all and Ken is making friends. Even in the Army, social skills go a long way in making life comfortable. If you’re willing to throw away a bit of your pride and can talk a good game, the higher-ranked will take care of you. Either that or be good at something the higher-ranked value, like StarCraft or soccer. Having no redeeming qualities, I kept my mouth shut and took my lumps with the other socially awkward privates.

It hasn’t been an hour and it’s still a good thirty minutes until I’m supposed to meet up with my friends, but I’m itching to go. I drain a couple more glasses of beer, have a cigarette, and tell Richard and Ken I’m going to go. Without bothering to say good-bye, I slip on my shoes and walk out the door.

Why do people bother to go to reunions? Nobody is really friends with everyone in high school and you probably keep in touch with the people you really want to see. I’m not curious about what everyone in the Army is doing these days and have nothing to brag about even if I felt a need to brag to people I’ll never see again. I definitely don’t want to relive or reminisce about my time in the Army. If it weren’t for this damn book that I can’t seem to finish, I wouldn’t think about it at all.

I cross the street and hop in a cab. As we make our way through the dizzying Gangnam streets, I’ve already forgotten about the reunion. While the universe feels the need to make me suffer on occasion, it has at least blessed me with a poor memory.

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