AS SOON as he heard the word “Irish” he straightened upright, alert, like a Meer cat. I’d exchanged a few words with him - a Korean in his late twenties who worked at a local hotel - at the last pub – seemingly one of three in Seogwipo “city”, Jeju Island. He was at this place too. I’d spotted him across the bar as soon as I’d sat down. It wasn’t difficult to run into someone in a place with as many brothels (they are called “Room Salons”, which is accurate in so far as they are rooms – in which you pay for sex) as drinking dens and people as stray cats.
After my nationality was revealed in conversation with the bar staff, he hopped off his stool and saddled over. He set an almost-full bottle of tequila down in front of him.
“Can I sit with a real Irishman?” he asked, sitting before I could reply.
“Eh, sure,” I said. One thing I could indeed claim to be was a “real” Irishman.
I am Irish. I am a man. I neither chose nor earned either of these wonderful qualities. Besides, nationality isn’t like sportswear. The Chinese don’t churn out poor quality Irishman knock-offs for export. There is no windowless factory in Beijing lining Britons, Poles, French and Greeks on conveyor belts to have shamrock stapled to their chests, potatoes stuffed in their pockets and whiskey sprinkled on their breath – at least as far as I’m aware. But give it time.
My new Korean friend was enthralled by Ireland. He had even been there several times. It wasn’t long before he insisted I have a drink of his tequila (cactus poison) － and another. And another. An almost-full bottle became a much less full one. He didn’t drink like a fish. He drank like a Humpback whale.
At 5 a.m. he decreed we go to another pub. He could barely speak. Words left his mouth with the intelligibility of a jelly-eating Russian reading Finnegans Wake - in Chinese. I tried to protest. It was late. I’d had enough to drink. But I was wasting my breath. I would have had more luck convincing Kim Jong-il to change North Korea’s official name to “George W. Bush’s Glorious Republic of Capitalism”.
He dragged me, quite literally, to another place. We sat down and he ordered a bottle – yes, bottle – of 12-year aged Jameson, priced at a tidy 130,000 won (90 euro approx). What in God’s name was he doing? He could barely talk. He could barely even stand. Should it have come to it, I didn’t feel up to trying mouth to mouth resuscitation.
He swayed on his stool and blabbered away inanely in a guttural, spit-laced parody of English. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I wasn’t quite sober and was distracted. The barmaid was gorgeous. She had mounds of curls and big brown eyes. I stared at her. I would impress her with my wit and charm. In Korean too. Of course. Genius.
“Ne-eel shee-gahn iss-uh-yo” (Are you free tomorrow?)
“Ops uh-yo,” she replied, beaming. (I don’t have time/Not likely buddy.)
Hmmm. . . Well, if at first you don’t succeed. . .
“Ne-eel shee-gahn iss-uh-yo?”
That was the problem with knowing only a dozen phrases in a language – little room for maneuver. She wasn’t having any of it. But she didn’t walk off or stop smiling - she was enjoying the attention all the same.
It was then I noticed that my Korean drink-sponge was gone. His coat, wallet, bag – everything – wasn’t. Ten minutes later he hadn’t reappeared. I asked the owner if she knew where he was. Home probably, she said, and took his stuff behind the counter for safe-keeping.
The next day I found his business card in my bag and sent him a text telling him where his stuff was. He sent back: “sorry, john. Because much drunk, cut film of myself. got the my stuff in G-bar.”
He hadn’t made it home, but slept in the stairwell of another bar. Of course.
Well, P. J. O’Rourke hadn’t honoured (?) Koreans with the dubious title, “The Irish of Asia” for nothing. Forget that Irish counterfeit factory in Beijing.
They’d do it better in Jeju.