I’m laughing so hard I can hardly hold my shot of soju. The Korean men surrounding the table are laughing, my friend is laughing, but the Korean man next to me is not laughing. The soju is kicking in as I try to suppress my laughter and be serious. What are we laughing about again? Oh yeah, this Korean man hates Japanese people.
“Geon-bae,” he emphasizes in Korean, holding up his glass of soju. “Geon…” I begin in Korean, “…Pai!” I finish in Japanese, holding up my own glass. His friends burst out laughing, everyone thinks it’s funny–except him. He playfully hits me on the forehead as his friends start speaking to me in Japanese, a language I understand better than Korean. The meal is free, the drinks are free and we are sitting with the staff of the restaurant. How did we end up with our second free meal and drinks of the day?
We are on Jeju Island, a province of South Korea and an island just south of the mainland. It contains mountains of greenery, gorgeous views of the ocean and a crater volcano. But there was no way we could see everything that the island had to offer. So we stuck to the area surrounding the hostel to explore Jeju’s hidden contents… almost.
Arriving in Jeju
Turns out that Jeju is bigger than I had thought. The trip from the airport to our hostel was going to take 80 min since we had booked on the complete other side of the island. We were tired and hungry but we hopped onto the next Airport limousine bus for the equivalent of 6 USD. I had immediately noticed a Korean girl that came onto the bus after me and sat diagonally from me. She was wearing a black and white striped shirt, and a matching black and white striped baseball hat. She was dressed masculinely but she still looked feminine. She was interesting to me and since I couldn’t see over the seats (I’m too short) and it was too dark outside to see, she was the only thing in my field of vision. Interestingly enough, we had gotten off at the same stop, but walked in different directions, the image of her ingrained in my mind.
Onto the food
Samgyeopsal, pork belly meat, was our first meal for our arrival in Jeju. Once we found our hostel, we immediately backtracked to a restaurant we had passed. Pictures of meat, a vast amount of locals and an eating area open to the outdoors? We were sold. There were only 7 items on the menu so the lady working there pointed to each one and said them in her best English. We ordered regular pork and black pork (a Jeju specialty) and the lady cooked it up for us at the table cutting the meat with scissors and, using gestures, showed us what side dishes to dip into what sauces. Once the meat was finished, we dipped the cooked meat into some sauce, threw it into a lettuce leaf, rolled it up and chowed down. Little did we know that this would be our main meal throughout the trip...
Waterfalls and Drunk Families
The next day, we left our hostel with a map of the Seogwipo area (the southern part of the island) in search of Cheonjiyeon Falls. The plan was to hit up all these little areas like the Olle trail, Oedolgae, and Lee Jung Seop Street that we had heard so much about and were considered popular on Jeju Island, but nothing ever goes according to plan.
After we had found the lovely waterfalls, we saw a uniquely designed bridge in the distance. Our inability to stay on track drew us to it’s architecture, so we took a closer look.
What we found was a sound check in progress… and the girl I had seen on the bus. She was no longer wearing the striped shirt as she was dressed in colorful, traditional Korean clothing, but she was wearing the striped hat. There was no mistaking that striped hat. That night, there would be a festival called “Love is…” We heard the girl’s voice and I fell in love with the female drummer as they performed their sound check so we knew it would be something worth seeing. And it was free… So we promised to come back at 8 pm.
Back to the beach
On our map we found a beach… at least, we had hoped it was a beach. Wandering through the streets we went in the general direction of the beach and found… rocks, and a family enjoying a picnic amongst that pile of rocks. Turns out, we were not in the area for nice beaches, but it didn’t matter because at least there was a nice beautiful ocean (right?). We climbed down the rocks to feel the temperature of the water, and could hear the family laughing loudly beside us. While we looked out at the ocean, one of them came near us, picking through a stash of nectarines that they were keeping cool in a still pool by the rocks. He looked up at me and without saying a word held out a whole nectarine, gesturing for me to take it. I took it. Then he offered my friend. She took it. We thanked him in our best Korean, but then there was yelling from the tents. The family was making fun of him, but he was shrugging them off, yelling in Korean and suddenly we were ushered into the shade of the family’s tent, chopsticks being handed to us, plates being thrown down in front of us, and slices of pork and kimchee offered to us. We had no choice. Isn’t it rude to refuse food? And we didn’t want to be rude.
Only one girl in the family spoke fluent English but she didn’t do much translating because we didn’t really need it. The family knew words like “crazy boy” “psycho” “couple” and “single”. Like “He’s a crazy boy and a psycho,” or “They are all couples, but I am single.” They gave us Cass beer, some shots of soju and some more pork and lettuce. They gave us squid and some more slices of nectarines. Then one member of the family who was dressed like an uncle from the 80s wearing a matching top and bottom jogging suit and a visor, his curly hair sticking out the sides, pulled a fish out of the ocean and started slicing him up.
More lettuce leaves were washed and thrown on the table, a different sauce was thrown on the table, and then finally, a sliced up, freshly caught fish was thrown on the table– the freshest sashimi I’d ever had. Everyone dug in, then poured more shots of soju.
The soju and beer had set in as we sluggishly made our way back to the hostel, the sun lowering in the sky. Once we rested and washed the salty sea breeze off our skin, we headed out to buy a couple of bottles of soju and mixers from the convenience store and sat on the docks of the bay (yesssss) until 8 pm, taking shots and talking about life, looking out at the reflections of the city lights on the East China Sea.
The “Love is…” turned out to be a performance of interpretive dance filled with singers, dancers, and musicians, hip hop, rock, and trance. It was a strange and a moving sight to see and the girl band– my lesbian crush, the striped hat singer (she wasn’t wearing it for the performance) and another string musician– was better than I could have imagined.
I’m a Starstruck Idiot
Maybe it was the soju, but the performance was amazing and inspiring. Before leaving the area we stopped in at the restroom, but my friend’s stall didn’t have any toilet paper. “Can you get me some toilet paper?” I began looking but as soon as I turned around a girl was facing me with a roll of toilet paper. She smiled and simply said “Toilet paper?” She had short hair and had a feminine-masculine look… it was the singer sans the striped hat and traditional Korean clothing. I was frozen. I can’t speak Korean, she didn’t seem to speak English… how do I express that I thought she was this great performer with some amazing vocals and that I totally have a lesbian crush on her drummer?
I stared for a moment, then I slowly reached for the toilet paper and almost inaudibly mumbled, “Are you… the girl…?” She immediately got embarrassed and as the toilet paper transferred from her hands to mine, she covered her cheeks. I knew it! I could hardly contain my excitement so I yelled in English, “She’s here! Christina! The girl, the singer, she’s here!” I’m such an idiot. “I have the toilet paper, but she’s here! She gave it to me!” I calmed down so she could go pee. As my friend was washing her hands the singer came out of her stall, and I attacked her like an asshole, “Did you hear me? I was the one that yelled ‘Sexy ladies!’ at the end, you turned around, did you hear me?” Somebody stop me. Thank the lord that I was too excited to stay indoors and ran outside so I could jump around in the warmth of the breeze coming in from the sea. Jumping and dancing like a starstruck idiot on Jeju Island over a South Korean girl whose name I never got and who probably only had one thought, “American girls are crazy.”
Late Night Meals
My energy continued on into the night as we looked for some more things to experience on Jeju Island. We had heard that chicken and beer was the thing to be ordering in South Korea and since it was 10 pm, it seemed like a good way to end our night. We stopped by a restaurant near our hostel, but something told us to keep looking, so we walked down another street lined with restaurants. Not very many restaurants were open since it was late on a Sunday night. As we were browsing, we noticed a couple of guys sitting outside a restaurant. Like any good restaurant owner, they tried ushering us in. It wasn’t until we got closer that we recognized him.
It was the only single guy from the family that we had previously been eating with. When we realized it was him, we knew we should support his business and decided to eat at his restaurant. But they weren’t letting us eat alone. As we moved to the seating area where the rest of the dining patrons sat, the owner and his friends started moving chairs around at their own table and told us to sit. The lady working brought us some plates and chopsticks and they all gestured for us to dig in. Keep in mind these are just some old timers, having a nice chat with their friends over soju and meat. We never once felt in danger but rather like we were hanging out with our uncles that we hadn’t seen in awhile. We laughed and we joked around about our differences, about our similarities, food, alcohol, and celebrity look-alikes, all through broken English, Korean, and Japanese.
Soon we had had enough soju to last us our trip. We made our way out into the night, said our “goodbye”s and “thank you”s for our second free meal of the night and stumbled our way back to our hostel, laughing about the strange similarity between the word “Geonbae” in Korean and “Kanpai” in Japanese.