Sometimes I look at the other expats here, living the wild single-guy lifestyles we westerners imagine so unique, edgy, cool. Booze and broads and late-night drunken motor-scooter adventures in our Korean-Western micro-culture here in Busan. Then I wonder if my lot is rather dull. I am not one, as much as I have tried at times, to enjoy the Gonzo, too-cool lifestyle. I‘m married, with two kids, and live with my mother-in-law. I work a hellish schedule, hoping to one day afford economic opportunities for my wife and boys, and of course for me. It‘s dull. I get sick of the brats and mothers, and college class-skippers and crying babies, day in and day out, a seemingly never-ending cycle.
But occasionally I slow down enough to really look around. I sit on the floor next to my mother-in-law and we nibble pickled pigs feet before bed. I do live with my mother-in-law. She‘s a dongdongju bootlegger for neighborhood oldies, brewing it in the kitchen with rice, molasses, barley and yeast. She checks her potion by holding a flame over the crock, watching how it burns. It is ready when, if the cap is on too tight, the wine bottle bursts from the pressure of excessive fermentation. I look into the unheated, brown honey-pot of rice wine. The potion is in motion, fermenting, churning as if the crock were still simmering on a low heat. Above the humid and sweet-smelling crock, swarms of tiny drunken fruit flies blissfully dance about.
Every morning at ten o‘clock the house is rocking with elderly drunk-junkies cheering on my son, who is center stage, dancing on the table among the butts and ashes, pork ribs and fish bones, and various Korean liquors. Holding a spoon in his hand for an impromptu microphone, he blurts out his new versions of mommy-daddy trot music and wiggles his butt as the drunken old women clap, howling in hysterics.
My neighbors get drunk two to three times a day after retirement, and seem the happier for it aside from the racking coughs and occasional rheumatic attacks. And of course there are those neighbors who should never touch alcohol. One neighbor binges once a week. He‘s nice until the dongdongju takes hold, then he is a sleepless, quarrelsome vandal for three days and forces all the neighbors to kick his ass or chase him out with a broom. Even my young son is allowed to hiss at this local wino. In a few days the man sobers up, disappearing for a week, preparing for his next humiliating episode.
On summer evenings, when all the neighbors sit outside drinking and barbecuing, perched upon homemade tables, avoiding the musty heat of their cramped little jutek houses, children, furtive and fearful, peak into our dusty old courtyard. It is a maze kimchi pots, ramyun boxes and massive spider webs within which roost goblin-black spiders big enough to gobble up a large roach. Occasionally in our bedroom, a seemingly arm‘s-length centipede treads up above us. We hear his feet softly click upon the wallpaper. The wife kills him with a hammer. She shows me its fangs before the bug disappears into a broth for dinner‘s stamina side dish.
Down the street is a gang of neighborhood thug dogs. Not the American gun-totin‘ thug dawgs, but a pack of half-wild heel nippers. There‘s even a burly miniature Doberman. But he‘s not the top shit-dog. The top shit-dog couldn‘t give a fuck about tough looks, papers and lineage registry. The top shit-dog is a young pup whose mom is in heat a lot. They all flock around this bitch‘s house, wiry, willin‘ and free, while the feral dingo-like Jindo dogs remain chained up and pacing in the courtyards. One neighbor has a tiger-striped Jindo that looks part wolf. We keep our fair distance, he and I.
In the morning on a cool spring day with a warm summer breeze, my wife kisses me goodbye, ties my oldest kid to my back and I step onto the side of our little mountain. The hills are terraced, blooming with kale and cabbage and soybeans. A small park sits on top. If I squint and avoid gazing too far into the smog; if I suck in deeply the pungent aromas of vegetation after a light rain, it seems I have found a tiny piece of Tibet or Nepal right here among the whirling racket of industrial Busan. I have no hangover and the boy on my back is singing his self-made family love song. Finally, I clearly recall what life as a young bachelor really was. Desperately, drunkenly crawling from pub to pub with loneliness and frustrated yearning churning within and without my self, a churning not dissimilar to the churning of my mom‘s freshly brewed dongdongju. Finally, I realize that dongdongju churning, bubbling and brewing beside me fits so much better inside me.