Tag Archives: stories

A Sunday

Telling a drunk story entails risk. For those who weren’t there, who weren’t involved, the recounting is never as enjoyable. Their appreciation – if it is to be found – derives not only from the merits of the story , but from how the story plays off their knowledge of the storyteller. Yet, even with the proper level of familiarity, finesse is required. Drunk stories, after all, are not intended to make the storyteller look good.

I’ve always said on these pages that I’m not much of a storyteller. With the right audience, however, in the right context, this is one of my stories. I’m not quite sure how it’ll translate to this format. But my buddy Jim is getting married next month. And in honor of that, a drunk story:

Kurosawa made this classic film called Rashomon. It centers on a crime that takes place, and the truth of that crime being reconstructed piecemeal through the recollections of three or four different characters. There are contradictions in each of their stories, embellishments, obvious lies. Each version though adds depth, each calls into question objective reality and whether it exists at all. This day was kind of like that for the three of us involved.

This drunk story takes place in Japan. Naturally. I don’t know how much longer my liver would have held out living in that country. It was the land of all-you-can-drinks, where getting fucked up under the cherry blossoms was not only socially acceptable but a national pastime. On weekends, public bathroom sinks were sporadically filled with vomit; pillars and walls in train stations adorned with slumped figures of the wasted, of both genders and all (adult) ages.

It was a Sunday.

Once, maybe twice a year, this sake brewery 90 minutes northwest of Tokyo would open its doors to the public. There’d be samples, sales, food: a grand old time. I hadn’t heard about it. It was the kind of festival that attracted primarily natives and presumably drunkards. Katsuya was a native, maybe a drunkard. I’d actually never met him before but he was a friend of Jim’s, which was good enough for me. He was the one who passed along the word.

The gates opened at 10 or 11, I forget. Either way, it seemed excessively early for a sake festival. It worked out nicely for me and Jim though, at least in theory. We had tickets that evening for a baseball game, and not just any regular baseball game. A Major League Baseball all-star team was in town visiting. American all-stars. We were American, so we wanted to be there. We’d check out the festival, stop home, then pop over to the game. Easy as pie. American apple pie.

We met at the train station near the brewery, the three of us – Katsuya, Jim, and I. We all had arrived about 20 minutes before opening, as per Katsuya’s instructions. Introductions were made, and we shared an easy laugh about the absurdity of preparing to get (reasonably) drunk before noon. Japan, right? We started walking towards the brewery, but stopped about halfway there. There was already a line about three blocks long – like it was Black Friday outside Best Buy, only with more alcoholics.

Once the gates opened at 10 or 11, the hordes streamed onto the brewery grounds. It was a bit chaotic, as you might expect from any alcohol festival, but not too much so, as you might expect from any alcohol festival in Japan. We got in line for a couple of sake samples here and there; generous portions were provided.* There might have been some informational displays around, but like everyone else, we didn’t pay much attention to them.

*I nearly got into a fight when this guy blatantly cut ahead of us in line. When I started to make a scene, his response was to repeatedly say “Chill, we’re all having fun here”; he then proclaimed that he would have expected a reaction from the Japanese, but not from another expat. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I wanted to stab him.

After downing several samples, we headed off to gauge the food situation on the grounds. The crowd was by now immense. It was at critical mass; the situation seemed less fun than overwhelming, as events in and around Tokyo can be sometimes. So, after each purchasing a wooden sake cup – filled with sake, of course – we huddled and considered our options. It was Katsuya, I think, who came up with an inspired plan: buy a bottle, get some food, and have an impromptu picnic at a nearby park.

In line, ostensibly to purchase a single bottle to share, was where it all started to fall apart. Katsuya deftly jumped ahead of me and Jim at the last second, then selected and paid for a bottle before either of us realized what was going on. It was a gesture to old friendships and new, he said. A genuinely touching sentiment. But in the heat of the moment, Jim and I responded in the only way that made any sense. We bought additional communal bottles. We ended up with six in all (roughly 750 ml apiece).

I was already drunk when we left the grounds of the brewery for a park Jim had located on Google Maps. We each had had at least three servings of sake by then, between the samples and the overflowing wooden cups. At a convenience store, a konbini, we bought some onigiri (rice balls) and chips, plus a few beers for alcoholic variety; I grabbed a piece of fried chicken as well, devouring it en route. It was well before noon when we arrived at the park.

We drank nearly four entire bottles of sake there.

Katsuya left us at the park. He had mentioned earlier that he needed to meet his wife and child. They were nearby, or back in Tokyo, or something – it was a little mysterioso. But at some point in my drunken stupor, I noticed he wasn’t with us anymore. While the trek to the bathroom in the park was substantial, he had gone for what felt like ages. He did reappear momentarily, presumably from the bathroom. Then he left for good. Jim and I both thought he seemed remarkably sober.

Ironically, Katsuya would later mention he thought Jim and I seemed to be in surprisingly good shape when he left us. All three of us were wrong. Later that day, Katsuya drunkenly dropped his baby while on public transit. …Yeah. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage, though Katsuya’s wife understandably was quite displeased with both him and us. To this day, and perhaps on a related note, I have not met her.

It was still early, maybe 1 or 2, but now windy bordering on uncomfortable. At some point, Jim and I realized we needed to make our way back to Tokyo. My head was pounding; I was blackout drunk. Jim still had the wherewithal to use his phone to figure out which way the train station was, so I followed blindly. I couldn’t walk straight. My head was slumped down; I was dragging myself along, hoping I wouldn’t slam into anyone or anything.

Of this journey, Jim does remembers being strangely overcome with a singular focus on reaching the station. He knew I was behind him, primarily because he heard this distinct clopping noise. That turned out to be me as I kept looping from sidewalk to street and back, in diagonals and circles. But we were both in dire straits. At the station, it took Jim about four tries to get his metro card properly scanned.

We must have been a sight at the station. Past the ticket gates, I made it up a set of stairs one at a time, slumped over the railing, hoisting myself along. I don’t know how I didn’t fall. Maybe I did and forgot about it. Thankfully, it was the terminus, so there was a train sitting, waiting to begin its journey back to Tokyo. Jim and I made our way aboard, collapsing quickly onto a bench. I closed my eyes a moment and lost consciousness.

I was sprawled on the train bench when I came to. I felt like garbage, even moreso now than before, as drunkenness gave way to the in-between before the hangover fully appears. It took a minute to process my reality, but I soon realized that:

  1. I was alone;
  2. The train was rested and emptying; and
  3. There was a Japanese woman yelling at me.

I dealt with the last and most immediately pressing bit first – the yelling and gesticulating stranger. Judging from her tone and volume, she was chiding me for being wasted on a train at 2 on a Sunday afternoon. But past her disgust, she seemed to be trying to convey something else. Eventually I followed her gestures, looking beneath my seat. And on the floor, I saw a cell phone: mine. I looked up to thank her but she was already gone. Eventually, I dragged myself off the train too.

I didn’t know where Jim was, but I was feeling worse and worse. I went straight to the bathroom in the train station, locked myself in a stall, and sat on the ground. It might have been a public bathroom in Japan, but it was not the kind of public bathroom in which anyone should be sitting on the ground; it was a squat toilet for starters. But I was in no position to be particular. I sent Jim a text, then rested my head on the floor and started moaning.

There, behind the locked doors of a squat train station toilet, I passed out again.

At some point, someone started banging on the walls, perhaps with an emergency of their own. I tried to respond by moaning my pain, but I couldn’t put words together. I was a drooling mess. Eventually they left me be. I ended up spending about an hour in the bathroom, lying down. Eventually, I used the squat toilet properly and without incident, a remarkable deed given my condition. When I felt slightly better, I checked my phone. There was a text: Jim was back in his Airbnb.

Halfway through the train ride towards Tokyo, Jim had apparently gotten it in his head that we needed to make a transfer. We did not. So, while I was passed out, he stepped off intending to check a map. The train took off, as a train does. Jim pounded on the window to try and get my attention, but to no avail. Then, left behind, he wandered that station for a bit. He vomited in public. Then he boarded another train back towards Tokyo.

The station I was at was about a 20 minute walk from the Airbnb, a mile away. In my condition, it might as well have been a million miles away. I threw myself into a taxi on the north side of Shinjuku Station – the busiest train station in the world. I thrust my phone at the driver, but he couldn’t make heads or tails out of the display. I couldn’t form coherent sentences yet, so eventually I grabbed the phone, dropped a pin near where the address was, or seemed to be, and handed it back.

The driver kept looking at my phone over the course of the drive – always a great sign. He ended up dropping me off at a hotel by the south exit of Shinjuku Station. My brain was fried though, and I figured it was not worth it to steer him to steer me in the right direction, so I paid and left.* Then I stumbled down the streets in search for Jim’s place. I got lost twice before I found the complex. I climbed up the stairs and banged on the door. …There was no response.

*To recap, I paid 1,000 yen (roughly $10) to take a cab from the north side of a train station to the south side of a train station.

The lights were out. It didn’t make any sense to my feeble and fragile brain. I still felt awful, so I lied down on the ground in front of his unit and curled up in a ball. I tried to catch a nap, but it was too cold, too windy by then. I checked the address again and again on my phone, shivering on the floor. Finally, after probably 10 or 15 minutes but what felt like 45, I banged on the door again. This time, there was some noise, some feet shuffling. Then the door opened.

Jim was holding the knob. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. We both turned into the living space, where two double beds decorated either side of the room. Jim fell into his bed, I fell onto the other one. I passed out immediately.

It was pitch black.

Groggily, I checked the time. More than an hour after first pitch.

I felt like garbage, of course. But I had a singular thought. We had spent about $35 apiece on our tickets, and we were going to this baseball game.

Jim would later tell me that his first memory of the late afternoon was waking up to my repeated cries of: “It’s gametime, man! Gametime!” After the transfer mishap, he had successfully made his way back to Tokyo and the Airbnb, but he had no recollection of my banging on the door the first or second times, let alone getting up and letting me in. I’m not sure why he didn’t protest when I insisted we go to the game 90 minutes late.

We made it to the Tokyo Dome that night around 9 pm. It was the seventh inning when we took our seats. But baseball being baseball, the game lasted another hour – enough time for the American team to score a few runs, enough time for us to get some curry rice. Mostly though, we sat still, moaning every once in a while, sipping our sodas. When the game finished, we joined the masses walking to the station. Jim rode to his Airbnb, and I went home.

I didn’t drink sake for about a month after that.

(Photo by Ralf Steinberger, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Blood and Water

What is it about family that can be so frustrating, difficult, even infuriating? My mom sometimes reminiscences about how patient, how obedient, how “good” I used to be, wonders what changed. I tell her it’s because I’m not a child. I have thoughts and beliefs of my own, draw upon experiences and knowledge that I have acquired. And because I no longer take what she says at face value, because she no longer thinks on my behalf, I appear more disobedient in her eyes.

I wonder though if there’s more to it than that, than my growing up.

I have this image of myself as a person, an image of who I am and who I aspire to be. There’s a bit of embellishment, naturally, a bit of it skewed favorably on my behalf. I imagine that is the case with all of us. We have this slightly idealized image of ourselves, of how we present ourselves to the world. And with family, I think, their vision of us – and for us – is every bit as fleshed out, as real and fully-formed and stubborn, as our own.

My third or fourth grade class hosted an open house. On my featured art,work my family noticed that I signed my birthyear instead of the current year, and they teased me about it. I felt embarrassed and I got mad. In turn, they got mad at me for taking it too seriously. It felt demoralizing to lose control of the situation, to be painted as this goof, then a brat.

These two images of the self – the one we envision, the one envisioned by family – are not altogether independent nor irreconcilable, of course. But I think the external image held by family appears to them as more true because of its basis in history, whereas our internal self appears to them only as a tiny slice of what they believe to be true. In other words, the image we cultivate and present to the world is inevitably, constantly, and fundamentally challenged by family.

But how well do they know us, really? I’ve seen my family about three or four times in the last four years. They don’t really understand what I do, workwise. And they’ve met only some of my friends, fleetingly. Our daily realities are just so far apart, and not only geographically.

The dynamic works both ways. There’s a reason why we prep ourselves before spending extended time with family. We anticipate what is to come, because we too have fostered an image of who and what they are. We too fit their present self into a far greater narrative of what we “know” them to be – interacting on multiple levels, across myriad moments. And because of this, we not only confirm our vision and our narrative but project those outwards.

In my junior year of high school, I retook the Scholastic Aptitude Test but received a disappointing score. I got home and told my mom, and her face said enough. Before she verbally reacted, I left the house and drove around for hours, going nowhere, avoiding confrontation. It was the environment she had fostered. …Asian parents.

There’s more to it though. The relationship between the images, which interact and are inextricably linked. The fact that we can have so little in common yet still retain an elemental, intangible bond in which family appears as a reflection of our own self. The subsequent effect of seeing in someone the traits that are so familiar to what we see in ourselves – good and bad, only far more exaggerated, or at least far more obvious.

One Christmas, short on ideas, I found a little holiday gift pack for my sister: a stuffed penguin, hot chocolate mix, and marshmallows. Completely independent of me, she – needing a gift for an exchange at her friend’s party that year – somehow ended up buying that very same pack at the very same department store.

Family thus forces us to reflect. Even if we acknowledge the biased lens through which we see ourselves, we look and make ourselves out to be an improved specimen, a 2.0. Because to see any alternative suggests something far worse – a hypocrisy in which we can recognize the flaws in those who reflect ourselves the most (even if in an elemental, intangible manner) and yet choose not to address them, in effect turning our backs to self-betterment.

My mom’s martyrdom, her hard-headedness, her pettiness and long-memory, her judgmental nature and fear of so many things and self-doubt and need for validation. The way she sees love, the way she has to be all-in. All of that is me.

It feels odd, the whole of it. Perhaps the lack of choice exacerbates the frustrating, difficult, infuriating moments, with an undercurrent of feeling that we cannot be comforted, let alone rescued, by the simple recognition of agency, of effort, of desire – as we might with such moments in the context of friendships or partnerships. In contrast, family, in all but the most extreme situation, exists unquestioned and unchallenged.

A good friend made fun of me harshly at a movie theater because I thought that Finding Forrester was non-fiction. He was tactless; I was embarrassed.* I went off to the bathroom to get some space. But then I got over it. I had to, enough at least to drive him home. That’s the best analogy I have for family. Family is stuck in a car together.

*It is kind of funny to reflect on these things that seemed to matter so much in the moment.

So we question and challenge by other means. We make less effort to suppress our frustration. We act more pettily, brushing aside the image of the self they present and imposing the grand narrative over them – their every action thus a confirmation of what we already know to be true. We push a little harder understanding that there is an element of non-choice to the matter. We take family for granted.

Then again, I don’t have a relationship with my dad, so I guess family can be a choice too.

Family is difficult. It seems to get moreso. But maybe that’s just me.

My Schwarzenegger Saga

The context

I was all of eight years old when my cousin, quite irresponsibly, took me to see Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It was one of the first theatrical experiences I can recall, and still one of the most indelible. The movie remains my favorite of all time. The action is breathtaking, the effects spellbinding. The story – simple in structure, complicated in implication – persistent and tense. And the cast of characters include the most memorable of the genre: the battle-hardened heroine; the relentless, terrifying villain; and the hero, an outdated machine bonded to a boy.

Over the course of my adolescence, I watched Terminator 2 dozens upon dozens of times. A local television channel in Los Angeles had a limited film library, and resorted to broadcasting the movie basically every other weekend. I undoubtedly have seen it more than any other movie, if in bits and pieces, and in edited form. Still, I couldn’t get enough. I purchased the metallic limited edition DVD when it came out in 2000. Even now, more than 25 years after its original theatrical release, I can give you a near scene by scene recitation.

The set-up

I don’t know if anyone in the world was more excited than I was when Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines came out in 2003. Judging by its eventual box office, I represented the exception. But I was psyched. I was old enough then – at 20 – to appreciate how rare an opportunity it was to be able to revisit my nostalgia. I basically had the chance to relive the experience of watching my favorite movie onscreen. I didn’t care that James Cameron wasn’t involved, that Linda Hamilton had moved on. This was essentially my Phantom Menace, except not shitty.*

*I saw Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine six times in theaters. In hindsight, I would say it’s a solid but forgettable movie, with a wonderful twist, and one jaw-dropping setpiece. Beyond that, it’s a poor man’s Terminator 2.

A few months before the movie’s release, I got wind of an event at the monthly Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention downtown. To my delight, it advertised a poster giveaway and centerpiece panel for Terminator 3: with director Jonathan Mostow, special effects wizard Stan Winston, stars Kristanna Loken, Nick Stahl, and yes – Arnold Schwarzenegger. The flyer even promised that the entire panel would stick around to sign autographs after the fact – even Arnie, “for a very limited time.” I could not have been more excited.

The story

Somehow, I had a friend who lived literally on the same street as the convention locale, a block over. He generously offered to let me spend the night at his place. I figured we would play some videogames and chill for a bit, leaving me a few hours of rest for my big day ahead (like the rest of the world, he didn’t care about Terminator 3). My plan was to then walk over to the convention early Saturday morning, jump to the head of the line, claim my free poster, sit through the panel, and reach the holy grail: meet Arnold and claim his signature. It was kismet.

After what felt like weeks of waiting, the big night before finally arrived. I had just a bag of essentials when my friend came to pick me up. I was psyched. As we turned onto his street, however, I noticed a few people already camped outside the convention – yes, a good 12 hours early. Immediately, I panicked. I didn’t gather my thoughts or think logistics, didn’t weigh my options at my friend’s apartment. Instead, with a self-created sense of urgency, I asked to be dropped off. Without a sleeping bag, without a blanket, without any kind of preparation or foresight.

As my friend’s car pulled off, I was left with five or six strangers who shared my mission. I felt relived, even proud, as I had assured myself a meet-and-greet. After all, even the most extreme interpretations of “very limited time” had to include the first ten people, I figured. Of the group, I was the youngest by at least a decade. These were convention veterans, many of whom knew each other. They acknowledged my existence, but not much more. Some had chairs, blankets, light sources, food and drinks. I had a single sweater. And 12 hours to kill.

It was one of the longest nights of my life. I had nothing to do, no light with which to read.* I tried to go to sleep, but without cover or anything to soften the sidewalks of South Central LA, it was impossible. I would be jolted awake by the cold every 10 minutes. Every couple of hours, I asked someone to watch my spot, then used the bathroom at the 24-hour fast food restaurant across the street: a Yoshinoya with barred windows. Over the course of that night, I came to re-evaluate my life choices many times over. Only the thought of meeting Arnold sustained me over the hours.**

*I might have had a cell phone, but it was 2003. The only entertainment it offered was ‘snake.’

**like Bart Simpson at Kamp Krusty.

Eventually, against all odds, morning came. The line behind me grew significantly, and a couple of people even jumped ahead, unbelievably, as apparently some of the night crew had the audacity to hold spots for friends. Still, I was too tired, too secure in my knowledge that I would make the cut, to pick a fight. As opening hour approached, the convention organizers came to pass out tickets confirming our line order. I was #9 or #13, in that range. They spread the word: yes, Arnold was coming. Yes, Arnold would stick around for a few minutes. My excitement returned.

The convention doors opened. We had some time to kill before the panel was scheduled to start, so I made my way around the sales floor, checked out the Terminator movie props that had been set up, pretended I cared about anything other than the chance to meet the star of my favorite movie of all time. Eventually, I made my way to the stage, to reap the benefits of a long, cold, uncomfortable, sleepless night on the street. I was in the front row. As the crowd filled in, my night crew brethren joined me up front – we exchanged knowing nods of shared experience.

We started a little late, naturally, but the panel participants were finally brought in one by one. Of course, Arnold drew thunderous applause. The panel took their seats, less than 50 feet from where I sat. I don’t remember much about the content of the discussion. It took every last inch of me to stay awake, and to be honest, I’m not sure that I did for the duration. I was too tired, too excited, too hungry, too everything. It was only as the panel came to its end that I became aware of my surroundings, that I became reacquainted with the situation once again.

Then I heard the moderator thank Arnold – and only Arnold – for his attendance.

I saw Arnold stand and acknowledge the crowd.

I saw Arnold move away from the table.

And I saw Arnold step toward the building exit.

All of this happened in slow motion.

There was a dreadfully slow churning of the cogs in my brain as the horrible realization finally seeped through. I glanced over at the other front row attendees, and they had the same quizzical look on their faces as I presume I had, as their brains put two and two together. One or two guys hopped up, but the rest of us sat in shock.* Arnold was leaving. I tried to process everything, but I couldn’t. No autograph, no handshake, no meet, no explanation. Nothing. The moderator’s voice droned on in the background, selling us on the idea of meeting everyone else.

*I learned later that they made a beeline to the exit door, and one was successful in acquiring an autograph as Arnold left. Like I said, veterans.

I ended up with a poster signed by everybody else who was there. I didn’t say much to any of them. A couple of the other night crew recovered, even thanked the panelists for sticking around. But I was in shock. I had spent a night on the street and ended up with a Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines poster signed by Jonathan Mostow, Stan Winston, Kristanna Loken, and Nick Stahl. There was no one to complain to: it was clear that the convention organizers had simply promised something they should not have. It was, as a naive 20 year old, a bubble burst.

The punchline

I ended up graduating college in June 2005. They sent my diploma over later that year. Having attended a University of California, there were four official signatures on it: the provost, the chancellor, the university president, and the president of the regents. The last was a position held by the state governor. In 2005, the Governor of California was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

So I eventually got a printed autograph after all. Never got to meet him though.

The epilogue

In 2009, I tried to attend the red carpet premiere of Terminator: Salvation at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with a pass for non-guaranteed seats for the public. I drove 50 miles from home, arriving four hours early for the event. There were maybe 20 people in line when I arrived. But it didn’t move. At all. For four hours. Finally, they allowed two small groups into the 1,152 capacity theater. I was now fourth from the front. Then security came: No one else was getting in – go home. So I retrieved my car, paid the $10 for parking, and drove the 50 miles back.

(Photo by Gage Skidmore, Peoria, AZ, via Wikimedia Commons)

Checking In

It had been nearly 24 hours since I left home. Tokyo to Dubai, Dubai to Warsaw, Warsaw to Krakow, with long layovers in between. But I had arrived. And according to my Google Maps printout, the final stretch to my airbnb was pretty straightforward: a 40-minute bus ride to the heart of town, and then a 10-minute walk. I had a code with which to enter the apartment complex; the key would be hidden in a flowerbed to my left, in the inner garden. There were a few other details but that was the gist. And that’d be it: home sweet somebody else’s home.

I took the bus without misadventure; the walk was uneventful. The block I arrived at resembled the one I saw on street view a few days prior. I entered the code on the keypad, and it buzzed, letting me through. Down the hallway and into the inner garden I went. To my left, there was indeed a flowerbed – also a flowerpot in the corner. Even better, there was a maid in the first unit, tidying up. That surpassed my expectations. I tried to get her attention, and eventually did, but she didn’t speak much English, or seem to grasp the concept of an airbnb, even with the receipt I showed her.

Confused, I let the maid be. I rummaged through some rocks in the flowerbed but to no avail. I looked over my useless receipt, my non-working cell phone. Eventually, I settled on getting the maid’s attention again. This time, I made hand gestures to indicate a hidden key. It was that with the word “flowerbed” that she finally sprang to life: “Oh!” She called the owner, a woman named Magda. They spoke in Polish, then she handed the phone over. Magda – whose own English skills were questionable – was surprised that I had arrived “early”…even though I was sure I had informed her in advance. But she was friendly, and apologetic that the maid was still there.

The check-in confirmed, I was relieved. It’s the most basic concern in a foreign country, I think – making sure to have a place to stay for the night. The maid indicated she needed 20 more minutes to finish up, using her own set of hand gestures. I took the keys and went for a walk, thanking her for her help. I got back just as she was on her way out. I settled into the room quickly. I was exhausted: a lot of flying, after all. I unpacked everything, hung up my suit. The internet wasn’t working, but there would be time for that. I needed the rest anyway. I collapsed into bed.

It was about two hours later when I awoke: 7 pm or so. I contemplated staying in bed until morning, but the brevity of the trip inspired a sense of urgency for me to explore a little bit, before my conference duties kicked in the next day. I took a shower, made myself ready. I wanted to find a decent restaurant in the neighborhood, but the internet still wasn’t connecting, so I headed out the door with nary a specific place in mind. I wasn’t completely information-blind though, setting off in what I knew to be the direction of the town square.

Even though I was starving, I suppressed the urge of stopping with the sheer joy of taking in sights of the unfamiliar city, the unfamiliar country. I ended up in the center of the town square, enjoying the lively market, the striking church, the impressive fountain. It was a delight. I sat down on a bench near the fountain, took a couple of pictures with my cell phone. The internet withdrawal was kicking in, so I scanned for wi-fi. Surprisingly, there was a public network available. It was slow, but it worked. And that was when I received the e-mail notification. It was a message from my airbnb host.

“Is everything all right? Please let us know when you’ve arrived and checked in!”

That message had come about an hour ago. It was long after I had spoken to Magda.

My eyes widened. My mind raced. I looked up the airbnb listing. It took forever to load on my cell phone, but I saw the one picture I needed to see in order to confirm my worst fears. See, in the room I had booked, there was a painting over the bed, a painting of a sailboat. I had a vague memory of that photograph. But in the room I had checked into, the painting over the bed was of a woman. A surge of panic and terror and realization immediately overcame me. It was a genuine “Kint is Soze” moment, if without the malintent.

All the little details I had glossed over, all the other vague remembrances I had set aside, suddenly reemerged clear as day. The first door on the left within a vestibule that I was to enter, versus the first door on the left – period – that I did. The flowerbed I never completely searched before talking to the maid, versus the flowerpot in the corner that could have triggered her positive reaction. The woman not named Magda I had corresponded with once or twice, versus the woman named Magda who was surprised I had arrived early.

My shit was in the wrong place, the keys I had to the wrong apartment. I was confused about everything else, but 100% sure about those two things. I took off like a rocket from the town square back to the apartment. I keyed in the code, raced down the hallway, and back to the inner garden. Almost on a whim, I rummaged again through the flowerbed. Underneath the one big rock I had yet to search, I found a set of keys. I repacked in record time, leaving those keys in the flowerpot. With the new set of keys, I tried the next door over. It led to a vestibule. And the door on the left within that vestibule led to the apartment I had actually booked.*

*If you’re confused – and I don’t blame you – there were two airbnb units in the same complex, side-by-side, with two different owners, both with similar key-hiding techniques and expecting guests the same day. After checking in, I let my hosts know I had totally Goldilocks’ed the first apartment. They informed Magda. Later in the evening, I heard the maid again. …I hid until I heard her leave.

The Second Time

The first time I sat in the back of a police car, I was 11 years old. That’s a severely misleading sentence; I wasn’t there in that way. I sat in the back, door open, comforted by an officer while waiting with my sister for an aunt to pick us up. My parents had just been arrested; they would be detained overnight. The cops had somehow pegged them as the masterminds of a counterfeit clothing ring, set up a fucking sting operation and everything. Only my folks weren’t the manufacturers the cops thought they were, or anything close – they had just been buying knock-offs in bulk from places in LA and selling them for a marginal profit. They ended up getting fined and put on probation.

Myself, I never got in trouble much. A friend approached me for advice once with the rationale that I was the “most moral person” he could think of. It was an absurd claim. Still, I really don’t have it in me to be anything other than vanilla; my naiveté perhaps an Achilles’ heel. A cop stopped me once outside the Angel Stadium box office after I inquired about seats on behalf of a shady character. The guy had watched my stuff for a moment, and I stupidly felt compelled to return the favor, even taking his cash for the would-be purchase. Okay, so I’m crazy naive. But the tickets turned out to be unavailable, and I returned his cash. Of course, I told the cop everything when he asked. Nothing came of it.

My actual transgressions too have been limited. An officer approached me, my cousin, and his friends when we were waiting for a ride in front of the local high school (I was 13 or 14): someone had accused us of throwing rocks at cars. In fact, I had been chucking pebbles at a nearby road sign, though it occurred to me that the cop might not appreciate the distinction. I stayed quiet, being the youngest, the semi-guilty, the scared. My cousin vehemently denied any and all wrongdoing on behalf of the group. Eventually, the cop let us be. That, a stop sign ticket at 17, a warning for speeding at 26 – that’s been it.

But I do have one more story, perhaps more interesting than exciting.

About 18 months ago, I drove across the country from Boston to Los Angeles, in order to leave my car and stuff at my mom’s place before moving to Tokyo. My friend Roger joined me in Chicago for the rest of the trip, and we maneuvered north from there to stop and visit my cousin in Williston, North Dakota. He and his wife were restaurant entrepreneurs; they had previously spent time in Casper, Wyoming, and recently shifted to Williston to ride the wave of the ongoing fracking boom. It was an incredible scene: construction, 18-wheelers, and temporary housing all ubiquitous sights.

Anyway, on our way out of Williston and towards the interstate, Roger and I crossed the border over to Montana. We drove through a couple small towns, and I – somehow unable to locate a McDonald’s for breakfast – hopped directly aboard the on-ramp, probably a few miles above the speed limit. The flashing blue lights appeared in the rear-view mirror maybe a mile down the road. It’s an almost indescribably shitty feeling, of course, to know that the day is already ruined, the trip suddenly far costlier than anticipated. I pulled over. The guy – highway patrol, I think – approached my window, took my license and registration.

From there, the officer asked us a few questions. Where we came from, what we were doing, where we were going, what was in the car. He checked Roger’s ID, asked about the car owner (my mom), and wanted to know if we had any cash on our persons. Of course, he was professional, though conversation enough not to make me nervous, or at least more nervous than I already was just interacting with a cop. Eventually, he returned to his patrol car, taking my license and registration with him. He suggested he would let me off with a warning. Roger and I sat there, waiting, quasi-celebrating quietly. Eventually, he came back round.

This time, the officer asked me to step out of the vehicle, said he wanted to chat with me. I was weirded out, naturally, but obliged, stepping onto the road as Roger sat firm. He then suggested that we go sit in his patrolcar. I asked nervously if I was being arrested, but he assured me this wasn’t the case. He asked for permission to pat me down for weapons and did so; then we walked over to his car. There, he noted a box of assorted electronics was taking up the front passenger seat, and directed me towards the back. And that was the second time I ever sat in the back of a police car.

As the officer ran my information, he engaged in more chatter – asking me questions about the circumstances under which Roger and I were in Williston. I eventually mentioned the move from Boston, and he said he had spent time there. Slowly, he revealed more about the situation. He was part of a interstate task force, he said. Williston – thanks to the boom – had seen a rise in crime, drug activity, trafficking, and so forth. He had pulled us over for speeding, but we had enough red flags to arouse his suspicion: my California plates, my Massachusetts license, Roger’s California license, a third party car owner (my mom kept her maiden name), all my shit in the backseat.

I felt like I spent a good 10 minutes in the car. Because he was upfront with me, because he said he believed me, because he remained friendly, I wasn’t too anxious – or at least, more anxious than I normally would be sitting in the back of a police car. Eventually, everything checked out, as of course it did. He came around back and let me out, thanking me for my cooperation. Mentioned I at least had a story to tell. I chuckled, shook his hand, headed back to my car. Roger and I went on our way. Didn’t even get a ticket for speeding.

Revisiting Seoul

I’m a terrible storyteller.  Already uncomfortable with spotlights,  I find myself questioning the entertainment value of my own tales. I never dive in; instead I’m ready to trail off at a moment’s notice. Worse, I don’t have a repertoire. Ideally, I would have honed a select few go-to stories at social gatherings, each charming and witty with a dash of self-deprecation, all revealing my hidden depths. No, my stories reveal only the depths of my idiocy. They tend to be all self-deprecation, funny only in an uncomfortable way (like The Cable Guy), involving toilet paper or vomit: not for polite company.

This is one of those stories, uncensored. It is gross.

In 2011, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an academic conference in Seoul. The participants were pampered: we were taken out for fancy meals, put up in a nice hotel, even provided gifts (promptly regifted when I returned to the States: grad school!). The conference lasted for a couple of days; it’s not important. But I lingered in South Korea for four days after, never having visited the country previously. So after leaving the conference, I packed up my shit and headed over to a hostel, excited for adventure.

The first day on my own was fun. I visited the Changdeokgung Palace, then hiked up to the Seoul Tower. For lunch, I found local fare – pork bulgogi, rice, a million side dishes. The food was fine, though the restaurant wasn’t all that sanitary. It was a mom-and-pop operation; the dining room looked almost to be in their home, and the proprietors and their friends sat on an elevated area chatting, bare feet out. It was quaint and gross. I doubt the food had more than a negligible part in what was to follow. But I did take note at the time.

The real story begins my second day. I wanted to do a legitimate hike, and had decided upon Dobongsan (Dobong Mountain) at Bukhansan National Park. It fit my modest aspirations: its central peak had an elevation of just 739.5 meters, but was rocky enough to still be a challenge. The trail was straightforward, would take around four or five hours round-trip, and promised stunning views. I figured I would climb up and down, and have plenty of time to kill before an evening baseball game on the other side of town.

10:00 am. It had taken about an hour on the metro to get from my hostel to the park. The walk from the station was short, 15 minutes, passing through countless little food stands and street shops. I planned to hop into one of them for breakfast. But nothing looked appetizing, and the only other option was a Dunkin’ Donuts (they are weirdly everywhere in Seoul). I decided not to, not wanting to feed into the stereotype of the close-minded American. Instead, I was the stupid American, skipping breakfast altogether.

I did stop at a convenience mart, buying three bottles of water, a Pocari Sweat, and one bag of potato snacks. I figured that would hold me for the duration of the hike. I rarely ate breakfast back then, and still feeling jet-lagged four days into the trip, I had not been eating anything until 2 or 3 pm anyway. In retrospect of course, I wasn’t hiking mountains those other days. Regardless, I would plow through the trail and eat something substantial by 2 pm. I was chomping at the bit to start.

The hike began modestly. It was scenic, not too busy. I had my Superman t-shirt on, for maximum irony as it turned out, and set up a bunch of pictures of myself “holding up” giant boulders. I strolled my way through, taking pictures of anything and everything, and broke into the potato snacks. At some point however, I got lost. I ended up taking a rather steep trail to nowhere in particular, then having to backtrack. It was not an insignificant delay. Three hours in, I was still nowhere near the peak.

I was already a couple of water bottles down when I ran across a Buddhist temple – and attached water hose – tucked into the side of the mountain. It was a fortunate and necessary pit stop. As I pressed on, the hike had become more strenuous, far more so than I anticipated. A section of literally 400+ stairs appeared out of nowhere. A cliff where I had to shimmy through holding ropes and metal handrails. Some parts near the top were essentially rock climbing. I had not expected this.

2:30 pm. Four and a half hours into a planned four hour hike, I finally reached the top of Dobongsan. It was an incredible feeling. The view of Seoul was breathtaking; the metropolitan area immense, unimaginably so. My exhaustion and hunger and fear and anxiety were all forgotten, at least for the moment. But I was in trouble, and I knew it. My stomach was making a ton of noise in protest, especially as I walked past people setting up shop, enjoying elaborate lunches. I contemplated whether to ask a stranger for a snack. I didn’t.

After the summit, I put my camera away. I knew I had to make my way down the mountain as quickly as I could, to find food somewhere, but my body didn’t have that gear anymore. I felt terrible; my stomach jumpy with every motion. I stopped often, resting, preparing myself physically and mentally for the next small segment of the descent. I polished off the last of the potato snacks, then the water. I had nothing left. By the time I returned to the town, it was nearly 5:00 pm. The hike had taken seven hours.

As I wandered back past the street shops however, I felt weirdly okay. In fact, I wasn’t even hungry anymore. I figured I’d buy a ton of shit at the baseball game and be back to tip-top shape. But that calculus changed as soon as I saw the vending machine at the train station. My body reacted viscerally. I bought three drinks and sucked them down, one by one. They held me over momentarily. Once I boarded the metro though, I felt dizziness, tingling. I needed something solid in my system, and fast.

I left the station once I reached my transfer spot. There was a street vendor but I worried about its cleanliness, even in my state. Instead, I made my way into a barbecue place, where an Abbott and Costello routine broke out. I pointed to a picture on the menu, but the waitress refused. “These are intended for groups, not singles,” her Korean noises and hand gestures said to my illiterate ears. “It’s a lot of food.” I tried to respond in likewise fashion, noises and gestures: “I am dying. I will pay for any fucking portion of food.” She held firm. After what felt like 10 minutes – probably in reality 2 – of inane back-and-forth, I left and made a beeline for the street vendor. I bought a hot dog.

6:00 pm. Ten hours into my day, I had my first bite of real food, food not of the potato snack variety. But my body didn’t react. Confused, I took another bite. This time, my stomach shut down completely. I nibbled at the bread but to no avail. I wasn’t going to get anything down. I continued to sit next to a few smokers and a bum, hoping to muster up an appetite. Feeling terrible, I abandoned the hot dog after about 20 minutes. I dragged myself up the stairs, feeling half alive, back into the metro, and immediately went into the toilet.

As soon as I closed the door to the toilet stall, I puked. Two bites of hot dog, and what seemed like every ounce of liquid I had consumed over the course of the day (if only that was it). But I didn’t feel much better after the ordeal; if anything, I felt the same. My brain apparently fried, I marched back onto the metro, and towards the stadium, towards the baseball game I had planned to attend. I made my way out of the station there, needing to sit every so often and catch my breath. I made it to the stadium box office, bought my ticket, and stumbled up to the upper level and my seat. I had precious little left.

I kept moaning during the two innings I was in my seat for. I felt truly awful; my body was basically draped across the armrest. I figured I needed to try and put something in my system again, because I couldn’t conceive of making it back to the hostel otherwise. I made my way out into the concourse, where the only options were KFC and Burger King. I don’t know why I was so discerning given my state, but I wanted a soup or a noodle. I headed down to the first level, but had to stop after one ramp. I laid down on a bench. I wouldn’t get to the second ramp for another 20 minutes.

Of course, the options ended up being the same downstairs: KFC and Burger King. Defeated, I bought a small order of chicken nuggets from the former. Without even a bite though, my bowels suddenly screamed for attention. I hightailed my way to the bathroom – fast as I could go – and sat on the toilet for what felt like ages. More liquids out of my system. It was an ugly scene. Eventually, I left the toilet, tiptoeing my way back to the same bench, and laid down again. Flat on my side, I nibbled on a nugget every once in a while, eating two and a half in all. I couldn’t manage more. I wanted to die.

It was at that point that I finally gave up on the baseball game. I had the pressing concern that I had to beat ballpark traffic, as I couldn’t imagine physically standing on the metro for the 40 minutes it would take to get back to my hostel. I zombie walked my way down the ramp… and straight to the toilet again, though not quite in time this time. My boxers were left in the bathroom trash can. I left the park commando, sneaking a peek at the scoreboard: it was the 7th inning, a good two hours after I arrived. I remember literally nothing about the baseball aspects of that game.

The meander back towards the station was a feat, probably dwarfing the hike up Dobongsan. I couldn’t climb any stairs without draping myself over the handrail. I couldn’t drag myself a few hundred feet without sitting for five minutes. I opted to wait for a second train for the potential of empty seats – and was fortunate to have that need fulfilled. My head rested in my lap the entire ride back. I never stopped moaning. Upon arrival, I left the train and immediately went to sit down on the platform. After another five minutes, I climbed the stairs and sat again. I emptied my bowels in the toilet, then went back out and sat for ten more.

My hostel was a three minute walk from the train station, but I still had to sit outside the station to prepare myself for that walk. Once I felt ready, I started around the corner. There, on the sidewalk next to a construction site, I promptly vomited the chicken nuggets and remaining water I had in me. A young mother hurriedly, and hilariously in retrospect, yanked her child away as they walked past. On the way back to the hostel, I had the foresight to buy water and crackers. I finally made it home, and went straight to the bathroom again. And again.

I’ve never felt physically worse in my life than I did that day, and I hope I never will. I slept for ten hours, showered, sat and munched on crackers, bought a bagel at a coffee shop a half-block away, slept for three hours, laid in bed for three hours, then slept for 12 straight hours after that. On my last day in Seoul (two days after Dobongsan), I made it to the station at Hwaseong Fortress before I realized I didn’t have the strength to sightsee – not even close. I stumbled to the mall connected to the train station and watched a movie, then headed back to the hostel to sleep again. And that was my week in Seoul.

When people ask if I’ve ever been to South Korea, I say that I have. I offer some platitudes about how overwhelming and incredible a city Seoul is, and I stop there. Because some stories shouldn’t be told in polite company.