우리는 어디로 가는 걸까, 대답은 알 수 없어도.
(Where could we be going, though we cannot know the answer)
태양은 다시 떠오르겠지, 내일 우린 여기 없을 테니까
(The Sun will rise again, since we'll not be here tomorrow)
-자우림 (Jaurim), "우리에게 내일은 없다 (For us, there is no tomorrow)"
Unlike most developed countries, Korea requires two years of military service (give or take a few months depending on the unit) for all able-bodied men. Individuals with flatfeet, astigmatism, or deep pockets are usually placed in some civilian role, but few are able to entirely avoid the barracks. For Korean residents this waste of two years is the source of much exasperation, but not the source of any social ostracism at university, as half of the student body is forced to undergo the same process. For those fortunate enough to study stateside, however, the two years of compulsory service, coupled with the year or two most of them lost when transferring to schools in the US (the Korean school year begins in March, not August), leaves most graduates of the military program feeling some level of mental regression, like Kindergarten teachers forced to interact exclusively with their flock of bed-wetters.
Two years ago, while living in Seoul as an intern at a Korean governmental agency, I went to visit a friend of mine, who we’ll call “Woo,” who was at the time finishing up his first year of service in the Korean Marines (해병대). There’s actually a special application process for the Korean Marines, as it is objectively one of the most grueling and soul sapping of Korea’s various military branches. For those of you who remember the incident at Yeonpyeongdo (연평도), the marines were the ones put on duty and told to write up makeshift “Last Will and Testaments.”
There is a Korean phrase that I think accurately captures why anyone would join the Marines when they could easily join the Army, spending their two years largely devoid of anything resembling the military imagined in film and literature: “같은 값이면 다홍치마 (If it’s the same price, buy the shiny red skirt).” For Woo, an unassuming and occasionally naïve university student, joining the Marines was a way to prove to himself and his classmates that he was a patriotic man's man.
It’s difficult to get much in the way of vacation when you are a marine, but they do make certain exceptions for family members that are not made for friends of the enlisted. The plan was for Woo’s parents to drive me and another friend down to Kanghwa Island (강화도), spend the day together, and then have a "family emergency" in Seoul once it was too late to return Woo to base, so that we three friends could spend the night drinking and going to Karaoke (note: approximately 80% of Korean social outings eventually devolve into these two activities).
The only catch to our brilliant scheme was that Kanghwa Island does not present much in the way of nightlife. It is so backwater as to be the only Asian town outside of the Gobi desert to lack potable water (re: McDonalds). Like much of the Korean countryside, it is approximately three decades behind Seoul in terms of development, and approximately 40% behind in terms of the attractiveness of its female constituents (all the hotjumma have emigrated to Seoul, a move so common as to demand its own two-character noun in the Korean language: “상경 (sang-kyong)”).
After checking into a 찜질방, or sauna, for the evening (yes, Koreans can and often do sleep in saunas), we settled into a bar. As to be expected amongst twenty-one year old males the conversation quickly turned to sex, just as starving men are known to discuss their favorite recipes. I don’t remember much in the way of specifics, but I do recall being impressed that the other friend, who I’ll refer to as “Sung,” had managed to convince some girl at a bar that the reason he spoke English, rather than being his years of study in the states, was that he was a secret agent working for the Korean government as an undercover Korean-American. As I’m sure that Korean women are inherently aroused by those brave souls spiriting valuable intelligence from the powerful Kimchi cartels to the Korean government, I hope to one day have an opportunity to present myself to an unsuspecting woman as an undercover American-Korean (though first on my bucket-list of pickup lines is that of the father of one of my closest secondary school friends: “Hey, my name is [ ]. I’ve got a job, a driver’s license, and I’ve never been to jail. What’s your number?”).
Having concluded the first round of drinks, we headed into the nearest Karaoke, which, like the rest of the town, was empty. There was something else that was off about the place, but I couldn’t determine precisely what it was. The seats were a bit different, the alcohol selection was a bit larger, and the room seemed a little less focused on the television screen, but again nothing was unequivocally odd. The female owner walked us in and asked what we would like to drink. Responding that we would need a minute to decide, she continued:
“So, how many girls?” (아가씨들 몇 명?)
“How many girls should I call in for you guys?” (아까씨들 몇 명 부를까요?)
Ah, that’s what’s different.
Regardless of our lack or excess of desire to stay, at the time all three of us had pockets far too shallow to comfortably afford the tab we were likely to run. Hanging our heads, we declined the Madame’s offer and made our exit.
I should note that this type of institution is not in the business of prostitution. The girls will not sleep with you, or at least, that isn’t part of their job description (if they like you, they might, but such behavior is non-contractual). All they do is pour you drinks, cozy up to you and coquettishly call you “오빠,” the Korean term for “older brother” used by women to refer to slightly older men. If a term exists for the sibling equivalent of “oedipal,” I am certain that it is buried deep in the lexicon of the Korean tongue.
Walking around the city in search of a “He-man woman haters” karaoke, the three of us quickly discovered that in fact there were few karaoke joints that did not promise girls. We also discovered that despite this bravado there were no girls, only middle-aged women (remember, the young and pretty ones have already moved to Seoul) faux-coquettishly twirling their tar-stained fingers and coughing out raspy renditions of “오빠” to clients young enough to be their own offspring. After finally entering a “normal” karaoke, we sang some and returned to the sauna to shower up and head to bed.
The sauna offered little in the way of normal comforts. Returning from the hot baths to find my watch missing, Woo correctly remembered the presence of a mousy thirty-something creeping by the corner of our lockers when we had been undressing. After convincing the owner of the sauna to open what we believed was the man’s locker, we found my watch. But though it occurred to me that I might not want to be present for the man’s discovery of his lost spoils, we had already paid the entrance fee and would have to stay in the eye of the storm for the duration.
The night passed uneventfully, and the three of us awoke with no discernible knife marks on our torsos. We also awoke to the chattering of a group of ajumma who had apparently made the executive decision that everyone sleeping in the public space should be prepping for the day ahead by 7 a.m. (despite fervent protests from the adjacent group of ajosshi). Having no recourse to these fearsome creatures, we got up, changed out of the sauna’s uniform into our civvies, and left for the bus stop so that Sung could catch an early departure. In a fitting end to the trip, as we approached the bus station we saw a woman cleaning up a “barbershop;” one replete with heavily tinted windows lest passing children witness the inappropriate cutting of hair that would take place throughout the day.