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.
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?”