Every man in Korea smokes.
There are no drugs in Korea.
Only the kkangpae have tattoos.
None of these were precisely true, but they were in a general way.
On my walk from my apartment directly behind work, there were no straight paths so either I took the trash route, good for when I had pizza the night before or for Mondays after Prickle Butt had her newspapers changed, or I went toward the busy crotch that was between my quiet neighborhood and businesses I generally needed to live: bank, grocery store, sunglasses shops. Though it was the longer route, I usually headed that way before work for GS25, a convenience store which always had 2+1 deals on everything from coffee to single-serving ramen bowls. The place was great for 4 am Skittle runs since nothing else was open. They even sold single malt scotch, a rarity in Korea, for 200,000 won or that disinfectant soju, potent enough that one bottle for 1,000 was fun or sad night. I should’ve really stopped wrecking my teeth with their deals on candy and soda.
On my path toward the bank for my weekly 100K, there were five people, separate instances, smoking.
It couldn’t have been more than a minute walk with five minutes waiting at the light since I was permanently getting there just past the signal change. It’d probably been five years in America between seeing smokers, so seeing a line of them here was always a novelty. They were inside and out at all hours of the day and only restaurants, if they weren’t also bars, made them do it leaning out the front door.
One guy was smoking from the stoop of a restaurant and the glass door swung open too hard by a kid refueled after seven hours at middle school so he was now ready for the next five in various academies. Not one of my students.
The next two were at the grocery store. Maybe stores. Maybe separate owners but friends over rivals. The bigger store, family-owned like so much in this country, didn’t carry fresh meat, fruits, or vegetables. It was mostly a well-stocked convenience store with two aisles dedicated to potato chip flavors and no deals, just deceptive square footage that the man looked upon as he watched his little TV and smoked over the scanner. Ashes fell. The other store was roughly large enough for the owner, not too short, to lie down at every angle and he only had fresh fruit and vegetables, bruised or with a fly wrapped in the center of lettuce, and he smoked from his recliner under a pergola covered in a rag to provide shade in the squelching heat.
It was one of those oppressively hot days, the kind that soaked my collar and took away good moods so everyone grimaced at the sidewalk like it’d done them wrong when the culprit was really up high. The kind I had to worry about more because Korean sweat didn’t stink. Mine did. Sorry.
The fourth smoker was working construction from the street with a ladder going from the fourth floor of scaffolding above a dentist to the edge of the sidewalk and I had to get seven years of bad luck as he waved me under, cigarette in hand, leaving a stink trail but the smoke was invisible in the haze coming off the pavement. He yelled up to another guy who was probably smoking too, but I couldn’t confirm so I didn’t count him in my estimate and there were other men smoking beyond windows and on the other side of the road and in cars, but these were the four I noticed and the store owners, not doing anything but smoking, only because they often invited me to play horseshoes with a coffee tin and obec won (they only used 100 won coins). I could now refuse them in Korean instead of mime.
I said five smokers and those were four guys. The last one was odd. Not for me, but for Korea.
It was a woman.
There was a totally different mentality to smoking here. The men did it brazenly on the streets and often a guy waiting for a bus would do it on the doorstep of my academy as six-year-old kids entered with a fresh book of bear stickers and they’d all say annyeong to each other, thinking nothing of second hand smoke or influencing the kid, while Western men, or at least the two I knew, tried to hide the habit around students. Gavin Michael, the guy I replaced back in 2013, went up to the sixth floor balcony when the school was on the second and he once saw Cole, a kindergartner, headed home with his dad when they stopped to piss on the back of the school. Then Mike Gavin, who I replaced in 2016, went to the back alley between the academy and the church where there was just a drain for air conditioner run-off with their hoses out the windows. They chose to hide it.
The women in Korea had to hide it. I spent a year after replacing Gavin Michael not noticing that I never saw a woman smoke and only hearing rumors of my boss being back on it when a coworker related how our boss would meet him at the sixth-floor balcony where he smoked, as was now custom, and she’d shake his hand, expecting him to slip her a cigarette for her to go up to the roof and unwind. She hid the act from the person who gave her the cigarette!
I only noticed that I hadn’t noticed when Kayce Gavin, Mike’s sister, also a teacher here and the first person I met in town over the age of 15, was smoking at a crosswalk as we returned from getting spicy soup that made me cry. A Korean man yelled at her. It was 11 at night. There weren’t any kids around, though a few high schoolers just getting back from academies were further down the road going the other way. But regardless, no one seemed to care about that here. I definitely noticed that. I’d seen guys smoking all the time, anywhere. And as he yelled at her in Korean, she shook her and rolled her eyes and spat, “Mol-la-yo,” which I guess meant “I don’t know you!” and if said in the right tone, a rather silly tone like when you’re losing an argument so you repeat whatever the person said back at them in a dumb voice, them was fighting words here.
But the old guy wandered off, muttering, “Leo-she-a-een” (Russian).
Kayce shaking off the common experience looked at how confused I was and said, “He thinks I’m a prostitute.”
“Does he think that I paid?”
And then she explained that it was unseemly for women to be seen smoking so unless they were old and had earned it, women were discouraged, often like we’d seen, from smoking in public being told what whores they were and how awful a mother they were, even if they weren’t old enough to reasonably be one. Somehow, these men found their own behavior less repugnant than a woman smoking.
So this woman on the corner outside GS25 was a rebel.
She wore a loose army jacket and distressed jean shorts that looked shredded by a wood chipper but maybe she bought them like that because who in Korea, so many without yards, without trees and their fallen branches, had a wood chipper? The shorts were short, enjoyably so, but not a scandal in Korea; however, the shirt was. It shouldn’t have been. It was a halter top that showed some clavicle, not even cleavage, but that was Korea.
And she was scowling, even more than the rest of us in this heat.
Till she saw me.
I knew this neighborhood and the rotation of three clerks at GS25 and the store owners that wanted me to play horseshoe and the bank tellers and the old ladies living in my building that grew peppers in the community plot and sold them to other tenants but not to me because the peppers were shriveled worse than the ladies from their devilish flavor and us foreigners couldn’t handle that. I didn’t know this woman. She wasn’t a butcher, not a teacher, not a baker or cinema ticket taker. Ours wasn’t an area for cutting through to save time and it wasn’t anywhere with droves of office workers that I didn’t know because they were locked up from sunrise to set doing… what do salarymen do?
Maybe it sounds odd, but I knew everyone in my outskirts. I didn’t know her.
She distracted me so much that instead of going by GS25, I went in.
The transition to AC was instant and seemed to blast cool air out the door instead of letting any hot stuff in. The dangling bell on the door didn’t jingle as I let it swing behind me because someone else was coming in.
The clerk, a short girl with quarter-inch plugs that usually worked mornings so I didn’t know her too well, said hello to me in her most polite, practiced school-girl voice and then casually annyeong to the person behind me. The smoking corner woman.
While I went for a deal on orange Fanta in the back fridge, the corner woman balanced on the swing gate leading behind the counter. She and the clerk chatted but not for long. A few words as the corner woman raised a bare foot up to the counter. To her, that was cleaner than her shoes which were all over the streets. Her foot only felt the clean apartment linoleum or hardwood in restaurants. It made a certain sort of sense. And maybe it was on the counter, where everyone put their food, but all that was packaged so what did it really matter? And her long leg was so smooth…
The clerk didn’t say much about it and what she said didn’t deter corner woman. She just kept picking her toenail paint, a pink or red. It was hard to tell in this light. There was just enough left that she couldn’t paint them again but she wanted to.
A kid, maybe small for his age, maybe still middle school, went to the counter with a roll of saekobaeko, sweet and sour Starburst-type candies, and a small voice as he asked for cigarettes. The clerk asked him what kind, which he had to check a text message to be sure of.
Corner woman asked, “A-ppa haeyo? Oh-ppa haeyo?” She drew the normally sharp syllables out, teasing the kid with that condescendingly polite please suffix, looking real serious till she had an epiphany gasp. “Noona?” She grinned.
That was father, brother, and finally older sister.
Outside was smog and boiling humidity so bad that I left dry and now my hair dripped from how everyone’s sweat hung in the air. I couldn’t smell any of the smoke outside unless I walked through it and being so used to it, I’d forget if I kept walking. But inside GS25, the dishwasher air was filtered out so the shattered bottle of soju from earlier’s unpacking mishap and the microwave, dirty with boiled over instant ramen water from the nurses on their lunch who were currently eating on the floor, didn’t even reek. It wafted out after some time. Only when the door open did a distinct outside flavor sit at the door. Normally.
Today’s scent was different from the sterile chill.
And the hospital employees eating on the tile and the kid getting teased for running an errand—they all knew it was a different though not altogether unpleasant smell, sniffing and looking because they couldn’t tell what it was. Not right away. Not after time. Not after discussion.
I knew it though.
I remember meeting my roommate on the Saturday after freshers week. He liked to ink out tattoo ideas, trying for symmetrical sleeves but he was a better artist with his dominant hand and also poor so they stayed ideas at least until graduation when I never saw him again. He was a year older than me. He had taken a gap year in order to travel but actually spent it working at Dillard’s for minimum wage until he had to dip into birthday checks from grandma to afford rent. He seemed so worldly having paid rent.
And since he was a week late, when he got to our room that first night, he saw me unpacked and settled already, having washed the sheets and scrubbed the floors trying to get out that lived-in stench. He asked, “That yours?”
He hadn’t pointed to anything. Just sniffed.
Then he went to the stairs where he went up and when he came back at 3 am, he was in a great mood.
I later put it together. During our first dorm meeting, the Indian RA warned us this was a dry campus. My roommate yelled, “You don’t drink pot.” He didn’t know everything.
After that first year, I moved dorms to a single, actually a building full of singles with shy, shut-ins like me. I only smelled it on the occasional desk-neighbor during winter calc classes when students went a week convinced their sweatshirts were clean enough to wear daily. But even now, even years away from that memory, I recognized the smell.
And Koreans didn’t, generally because there weren’t drugs in Korea. There was meth, cooked at home. I guess the club scene had ecstasy and other happy pills. Ritalin for the pro-gamers. And yes, this story is revealing weed in Korea, but it was something so associated with the West that friends had to go to the super international Seoul for Burning Man to get their skunkweed fix, 300,000 won (about $270) for an ounce. I don’t even know what that means but I’m told it was high price and low quality.
The other source of weed was the kkangpae. The Korean mafia.
Literally it translated to bully or gangster, but they were organized, smart, and closer to extortionary businessmen with the occasional violence but usually between rival crews. Tattoos skirted legality in Korea because the only person who can legally apply a tattoo to anyone was a medical doctor with a license to cut your heart and to prescribe antidepressants and with a year of training in America so their English was good too. That was not the case for most tattoo artists. They were like anywhere else in the world, just people with inky needles. The law didn’t get enforced because the kkangpae used the tattoo parlors as a somewhat legal front for their other dealings.
And I know this because I boxed with them.
The gym was owned by a Canadian woman married to a Korean man, both champions here (and they hit like it) before losing internationally and then training others. Kim Yong Bin actually spent six months in prison where he got his shoulder done in a black swirl that he covered to make the high school girls trying to lose weight feel more comfortable—or at least their parents would feel comfortable not knowing about the tattoo.
That was the first tattoo I saw in Korea and so when these other muscular, pierced men came in with varying sleeve lengths, I didn’t think much of it.
That was just boxing culture. Tough men trying to knock my teeth out before patting me on the back and jumping rope for the length of that Shakira song that makes your hips go real slow.
Then, as a bonding experience, the gym went camping in Dangjin by the beach.
We took three cars. I was with the Mouse Doctor, a flyweight that liked race cars so much he bought one. White, like half the cars in Korea, the rest being black or gray. He had this special GPS that alerted him to cameras on the highway so he’d fly down the road at bullet train speeds, getting on the horn for anyone in front that needed to move to another lane because he wasn’t slowing down for them even if it meant ramming their license plate, and then his GPS would beep-beep-beep like the White House was under attack and he’d let off the gas so we’d coast to the camera, and it’d be a long coast, then once past, back on the throttle till we were making great time.
Even if Yong Bin hadn’t gotten run off the road by a bus driver with so much government and union protection that he was legally untouchable (but not physically, and maybe there was a shove. Into a windshield. That wound up shattered at some point—but you didn’t hear it from me), the Mouse Doctor and I still would’ve gotten there an hour before them.
At the beach, Mouse Doctor flipped his shirt off and I saw how far his tattoo went, basically to the elbow but with some strands at his wrist, which I later learned meant he was quite up the chain in the kkangpae. But he was so nice. Always laughing loud. Usually at his own joke.
Like so many Koreans, his English wasn’t great but most kkangpae dealt with foreigners; they liked us thanks to our movies. That was why he always said “Yo” instead of “Hello.” We managed communication. He taught me to play this game. With a ball. There were other rules. It was a lot like 500 meets Sumo. We didn’t talk much though.
Our car had all the pots for cooking and the stove but none of the food so he led me to the river where it was brackish water. We followed it up and he’d stop and stoop every so often and I just held the bucket, not knowing why until he reached into this hole with the speed you’d expect from a boxer so light. In his hand, dead from the grip, was a crawdad. He found a lot more. He’d chuck them over his shoulder and cackle if I missed one or slipped into the water since I’d forgotten a bathing suit for this beach trip—I know.
By the time Yong Bin and Amy arrived, we had cooked up a nice meal in the woods next to the beach big enough for everyone.
And he stayed up all night talking with Yong Bin about the bus and I picked out the occasional word at first and then just listened, letting the language flow over me and hopefully seep in. It didn’t. They kept talking until there was movement down the beach but it was too far to see because it was low tide and still not daybreak. The locals were out clamming. We went too.
I walked with Amy, the Canadian boxer and former Korean champ. “I had a talk with Mouse Doctor. He can be reckless, I'm sure you've seen, and I’ve warned him for his own sake but with you there too, he really can’t be doing that.” We didn’t find any clams.
Then Mouse Doctor’s signature cackle rang out in the first tinges of the morning. Yong Bin had dived for a giant octopus headed for its hole no bigger than a fist. We ate it for breakfast. I’ll never forget how they threw it in the boiling water still alive, keeping it down with chopsticks and a ladle, and that murky purple head turning orange and two of its tentacles gripping the handle so tight trying to survive we had to cut them.
Mouse Doctor only drove about a hundred on the way back and Yong Bin didn’t get into any more bus fights.
The gym opened at 2 pm. I worked from 10 till 8. The taxis cost too much. The bus took too long. I was tired. I was lazy. Each time I went, I saw more kids than gangsters as the gym had paid its debts to the kkangpae, parting on good terms since we had celebratory dinners at their booking club that also had hookers. The new respectability came after a local businessman that owned Taipei or something put up funds to pay rent for at least ten years. He even attended and paid dues like a regular member. My coworker that slipped our boss the cigarette on the sixth-floor balcony had me put him in touch with a few of my old boxing buddies for weed, but memories of the Mouse Doctor faded. It’s really down to that one.
Until about three months after I stopped boxing. Amy messaged me on Facebook along with her other adult members that maybe knew Mouse Doctor but most didn’t and Amy just had a bad memory. Mouse Doctor was in the hospital. Shot, I figured. Or knifed. Busted up from a fight. Maybe hurt fleeing the police.
No, he’d been in a car accident. Just him. Hydroplaned sometime after midnight and hit a traffic light going 120, supposedly.
He survived, luckily, but that was all I really found out.
Anyway, the corner woman that smelled like weed watched me come up with my three Fantas, looking for 2,000 won in all my pockets before the bar codes were even scanned and I didn’t have the cash because I hadn’t been to the bank so I used my debit card on basically $1.80 of soda, and she looked away, uninterested but peeking over to catch me peeking at her smooth legs and the halter top under the army jacket.
The clerk, I guess something of my friend, said to me after struggling to remember how, “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, it has been! How are you?”
And like one of my students, she recited, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” without a clue what she’d said beyond it was the correct answer to a question posed by so many teachers, foreign and Korean, so often that she still remembered the exact intonation they drilled into her. There wasn’t much light in her eyes when she said it.
After I paid and left, I had to go back to the apartment for a notebook I’d left on the bed and now I wanted to write a few things down before work started. I had time.
For some reason, I went the long way around the block, not the trash way, but the crotch way. On the corner, there was the woman again, smoking, jacket off.
I had to be sure. “Hey,” I said.
~Doesn't work as a short story, but maybe a character introduction.
~Describes culture and narrator more than her character
~Does the third act work? Feels like the interest dips at the start and then it gets it back only to end abruptly
~too trivial? Little conflict
~Where would this work? escape cops, rival, the life. "corrupting" the more straight laced narrator. A connection to deal with a problem. Horrible love triangle. A strange companionship while in a new land because this "bad person" by Korean standards is most familiar to an American.