Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Johnnie Walker, the kisaeng, and me

(A kisaeng party can be fun, but watch out for those raw sea slugs.)

When I arrived in Taegu, Korea in 1970, I was assigned liaison duty.  I was stationed with the 502nd Military Intelligence Battalion, and I was given two ROK intelligence offices located in separate locations in the city with which to communicate.  So, a couple of times per week I took one of our black jeeps, and Pusan, my interpreter, and I visited the military officers at these Korean units. 

I was never sure exactly what I was supposed to accomplish (a feeling I had for the entire three years I was in the Army), so we engaged in small talk only.  I guess I was hoping to learn any secrets they might tell me, which they would not, and they were hoping to learn some military secrets from me, of which I knew nothing.  Because we had zilch of a military nature we could or would discuss with one another, Colonel Shim always wanted to talk about American women and sex.  He was absolutely fascinated with the subject, and when he found out that I was married to a long-legged blond, his interest only increased.  On that subject, I DID have some intimate secrets, but they were not to be revealed under threat of death from my commanding officer, the blond general.

In our MI office, we were supposed to be "undercover".  I have never written about this, but enough years have passed that I can not imagine that it matters any longer.  Being undercover in this case meant that we pretended to be civilians who worked for the Army, which was a common arrangement in Korea in those days.  So, my colleagues and I wore civilian clothes, ate at the Officers' Club, and generally stayed to ourselves socially so as not to ever slip about the fact that we were just lowly enlisted men.  Our work often involved interviewing high-ranking commissioned officers about other military personnel who wanted a security clearance, and if these colonels and generals knew we were only buck sergeants, they would not give us the time of day.  I played the same game with the Korean officers I visited every week.

When a new American was assigned to a Korean unit, it was customary for the Koreans to throw a party for the newbie.  These parties are generally for men only, because each man is attended by a kisaeng girl, who are somewhat similar to the geisha of Japan.  At these parties, you are seated on pillows on the floor in front of a low table covered with a cloth that nearly reaches the floor.  Food and drink are served, with the kisaeng girls anticipating your needs, and there was a small band there to play our favorite hits.  Lady Gaga would have been an incredible success at one of these events full of horny drunken Koreans who were obsessed with American sex.  She would have been lucky to have escaped with her veil.

An essential element at this social gathering was alcohol, which I was expected to bring.  In those days, American products were not so easy to come by in Korea unless you got them from a U.S. commissary.  Our office had a supply of "gifts" that we used to grease the lines of communication between Korean agencies and our office; we had a locked cabinet that was full of coffee, cigarettes, and booze.  Pusan and I brought several bottles of Johnnie Walker Red (which only cost $2 a bottle in the Officers' Club) from the official cabinet of goodies as our offering to the festivities.

Once underway, I counted about a dozen Korean officers, 6-8 kisaeng girls, Pusan, the band, and me.  In front of each of us was a plate for food, some chopsticks, and an empty shot glass.  Uh oh.  A shot glass always means trouble.  It was then that I learned the Korean etiquette that would be employed at an occasion like this.  Each Korean wanted to honor the guest of honor, me, with a drink.  So, they filled the shot glass in front of them with JW, and passed the drink to the guest with their right hand, which was accepted with the right hand, and then watched as the guest threw back the drink.  As the guest, I did the same to them.  But can you see the ratio problem with which I was confronted?  There were about 10 of them passing me shot glasses and only one of me passing the drinks back, after I had swigged mine.  Geesh.  I didn't want to offend anyone my first month in the country and upset the balance of power, or cause an international incident that would be chronicled in Stars and Stripes, or give the North Koreans a reason to invade the South, or have kisaeng girls tell the story for generations to come of the Ugly American who came for dinner and refused a drink from his host.

Needless to say, within an hour I was blottoed, stupid, banjaxed, etched, jeremied, legless, snatered, sozzled, smashed, trashed, and wasted--probably toxicly so.  I was so ripped that I got up and sang Arirang, a famous Korean folk song, with the band.  In those days, I actually knew about three verses of that classic in Korean.  It sounded pretty good to me, or so I thought.  I was so bombed that I ate a raw sea slug, which looked for all the world like a giant liver fluke.  I was so blitzed that I got the mailing addresses of four kisaeng girls to whom I promised to write every week when I returned to the states.  Did I mention that I was crocked?

I was a wreck for the next three days.  My stomach was upset, I couldn't eat, and my head felt like a star-nosed mole was living in there.  I learned later that the trick to surviving such a party is to keep a small bowl between your legs under the low table.  After the first couple of drinks, throw the whiskey in the bowl when the Korean host is not watching.  You simply have to do something to even the odds.

That party was 40 years ago.  To this day, if someone offers me Johnnie Walker, even Johnnie Walker Blue that costs $200 a bottle, I almost gag as soon as I smell the stuff.  I would recognize the taste and smell of that swill anywhere.  It is a lifelong taste aversion that will never dissipate.  But as I often say to my closest friends and relatives, a bad memory is better than no memory at all.  And that night in Taegu was not all bad.  In fact, as I pour myself a single-malt scotch now, I think I will work on a new rendition of Arirang.  You never know.  American Idol and Simon Cowell, here I come!