by David S. Wills
We walked shirtless along the beach in search of women, swigging from our beers and carrying the bags of booze we’d picked up at the convenience store. The air was cool, far too cool for going shirtless, but it felt good. It felt fresh and clean, washing away so much of the dirt that had stuck to me over the past months. It was the second time I’d been to Busan with Jonathon and each time felt like a cleansing.
Of course, there were no single women, and no groups of women. Mostly it was old men sitting on the beach or walking on the promenade, and the occasional couple going hand-in-hand. The boyfriend would always hold his girl tighter when we drew near, sensing our desires. We talked mostly about old times as we went, saying things like, “Hey, remember that time in Starz…” and then recounting memories that for most people would be nothing. But when we spoke they seemed like significant, if not spiritual, events.
We stepped down onto the sand again and decided to walk along the water’s edge, and soon we were stopped by the shouts of an old man. “Hey, foreigners!” he called in Korean. I’d been in Korea so long by this stage that a shout like that no longer seemed particularly rude. “Foreigners! Come here!”
We peered through the darkness at a table of ten old Korean men. In front of them were dozens of empty soju bottles, and around their feet were dozens of new soju bottles. They weren’t scowling at us as I’d expected. They were smiling and beckoning us over to their table. We looked at each other and shrugged, then joined the old men, who seemed very pleased to have foreign guests at their table.
They spoke excitedly in Korean about “foreigners” and after a while, one of the men – who was ever so slightly more red-faced than the rest – asked, in English, “Where are you from?” He gave each word tremendous emphasis. We told him and he translated our answers into Korean for the benefit of his friends. Naturally, “Scotland” was translated into “England.” Every now and then Jonathon would speak in Korean, but then he’d stop and I was never sure if he was being bashful or if – as he’d alluded to before – he thought himself above speaking Korean. Regardless, the old men seemed amused by our presence. It was the first time in Korea that I’d ever really been made to feel welcome.
We must have sat there for hours, laughing and drinking. Not much was really said. It seemed like the old men were beyond communicating even with each other, and Jonathon’s translations of their speech yielded little worth mentioning. Mostly we just raised our paper cups and said “Geonbae!” and then filled them again. Every single time the cups were filled we would use two hands and obey all the simple little quirks of the culture that had become normal to us in such a short time. Strangely, the old men marvelled at it. Whereas once I would’ve guessed that they couldn’t fathom dumb foreigners understanding their customs, I began to feel that maybe they were just surprised we cared. Maybe they were honoured that people from all the way around the world would come to their tiny little country and drink with them in the middle of the night.
We were still drinking when the sun rose and still drinking hours after when people began to return to the beach in small numbers. Four of the old men were asleep in their chairs and two seemed to have disappeared altogether – probably home to their families. Silence had been upon us for many of the hours that had passed. We just sat there sharing drinks and smiling at each other. I wondered from time to time if they were just being polite and were waiting for us – the guests – to leave. But I was reminded of the thousands of old men I’d seen in Korea who sat all day with their little green bottles of soju, talking occasionally and mostly just watching the world pass by. I’d always taken their stares as contempt but never thought to smile back, just to see. Never thought to sit with them and share a drink or try to talk.