Alex in Asia

Month: January, 2014

Tipping and Dehumanization

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before or not, but no one tips in Korea. Cab drivers, bar tenders and waitresses all get by on their—presumably inflated, but considering how they treat workers here, maybe not—hourly wages. In a lot of ways, this is nice for consumers. Because prices in Korea are listed with tax already included, when you order, say, some Soon-dae-gook-bap (soon-dae=pig intestine, gook=soup, bap=rice, so basically pig intestine soup with rice. I promise, it’s actually not bad. I like it extra spicy) for 5,000 Won, you will end up paying 5,000 Won, as opposed to the 8,000 or so you would pay if forced to add tax and tip.

Still, there are disadvantages, both practical and otherwise. When I order my usual Jameson, neat, Korean bartenders have the infuriating habit of measuring out the whiskey in a shot glass before pouring it. This drives me insane, and I do my best to subtly register my displeasure. Usually I just kind of stare and sulk, but last night I gave the bartender a sort of a pleading look, and he splashed in some more booze from the bottle. Then I tipped him. Generosity is contagious, and everyone wins. What could be simpler? This concept is sadly lost on Koreans.

Either way, this sort of nonsense would never happen in America—or any tip-positive country—for several reasons. First, I feel like it is pretty universally understood that a neat whiskey should include more than just a single shot. It’s insulting; the act itself demeans my importance as a customer. A measured drink tells me that my 5,000 Won has paid for exactly so much whiskey, and not a drop more, while the bartender is relegated to the status of vending machine, taking in cash, dispensing a beverage. We are both reduced to our most basic roles, two sides of an equation where $(X)=1.5 oz*liquor(Y)—it dehumanizes us.

On a more practical level, a bartender expecting a tip would never be so pedantic. Even if it’s just a pleasant fiction, tipping forces some degree of camaraderie between server and served, turning the relationship from purely functional into something at least resembling mutual humanity. The bartender knows the size of his tip depends largely on customer satisfaction, so he pours accordingly. Pouring the minimum amount of alcohol, he knows, would result in the minimum tip, and is therefore avoided.

But it’s not just another exchange, a little more alcohol for a little more money. It creates a certain mood, an ambiance. A tipped bartender is more inclined to talk with customers, listen to their stories and commiserate with them, if for no other reason than to secure future tips. Inevitably, a congenial atmosphere is cultivated. Drinking makes people want to talk, and talking makes people want to drink. A wonderful, social cycle is initiated around the bartender, a benevolent fulcrum balancing conversation and drinking both. And of course this deserves a tip, even as tipping allows it to occur.

“Wait,” the cynic might say, “is not honest disregard superior to feigned sympathy? Is it not better to be alone than to pay for company? Is the bartender, not, in some ways a prostitute, and you his John?”

“Shut up and/or fuck off,” I might reply, because at some point fiction becomes fact. Tipping, conversation, human interaction, no matter their impetus, are always real. It’s why people go to bars, why they pay that 500% mark-up rather than drink alone (getting laid has also been known to factor into it). In moments of loneliness and boredom, we seek out company and alcohol, and tipping is a part of that. It brings us together.

So fuck the local custom. That’s worth a tip.


A Final Note on Grief and a Trivia Story

I have grieved, but never alone, until now. Let me clarify. I am not alone in Korea. I have friends. I have drinking buddies, even a potential love interest or two, but none of these people knew and loved my grandfather. Earlier today, I met a girl for coffee. Both the girl and the coffee were wonderful, but halfway through my latte, I thought about what would happen if I told her my grandfather had died recently. She would have made all the proper sympathetic noises, and would have most likely meant them, but she would not have grieved with me. You grieve for the person who died, not the people who knew him, no matter how much you sympathize with their feelings. And so, unless Lester Baum made any life long friends during the Korean War, I’ll be on my own in this.

In case any friends or family should be overly concerned about this, I promise, I’m fine. I loved my grandfather, and now he is gone, but life goes on. If my father’s death taught me anything, it is that even when you are consumed with grief and sadness, the rest of the world is not. The sun will callously insist on rising each morning, even if you would prefer if it took a few days off while you got your shit together. And really, your only choice is to rise right along with it.

Now, on to lighter things. I wrote this just before last weekend, but didn’t feel like posting it until now.

I am furious. Not disappointed rather than angry, but both, plus livid, incensed, and any other words or phrases you can think of that mean just generally pissed off. I better explain.

The other night I was at one bar or another enjoying a casual drink, when I started talking to a girl. The girl—Karen—told me about a trivia night she organized for expats at a bar downtown. Now, I love bar trivia. I love all trivia really, but especially when you mix it with moderate to heavy drinking. To be completely honest, what I really like about trivia is the chance to show off a bit, to massage my ego, which always wants for some massaging. I know my sins (vanity, pride and gluttony mostly, with a few others mixed in just for variety), and I don’t see any harm in indulging them once in a while, so long as nobody gets hurt and everyone else gets drunk.

So the following Wednesday, I invited my friend James to make the trip up to Traveller’s Bar, where the contest is held.


Korean has the tendency to turn people into unwilling vegetarians. Meat is just about the most expensive thing in the country—besides maybe non-domestic booze—probably because most of it has to be imported. As many map owners know, Korea does not have a ton of land, so Koreans generally farm grains and vegetables, rather than graze cattle, on what little land there is. Apparently, you get more calories per acre growing buckwheat than you do raising heffers, so meat is rare and costly. My favorite meal is Udon and kimbap, the first being shorthand for udon soup, served with fried tofu, seaweed, scallions, and some flat, starchy things of mysterious providence. Kim bap is sort of the Korean equivalent of a California roll, and literally means seaweed rice. It features those two ingredients wrapped around pickled radish, scrambled egg and various vegetables, served sans wasabi or soy sauce. Sounds gross I know, but it is only $1.50 a roll and I can’t get enough of them. Every meal, of course, comes with a side of kimchi and usually some pickled radish and/or a bowl of broth as well.

Anyway, after a week of that diet—which again, I actually quite like—I was definitely ready for some protein. Traveller’s is owned by a Canadian, and its menu features what can charitably be described as a bacon cheeseburger, even if the Korean language doesn’t seem to have a word for medium-rare. Still, the beef was just a perk, I was there to answer some fucking trivia questions. James and I split a pitcher of something called Red-Rock, which while not great, is definitely a marked improvement over the local Korean beers, which are slightly thinner than water and not nearly as flavorful.

Around when we were finishing our meal, the girl from the bar—hi Karen—stepped up to a microphone at the front of the room and started explaining the rules. They were pretty standard, and I won’t bore you with them.

Throughout the first round, James and I were confident. We knew most of the answers, made educated guesses on others, and were stumped by only one or two. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that we were the most animated and energetic people in the bar. The other groups were somber and workmanlike, writing down their answers as if they had never left their jobs, and this was just one final assignment they had to complete before going home. While we high-fived and celebrated, they murmured and conferred. While we enthusiastically finished our pitcher and ordered another, they drank with expressions of dutiful compliance rather than pleasure, like getting drunk was a mildly inconvenient favor they were doing for a friend.

I handed in our answer sheet, still confident, and went back to await the results. They read out the answers before giving the score, and again, James and I were the only one’s celebrating. I wondered if I had accidentally gotten too drunk; such things have been known to happen. Otherwise I could not figure out the disparity in energy levels. Our final tally was 11 right out of 13, so we figured to be, if not in first, then at the very least tied for 2nd out of a dozen or so groups. Nope.

We were in last, with almost every other team getting a perfect score. Right away, we smelled some pure, unsalted bullshit. I have not spent half my life face down in a book to come in last place at bar trivia. No, just no.

“Cheaters!” I yelled out to the bar. A girl from the table next to me decided to reply.

“Excuse me. We did not cheat. Maybe you just lost.”

“Of course you guys didn’t cheat,” I said. “but everyone else definitely cheated. We are probably the only two teams that played honestly. Congratulations on your perfect score.”

I bet she was the biggest cheater of all. God I hate her.

Of course, I knew the how and the why, and half wanted to just leave, but James convinced me to stay for another round and at least confirm our suspicions. So we stayed, and we confirmed.


Fucking smartphones.

Every team was discreetly—or, in some cases, not so discreetly—Googling underneath the table. I did a lap around the bar just to confirm that no one beat us fairly, then got my coat and left with James.

I wish I could put the cheaters into one group, and say that it was only the army guys, or the local contractors, or even just the Hagwon teachers, and therefore manufacture some excuse that would catch all of them in the same net. I could write their perfidy off as a product of circumstance, as the result of a particular and specific set of conditions that would force any reasonable person to cheat at bar trivia. But it wasn’t just one group. Everyone cheated. Privates First Class (maybe even officers), ESL teachers, I even think I saw a local girl on her cell phone when they asked about scientology.

The most depressing thing was the uniformity of it. Everyone cheated, everyone scored perfectly. Why? It can’t be for fun. For the prize? I assume they’ll all just end up splitting it. It’s possible there was some kind of tacit agreement, an understanding that if everyone cheated, it would be like no one did, or at least turn the competition from a test of knowledge to a test of Google skills. I honestly don’t know. There was an element of surrealism to it, to see perfect score after perfect score after perfect score, knowing that everyone had to be aware of what was going on. Aware, that is, but silent, no one reporting anyone lest they all be reported, a dynamic equilibrium, Mutually Assured Destruction. Pathetic.

I comfort myself by assuming that these cheaters lead sad, empty lives. The kind of lives where a couple of morosely sipped drinks, minimal conversation and some furtive internet searching represents an apex rather than a nadir. The next day, James asked me if I wanted to try again next week, see if it got any better.

“What are you,” I replied, “some kind of optimist?”

Eulogy, by proxy

My grandfather taught me many things. He taught me how to sink a putt and hit a drive. To play blackjack and shoot craps, and that if you say something often and loudly, people will believe it’s true. He taught me a million bad jokes and one or two good ones, how to check the pressure of a tire and build a house out of playing cards. He taught me to never under-eat and always over-tip, that it’s possible for one old man to know every single person at a woman’s basketball game. Most of all, he taught me that the world is full of people waiting for someone to take an interest in them, to ask how they are doing and mean it sincerely.

He was a man who greeted anyone and everyone with a smile and a joke. He was on a first name basis with the entire Hartford area, and on pretty good terms with the rest of the world besides. He always knew whose mother was sick and whose wife was having a baby, and there never was a pretty waitress or mean old croupier he couldn’t make smile, even before he started tipping, which he did enthusiastically and often.

He believed, as we all know we should but sometimes cannot, that there is nothing more valuable than human connection, even if it’s only for the space of a quick word and a handshake. People loved him not because he was charming or funny or smart or kind—though he was all those things and more—but because they knew that he loved them back, deeply and unconditionally.

Bowing and a Birthday wish

Bowing is a lot of fun and I highly recommend it, even if I don’t always understand some of the finer points of bowing etiquette. My technique is a little off, too. My bows are abrupt and spastic where they should be dignified and graceful, and I have the unfortunate habit of kicking my left leg in when I dip my head, so that the whole thing turns into a kind of involuntary curtsey. But I’m working on it, and I feel that I can only get better with more time and practice.


I also need to learn when it is and is not appropriate to bow. At the most basic level, the bow is a sign of respect towards an elder or a superior. And no matter how many grade-school teachers insist otherwise, respect rarely ever goes both ways, and so bows are not—and should not—always be reciprocated. I have a difficult time with this. When someone bows to me, I feel compelled to return the gesture, almost as a corrective, as if to say, “no, no, no, I think there’s been a mistake. If you really knew me, you’d see that I am not, in fact, bow-worthy. Here, have it back.” And then I return the bow. I am fine with that though. Even if other people, other expats even, can stand there with grace, dignity and poise while receiving a bow from a waiter or cashier or someone, I can’t.


My problem probably has something to do with a lack of familiarity. America, as you may have noticed, suffers from a severe dearth of bowing. Besides eight-year-olds taking strip mall karate classes and gymnasts just finishing their floor exercises, there is very little bowing in the USA (maybe also ballroom dancing? Is there bowing in ballroom dancing? It seems like there might be bowing). Korea, in contrast, is saturated with bows, teeming with them. So to an American in Korea, making the transition from one extreme to the other, bowing can seem more meaningful than it actually is. Every time I bow, I still feel like I am taking part in a solemn exchange, a grave and serious transaction—whether of material goods or simply psychic energy—even if I am only grabbing a beer from the corner store. Koreans, on the other hand, who have built up a tolerance for the innate solemnity of the gesture, are able to bow—or not to bow—without so much as a second thought. They make it look easy, too, without any of the tics or hiccups that characterize my awkward efforts.


I need to learn to emulate this attitude, to take my bowing in stride, to do it with a casual, even perfunctory air. I want to be able to perform a bow as if it is just one of two dozen or so bows I will mete out that day, which, after all, it is. Until then, I think I will be cursed to a life filled with over-bowing and quasi-curtseys, closer to jerky head nods than anything else. Still, as I said before, it is really a lot of fun.


Also, I want to wish a very happy (late) birthday to my little brother ben and my little sister Katie.


Ben—even though you have blonde hair and blue eyes, for 18 years you have stubbornly refused to be anything other than the perfect little brother. You are the best of all of us, and never let that change.


Katie—I’d call you beautiful, but I don’t think you need any encouragement on that front. I’d call you brilliant, but I don’t want to lend credibility to that malicious rumor going around that says you’re smarter than me. So I’ll just say I love you (both), and Happy 18th Birthday.



Jaywalking and the Revolution

No one jay walks. Even when the roads are empty, even when everyone is drunk and stumbling home from the bars, they will not, under any circumstances, cross that road until the light changes. There are even sensors on the edge of the sidewalk that, when they detect you creeping forward, will warn you—in an insistently polite, chipper and feminine voice—to back up and wait for the light to change. The wait takes forever too, at least 2-3 minutes, which maybe doesn’t seem that long but absolutely is.


So of course I jay walk whenever I get the chance. I’ll wait casually at first, blending in—as much as it’s possible for a 6 foot tall white person to blend in here, anyway—while I look for an opening. If I spoke enough Korean, maybe I’d even make some banal, grating small talk. “Overcast again, huh folks?” or, “So Daegu FC lost again? The bums.” Then, when the cars stop coming, I make my move. I don’t run; it would be beneath my dignity. I just give a quick nod to whatever little old lady is standing beside me, then stride across all four lanes with what I imagine to be confidence and style.


The long wait means that some decent sized crowds tend to congregate, sometimes as many as a couple dozen people end up standing on either side, facing each other down like rival posses. When I break ranks, all those pairs of eyes end up squarely on me. Half burn a whole in my back, while the other half stare with expressions ranging from preoccupied indifference to stern disapproval. I like to think that a lesser man would hurry himself up at this point, whether out of shame or embarrassment or self-conscious insecurity. Not me though, I just keep the same measured pace, and try to make as much eye contact as possible with the people waiting across the street.


I just don’t understand why they wait. These people are busy. Presumably they have someplace to be; otherwise they wouldn’t be out walking in the first place. And yet they wait. They bow to that most callously impersonal of all government regulation: the street sign. I hope one day to lead an exodus, to inspire everyone by my brave example. Sometimes, while waiting, I feel the urge to make an argument in that direction, but my Korean is hardly good enough to order a drink, never mind incite an act of civil disobedience, however mild and innocuous it might seem.


But one day, maybe, when the roads are particularly deserted, and my fellow pedestrians are in a particular hurry, we will all gather at the edge of the sidewalk, and there, we will make a collective decision. First, we will look at the DO NOT CROSS sign, preferably with an expression of casual, roguish indifference. Then we will look at each other, and although no words will be spoken, an agreement will be made, a tacit understanding. No longer will we bow to the petty tyranny of Korean traffic laws, our looks will say. And then with a comradely nod, together, we will cross the street. Hand in hand—or not hand in hand, I’m flexible on this point—with grandmothers in puffy, shapeless coats, young businessmen in painfully earnest sweater-vests, and whoever else is there, I will march with my new Asian brethren like an army heading to war, confident and eager for victory. Word of our deed will spread, down to Busan and up to Seoul, to the Hagweons and Army bases, even across the DMZ and into Pyongyang, where millions of oppressed North Koreans will suddenly look upon their dear leader with newly opened eyes, and rush the streets in a frenzied jaywalking orgy, toppling the regime one crosswalk at a time. One peninsula, one land, no more waiting for the fucking light to change.