Last week, I wrote about how I met Choon-Sam, a Korean gangster, aka Jo-Pok. He told me to meet him at a restaurant where I assumed he’d kill me because he may think my tattoos mean I’m a rival gang member. When I walked into the door, he smiled, opened his arms and mispronounced my name.
I feel my chest crushing. He’s, um, he’s hugging me? “Kay-She! My friend!” Choon-Sam says, and then looks to a waiter who nods back at him.
I can’t tell if I’ve swallowed a mouthful of drool or barf. “Hi. I mean, Annyeong haseyo! (Hello in Korea)”
“Oh! Korean! Good!” He claps.
“I didn’t realize you spoke English. It’s really nice to meet you, and I appreciate you inviting me to hang out.”
Choon-Sam cocks an eyebrow toward a waiter, who shuffles up to me. “That’s actually all the English he knows.” Choon-Sam hasn’t stopped smiling since I stepped in. His teeth looked chiseled out of the most beautiful Michelangelo marble. “Please sit. Do you eat joo-goo-mee?” I shrug. “It’s baby octopus. It’s spicy. I hope that’s OK. Choon-Sam says pepper makes you strong.”
Servers start bringing us tons of food. And booze. I slowly pour Choon-Sam a beer, which is a sign of respect that the young show the old. I’m younger and he’s older, and I respect everything about this guy.
We drink and talk. Through his translating waiter, I learn he’s 50 and has a 21-year-old girlfriend. He’s drinking beer with me now, but he’s a whiskey man. He lifts weights because he needs to be bigger than every Korean. He wants an American friend, and here I am.
He used to box, so we talk about fighting. I tell tales about being a bouncer. He counters with a story about how he beat a guy to death. He tells it with the emotion of somebody who once had to change a tire in mud. “That was a long time ago,” his translator meekly says. “Why don’t you practice your Korean?”
The boss gets what the boss wants. I teach kindergarten, so I’ve learned some Korean. I can sing songs, name the body parts and talk about colors. Choon-Sam giggles his sculpted ass off.
In English, we say friend, uncle, grandma, baby and babe. The Korean language uses those terms of endearment, too, but which word you use depends on your age and gender. I’ve been drinking, the love is flowing and my Korean is basic at best. I try to say, “I am happy you are my older brother.”
My sentence silences the restaurant. I hear somebody swallow. A spoon drops. Choon-Sam stops smiling. The translator’s face goes green. “Do you have any idea what you just said?” I shrug. “You just called the biggest gang leader in town your gay lover.”
I feel the wind kicked out of me, and then giant cracks on my spine. This is not how I figured a shotgun blast would feel.
Nope. Nevermind. Choon-Sam just bro hugged me and is laughing again.
“Choon-Sam thinks you’re really funny and said you’re going to come here much more often. Also, the proper Korean word for friend is ‘cheen-goo.’ Not the word you used. You only say that if you’re a girl talking to an older man. Understand?”
“Cheen-goo!” I yell.
“Friend!” Choon-Sam hollers.
I’ve made a new cheen-goo. Just not one to ever make angry, even though I managed to come close a few times. We’ll be friends until I take off from this wild country. But I’m not getting any dragon or carp tattoos … yet.