There are eras that occur only once in a lifetime. These are times before your kids and marriages brought you shape and meaning at small expense to your personal brand. This was when YOU were still on the line. Not your legal byproducts. The hard bought you.
These times will never be recreated and it would be almost a disservice to try. A period of absolute enthusiasm with so much punctuation that the absence of its recollection is an insult even though the recollection itself always comes up lacking. It was an advent and explosion—I’ve never even tried to write about it. And won’t now. Just here mentioning a bar was involved. That took on a life of its own.
It remains my favorite bar of all time. There are common rooms and then there are rooms that become uncommon. The steps up to the second floor university district bar in a busy area of Kyungsung Dae, Busan, had a certain aroma that smelt both repulsive and like recently sanitized lemon polish. “Ossosasayo!” The barkeep would holler from above as we ascended those last holy steps and entered, “ossoasayo!” Or “welcome!” He would usually be wearing his navy blue cub scouts shirt. Patches and all. Lord only knows where he got that thing.
The bartender’s name was Gyu-Ho and he was the purest, smartest, hippest, nerd-bath-beautiful-human-soul I’ve ever encountered. “Uh. Matthew–Hyung…”, he’d begin (always respectful, referring to me as “older brother”) before asking something much more informal like, could I clarify some profane English phrase someone was trying to teach him or if I was available for a hike in the mountains that weekend.
I can’t recall ever scheduling a time to meet anyone at Kino Eye. You just showed up and someone was there. Someone you really wanted to talk to. There would be the NorEaster (tropical storm Kevin) and Sippy at the far end of the bar. Always planning and organizing and charismatic and convinced they were much more than right. Wearing their white collared dress shirts rolled up to the elbow and black ties. Like expat blues brothers. Forces of Nature.
What happened at Kino Eye, like in Korea generally, was a kind of transformation. We went from caterpillar to butterfly. Sometimes in the course of a single night. In the space of one year that bar taught me more lessons than I’ve learned before or since. Immutable. Irreversible. I lost part of my soul that can’t be returned. It was dipped in paint thinner and fed to animals. If all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, my life has been a footnote to Kino Eye.
A unique aspect of existing in a place with very little new culture, is you become the culture. There were ten of us: Tall Guy, Sippy, Shuffling Snackman, Pip, PettyJohn, VanNorEaster, The Governor, Myself, Streets and Gyu-Ho. Towards the End came the Danimal: he was the end of the beginning and a supernova into the next constellation that spawned a whole new galaxy that has only recently turned back into middle aged stardust.
Inspiration exists, but it must find you working. So we worked. Because, at our day jobs we didn’t. The dirty little secret that isn’t really a secret is that teaching English isn’t a job so much as a distraction between activities. The creative work was the activity and the nerve center was the bar.
People came to Korea to escape something, someone or the lack of something or someone. No one was in Busan because it was Plan A. This wasn’t even B or C. This was not calculated (aside from Tall Guy, because he’s never not calculated) we all broke like waves on the shore. Shipwrecked. Lucky for us, Busan had the best beaches in the country. And lucky for me I hit a high water mark of the ESL movement. Koreans were English crazed at the time and English skills were more important than admission to elite universities. The mark of a reputable student depended on their English skills and English skills depended on the teachers that helped students hone these skills and honing these skills depended on the image of the schools and the image of the school depended on how many white people were purported to be teaching there.
The problem was, no white people wanted to. So the private language institutes, where most ESL teachers taught, started to recognize what would draw native speakers to their relatively unknown island = money. Korea can’t compete with the more exotic locales like Vietnam or Thailand and wasn’t considered as sophisticated as Japan, but Korea leapfrogged them all by offering the green westerner more green. They offered a free flight, free housing, free health care, a generous bonus system and essentially tax free salary at a rate better than most young people clear at a mid-level professional gig back home. The work was fantastically easy. Essentially making small talk, asking between 5-8 classes a day what they had for breakfast, and then correcting them when they mispronounced something. “English Conversation” it was called. Which isn’t to say that teachers didn’t care about their students or didn’t try to do a good job. Everyone did. At least for a while. But there is a particular game that is being played in the ESL system in which foreign teachers are both a pawn and a bitch, and once you realize this, you kinda step out of it.
Kinship’s formed fast in Busan because friends were your family. You spent days with them, weekends with them, evenings with them, vacations with them, holidays with them. There were no real alternatives. Video calling and social media was in its infancy at the time and I didn’t even have a laptop. So when it came to forming connections, friends were the only show in town.
In many Asian cities, their public art doesn’t happen in daylight, it comes alive at night.
During the day the buildings drone in monotonous grey, but at night the concrete explodes and the skylines become a modern canopy of densely packed neon outcroppings. These glowing streets were our playgrounds.
I often wondered what it was like to have lived with the lost generation in Paris or with the Beats in Tangiers. The creative communing that occurs uniquely through the chosen isolation in an unknown land during formative years. Kino Eye was our Mermaid Tavern, our Rainbow Room, our WhiteHorse or Bird & Baby. There was no music in the city. So we started bands. There were no DJs so we became DJs. There were no movies, so we wrote our own. There were no parties, so we threw them (at Kino Eye, of course). There was no beer, so we started a brewery. (Out a window. Down the street. And called it Street Beer.) Dudes loved motorcycles, a week later we had a motorcycle gang.
There is a formula for what happens with proximity + time + creative energy and a shared focus. For many, that formula expresses itself most-fully in college. That’s why we are friends with the people we met there forever. In University everyone is in the same space with the same struggles with the same free time and collectively stoned on the same haughty high-cloud of learning.
But while we are eager in college we haven’t yet suffered.
By the time Kino Eye came around we had been blessed with the stomps of misfortune and so had some of the spare parts needed to start the reclamation process. Failed marriages, failed professions, failed families and failed gods were what brought us to the steps of gibraltar with an ax to grind and no sharpener. We’d smelt some life, had burrowed out from the sadducees thumb and carried shrapnel in our torso. We could recite Byron and fix a toilet. What I stumbled upon in Busan was a generation of people uncertain with the world, more or less adrift, and trying to find a way out by hopefully making something that connected. You could try and fail and be foolish and not worry about the consequences. No one was breathing down your neck. Everyday life felt like an exploration into an unknown land. Because it was.
There is no story here, because there are so many. An homage to a time when living was all that mattered. The pauses in conversation were actually spent thinking, not on reacting or worrying or checking your phone. People listened. We listened. To each other. There wasn’t a lot of choice. No one else existed that much. And police didn’t have guns. In fact, the police were afraid of you. Which, more importantly, meant you weren’t afraid of the police. Partying was the national pastime and girls loved you because you were different. But unlike college-days, you weren’t broke. You had all of your necessities taken care of and your job was a joke. (I will say, in the defense of the many still over there fighting the good fight, insisting with stiffened regularity that the teaching racket is a “profession”, that most instructors evolved. After all, no human could maintain the velocity attained in their first years. Your body would reject itself. Eventually, it gets difficult for even the most hardened expat to look at themselves in the mirror after some of those nights that bend space-time. Those that could, got bent themselves and are now recognizable by their hobble.)
Ten years after Kino Eye I was starting a job at a shiny new office and had to write a bio for the website. For the non-megalomaniacs of the crowd, of whom I consider myself lumped, self promotion is an awkward business. Thankfully, someone much smarter than me helped craft the thing. It went through like 17 drafts. As we scuttled versions back and forth I kept realizing one difference of opinion was my constant removal of “Taught English in Korea” in my “Professional Experience” section. I repeatedly deleted it and the editor kept reinserting it. Eventually I queried her on the discrepancy, as the experience didn’t seem relevant to my current work. “It’s the most interesting thing about you,” she eventually replied, more delicately than that. This might not be saying much, but as I reflected on this zinger, I realized she might be right.
I’ve always felt the only problem with Korea is that it isn’t real. It’s too easy. Too easy to be class president. Too easy to be front-man. Too easy to get laid. Too many options. Too many opportunities to explore. Too little competition. Too many abilities to aggrandize yourself. Too many ways for the uncool to become cool. It’s not always a good thing. Too always be the big fish. It messes with one’s head. Maybe there is some utility to bullies. Once Revenge of the Nerds becomes mainstream, you gotta watch your back.
Now as I’m forced to slow down. As the perfume turns into tinnitus. As loss becomes the “new norm”. As the suicides pile up and the misfortune once needed to ripen us has now rotted out too much of the core. I wonder if I was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t too easy. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for the ease.
But oh how I remember the days when guilt was gone. I remember the whips of foosball. I remember the 4 tequilas for $10. How brothers called each other’s names with a winsome zeal they’d reserved previously only for romance. And then spilled on each other with a recognition that giggled. I remember Bradbury yelling, “Lets hit the streets!”, and then kicking me in the nuts soccer style as we both wondered why I asked him to do this. I remember the street food. The buoyancy. The beach beer. The roman candle fights. The Sunday afternoon film screenings. The burning of Seoul. Wednesday night dart group. The dancing! The pension parties. The white-gloved cabbies. The shellfish. The makgeolli caves. The girlfriend battles. The culture wars. The thigh covenants. The Yule Logs. The Family Mart night caps. The go-stop slaps. The batting cages. The side conversations. The book exchanges. The Proud Three learning Korean, and then blabbering on late-night-cab-rides home. Doooooooriiiiiiiiii IMNIDA!!!!!!!! The water dumped on heads when peeing in alleys. The cinder blocks thrown at heads when peeing in alleys. The brunches. The soju face. The hot pizza with corn. The dixie cups in DVD Bongs. The Gwangalli bridge illuminating our weekends like a portable lantern. Sing-alongs on the pier. Eating duck on top of mountains. The lack of open container laws. The time when every night was Kino Eye and every weekend was a thrill. And how often they were the same thing.
I remember when none of us had any violence.
What happened at Kino Eye did not stay at Kino Eye. It went into everything.
A summation of a life. Of my life.
A supposedly fun thing I would definitely do again.
Kino eye, baby.
Where: Busan, South Korea, Kyungsung Dae District.
What to Drink: 4 tequila/jagger for 10,000 won. (aprox. $2.50 a piece).
When to go: Anytime it is open. 5pm – ? (bars close when patrons leave in Korea).
What to do: Kino Eye is an independent film themed bar, so tasty flicks are always playing. Best music selection in town. Plus darts & foosball & potentially a boisterous go-stop game in the far corner.