I was invited to an eightieth birthday party for a great grandfather (well, I suppose technically he was a great-grandfather, but I mentally ignored the youngest member of his clan when calling him halaboji) whom I had come to know during my first year in Korea. I don’t recall the exact wording but his national id card describes him as something to the effect of “a national treasure,” a result of his past military service.
Halaboji walks a slow meandering path, his hands crossed behind his waist in the typical fashion of the country’s once noble yangban. He is not fazed by typical societal conventions, as I noticed when he passed off a rather loud piece of flatulence as “natural, no?” His most-used descriptor, like many of his generation, appears to be “communist.”
“President Noh Moo Hyun? He is communist. ‘Sunshine Policy?’ See, I tell you
he’s a communist!” (노무현을 모르니? 얘 공사주의자. 햇빛정책을 알지??)
“Is that so?” (아, 그러세요?)
(In English) “He likes Kim Jong-Il! They are all communists! You don’t know?”
One visit I made to his house, in an effort to retrieve some items I had previously stored in his garage, resulted in my collecting Japanese apricots, maeshil, from the trees in his yard. While Halaboji is apparently tall enough to bring down a torrent of apricots around my unprotected head, there were several fruits that only “Dolsey,” was capable of reaching.
“Dolsey (돌쇠)” is a nickname I acquired from my Korean friends while still stateside. The pronunciation is about as close as the Korean language comes to forming my last name. It means, in rough terms, that I am a hereditary servant. I try to imagine that I must be somewhat akin to Wodehouse’s Jeeves, but given the public’s general reaction to Halaboji’s cries of “Dolsey! Get over here! (돌쇠야! 너 일러와!)” I am fairly sure that of a “Dolsey’s” many traits, one cannot, sadly, count a superb education or elegant demeanor.
I had been fairly certain that I would be the only white attendee at Halaboji’s eightieth birthday party. I was a bit surprised to discover that I was also the only non-relative present. Thirty Moons and one Dolsey. Apparently this didn’t bother anyone; on the contrary they placed me in all the “second-generation” photos, and I did the requisite birthday Kowtow in front of Halaboji. One friend, having seen the photos, coyly recited the Cookie Monster’s wise adage that “One of these is not like the others…do do doo be boopedoo.”
After the preliminary photo session I was sent outside to eat barbequed pork and drink soju, Korea’s liquor of choice. It is one of those alcohols that I assumed I would only find a cute cultural oddity, but for which I have, for the sake of my male Korean friendships, fortunately developed a taste. Particularly with barbecue, one can truly claim to have acclimated when after swallowing a piece of pork covered in pepper sauce and wrapped in lettuce, a shot of soju results in an exhalation of “aaashhhhh,” a cry somewhere between pleasure and the pain one’s digestive system is currently experiencing.
I drink with my father and his friends stateside, but it seems to be understood that they are not going to drink heavily, and that while I am still young enough to drink heavily, I will probably not do so in their presence. Violators of this rule are looked at askance during future social functions. The same cannot be said of Koreans drinking culture. If I am by some miracle not tipsy at the end of such an event, I would do well to create a plausible excuse for my sobriety. I should note that being opposed to the consumption of alcohol is not an acceptable one; in fact any excuse related to health is suspect. It would be better to say that one has to make weight for their upcoming world title shot.
There is a tendency for foreigners (and truthfully even some natives) to view Korea as a land where there is no misbehavior: no drugs, no guns, no crime…no sex (though one must wonder how the Korean people have managed to avoid extinction without that last one). And while it’s true that there aren’t many drugs, guns, or criminal acts (at least anything that would make the front page stateside), and that sex is kept relatively quiet, it’s not as if Korea is a nation of man-children walking around with a collective lollipop in their chocolate-stained mouth. As the alcohol began to circulate in the ajosshi’s bloodstream, the conversation somehow turned to weed.
“Hey Dolsey, is weed a drug?” (“야 돌쇠야, 대마초를 마약으로
“Uhh…well, not really.” (“아, 아니요”) Uh-oh, time to tread the waters
“See! No big deal! Have some more whiskey Dolsey.” (“그렇지, 봐봐
이들! 돌쇠, 위스키 한잔 더 하자!) Phew.
Following the he-man woman-hater clubs masculine consumption of meat and alcohol we retreated to the house for a birthday song and what appeared to be songs from the attendees’ childhoods. I didn’t know the words, but I am fairly adept at smiling and standing still, a necessary skill for anybody visiting a foreign country.
Having finished the songs I found Halaboji and told him, slightly loose, to live a “long long time! No seriously live a long long time! Stay in health! (“오래오래 사세요! 아뇨, 정말 오래오래 살아시기를 바랍니다. 건강하세요!)” With a few bottles of soju and a box of rice cakes in hand I left for home, hoping that perhaps one day I too would be called “Halaboji” while wearing the traditional yangban attire. A true rags to riches story, from Dolsey to Halaboji.