Sunday, January 25, 2015

dinner with Tom and the old man

I finally had the honor of meeting my buddy Tom's father yesterday evening. Tom's dad was in Korea for a few days, and Tom thought it'd be a good idea to host a large dinner, inviting several of his friends, including yours truly. The dinner was to take place at Zelen, the Itaewon-based Bulgarian restaurant that I've been to twice before. Like the previous time, when I went with my friend Charles, I ordered the marvelous risotto-stuffed squid. Tom's lovely wife and his son were also there, along with four or five Filipino friends of the Missus, plus two friends/business associates of Tom, one of whom was a Korean man whose name sounded strangely like "Aesop." We were a rather large dinner party.

Later that evening, after I had left Zelen and was walking home from Itaewon (a 20K-step walk, I'll note), I texted Tom about his pop: "Your dad's an impressive man—smart, cultured, and humble. Were you adopted?" In all seriousness, Tom's father proved to have a great sense of humor and a delightful curiosity about the larger world. He modestly brought up the issue of his landlocked Missourian roots at several points in the conversation, and he politely declined the offer to try some of my calamari. "Ah, yes," I gibed, "In Missouri, it's all hooves—no tentacles." "We're lucky to get shrimp," Tom's dad volleyed back.

So here are a few pics from last night's dinner. The first one is of Tom's lovely wife and their bouncing baby boy; the second one is of Tom and the fruit of his loins; the final pic shows Tom's father and the Korean friend whose name sounded like "Aesop."

The long walk home from Itaewon took me down past the 8th Army base entrance and Samgakji Station, then up into Huam-dong, the district that sits on the southwest flank of Namsan. I got stopped by a surprisingly tall policeman not far from the Hilton Hotel; the man asked to see my "shinmunjeung," and I had no idea what the hell he was talking about, so I told him I didn't have any shinmunjeung.

"Eopseumyeon andwaeyo," he replied flatly. Roughly: "You can't not have it." or "It's not permissible for you not to have it."

Eventually, as we talked further, I realized he was asking for my alien-registration card (ARC), which is normally called a waegugin-deungnok-jeung. To me, shinmunjeung sounded like a "newspaper"-something-or-other; why the fuck didn't he just use the common term for the foreigner's ID card? I handed over my ARC; the policeman checked it out and explained that the cops were looking for someone just walking about randomly in the night; it was getting cold out, so they were concerned about finding this person, whose absence had apparently been reported by concerned parties (relatives? friends?). The policeman said he'd stopped me because he'd initially thought I was Korean—a first. Most Koreans look at me and immediately assume I'm white, because that's the nature of the typical Korean's reality-distorting cognitive filter. This policeman was no dummy, so he gets points for that. He also gets points for speaking to me in nothing but Korean instead of assuming I could understand only English. (Then again, speaking Korean to a foreigner could have been a dominance/intimidation tactic—a way to keep me off-balance.)

"Isang-eopseumnida," he said formally after handing me back my ID card: no irregularities. He said something further, which I didn't understand, then saluted me and went back to his cramped, clown-car-sized vehicle. Given how tall the officer was, I felt a bit sorry for him, driving around in that tiny car all night. At the same time, I was irritated, as I replayed the encounter in my head, by the oppressively random nature of my being stopped and brusquely accosted on the street.

After that, it was a short walk past the Hilton to the bottom of the steep bus path that goes up the southwestern side of Namsan. I stopped in at the public restroom at the bottom of the path before I headed uphill; Tom had given me a book as a gift—The Kama Pootra, a joke book that describes different positions for pleasurable shitting. I cracked the book open and started reading it while I did my foul business inside the stall. When Tom first told me about this book, I noted to him that, although "Pootra" was meant as a humorous riff off "Sutra," the locution -putra actually does exist in Sanskrit: it means son, as in that Indo-Nepalese river known as the Brahmaputra, i.e., the son of Brahma. So "Kama Pootra," to an Indian, might sound like kamaputra, i.e., "son of Desire."

While walking along, I found myself disturbed by the fact that I didn't know what a shinmunjeung was, so I whipped out my phone, called up Google Translate, and typed shinmunjeung into it.

"Did you mean shinbunjeung?" Google Translate asked me. I realized, at that point, that I had misheard, and therefore misspelled, the word in question. I clicked the link for shinbunjeung and got this definition: "identification." So this had nothing to do with newspapers (shinmun) after all. Shinbun, it turns out, means something like "status" or "identity." You learn something new every day.

And that was the most exciting thing to happen to me during my walk home. The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see; he stopped at Dongguk University's campus to pick up some necessities, and he ended up back in his Chungmuro 5-ga neighborhood, where he soon fell into a deep, pleasant sleep, happily digesting his risotto-stuffed squid, glad to have finally met the father of one of his best friends.



John (I'm not a robot) said...

Did you experience a moment of “esprit d’escalier” on the journey home? Just think, when you were accosted by the cop you could have raised your arms and said "hands up, don't shoot!"

Kevin Kim said...

I guess I'm experiencing it now.

Charles said...

Glad to see that you figured out what the cop was talking about, although I'm kind of surprised that you'd never heard the word 신분증 before. In all the years you've spent in Korea, you've never been asked for ID? And I don't mean by the police, necessarily.

Kevin Kim said...


At banks, college offices, and Immigration, when I'm asked for my ID, I normally hear "ID ka-deu," "jumin-deungnokjeung" (although I suppose that's more for citizens), or "waegugin-deungnokjeung." Never heard "shinbunjeung" before. Funny, though, how certain seemingly common words can escape one's linguistic filter for years.

Charles said...

Indeed. Well, I guess you can cross this one off the list now.