The first thing I asked at my orientation was the name and location of the nearest ex-pat bar and where I could watch the Super Bowl. It turns out the answer to both questions is a place called “Santa Claus Bar,” about a 15 minute walk from the edge of campus. I had looked for directions online, but directions in Korea are not like anywhere else I have ever been. The directions on the internet said to hail a cab and ask to go to the Lotteria (a store that no longer exists) in the Gung-dong district. The reason that the directions were given this way is because with the exception of major thoroughfares and highways, streets are not labeled or even named in Korea. In London, cab drivers have to take a between 2 and 4 years studying the layout of the city and suburbs before taking a test in which they must give directions between two randomly selected places in London from memory, with every turn and street name given. This is very clearly not the case in Daejeon, or for that matter, anywhere else in Korea. To get somewhere that is not famous or randomly well known by the cabbies, like, say, a closed down convenience store, you need to know the place’s distance and directional relationship to a better known landmark. On top of this, many cabbies have difficulty understanding the English pronunciation of areas. In fact, the first taxi driver I gave tried to give directions to simply waved his hand in a manner indicating that he was not going to drive some incoherent foreigners anywhere. The second one took about 3 tries before finally understanding us and saying “Ahhh, Guuung-dong” showing that for some unknowable reason I had been butchering the pronunciation the entire time.
After being dropped off at what turned out to be an eyeglass store I found the sign for the bar that I had seen online. One thing about Korea that instantly popped out to me as being different is that most of the business establishments, be they restaurants, gaming rooms, or bars tend to not be at street level. I had never really thought about it, but it is rare to go to a store that is not at street level in nearly all of the US. In addition, those stores not at street level tend to have some extremely sketchy nature to them, such as being psychics, strange barbershops, or adult bookstores. The Santa Claus bar is actually located in the basement of its building, which continues the Korean trend of putting normal businesses in strange locations. Upon entering Santa Claus Bar I was hit with a wave of air so smoky as to be reminiscent of a combo Wu-Tang Clan/Dispatch concert. Korea is not a place with no-smoking policies. Smoking indoors is acceptable pretty much anywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if the churches here had ashtrays in the pews considering how much people light up here. This means that I return every evening smelling like the bottom of an ashtray, and my sweatshirts tend to retain this wonderful odor for days. While Koreans may not be as civilized when it comes to relegating flaming tubes of plant remnants to the outdoors where they belong they are far more cultured in a different, but perhaps more important, area. Alcohol pricing.
Booze in Korea is cheap. Much cheaper than in any establishment in the US or Europe, at which I’ve had the pleasure of being gouged for over 5 times the retail price for a bottle of beer. Even at the noticeably more expensive ex-pat bars’ alcohol is still quite affordable with 2-for-1 deals and cheap pitchers everywhere. This is of course only true for local beer. I had known that whiskey is insanely expensive in this part of the world, but I am still astonished by how expensive Japanese beer is. Paying 12 dollars for a bottle of decent Japanese brew is highway robbery in my book. I know that the two countries have serious feuds dating back hundreds of years, with the Korea being routinely invaded, plundered, and torched, but that is no reason to punish me and palate. This is all pretty OK though, as most people here tend to head away from beer anyways, and towards soju. Soju is the Korean alcohol of choice. It is a vodka-like liquor traditionally made from rice, with an alcohol content around 20 percent. It also costs less than 3 dollars a bottle in a bar or restaurant. There is a reason that people here drink it, and it’s not the taste.
The most obvious upside of drinking at a foreigner bar is getting to meet people who speak English as a first language, refer to the sport where people kick around a black and white ball “soccer,” and use derogatory remarks that remind you why you don’t miss the assholes you left back home. Also, talking about sports is nice. It turns out that walking up to anybody and enquiring where they are from is entirely acceptable behavior, and a good way to meet new people. The first night I actually met somebody from the Boston area by asking about his Red Sox hat. We talked a bit about watching American sports in Korea, and then he invited me to a weekly basketball game in the area. I was very excited to meet other Americans, so I gladly agreed to play the following weekend despite my crippling lack of ability in jumping, dribbling, shooting, and general basketball ability.
I’ve noticed that it is pretty easy to tell who will be good at basketball just by looking at them on the court warming up for about a minute. Some people look like basketball players. I look like their agent. Basketball is one of the unfortunate sports that conspires to make me look good to the uninitiated (“But you’re so tall!”) while requiring every single skill I don’t posses, and none of the skills I do. Hell, if it required people to do math while ranting about political philosophies and awkwardly running into doors and table corners I’d be golden. However, I’m not so lucky. Even though I proved to be a total bust on the court, there were noticeable upsides. For instance, the people who play are all really nice, and diverse enough that I doubled the number of non-White-or-Asian-people I’d seen since arriving in Korea. One of the guys who plays is a former international basketball player. He is a very nice guy, but also very physically imposing at 6’10”. If it were possible to stand out even more, he is also Black, which as I mentioned is shockingly rare in this country. This brings me to the other upside of playing basketball. I normally stand out like the smelly kid in middle school in this country. On the other hand, next to some of these guys I look positively native. Sometimes it’s nice to blend in.