The Rong and Winding Load
By John Bocskay
How two foreigners boarded an express sightseeing bus and were transformed into stammering degenerates.
They do as they please and no one can stop them: rise before dawn, pack into a bus, and start hitting it: partying all day on a bleary-eyed tour, shattering the peace of the countryside with their whoops and hollers, rocking and bouncing the bus on its axles along the freeway, dancing in a trance in the aisles, the pounding beat driving the revelers further and further…
This is not a Korean Kool-aid Acid Test, nor is it some Road Warrioresque brand of post-apocalyptic menace. These are Korea’s senior citizens – little old grandma and grandpa – and this is what they do every Sunday all across the Land of the Morning Calm.
I’d caught glimpses of the gosok gwan-gwang (express sightseeing) buses here and there, bearing down the freeways packed to the rafters, blaring music, every passenger up and rocking, arms flailing, bodies whirling, Is she screaming into a microphone?…and they pass in a flash and I wonder if I saw what I thought I saw. After a few such sightings, curiosity got the better of good sense and I booked myself a ticket to see what the hell was going on.
I woke up at the ungodly hour of six a.m. on a Sunday and immediately began to waver. The prospect of getting up on three hour’s sleep and pounding booze for the rest of that fine Sunday suddenly seemed like an outrageously stupid idea. My ever-faithful spiritual counselor, Ekim Darby, advised me to get up and go through with it. “Get up motherfucker,” he said as he ripped the covers from my bed, “I didn’t sleep on your sofa for nothing.”
I bitched and wailed, but Ekim was resolute. I had chosen my travel companion well, but I hated him then, at six in the morning.
Still half asleep, I realized that partying with a bunch of geriatrics would give me occasion to wear my best Hawaiian shirt, which, for some reason I’d rather not understand, always puts me in a perversely chipper mood. I sprang out of bed and we wolfed some toast, bolted out and caught the first cab. We were on the road for five minutes when the driver swerved hard to avoid the very first oncoming car, only just avoiding a head-on wreck. Brushing aside this foul omen, Ekim and I pondered our mission and blazed into the sunrise to meet the party bus.
The spry old folks greeted us warmly at the pickup spot, and gave us hats identical to their own to complete our party gear. We rolled at eight, and the first bottles of soju starting popping at eight-thirty. The volume on the stereo spiked, and one person after another sprang up and danced in the aisles. The bus bounced and rocked. The smell of beer and tangerines clung to our sticky fingers. It was on.
I had come with a notebook and a notion to somehow document the trip, but I quickly found that it’s hard to write with beer in your lap and your elbow halfway up someone’s ass. Green and yellow disco lights illuminated the dancers when the bus passed through tunnels. The relentless pongch’ak-pongch’ak-pongch’ak beat sowed a child-like euphoria in the 70-year-old bodies. Nobody sat for long, and if they did, it was only to pour a beer or down a shot.
Very early we sensed trouble: these people were dangerously hospitable. Every one of the forty or so passengers on the bus at some point made their way to our seat, where glasses were raised again and again. I can forgive them for wondering what the fuck we were doing there, because I was wondering the same thing, but it was clear that we were the two most-welcomed cats on the bus, two stray foreigners along for the ride. It wasn’t long before the notebook was stashed and Ekim and I were dancing fools, twirling the old girls, screaming nonsense lyrics and shouting Oh Yeah! as we carved fresh tracks down the open morning highway.
By maybe noon we reached our destination, the pastoral village of Uiryoung, which boasted the “sightseeing” attraction of our jaunt: a 500-year-old tree, which some monk had once hung a big drum on for some reason, back when the Japanese were up to no good, or maybe it was…
…Nobody gave a flying rat’s ass about the tree, and neither did I. Our giddy mob spilled off the bus and was already scampering past the twisted old hulk and down a narrow cement road flanked by fields of green onions to a small modern house, where a 90-year-old farmer was setting a long table. He had slaughtered a pig, and three women in towel-draped visors squatted around a bloody steel tub stuffing the intestines to make soondae. The booze was already flowing and the party was high and saying so to the once-peaceful hamlet.
Around the table we feasted on endless mounds of pork, and chased it with bottomless cups of soju and beer that rapidly warmed in the sun. Maybe it’s the children-starving-in-Africa images planted by my mother, or maybe simple gluttony, but I always eat as I ate then, which is to say, until I couldn’t eat another mouthful. And then I ate more.
As the eating slowed down, they started singing around the long table, keeping the beat with hands and spoons and chopsticks. They sang like this for perhaps an hour, and never stopped for lack of lyrics – everyone joining when they knew the words, and lone voices calling out the new direction when the verse ran out. The melody was the same haunting minor lilt one finds in many of the old songs. You wouldn’t be far wrong to call it Korean Blues: like its traditional American counterpart, it couches all the joy and trouble in the world in music that is communal, unadorned, and cathartic.
But soon someone located the tape deck and disco took over. The small country house started pulsating to the manic pongch’ak. The party quickly deserted the table, and Ekim and I were swept onto the dance floor, where everyone wanted a turn spinning us around, bottle-feeding us soju, and shoving us into the center to bust some American boogie-woogie. The room positively buzzed, and if you blurred your vision (which they did for us) you could have sworn you were in a room full of teenagers on Ecstasy.
Around two o’clock we were enjoying a break in the shade by the side of the farmhouse, where they fed us more pork and rice. We had gorged ourselves not two hours before, and somehow this second round wasn’t considered a meal. To be polite, I made a half-hearted attempt at eating, and I managed to choke down a few mouthfuls. Chewing slowly and determinedly, I turned to Ekim and said, “This piece of pork in my mouth…”
“I can’t swallow it.”
I discretely spit the pork into a tissue. I was beyond full, and would have loved nothing more than to lie down for a heavy afternoon nap. But in the house to our backs the pongch’ak beat was thumping the walls, the unrelenting medley looping, driving, whipping them into a craze. We knew it wouldn’t be long before someone dragged us inside for another dance. The bouncy pongch’ak, which had before seemed so vibrant and innocent, began to take on dark and menacing tones.
Ekim had made a friend, a grandmother with enormous sunglasses and a soju grin. She was sitting next to him, and between ominous burps, kept thanking him for something.
“She keeps putting her hand on my thigh,” Ekim said uneasily.
Ekim was sometimes squeamish about the touchy-feeliness of Korean social customs. “Let’s change places,” I offered, “She can put her hand on my thigh for a while.”
So we switched places and she laid her hand on my thigh. Several times she raised the hand to cover her mouth when she belched, and several times when the hand flopped back down it missed both of my thighs and settled between them. “Thank you,” she mumbled. I understood.
Ekim was sizing up the courtyard. He asked me, “Have you considered jumping over that wall?”
I stroked my distended gut. “I wouldn’t make it. You?”
My new friend was still belching her thanks when I got up to take a piss. When I came back, Ekim was gone. Bastard, I thought, he’s probably trying to hitch back to Busan.
I had lost my confederate, and I felt momentarily alone as the impenetrable saturi swirled up and over my head. Being among Koreans, however, I wasn’t alone for long, and they considerately dragged me back to the dance floor. My stomach was near bursting and my head now in a thick funk. One old girl grabbed my hand and pirouetted under it for several minutes. I couldn’t watch. Everyone asked me where Ekim was. “He went for a walk,” I said. I wanted to strangle him.
I was losing it, so I slipped outside and opened my notebook. It was anti-social, but I was there to get some kind of story after all, and the notebook made whatever I was doing look sort of serious, so the ladies tidying up the courtyard left me alone. The one who had rested her hand on our “thighs” was now loudly snoring on the table. I envied her. Another fellow sightseer stumbled by and thrust his face into my notebook, repositioning it for a better look. He furrowed his brow for a minute trying to decipher my jagged shorthand, until he remembered he couldn’t understand English anyway and staggered back inside. I too am having trouble deciphering that garbage as I sit here now, but I’m pretty sure that my little notebook spared us the horrible spectacle of me launching half-digested pork all over that rapidly spinning room.
Sometime later we said goodbye to grandpa farmer and headed back to the bus, where I found Ekim passed out across four seats. The nap seemed to do him some good, but we weren’t anywhere near home yet. Back on the freeway, people shoved bottles in front of our faces. They showered us with apples, tangerines, and chocolate-covered nuts. Our cups were never empty, which was all very wonderful, but on a bus of lions we were choking down the lion’s share. My belly stretched grotesquely and my head grew dark. Over the music, I shouted to Ekim, “They’re going to host us to death!” Ekim, a soggy paper cup clenched in his teeth like a feedbag, mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out.
The sun, the pork, and the booze had taken a heavy toll and we dozed off several times. Our kind hosts thought maybe we were bored, and in their concern they smacked our faces hard any time we drifted into unconsciousness, which was about every five minutes. I cautioned Ekim to be mindful of his p’oktanju pace and his manners. He was now jabbering like an idiot and swinging two long, limp cucumbers at the old ladies who were trying to drag him out into the aisle. They were pawing at him and shouting GET UP! DANCE! OH YEAH! A-SA!
Ekim was half crouched with his back to the window and was shouting NO! NO! NO! NO! and slashing and thrusting the flaccid cucumbers like a retarded Don Quixote. Good Lord, I thought, this is getting ugly. Though Ekim’s methods are sometimes crude, they’re nonetheless effective, and the dance invitations began to taper off. But Ekim, now reduced to a wild-eyed and muttering savage, still clung to his droopy cucumbers, which swayed like spent erections, limp totems against an equally impotent threat.
The ride back to Busan was taking forever: forty drinkers had broken forty seals, so the bus stopped what seemed like every forty meters for piss call. These people had danced, eaten, and drank circles around us, but what Ekim and I lacked in intestinal fortitude, we made up for now in bladder continence. At one piss stop, Ekim and I again remained in our seats while everyone else again scurried off. “Get up,” shouted one old lady, “You have to piss!” When I told her I really didn’t, she cocked her head sideways: Does not compute.
I made it home at ten p.m. with a debilitating but familiar post-party feeling; I realized that these gwan-gwang tours are nothing short of full-blown raves. They lack none of the essential elements: A steady beat laced with lots of kooky electronic forays, trance-like dancing, complete disregard for life’s cares, hardcore commitment to revelry and community, large quantities of a mind-altering substance (soju), and the same rock-‘til-you-drop euphoria that drives their younger counterparts. If that’s not a rave, I don’t know what is. Actually, they made most raves I’ve attended seem tame and anti-social by comparison.
But cool though it was, it’s not for me. I’ll need at least another thirty years to get in shape for that mad scene.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Culture Shock Korea
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