Soju, Beer Pong, and the Romance of Cultural Exchange (or the Cultural Exchange of Romance)

By Stefano Young

Stefano Young didn’t know the difference between Korea, China, and Japan until he was 23 — but then he met a Korean woman, learned to say “사랑해요,” and has studied Korean language and culture ever since. In this occasional series, the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog presents his essays on his ever-deepening experiences with Korean life, culture, and family. Links to previous installments appear at the bottom of the post.

We met at an ice cream social before the start of classes, a ho-hum affair organized by the graduate dormitory staff to welcome bewildered graduate students from all over the world. I considered not going, but the alternative — surfing the internet for a few days until my first class — was not very appealing.

I had just graduated from MIT and finished a solo cross-country road trip to the parched American Southwest with all of my belongings crammed into a red 1988 Mercury Cougar with a black canvas top (the “Bostonian” edition). The car didn’t have a working radio, so I plugged a boombox into the cigarette lighter with a special adapter, resting the boombox on the central console for tunes while traveling. Emboldened by that adventure, I struck up conversations with the other graduate students at the social, first meeting a friendly Indian-American guy who allayed my fears that graduate school was reserved for antisocial weirdos. As we were talking, my peripheral vision picked up a strong signal: a beautiful girl was standing about 10 feet from me, looking as though she had come from a faraway place.

Rather tall for an Asian, with a long, slender neck, and incredibly smooth skin, she carried herself with such poise and her clothes were so stylish that she was an anomaly in a roomful of graduate students in varying degrees of dishevelment. I invited her to join the conversation with my Indian friend Chet, and I learned that her name was Garam (with a rolled “r”) and she would be joining the Applied Physics department as well. We discussed her name, and how she spelled it with a “G” even though it sounds different in Korean: “I should have spelled it with ‘K’,” she said embarrassedly.  She said it means “river” in “native” Korean, the half of the language not rooted in Chinese. As I listened to her, I wondered internally if I could locate Korea on a map. Let’s see… you’ve got China, of course. Then there’s Japan… and don’t forget India is also a part of Asia. Russia’s above China…

Chet’s roommate Yeejoon, a Korean guy from a different department, joined our circle, and at the end of our conversation the four of us exchanged contact info and agreed to meet up again before classes started. We all went out for pizza the following night, and afterwards Chet and I decided to introduce the two Koreans to a staple of the American college experience: beer pong. In return, the Koreans would procure a few bottles of a Korean drink called soju to share.

Chet and I drove to Walmart to pick up some ping pong balls, and when we arrived back at his two-bedroom dorm apartment, we set up a rectangular table in the narrow hallway.  The teams were Chet and Yeejoon versus me and Garam. To make the game challenging, Chet and Yeejoon stood in the kitchen and Garam and I stood in the doorway to the bedroom at the end of the hall. The games progressed at a leisurely pace, with Chet and me hitting most of the cups for our respective teams.

Since Garam and I were standing near the bedroom doorway, the occasional ping pong ball took an odd bounce and rolled onto the white carpet of the bedroom. We both scrambled into the bedroom to retrieve a stray ball, and as I was returning to the table through the open doorway, I brushed arms with her, just for a moment. I felt a tingle, as if someone had dragged a feather lightly through my arm hair.  We looked at each other, and her gaze seemed to dwell just a little longer than before, with the hint of a smile on her face. Game on, I thought.

The teams were evenly matched, and at the end of a best-of-three tournament, there was one cup left on each side of the table. We exchanged near-misses for a few rounds, both sides focusing intently when the ball was released and groaning or sighing with relief when it dropped again to the floor.  Then, Garam cocked her slender, bare arm and fired a line-drive shot that sank into the bottom of the cup at the opposite end of the table. Chet looked deflated, and I turned to Garam and threw my hands up in the air in excitement. Matching my excitement, she shrieked with delight and wrapped her arms around me in a victory embrace.

From that moment on, I was infatuated with Garam. We concluded the soju and beer party to let Chet and Yeejoon go to bed, and Garam and I stumbled back to our respective dorm rooms. The two of us continued chatting late into the night.

Having chosen the four-bedroom dorm apartment because it was the cheapest option, I was randomly assigned three roommates from three different departments. The first, a guy from Taiwan studying a subject called Management Information Systems, was kind, with thick glasses and a strong accent, but I rarely saw him because he had a girlfriend and he spent a lot of time at her place.

The second was 40, single, and studying in the History department after a long hiatus from school. He loved to talk and complained to me about many things, including how women in San Diego (where he’d lived for a while) only care about how much money you make and what kind of car you drive. He brought a younger girl back to his room sometimes, once whispering to me that “she’s got tattoos in places you wouldn’t believe.” I believed him. I also lent him a fork and a knife since he owned no utensils, and he never returned them.

My third roommate was a recluse, majoring in Organ Performance in the music department, who still looked and dressed like a teenage boy. He walked rapidly and with a rigid posture, as if he couldn’t swivel his head independently of his body, and slammed the door behind him whenever he entered his room. One night, I was chatting into the wee hours of the morning with Garam when I decided to get up and have a snack. There in the shared kitchen stood Mr. Organist, standing in the dark and wielding a knife above his head, a scene straight out of a horror movie. We both froze for a moment, and then he lowered the knife and retreated to his room like someone had pressed 2X rewind on the tape of his life.

Garam also received a curious, reclusive pick in the roommate lottery. Since she had opted for the more spacious two-bedroom apartment, there was just the one roommate, a girl majoring in Library Sciences who rarely left her room. When she did, she couldn’t seem to find much to smile or laugh about. Still, Garam’s apartment was cleaner and quieter than mine, so that’s where we held our first official date. We had gone out with groups of friends from the dorm several times, but this time it was just the two of us. The plan? Watch Scent of a Woman on DVD. I had never seen it before, and she seemed to think it was required viewing for a new couple.

Watching movies together became our thing. Garam liked to go to the movies at any time of day, including in broad daylight. I explained to her that I felt strange leaving the theater when the sun was still out, and she responded that in Korea she would frequently go to movies at nine in the morning or earlier, and the theaters were still packed. She also explained that all Korean theaters also had assigned seating, so she found the first-come-first-serve American system uncivilized. I did, however, introduce her to something in American moviegoing she could get excited about: the weekend “double-feature.” After a movie ended one Saturday afternoon, I showed her how to play it cool and slip into another theater where a different movie was just starting. Try doing that in Korea, I thought.

One day I saw a flyer for a free movie screening at the student union and made plans to meet Garam there in the evening. I showed up a little before the scheduled showtime to a mostly empty theater. The lights went dark and there was still no sign of my date, so I sent her a text message. She replied cryptically that the police were at her apartment. I immediately ducked out of the theater and called to tell her I was coming over, breaking into a sprint. When I arrived at her apartment, the police had gone and Garam was sitting on the sofa, talking with another student from our department in Korean. I sat on the opposite side of the sofa and asked for an explanation. The Korean guy took off, saying he had an appointment, leaving Garam to recount the story to me in English.

Her roommate had attempted to commit suicide. She climbed up to the roof of the three-story dormitory building and threw herself off, but survived the fall. When she recovered after her treatment in the hospital, the university would ask her to leave for a semester so she could get the appropriate help for her mental state. Garam and I looked at each other. I wondered aloud if our laughter and playfulness during date after date were audible through her roommate’s bedroom door, and if that had pushed her over the edge.

“In any case,” Garam said, “I can’t live in the same apartment after that episode.” The dorm staff kindly arranged for her to move into a different two-bedroom apartment, and her new roommate was a sweet, fastidious Japanese woman who instantly made a good impression on Garam, and on me.

Before Garam and I started dating, I had never eaten Korean food. When I was a kid, my family went out for Chinese about once per year, and I only ordered the two items on the menu that I knew I liked: Peking duck and moo-shu pork. I didn’t eat sushi until college. Pre-made rolls were available all over campus and I ate them occasionally, but mostly I subsisted on pizza, burritos, and fried food prepared by the one-eyed chef in my fraternity house who used to cook on a Navy submarine.

As Garam introduced me to Korean food gradually during that first semester, I acquired a taste for the fundamentals. The first meal, and the one we would share most often thereafter at the circular table in her kitchen, centered around dwenjang jigae (된장 찌개), a heartier version of the miso soup you would find in a Japanese restaurant. She served it with rice, a stack of business-card-sized seaweed papers, soy sauce, and a small mound of kimchi. When I saw her meal laid out on the table in eight small dishes for two people, I became ashamed and defensive about my first attempt to cook for her: a deluxe frozen DiGiorno’s pizza. (But it was deluxe!)

That day, I received my first of many lessons on how to eat. With American food, I no longer needed instruction, except maybe when selecting the right utensils at rare formal occasions like a conference dinner or a wedding reception. Everything else seemed simple enough: sandwich? Pick it up and eat it. Spaghetti? Grab a fork, twirl it around, and eat it.

Korean food was different. “You can take some rice with chopsticks, wrap it in the seaweed, and then dip it in the soy sauce,” Garam explained. “Koreans also like to dip some rice into the dwenjang and eat it this way.” It felt like a lot of work to eat Korean food, and it wasn’t very filling, especially for a gym rat like myself who drank protein shakes every day. Garam was impressed with my chopstick skills, which she claimed were better than hers. I held the chopsticks so they formed a V shape, whereas she held them so they formed an X. She also explained that, while Japanese use cylindrical chopsticks and Chinese use square chopsticks, Koreans use flat ones. Hers were shiny silver; I was only familiar with the disposable wooden kind that always splintered into odd shapes when I yanked them apart.

A few days after sampling the basic fare at home, we joined a bigger group of friends and strangers for a meal at the only Korean barbecue restaurant in town, an experience unlike the ones I had in Garam’s kitchen — and one that left me feeling completely stuffed. Our server’s Korean was not completely fluent, but he understood enough to take orders from the natives. I had handed over my menu because the Koreans said they would order for everyone, family-style. In the center of our table was an inset grill with a fume hood above it, rising up to the ceiling. Well, that doesn’t look safe, I thought. (Incidentally, that particular restaurant burned down a few years later.)

As the grill warmed, a server came with an assortment of small dishes on a roller cart, far more than I had seen on the table in Garam’s apartment: bean sprouts, spinach, potato salad, acorn jellies, and radish kimchi, to name just a few. There was also a small stone bowl of an orangish stew that looked like the dwenjang I had tried at Garam’s apartment, but when I took a spoonful it nearly burned a hole through my tongue. Beer and soju arrived, and suddenly I found myself with barely enough room to rest my elbows on the table.

Plates of raw meat came next, along with a pair of tongs and scissors in a cylindrical tin. Scissors, at a restaurant? I mused. The Korean guy nearest to the tin grabbed the tongs and began placing long strips of beef on the grill. I thought somebody should check his credentials before we entrusted him with the cooking, but the other Koreans deferred to him without question. He confidently flipped and shuffled the meat around on the grill until it was glistening with sweat and starting to crisp at the edges. Droplets of hot oil hopped from the grill onto the paper placemat in front of me.

I tried to relax, but the pace was frenetic. Our designated chef lifted the cooked meat strips, cut them into bite-sized pieces with the scissors, and pushed the pieces towards the cooler outer edge of the grill. Garam grabbed a piece with her chopsticks and placed it in the small dish in front of me, which also contained thin green onions in a light, spicy dressing. “You can take one of these lettuce or sesame leaves and wrap it with the meat,” Garam explained, pointing to a tray of leafy greens. “It’s also good if you dip the meat in sesame oil and add kimchi and some rice before you wrap it.” I took a bite of my wrap, and while I was chewing, she ate something and placed another morsel into my dish.  She continued refilling my dish, and the dishes of others, throughout the meal.

In addition to the eating rules, I learned more about the infamous Korean soju. Korean friends had said that it was similar to Japanese sake, but different. When I tried it that first time in Chet’s apartment, it had reminded me more of a watered-down vodka, but when I proposed that analogy to the Koreans, it didn’t take. It’s our drink, they seemed to be saying. We’ll let you know what it tastes like, and how to drink it.

First, one guy across the table complained about the price. “$6.95 for a bottle? In Korea it’s 1000 won, and even at the Korean grocery store in U.S. it’s only two dollars!” he said. I often heard similar complaints when we went out to Korean establishments and was surprised by their indignation, considering that the same beer that cost me four dollars in Arizona cost seven in Boston and 12 in Las Vegas. I was unaware of any American consensus on how much alcohol should cost; $6.95 for a bottle of 19-percent alcohol liquor at a restaurant seemed reasonable.

The drinking rules were predicated on knowing the ages of everyone in our party, so the first order of business was to go around the table sharing what year we were born. Then the rules were as follows: when an older person pours soju for a younger person, the recipient holds his small shot glass with both hands. When a younger person pours, he should hold the bottle with two hands. If, however, the younger person wants to be hip and a little less formal, he can simply touch the elbow of his pouring arm with the opposite hand. The second rule of soju drinking was that the younger person should look away from his elders while in the act of drinking (still, of course, holding the glass with two hands). But what to do when surrounded on all sides by older people? In that case, you could attempt an awkward 180-degree turn and drink while facing another table. Or you could bow sheepishly and take a sip without making eye contact with anyone.

Other, more subtle practices took much longer to learn. When your elder’s glass is almost empty, for example, you should be conscious of its pending emptiness, waiting to grab the bottle (with both hands) to offer another glass. If you aren’t ready, some other youngster will likely step in and take your brownie points. Throughout the meal, the Koreans waited on the foreigners and each other, our servers only on call for when a problem arose.  When we ran out of salad greens, for example, one of the Koreans hollered to our server across the restaurant to bring more.

“In some of the larger Korean restaurants,” Garam said, “they have a button on the table to call the server.” Like a flight attendant call button. Nice, I thought. Despite the fact that we were left to cook our own meat, the service was excellent. Orange slices came out at the end of the meal as a palette cleanser. All told, the price per person was very reasonable, and though in Korea the oldest person would have felt compelled to pay, we poor graduate students on U.S. soil agreed to split the bill with a stack of credit cards.

On one of our next dates, Garam and I watched the movie Oldboy, with its famous scene where the main character eats an entire live octopus on camera without the help of computer graphics.  “People eat live octopus in Korea?” I asked her.

“Yes, well not as big as that one, but Koreans eat them. Do you want to try?”

I assured her that I was up to the challenge.

As the first-semester classes grew more difficult, I started working on assignments with Garam, more for my own benefit than for hers. One class in particular proved mathematically challenging for many, but with her seemingly unlimited patience for long, complicated derivations, Garam excelled. On one of the rare occasions when she got stuck on a problem, I suggested she plug the equation into a computer program to get the answer.

“You can do that?” she exclaimed.

“Well the professor didn’t say we can’t, so…” I stammered.

In Korea, Garam and her classmates did everything by hand, with paper and pencil. She still carried a cute pencil case in graduate school and made extensive use of a small ruler for drawing precise, straight lines. She worked on blank white paper and her handwriting was neat, so every solution to a homework assignment had the polish and readability of a professional document. Watching her, I also learned that Koreans say fractions denominator-first: “three under one” (삼분의 일) instead of “one-over-three.” Despite her somewhat unorthodox style of working, she aced all of her American tests, while I, an MIT graduate, struggled to keep up. (“When I heard there was an MIT guy in my class,” Garam said as we sat around the family’s table reminiscing about graduate school years later, “I told my mom, ‘I’m gonna beat him.’ (‘그 사람을 이길거다’)”

The fall weather grew colder, and Garam’s world was rocked by another drama: a Korean friend of hers had been in Phoenix with his girlfriend eating dinner and singing karaoke, and on the way home they were both killed in an accident on the highway. Her friend may have been under the influence at the time, but we never found out for sure. Garam and a group of Koreans gathered together for a memorial service, and the year’s revelry turned towards solemnity.

When the first semester ended, Garam flew back to her hometown of Busan and I flew back to the east coast. During winter break, I convinced myself that I had only one chance for keeping the relationship going: if I could learn Korean.

 

(photo credit: Matt @ PEK, under Creative Commons license)

 

Previous Korea Blog posts in this series:

Meeting Her Parents, Meeting Her Country: an American’s First Taste of Korea

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