All told I spent 2 weeks at the Master's house in the Spring of 1997. I could have/would have stayed longer, but I was expected back in Seoul. Some friends of JT's (a young married couple) were fixing to do their Visa Jump/Honeymoon down to New Zealand and I had promised to cover their classes and house sit for them for 10 days.
And so it was, one morning after eating rice and an instant coffee the Master told me I was going to Seoul later that day. The Master's wife needed to go up to Seoul and I was to accompany her. It had all been arranged so I packed up my little backpack and readied for departure. I said my good-byes to the Master, Kimi, and 명룡 and piled into the Korando. 민철 drove us to the Cheju airport, paid cash for 2 tickets, and left.
Due to her celebrity, the Master's wife was frequently stared at. People randomly came up and greeted her. She was always gracious. Flight attendants were overly concerned for her comfort and travel needs. And there I sat. A grungy whitey in dirty clothes. We must have seemed an odd pair. Me in stinky jeans and a jacket that had not been washed in over a fortnight (I only had one shower during that span as well), and she in her conspicuous Jeju Brown Clothes and universally recognizable face.
When we landed in Seoul, I helped her load several boxes onto a luggage cart and we parted. I don't know where she was going or how she got there, but I beelined it to subway line #5 for Omokkkyo.
I was feeling queasy from too much Soju and not enough food and I knew I needed to get outside. I don't remember how I extricated myself from facial fondlement, but I'm sure it was not graceful. I made my way out of the party and went around behind the building where I was sure nobody could see or hear me. I retched.
I have no idea how long I was back there. I don't recall how much I puked. But when I came back around to the front, 민철 was anxiously looking for me. He worriedly asked where I was. I think I told him I had a whiz. He said we were leaving and led me to the Korando. 명룡 asked me if I was drunk and I told him I was not. In some bizarre attempt at showing them I was fine, I started running in a circle. I kept going faster and faster until I could no longer maintain any form of uprightness. I tumbled in a heap into what would have been the center of my speed circle.
The boys helped me up and piled me into the Korando. I have no clue how long we drove or which direction we went, but we pulled up in front of some place I had never been. I got out and leaked a number 1 into the parking lot and then followed the guys inside. We were greeted by a long-haired Korean fellow and a very tired-looking older woman. Apparently she was the drum teacher and he was her pupil. I am sure there was more to the relationship.
The pupil treated us to a demonstration of his drum learning while his mastress (is that a word?) looked on approvingly. It had to be getting on about 3 a.m. and I was still touch and go. I went back into the bedroom, put myself down on my back, and put a pillow over my face. The room spun, the drumbeat pounded, I longed for a real bed and a glass of water. Neither were coming my way.
After gripping for a couple hours, 민철 came and lured me back into the Korando. Just the two of us began the drive back to the Master's house (no clue about 명룡 at this point in the night). The sun was creeping up and 민철 drove right down the middle straddling the center line. I thought he must have been still drunk too but I had lost any will to do much about it.
When we pulled in to the Master's house, 민철 dropped me off and drove away. I went and found the Master sitting at the breakfast table. He took one look and told me to go to bed. And so I did.
I got up again around noon and felt good enough to eat. The Master said I looked much better; some color had returned to my face.
민철 did not return until that evening. I have no idea where he went. The Master thought maybe he went to a lady's house, or maybe to the public bath. I told him I enjoyed the public bath and he promised to take me.
민철 later asked me if I threw up. Of course I said I did not.
My second week at the Master's place started out with a bang. Some of 명룡's friends in an acting troupe were scheduled to do their final performance of the season at a theatre in Seogwipo. 명룡 got us 3 tickets and 민철 drove us over. It was the first time I had left the Master's house for any reason in over a week, so I was eager for the opportunity. (Secretly I was jonesing hard for a dang Orion Choco Pie but had no means of getting anywhere without 민철. And it seemed like he had no reason to ever leave home.)
We attended the play performance. All of the dialog was in Jeju dialect so I understood very little. It was cool and worth seeing, and the fun did not end there. 명룡 told me we were invited to the [w]rap party. We drove over to the soiree (at some big empty room somewhere) and went in. Nearly 50 people were gathered there along with the cast and crew. We sat in a huge circle around the room. I expected a round robin of song to break out, but each just stood in turn and introduced themselves. Not surprisingly I was the only non-Korean there. When it was my turn, I stood and put out by best Korean with a little flair. I told them my name and that I was "eating and living" with 명룡 over at the Master's house.
Laughter and clapping ensued. Good for me.
It was getting on towards 10 pm by the time the introductions completed and I had not had anything to eat since lunch. Rumbly in my tumbly. And the party had not even started in earnest yet.
At the back of the room I spied a stack of crates of Soju. Lots of Soju. Next to that, food. The food? 회 (raw fish slices with lettuce). That's it. Needless to say, a few slices of fish and some rabbit food wasn't going to be substantial enough for me to build a solid food base for overdrinking Soju; a recipe for disaster.
It seemed like everybody in that place came over to me one-by-one to introduce themselves and pour me a shot of Soju. Things blurred quickly and before too long I found myself seated in the middle of the room drunkenly talking to a flirtylicious actress who had given me the eyeballs back at the performance. We poured each other some Soju (not a euphemism). She asked me if she could touch my hair, then my face. I was certainly loaded as she giggled and fondled my visage like a blind person might.
I knew I had too much to drink and I started to feel ill...
Four nights already passed with the Master and I had only intended to stay one night. Every time I suggested returning to Seoul, the Master calmly suggested I stay another day. And so I did.
Every day was something new. One day a guy shows up. He is a standard Korean dude in the standard Korean suit with the same exact belt they all wear. Only this guy is from 나주. He is a likeminded fellow in speech if not in fashion. But what he does bring to the table is something of interest to the Master and his wife (the former famous pop star). He brings fabric dyed a gorgeous shade of blue using the Indigo plant. He does it all right there in 나주. He pitches his wares to the Master and the Master is cordial but non-committal. They agree to put the business conversation aside and have some rice and Soju.
The hour grows late and the Master prevails upon the Indigo man to spend the night. He agrees. Kimi preps a sleep space for him. All in a day's work.
Another day brings a History professor from a University in 광주. He and the Master are old friends. Rice, Soju, yada yada yada and the professor spends a couple nights. Another day and 멍석 shows up. He, too, is a traditionally minded fellow who wears the Cheju Brown Clothes (갈옷) and a dapper hat. He is down from Seoul where he is the proprietor of a traditional tea house that bears his name in Insa-dong.
These fascinating characters all flit in and out of the scene around me in a seemingly random order. The common threads are their threads (clothes), the traditional mindset, and Soju with smokes of course. Meeting folks like these was truly a unique opportunity, and it was made very easy and comfortable by the Master. He explained my presence in such a way that they all instantly treated me like one of the family.
Before I knew it I had spent a full week at the Master's house.
Another night at the Master's house. More rice, more smoking, more soju, and more singing. I had to dig deep in the recesses to pull out some Korean oldies. Surprising what's still left in the ol' bean.
아아 어쩌런 말이냐 흩어진 이마음을...Try singing that song. But I did bring it. Again with passion and whatnot. I did not know yet whom I was singing in front of. That helped. Had I known who the Master's wife was, I might have been crippled with stage fright. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.
I already mentioned how she spent 10 years in NYC. I came to find out that she was a huge pop star in Korea--that explains the singing voice and guitar skillz. She got so popular as a young woman that she couldn't go anywhere without people hounding her like crazy. She had at least one song that I daresay every living Korean knows by heart, even today. Eventually she got tired of it all; the stardom was too much. She bailed to the Big Apple to disappear from the Korean spotlight. She married a Korean fellow (who, I gather, was quite large in stature) and had 2 kids: Kimi and Yong.
She separated from her husband and returned to Korea where she met and married the Master. Together they started their own line of clothing using her Fashion design training and his traditional dyeing expertise.
At a certain point, my path crossed the Master's on a car ferry from Wando to Cheju. And here we are, me singing K-Pop oldies to a famous Korean Pop Singer.
Here are a few more faces. This first one is Kimi. She was a typical high school girl in 1997. Smart, talented, good cook, great singing voice (from her mother?). Turns out the Master is her step-father; her mother separated from the father. But one could could never tell by observing the relationship between Kimi and the Master. He definitely dotes on this one.
Here is 민철. He's the one who picked me up in front of the Moseulpo Post Office. 착해, this one. He told me Korean people often ask him if he's American Indian. Do you see it?
I called him 민철, he called me 형.
I slept soundly my second night at Mr. Kim's museum-like home in the countryside of Cheju Island. In the morning, the gong again signalled my call to breakfast. I joined the others, we ate rice, had our instant coffee with powdered creamer, and some enjoyed smokes. Mr. Kim arose and motioned for me to follow. We headed out to the back "yard" again. But this time, instead of lighting a fire under the rice stalk boiling vat, he lit a fire under two 50-gallon drums. The drums were 3/4 full of water. When the water was bubbling real good, he added some different ingredients to each. He explained that he was experimenting with new ways to make additional colors. In addition to the persimmon juice, he used red earth to make different shades of brown, coal to make black, and much more. It didn't feel like work, but I guess that's the nature of the traditional dyeing business.
He wasn't very forthcoming about his background, but I did manage to pry some high level history. His father was a ship captain in the Mokpo area, teaching at a Mokpo Maritime University; he was now passed on. His mom lived near Cheju City at that time. The Master was in Gwangju in 1980 and saw friends of his killed by the military. Like many others, he blamed the Americans for the massacre, and that shaped his worldview for many years. He once told me that if he had met me 10 years earlier he would have ended me on the spot.
After the Gwangju massacre, he was known to the government for his anti-Americanism and anti-government statements. So he "went to the mountain." He spent 10 years somewhere in the Jiri Mountain area reading, studying at the feet of a mentor, and living life in a more simple way. 10 years. And that is how one gets to become a Master.
The lunch gong pulled us away from the boiling drums and fascinating conversation. We ate and I suggested it was time for me to get back up to Seoul. The Master told me I should stay longer. And so I did.
After my guided tour, I went in and crushed out a nap. The dinner gong roused me and I went in to eat more rice. Before every meal Mr. Kim would say out loud: "잘 먹겠습니다." Others at the table would say the same, just not as loud or enthusiastically. After filling up on rice, a soup, and some side dishes, Mr. Kim would lean back and loudly proclaim, "잘 먹었습니다." I loved that about him and took it upon myself to do likewise. (Back home in the States I taught a friend of mine to say that, and a couple other Korean words. He went to Medical School in Seattle and would treat any Korean patients to a barrage of Korean non-sequiturs: "잘 먹었습니다, 맥주, 남대문, 집주소." He was usually met with either uproarious laughter, or total confusion on the part of the Korean patient.)
Mr. Kim fired up a cigarette and we sat around the table talking while someone did the dishes and cleaned the table. After dinner we moved out to the main assembly room that adjoined the kitchen and dining area. Conversation continued. He called for the Soju and our seated circle expanded. Soon there were 6 or 8 of us in a circle pouring Soju for one another and chattering away. As is inevitable in such a situation, somebody suggested we sing. Around the circle we went with each person singing a solo while the others clapped or blissed in one way or another. I wasn't sure if they were really going to make me sing too, but I was prepared just in case my protesting fell on deaf ears. Secretly I hoped my singing might fall there too...
They insisted. I relented. A standing ovation followed. I'm sure it wasn't that they thought I was a great talent (I'm not), but I sang with commitment and passion. And I treated them to an oldie but a goodie. I hadn't sung that song since 1987 when Mr. Shin and I sang the occasional tune while eating spicy Octopus and drinking Soju, so I was surprised the right words and tune came out at all. But the applause and the look on Mr. Kim's face was enough to say I had done right.
The song I chose for my effort that night was "고독한 연인 by the lovely 김 수희. I think I might still have the LP hanging around somewhere... Anyway, I sang with Soju-enhanced passion and really finished strong with a heartfelt "모르는 사람들 처럼."
Singing continued around the circle until it reached Mr. Kim's wife. She took up a guitar and sang a beautiful song I had not heard before. She played a nice guitar, but her voice was clearly better than most. We all felt like we had experienced a special treat. But the rotation did not end there and before long, it was my turn again. I took a risk and introduced my next song as one popular in Seoul at the time: Juju Club's "16/20." I nailed it. But I imagine it was a bit strange for such traditionally-minded Koreans to see a whitey like me singing such a teeny bopper tune. Say what you will, JuJu Club has a few songs I cannot get over. Even today, "견뎌야 하겠지" maintains a constant spot in the rotation on my iPod.
It was late into the night when we all retired. A pretty good day I must say.