I saw the gorgeously crappy orange carnival tent known as a po-jang-mah-cha. Earlier, I read a magazine article that described these Korean traditional drinking, eating, singing and meeting places with dirt floors, Korean street food, cheap booze and big smiles. Best of all, it was conveniently down the street from where I taught kindergarten.
I begged my Korean friends to take me. They all said they'd rather go sober and eat Taco Bell for the rest of their lives than step into one of those tents. Their pleas weren't going to stop me. So I gathered my buddy Cyborg who spoke decent Korean and some foreign friends into going with me.
Remember that scene in "Animal House" when the Delta fratboys walk into the bar full of mean-looking black dudes, the record skips and everybody stares at the white boys in horror? That was us in the orange tent. Everybody was about 60 years old, Korean and not too friendly looking.
"Why are you here?" one of the elderly female servers snapped at Cyborg.
"We heard this is fun."
"Are you sure you're sure that you want to be here?"
"Of course. We want to experience Korean culture."
Our grandmotherly waitress laughed so hard she snorted beer out of her nose. I'm sure she said something like, "Don't make us regret this, and we won't let you forget this."
We nodded, "OK."
We became instant celebrities. All 20 giddy people in the tent wanted to take shots and photos with us. We dined on fish-shaped waffles filled with red bean paste — they're an acquired taste that I never acquired. Then we ate fried spicy rice pasta, fried squid, fried shrimp, fried sweet potatoes and who knows what else. We chugged beers and soju with the happiest old ladies in Korea.
"You're not embarrassed?" asked a grinning but confused ah-joo-mah (old Korean lady).
We explained in our baby-talk Korean that we thought this was the coolest place we'd been in a long time.
She shrugged her shoulders and handed me a microphone. Time for extreme karaoke with elderly Koreans. All night, we sang, danced, ate and romanced — one of us (not me) enjoyed some make-out time with an ah-joo-mah.
The next day, I told my Korean kindergarten co-teachers about how much fun we had down the street at the tent bar.
"Why on God's green earth would you tell us that?" Hyun-Ah, the most virginal of the virginal teachers, blurted with a horrified look. "Please. Don't do that or talk about that ever again."
I thought the teaching staff just didn't want me to talk about my drinking habits. Fair enough.
Then we went back again, this time with my pal's Korean girlfriend.
"Why the hell are we here?" she snapped.
"Isn't this awesome? It's so hipster that not even hipsters know about it."
"No, you morons. This is the dirtiest of the dirty and the reddest of the red light districts. This is where old prostitutes go when they're pretty much retired. And here are the gross men that like cheap, um, yuck."
So I told all of my lovely kindergarten co-teachers and all of my Korean friends how much fun I had hanging out with old hookers and johns.
And it was totally worth it.