Monday, May 31, 2010

Take it to the MAXICO!

I was reading Brian in Jeollanam-do's blog just now when I came across a short-yet-interesting entry. Don't get me wrong, the guy writes a lot about Korea. I'm not sure what he does that allows him so much time to write so much about the insipid or otherwise goings-on of the peninsula. He seems to be pretty connected to the minutiae of Korean news, but in a country that specializes in that sort of thing, one has to keep abreast of any tingly bit of information...I guess.

The entry is about Geoje-do, Korea's second-largest island that resides off the coast of Busan (an hour and twenty minutes' ferry ride, weather permitting). Before I came to Seoul, I lived on Geoje with Smithy. It's not as English-friendly (as one can see from the placards) as the nation's capital, or even Busan, but it has its charm. I wouldn't say I miss the island, but I do have some fond memories of it. If you read the responses to the entry, you'll find my darlin' doe of a face right there at the bottom, smiling and chirping about the placard under Mexico's flag.

It was an honest misspelling, and I'm sure lots of people have done literary disservice to Mexico's name, but the simple replacement of the e with an a made its indelible mark. Maxico. It sounds like a Korean gas station, a bad movie title, the fourth installment of a post-apocalyptic movie series featuring Mel Gibson. It sounds awful and awesome at the same time.

This entry got me thinking about my time spent as a saute cook in the States before I came to Korea. It was the summer of 2007, I think. As I mentioned in the previous post, I had worked a few jobs at the tapas-style restaurant, but just to clear the air, in case there's anybody blowing smoke, I was a: host, server, dishwasher, barback, prep cook, saute cook, grill cook, and bartender, and there were times when everyone was so in the weeds that I had to leave my station to take on another role, and then another, and move back and forth through job descriptions so everyone could work more easily. I'm not a saint. I just really like working under the influence of caffeine. Afterwards, I often partied just as hard as I had worked.

It was a Friday night and business had been pretty steady, but not so slammed that I couldn't get my station cleaned and take my hour-and-a-half break before I had to come on again as a barback. It was the usual business, so I don't really remember much about barbacking that night except I got a few free drinks at the end of my shift, enough to garner a palpable buzz. My roomies and friends were back at home, drinking, carousing, causing trouble and I was eager to ditch the restaurant to hang out. I got in my car and took the road that I knew would have the least cop cars on patrol. I took the road home some time after 3.

The road home intersects a couple four lane streets, so I still had to be cautious despite my absolute assurance that I would not come into contact with hungry police looking to meet their quota of D.U.I.'s. The first one went well enough, no problem. I passed through a little neighborhood, but when I got to the second, a red light stopped me. Meanwhile, on the intersecting four-lane, a squirt of a sedan was moving too fast. Then it slowed down, not soon enough to turn right, but soon enough to stop right in front of me and block my passage across the street. "Oh, holy shit," I whimpered. "I am gonna die."

The light turned green and the silhouetted driver burst out of the car holding something in his hand. If I panicked, things might have gone horribly awry, so I just took a deep breath and watched him run up to my window. I rolled it down. He was of Hispanic descent, so I assumed he was Mexican, but that's beside the point. The object he was holding in his hand was a beat up cell phone. He gave it to me. The conversation went something like this:

J-Mao: Hello?
Person on the Other End: Who is this?
J-Mao: I'd like to know who this is.
Person on the Other End: This is 9-1-1 Emergency. What's going on?
J-Mao: I have no idea. This guy just stopped in front of me with his car and gave me the phone.
9-1-1 Emergency: Where are you right now?
J-Mao: Um, I can't exactly see the street sign. Hold on, let me get a better look.

I clicked the hazard lights and got out of the car.

J-Mao: I'm at _________ and ________.
9-1-1: We'll send some police right over.

Certainly, wonderful children, J-Mao had found himself in a veritable pickle. I was still outside the car, when a second man emerged from the sedan. Had he been wearing a darker shirt, I might have still been confused when the po-po arrived. As it was, he was wearing a white shirt and blood was oozing out from his stomach. He was clutching the wound with a wincing, panic-stricken face, but blood was still coming out. Moments later, the police showed up. They spoke in English to the men, who became more confused, wary even.

I speak Spanish. Not fluently, maybe not even intermediately, but I spoke a damn sight more than the cops with the gravy mustaches. I had to help. I avoided the easier questions like, "Donde esta la libreria?" "Cual es la fecha?" "Puedo salir el bano?" Instead, while the wounded man was lying on the ground, I came up with some zingers like, "Era una pistola o un cuchilla?" "Donde? A, si. Entiendo. En el estomago?" "Tienes identificacion?" All of these questions the friend answered, crying.

I told the cops what had happened, which was that the man had been stabbed in the stomach at a nightclub and they needed an ambulance. The policeman closest to me radioed for help. Five minutes later, one arrived. While they were loading him on the stretcher, I went up to a police officer and asked if it would be okay if I went behind those bushes because I really had to pee. He looked at me strangely and said, "Okay, go on." When I got back, the wounded man was in the final stages of being loaded into the vehicle. He was shortly carted off.

His friend, still in tears was mumbling, "Mi amigo. Oh, Jesus Cristo, mi amigo." Perhaps it was the excitement, or those few shots and pints I had let myself get into at the bar, but I was feeling a deep sense of camaraderie, walked him over to my car and put my hands on his shoulders, his face burying tears into his already wet fingers, and said to him, "Si. Es todo bueno. La amigo...en la ambulancia. Es bueno." He looked up at me and said, "Si?" I looked back at him and, I'm not making this up, said:

J-Mao: Si. Tu eres mi amigo. Tu eres mi amigo.

He bawled and gave me a hug that would have made his mother jealous. The police told him to go home. He pulled himself together and got in his car. I asked the police if I could just go ahead and go home. They let me. I was careful not to drive too quickly out of there, but as soon as they were out of sight, I gunned my car for the driveway. I had stories to tell.

I learned basic Spanish in elementary school, in a program not completely different from the ones our Korean kids take. The program was mandatory, and poor Senor Acosta still probably has nightmares from having to deal with us, but it made learning Spanish in high school much easier. I eventually dropped Spanish in college and settled on German. Two years after I finished college, and 6 years after my last Spanish lesson, I still knew enough to help someone NOT DIE. Okay, okay...the doctors, ambulance driver, policemen, and 9-1-1 operator did most of the work, but it's shake 'n bake, and I helped.

Is there a moral to this story? Probably, so I'll just take a crack at it. Those initial Spanish classes I took as a kid in elementary school were once a week, and some of us were rotten. But we were just kids who couldn't see the benefit of learning another language at the time. And it's easy to say that teaching English here is a joke, because there are so many of us and kids aren't necessarily bursting at the seams to learn all of our wonderful, candy-coated words because they deal with us two or three times a week. Maybe you can't see the progress your kids are making because they get confused and unsure of themselves...because they're kids. And maybe you'll never see the progress any of your children make, because you're only here for a little while. But maybe, someday, a long time from now, one of your kids will be in the same situation I was in and, having learned the words for knife, gun, ambulance, identification, where, or, and understand, will be able to help out a foreigner's ass, not because he worships the ground they walk on, but because it's the right thing to do.

Just a thought. Another thought: that adventure made me feel like a Maxican!

Editor's Note: I do not condone or support drunk driving. I lucked out, and while I don't necessarily buy the idea of diminishing returns, it would've been only a matter of time until I'd been caught. Don't do it, especially in Korea...unless you're Korean and riding a bike. Then it's comedy.