A half-Mexican traveling man mocked me for my sometimes naïve demeanor. Making a sultry face and raising the pitch of his voice, he parodied, “I came here with my suitcase and my innocence.”
That and the following happened on my first solo trip, to Busan, South Korea.
The hostel looked like a mixture of the movie sets of Annie and Animal House. As the door opened, it met resistance from the pile of worn shoes overlapping in a maze that took up the entire entryway. Guests walked through the main hallway on way to their rooms looking like characters from Run Lola Run or its Japanese equivalent. A young woman with bags under her eyes and tangled, sopping wet curls held a pink towel loosely together half way down her cleavage. Asians with dreadlocks ate some sort of fish, including eyes, on the floor of the kitchen. A vacuum cleaner’s buzz competed with the greeting Tiger – young, Korean and missing a front tooth – gave me.
The hostel owners, Tiger and Hwan, took their guests out every night, offering travelers local insight. How generous to spend their free time and money teaching guests Korean drinking games, Sunday through Monday! It didn’t strike me as odd, just welcoming.
The night started out with the Western equivalent of dinner except with lots of booze. Ten of us foreigners shifted from time to time seated on a wooden floor, drinking makkoli, Korean rice wine. We accepted and gave our drinks (and there were many) in traditional Korean style as our hosts had taught us, clinking then finishing our cups when someone yelled, “gon bae!”
A few bars and clubs later it was morning. And someone was licking my ass.
Just the cheek. I had my clothes on from the night before. My alcohol-soaked head registered the danger of the situation. I said, “No. Stop.” It was like listening to myself speak underwater. I swatted and grazed the top of his head. He moved for the crack. No way in Hell. With sudden inspired flight mode, I whipped my hips to the side and rolled off the bed, landing arms length from the door. No need to put my shoes on. My flip flops had remained steadfast friends throughout the night.
“S#it. I’m sorry,” the man missing a front tooth moaned, clapping his hands to his face. The stagnant warm air gave the room a claustrophobic feel. From under the window shades, a hard line of midday summer light illuminated the features of our love motel. A dusty antennae TV and an ash tray sat under the thick window shades. Half used bottles of lotions and hair products, a black comb sitting in blue, presumably sanitizing, liquid and two complimentary condoms concluded the line-up on the vanity. My stomach tightened, about to lurch, from a combination of the leftover poison in my body and the revelation of being in a seedy sex box.
While I stood at the door, Tiger’s sunken face rose as he slouched and began to sympathize with me about our hangovers and expressed his embarrassment that he thought I “wanted to be with” him.
We left the love motel, and he surveyed the scene, his hands blocking the sun from his tightly squinted eyes, until the woman at the front desk told him where we were.
We spoke openly on our bus ride back to the hostel. He’d grown up poor and with very underprivileged, young parents – so uneducated that when he asked them a question they didn’t know the answer to, they beat him. As he said, “they didn’t beat me because they hated me; they loved me. They beat me because they didn’t know how to raise me,” I felt for him, but I went numb. His story revealing violence in his childhood grossly reminded me how little I knew about this man. Yet there I’d been with him. Alone, out of control.
Despite my post-apocalyptic connection with Tiger, whenever I considered the incident, self disgust and useless fear hit me pretty hard. I couldn’t look back and think with confidence, boy, did I learn that lesson! I could only let the reality hit home and decide I wouldn’t play Russian roulette again. I feel a sick sense of luck about it.
I wonder what my half-Mexican travelling friend would mock me for if he met me now.