Monday, April 28, 2008

Travelogue #35: The Usual Suspect at Dos Tacos in Gangnam

<---Travelogue #34: The Living-in-Korea Photologues October 2007-April 2008
--->San Nakji @ Garak Market © MikeyMogo

A Korean woman brushes past me gently and with a shy smile says, "I'm sorry." Her hair is long and black, complimented by invitingly bright teeth and spring-blue fingernails. She pulls a few napkins from the dispenser and hands me a couple. "Thank you," I say, my voice echoing hers, gently, shyly. A silk blouse drapes her shoulders with a casual classiness that spells lady. Her shimmering orb-like earrings are fit apparel for a concert hall, but not so much a restaurant called Dos Tacos, which is where we're sitting this afternoon, separated by a few empty seats at the bar.

I've suddenly lost all interest in my guacamole.

Who is this woman? Why is she eating alone? It'd be a shame not to take our napkin conversation to the next level, especially with thoughts of last night's success still ringing in my brain.

"What did you order?" I ask her.

Between nibbles, she presses her fingers against her lips. "Water?" she says, wheeling her seat towards the soda fountain.

"Oh, no, not water," I say, confusing her. "What food did you order?"

"Quesadilla," chimes an unwelcome guest, one of the Dos Tacos guys on the other side of the counter. He sprinkles beef into a soft taco, not even looking up to acknowledge he's cramping my game.

I turn back to my burrito and my chips and salsa. Hmm...what next...what next...she's still sitting there, alone with her quesadilla.

"Do you live in Gangnam?" I ask.

She nods wordlessly, mouth full of goodness. "How's your food?"

A different man in a Dos Tacos t-shirt laughs behind the bar, his back to me.

"I love Mexican food," I say, "I came on the subway from Bundang. Took me an hour to get here."

The man looks at me over his shoulder and utters two words that strike me like a bowling ball to the ribs:

"My wife," he says.


The puzzle pieces snap together. She gave me napkins. Everything. She offered me water. Makes. She asked me how I liked my food. Sense.

I was flirting with the wife of the owner of Dos Tacos, and I was doing so while wearing shorts. This is my own The Usual Suspects moment,

but instead of shattering a coffee mug, I just smile and praise my meal. "Thank you very much," I tell him after I pay the bill. I say so sincerely. By this point his wife has left the premises. I imagine her evacuated by a S.W.A.T team.

"Bye," he says with a nice-try-buddy smirk in his voice.

In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Kint puts it this way: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist."

That quote has nothing to do with this story, but what Verbal says next does apply: "And like that, he's gone."

Adios, Dos Tacos.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Travelogue #34: The Living-in-Korea Photologues October 2007-April 2008

<---Travelogue #33: A Spring Night in Hongdae
--->Travelogue #35: The Usual Suspect at Dos Tacos in Gangnam


I've taken many of them since I arrived here on October 23, 2007, but I too often feel afterwards that I missed the mark, that I missed the moment. Why can't this or that shot do justice to what I saw or what I felt in those singular microseconds, be they at the Great Wall or in a Seoul Language Institute classroom?

Still, some pictures work, and if they don't burst with energy and life, they at least have funny captions. Well, hopefully funny.

Here are my October 06-April 07 photologues: (Sorry, these photo links are dead. Please move on to Travelogue #35: The Usual Suspect at Dos Tacos in Gangnam. Thanks!)

Welcome to Korea- Album #1 -
first few days blurring together. I need to learn at least a little of this language, dude.

Korea Album #2 - school is in session and the leaves are brown and people be drinkin.

Korea Album #3

Korea Album #4

Korea Album #5

Korea Album #6- The Holidays Continue...

Beijing 2008- Chinese New Year!

China Album Part 2

Korea #7- Jan- Feb 2008

Fukouka, Japan/ Busan, Korea March Volume 1

fukuoka japan busan korea volume 2

Random Shots of April in Koreatown

Hongdae Nights and Mexican Food

More April in Korea- Butterfinger Pancakes

<---Travelogue #33: A Spring Night in Hongdae
--->Travelogue #35: The Usual Suspect at Dos Tacos in Gangnam


Monday, April 14, 2008

Travelogue #33: A Spring Night in Hongdae

<---Travelogue #32: It's ALIVE and I'm eating it!?
--->Travelogue #34: The Living-in-Korea Photologues October 2007-April 2008

You feel it in the air, the electricity of a Saturday night in early April, the lively chatter between lovers and friends at tables by glowing gelato shops and Italian cafes. Koreans have partied through the long winter, but this night is different with its perfumed bustle of thousands of faces outside, looking for plans and making them happen in a buzzing city. It's springtime in Korea.

You feel it in the air.

The subway's crowded but at least I know where I'm going: Hongik University, the heart of Hongdae, one of Seoul's busiest nightlife districts. The first time I visited that area I was a Bambi innocent. (It was my third night in Korea, and the next day, instead of specifying Hongdae in this blog, I called everything I saw "Seoul." That was all I knew. Seoul. Big, bright, and busy. Everything Seoul.)

I'm riding solo this time, for my hagwon friends have gone to Jinhye to see the cherry blossoms for the weekend. In Hongdae I will meet a member of the Seoul Writers group and maybe a few of her friends. I don't know. I haven't met any of them in person. and Facebook are bringing us together, but until then, I got an hour and twenty six minutes to burn on the subway. I spend them with my hand clutched to those gymnastics grips, my body shaking with the the stop-go rattle-thump of the metro.

I also people-watch.

This man sleeps with his mouth open, and then awakens to thumb through a self-help paperback written in English. Meanwhile, a little boy in a jumpsuit is being slathered with devotion from every angle: an aunt playing peek-a-boo on one side, and a father pecking the kid's cheek with matter-of-fact affection on the other. Though they sometimes school them to death, Koreans love their kids and aren't afraid to show it. The next day I watch a few high-school boys who, rather than trying to look tough or cool, toss little plastic balls to a toddler who catches them with the folds of her billowy dress. The teenagers are dorking out for the sake of a random child on the subway. Cool. Very, very cool.

The Hongik University stop is alive with neon lights, a 24-hour KFC, and Koreans, Koreans, Koreans, Koreans, Koreans, and Koreans. "Looking for Jeri?" says a stocky white guy in a skull cap and iPod earphones. "Oh, hey," I say extending my hand. "Joel," he says, "I figured since you were a white guy and you were looking for somebody, you'd be Alex." Smart man.

Jeri appears shortly later, exuding a deadpan Wednesday Addams cool. It's the three of us to begin the night, and we walk manic streets that I still don't know too well, even though I saw them in October and December. The build-up-up-up infrastructure of Korea leaves me with the feeling that no matter how much time I spend here, there will always be something more to see, even if it's just one floor above me.

We find our way into Brickxx Bar, one of those candlelit lounges where you pass through a stairway and the mood tries subtle and mellow, but the place is noisy anyway. If you hookah here, you're on a clock: thirty minutes after your first puff, "Time's up" is not so mellowly chirped into your ear. Our threesome is joined by two fellows: one is Cormac, an Irishman. I take the obvious route and base our conversation around him sharing a first name with the author McCarthy and the fact that the movie Once was filmed in Dublin. This Cormac, however, doesn't care for No Country for Old Men or Once. How dare he. The second guy is T.C.: he's from Georgia, and he's still in his first weeks of Korealand. He's got a ponytail, and he reminds me of a magician.

In midst the leaning-over-the-table-to-hear-you conversations, I spot a stunning brown-skinned woman in a ribbed green tank top, her laugh effortless and enchanting even from across the room. She's Jasmine from Aladdin, except modern and real and God, she's beautiful by the candlelight and how can I talk to her? And who's that gelled-hair guy by her side? He's a dead ringer for Adam Levine of Maroon Five fame. Is that her boyfriend? I hope not.

Confession: I've recently been reading Neil Strauss' The Game, a 2005 bestselling memoir of one writer's metamorphosis from balding nerd into the world's greatest pick-up artist. If that sounds like fiction, it's not. Apparently there are underground organizations in every major city on the globe dedicated to systematic, scientific ways to do what I wanted to do since I was a four-year-old dreaming of a singing career: "make girls go ooh." Strauss' book reads like a rise-and-fall narrative without the fall: a shrimpy guy spooked by holding a girl's hand in high school becomes a swaggering man who can land any woman he wants. Nothing's out of his league, not even the phone number of a pre-Federline Britney Spears.

I don't want to be Neil Strauss and maintain ten concurrent girlfriends as he did, but I wouldn't mind adopting his swagger to talk to the Jasmine sitting over there. My opportunity comes when my new friends and I climb out of Bricxx and into the waiting night. It's simple really, The Game suggests approaching one of Jasmine's male friends. The indirect but effective way would be to ask them "What are you guys up to?" or "What's going on tonight?" Then I'd keep that easygoing smile and roll with it. But I chicken out. I don't say anything, and I let Jasmine get away to find her Aladdin. Luckily, the night has only started.

Oi is a nightclub straight out of Boogie Nights: you drop your shoes into a bag and walk sock-footed into a marshmallow-like cave of disco lights and pulsing techno.

You'll see some Koreans, but you'll see more ex-pats, either barefoot and dancing, or else nursing a drink in a cooly cavernous corner of the club. I can't think of a more ideal place for a conversation with a stranger; after all, both of you got something in common, mainly the whole "this place is different, huh?" connection.

I make just that kind of connection with a girl named Simu by the bathrooms, for these are no ordinary bathrooms; they require an acrobatic low-bend through a plastic-ruffled door for entry. Chit-chat between us begins easily and earnestly. I shake her hand loosely. I never know how to shake a girl's hand. If my grip is too strong, will she think I'm overcompensating? If my grip is too weak, will she think I'm a pushover? I know I know, not very Game-like of me.

Simu is pretty, her eyes twinkling like those of high school class president who can talk chipperly with the jocks and the nerds. "You live in Gangnam?" I say. "I hear they have got good Western food there." Like that, her face hardens into full did-you-just-say-that mode. "Western food!?" she says, shocked. "Um, yeah,western food."

What's wrong with western food?

"See you later," she says, disgusted, scampering away with her friends into the blinking lights of the dance floor.

I committed a fatal sin. To this girl, chicken fingers and hamburgers must be on par with Osama Bin Laden.

Later, T.C. the magician convinces me to take the dance floor. With his hands he rubs circles into the air, a la Michelangelo's wax-on wax-off routine in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze. "Nobody in the world knows where you are right now," he tells me, "you can do anything! You're in South Korea!" He's in his Korea honeymoon stage, but his enthusiasm is nothing if not contagious. So what if that girl hates Western food. So what if I don't say a word to Jasmine.

I start to dance. A bespectacled Korean girl appears in front of me, shaking her shoulders and her hips. "This your first time in Hongdae?" she asks. "No," I say. She disappears into the arms of her might-be-boyfriend, or at least the guy she's currently smooching on the cheek. Nearby a blond girl dances like she's on hallucinogens. She looks like Sarah Polley from Go. I shuffle my feet in her periphery but her eyes are glazed. The music bleats intergalactic rhythms. Oi is hard to wrap your head around unless you're right there, swaying under its kaleidoscope of lights and sounds.

Ska 2 is a more traditional nightclub, but since it charges no cover, we march through its doors into melange of Koreans and ex-pats shaking it to the trill of Kanye and Michael Jackson. "Join us," shouts a cute Korean woman in the shadows of the floor and I do just that. Her friend wears that coy look on her face, the kind that says we-have-a-secret-to-giggle-about-later. Because it's hot and sweaty, my shirt is slightly unbuttoned, and maybe I give off the I-ain't-trying vibe that attracts ladies like Soon-Mi. I learn her name leaning close to her cheek, once, twice, and then again. The loud sound system is an enabler for our mouth-to-cheek contact. She smells good. She's a designer. I'm a teacher, or a "sung-sang-neem," I say in Korean. She repeats my pronunciation, bemused.

And then we kiss.

Now, I'm not that guy, and I've never been that guy, the one who escalates an innocent dance with a stranger into the climactic moment of a PG-13 romance. But the moment happens, and I let it happen, and I enjoy it happening.

Jeri looks at me suspiciously, as if to say I am that guy. Soon-Mi and I find ourselves hanging by the bar. "I like music!" she says with fervor. We swap phone numbers, and then Jeri drags me back into our group.

Might I be playing the Game, after all?

The hours creep deeper and deeper into the night but the crowds don't thin. With the clock ticking towards 5am, we find ourselves in Tinpan Alley 2, squeezed into a loud, smoky corner on vinyl stools, where those around us are either passed out or making out and Kanye is still screaming "STRONGER, STRONGER!"

I'm comforted amid this crunked craziness with the wall of CD covers to my right: Third Eye Blind, Fastball, Ricky Martin, and Jamiroquai. The music of late-90s Americana, my middle school years, is proudly promoted on the walls of a Hongdae club. If I was the sentimental type I would start crooning "How's It Going to Be?" to the bartenders. But I don't do that. Instead I buy a drink at 5am, a drink I don't need, a drink I neglect to drink. This place is still loud, so we decide to take things to somewhere quieter and more intimate:

Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The KFC across from the Hongik University subway stop is packed. The subways start rolling again in fifteen or twenty minutes, so many in transit have come here for a literal feeding frenzy. On my way to the restroom I spot two cute girls. Two cute girls at a KFC at 5:30 in the morning. They must not have a problem with Western food.

"Hi, how's it going?" I ask them. I don't detect a note of surprise in my own voice, which I would have suspected usually. Earlier I said I'm not that guy who kisses a strange girl on a dance floor. In the past I would also say I'm not that guy who approaches a random group of people and starts an unprompted conversation. Maybe it's because of the electricity of this spring night. Maybe it's because I feel a certain confidence in my slow crawl towards independence. Maybe I'm still growing up, maybe I'm still changing. Maybe all of us label ourselves this guy or that girl without really understanding that we have the capacity to become somebody a little bit different than who we expect to be. Who knows? Maybe we'll end up in the exact same place as we began.

The brunette is from Switzerland, the blond is from France, and their friend, frowning like a supervisor, is an Asian guy from Argentina. They go to a nearby international university and they're playing a geography game with pencils and a pad of notebook paper. The brunette even asks me if I know some river that starts with the letter M. I don't, but I'm flattered that she asked me. The girls don't have numbers, but the guy does. I get his digits, and say goodnight to them, and maybe see you later.

After a chicken sandwich I'm underground. Long subway back. A few glimmers of skylight and it's blue.

The world is asleep or hungover.

And I'm going home.

<---Travelogue #32: It's ALIVE and I'm eating it!?
--->Travelogue #34: The Living-in-Korea Photologues October 2007-April 2008

Related posts:
Travelogue #4: I Got Seoul, But I'm Not a Soldier (My first night in Hongdae)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Travelogue #32: It's ALIVE and I'm eating it!?

<---Travelogue #31: My Not-So-Lonely Planet Guide to Fukuoka, Japan and Busan, South Korea
--->Travelogue #33: A Spring Night in Hongdae

Some writers don't have balls. They bravely pick at emotional wounds through verse or prose, but when it comes to physical risk, they have about as much stugots as Artie Bucco.

I don't exempt myself from criticism. Christopher McCandless I am not. Into the Wild was an intriguing adventure read, but the last thing that appeals to me is a life without central heating and iTunes. Food-wise, I have experimented in Korea, but I usually draw a line at anything Fear Factor-esque. That means no squiggling sannakji for me. I mean, I'm a writer, right? My job is to watch other people gnaw into the quivering jelly of live octopus. I'll report. I'll review. I'll pontificate.

Or I'll grow a pair and eat the damned thing. Believe it or not, that's exactly what I end up doing.

The scene is Garak Market at night, an any-and-every-fish brouhaha of commerce. We smell sand, but this ain't no beach. "The sight of gutted sting rays," David writes later, "lay upon a poorly sanitized shelf like trophies." We hear shouts of Korean from squinty, scraggly men and women who wouldn't look wrong garbed in the fisherman suit from I Know What You Did Last Summer. This swirling atmosphere of the senses can only mean one thing: dinnertime.

*courtesy of Wikipedia

Sannakji was featured in the Amazing Race 4 as a detour challenge; only one team managed to finish a bowl of it. Five years ago, I watched the show with my mom and I grimaced, feeling fortunate that my supper was chicken fingers and waffle fries. When it comes to sannakji, common sense and Wikipedia warn, "The active suction cups can cause swallowed stick to the mouth or throat. This can present a choking hazard for some people, particularly if they are intoxicated."

My friends and I sip soju and beer, prepping ourselves for a feast that wiggles. My teeth clack like a metronome. This is how I intend to eat, not with an eye on savoring flavor, but with the fixed purpose of mauling the octopus until its nerve endings stop twitching.

God. I glare at the little sannakji as it ropes around the end of my chopsticks. Mike is filming me. There's no turning back. I'm eight-years-old again, standing at the edge of the diving board, ready to jump because if my next-door neighbor pulled this off, so can I. I'm eleven-years-old, hands flailing on the Zippin Pippin' as it cranks up, up, and up its wooden stairs, my first rollercoaster ride. I might be older now but that same energy juices anew through my body. There's no turning back.

I chew it like a madman. No mercy. The taste? Not bad, not bad at all. The zesty kick of sesame seeds make the sannakji more palatable, but still I stab the wormy boogers with my chopsticks, not content to let my teeth do all the damage. If only a picture could do proper justice to my bravery...

*photo courtesy of Emily Palmer

I might have not looked cool doing it, but I did it anyway. I did it!

Though they might not be the size of cantaloupes, I do got balls.

On to the Amazing Race!