"Oh, America has money," said Park (nothisrealname), cigarette smoke drifting past his face as we all sat around the kitchen of his friend Lee Seung-Joo (nothisrealname... except the "Joo" part) drinking soju. "America has money.." I remembered his expression, both sly and amused by my statement. His generation simply couldn't comprehend the idea of a weak and penniless America.
Nobody in Seung-Joo's kitchen that night was under forty except for me. It was an incredibly jovial atmosphere, full of soju, undershirts and backslapping laughter. One man cooked kimchi rice and omlettes while the rest chatted. Not one person glanced at his cell phone or snapped a quick video on his digital camera to be streamed on his website later. There were no sweater vests or shiny suit jackets.... no waxed spiky hair. No one played cute flirtatious drinking games like "Black Knight, Black Rose." Nobody spoke about life and love using overly-emotional, soap opera dialogue. This was the unstylized Korea that my earlier drinking buddies only knew as babies.. or maybe didn't even know at all.
Koreans of my generation see America as an aging superpower full of tired obesity. Americans are still in demand in Korea because native English speakers remain a bankable resource. Nevertheless the rising power is in China and twenty-something Koreans watch this with wariness. Korea is too invested in the American model of capitalist free democracy to greet a Chinese superpower with anything more than anxiety. The percipitous drop of the dollar-tied won, the multiplicity of made-in China products in every store and the sight of slow, confused Americans waddling cluelessly around Seoul further decrease confidence. The White Knight of American power appears to be withering and Koreans today are much less happy pinning their hopes on the west when the Red Rose of the east is blooming so large.
Twenty-something Koreans anyway.
Back in Reagan's Korea of UB Seung-Joo continued to rhapsodize America, speaking in rock lyrics from eighties American rock. "Billy Joel! Good man! Michael Jackson... now:" Seung-Joo mimed sleeping... the sign used for describing someone who is deceased, "But good man."
"A freak and a pervert," I said. Joo paused, looking at me. It was clear that he didn't understand what I had just said so he changed the subject.
"Los Angelos!" he said, "Los Angelos cool! I work there. Tupac Shakur studios. Look, look!" Seung-Joo lifted his shirt, showing two scars on his stomach. "Gun, gun! Chevron gas station, I go there night and two men- 'Hey, money! yo, money man' and then bang bang! For one week I:" Seung-Joo mimed sleeping, "Then wake up."
I wondered how a man who had had such horrible experiences in America could still idolize the country. Back in Korea I had a friend named Myung-hun (nothisrealname) who was (I should note) twenty-four. He had spent a year abroad at Arkansas State University. During winter break he and his friend, another Korean exchange student, made plans to vacation in Mexico. They never made it out of the airport at Little Rock. The head of security at customs, apparently a man of profound stupidity, held up Myung-hun and his friend on the suspicion that they were North Korean. Myung-hun spent five long and frustrating hours being interrogated at the airport. He missed his flight, which was no matter because the supervisor told him international travel would not be an option anyway. "He said I was lucky not to be arrested. So stupid! I showed him my passport, my student visa, everything! I think the man was too stupid not to know that South Korea is an American ally or even a different country from North Korea." Myung-hun, since then, has written off America as a country he will ever visit again or retain any fond memories of.
One year and two thousand miles later Seung-joo continued to praise the cities of America. "New Orleans! So beautiful. 'Girls Gone Wild'... I was:" Seung-Joo mimed holding a video camera.
"'Girls Gone Wild?!'" I said, "You worked for 'Girls Gone Wild?'" I laughed... the image of little Seung-Joo with a hand-held camera running after gaggles of drunk, jiggly teenage girls was too amusing. But apparently that had been exactly what he did.
Seung-Joo is very straightforward about his profession: a rock band organizer and pornographer. He freelances for "Korean Penthouse," recruiting Mongolian models for his magazine. When I first heard this, I felt a bit chilled. Many sex traffickers in Mongolia come from Korea. Five months ago a video circulated of several Korean men beating a Mongolian woman. Could Seung-joo, energetically slurping down kimchi soup while talking about his admiration for Bon Jovi, be a trafficker?
"You take Mongolian women to Korea to pose for penthouse?" I asked.
"No, no... not Korea!" said Seung-joo, "Here. Here shoot. River Sounds Studio shoot. Wear this."
I was reassured. Nobody in this kitchen was abducting woman. My reassurance was short-lived, however, when Seung-joo pulled out a filmy piece of thong underwear from his camera bag. It was thinner than a bra strap with only the lightest piece of triangular gauze for any pubic coverage.
"I'm not wearing this," I said, wondering if now was a good time to make an exit from Seung-joo's kitchen.
"NO! No, no! They wear, they wear."
"Oh, okay," I laughed, quickly dropping the underwear back in his lap. I hoped that it had been washed.
Seung-joo smiled. "Not holy, yes, not holy. You offended? You Christian?"
"No and no."
"You a Buddhist?"
"Uh... a Muslim?"
"SEUNG-joo!" Seung-joo corrected me firmly, "SEUNG-joo! My mouth watch. Seung-joo."
"Y-yes, I know..." I said
"Seung-joo my name. Not just 'joo.' Not correct." Seung-joo looked at me sternly.
"Seung-joo," I said, smiling politely. I was tired, waning... not so powerful anymore. It was close to three in the morning so I left old Korea and walked home to my apartment.