No one expects to move to another country and start punching people. However, there are three cases in Korea when my fists were my only way of communicating with jerks.
1. The Boob Grabber
It was my first weekend in Korea, and everything was still incredibly new to me. My coworker, Mandy took me to a foreigner bar that night. Everyone seemed to know each other, which was both intimidating and thrilling. I had so many people to meet!
After a consuming a few overpriced vodka cocktails, I was already forgetting names of future friends, and I was ready to go home.
“Let’s walk home,” Mandy suggested as we left. She was giddy drunk.
“Um… I wish you told me that upstairs. I would have peed before we walked out.”
“Oh, well it was just an impulse,” she said, giggling.
“How about if we walk for a while and then hop in a cab,” I said.
Mandy nodded in agreement and led the way. We hadn’t walked far when a Korean man appeared. He came up from an angle and then began to walk in stride with us, sandwiching me between himself and Mandy. He babbled incoherent Korean. I looked helplessly at Mandy to see if she understood him. She began responding, making me believe that the whole thing was under control.
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“Goodnight, goodbye,” she said.
“What is he saying?”
“I have no idea.”
I looked back at the man who was still in step with us and talking continuously. I realized suddenly that I could communicate to him without using words. So I firmly pushed his shoulder and shook my head.
He swung his outer arm across his body and up to my chest. Then he honked my boob. Honked it. His hand clamped down and released in a very unsexy mammogram kind of way. It infuriated me the instant I felt his old hand grabbing me. So I punched him in the face.
He backed off and we continued walking, never breaking our stride once.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Mandy said. “I can’t believe that just happened, and on your first weekend!”
“I know. I’ve never even punched anybody before but…” I paused, feeling something brush against my shoulder. I whipped my head to the left and saw that the man was back, staggering beside me. Speechless, I glared at him. It was his warning. He swung his arm across and honked my boob anyway.
I flipped out.
I became a machine, punching his face and clawing at his body. He put his hands in the air in an ‘I surrender’ position, but I was unstoppable. My pinky caught on his shirt, and as I pulled my hand back, the shirt came with me. Buttons were flying –dink dink dink- and I just calmly continued punching.
I realized that I heard someone screaming my name. It was Mandy. I hadn’t heard her until just then, but I wondered how long she’d been trying to stop me. I roared, disgustedly, in the man’s scraped up face. Then I spun on my heel and walked away.
“NOBODY gets away with that shit,” I said. “I don’t care WHAT fucking country I’m in.”
“I’ve… I’ve never even seen anything like this before and I’ve been here 11 months. I can’t believe this happened to you.” She got quiet and I did too. “I’m glad I have you with me,” she said finally.
I absentmindedly shook out my hands and said, “I’m glad I have me with me too.”
2. A Dickhead Taxi Driver and an Almost- Punch
Claire, Amber and I decided to go to see our friends play a soccer game on a beautiful fall day. Claire lived quite close to the field, but Amber lived on the other side of town. “I’ll come pick you up,” I told Amber. “It’s a nice day for a ride and it’ll save you the cab fare.”
Had she taken a cab from her house to the soccer field, it would have cost her about ten dollars. So she was grateful to get a ride through town. We reached Claire’s house just in time to watch our bus fly by, but three people riding a cab for that short a time should have been just as inexpensive as a bus, if not cheaper.
Claire sat in the front seat, and after about three minutes into the ride, she said, “Hey, he turned off the meter.”
“Free ride for us, I guess,” I said. “Nah, let’s just get out a dollar each. There’s no way a short ride like this would be more than that.”
When the taxi driver stopped the car at the edge of the soccer field, he looked to Claire beside him and said in Korean, “Ten dollars.”
“What!” We all said.
“That’s bullshit,” Claire mumbled as she grudgingly opened her wallet to take out more money.
“Fuck this. Everyone give him two dollars. Six dollars total is already overpriced and he didn’t have the meter running. Give him six and let’s get the fuck out.” I said.
Amber and I passed forward our singles, Claire gave the pile of cash to the driver, and we all quickly slipped out. I had the farthest sliding across a seat to do, so I was the last out. I saw the driver counting the singles and realize that we were ripping off his rip off. He got out of the car and started yelling in Korean.
I attempted to speak my best Korean to communicate how we knew his fee was bullshit. I pointed at the meter and said, “Here, ten no.” Then I rubbed my fingers together in a ‘money’ gesture and then pointed to the singles in his hand. “There, ten no.” Then I reiterated by explaining how he could have gotten ten dollars from us. “Here ten yes, and here ten yes.”
He continued screaming.
I switched to English. “Call the police if you want, dick. You’ve got no proof that we should pay you at all!” Claire and Amber stood slightly behind me, and I could sense them reopening their purses. By now, paying him would be like rewarding a temper-tantrum-throwing child. I looked back and ordered, “No.”
The man waved his singles at me an inch from my face, fanning my nose. I snatched them from his hand and said, “Thank you!” Then I spun around and started walking away.
He grabbed my shirt by the middle of my back and yanked.
Shocked, I swiveled again to face him with my fist pulled back.
He released his hold on my shirt.
“Take it or leave it,” I said, holding the six dollars out.
He grabbed the singles and walked back to his car, swearing at me.
My heart was racing as I turned back towards the field. The three of us walked quietly together for a minute.
“Sorry ladies. I’ve got this fire in me that flares up sometimes and even surprises me!” I said.
Forever after that, Claire would frequently pull back her fist and inhale sharply, eyes bugged out. And both of us would laugh.
3. Anna Sweet: Defender of Animals
There was a lovely park near my house and I often went there with my friends or with my ipod to walk around. One Tuesday before work, my neighbor Megan and I went for a walk.
On our way home we heard a shrill distant sound. I thought it was a bird, and ignored it. Then Megan said, “Is that a cat?”
“No,” I said. “Well, I don’t think so.”
“Yes it is, look.” She pointed.
Crossing the street in front of us was a man holding a long pole with an orange kitten on the end. Instinctively, and without thought, I started running in his direction. He was heading through a small field towards a steep cliff-like drop off.
As I neared him, I was filled with horror and rage. I thought the pole was a spear and that the wailing kitten was stabbed in the spine.
“Hello!” I shouted in Korean.
The man jumped, and the kitten slipped to the ground. The man was not holding a spear, but rather a pole with a hooked ending that had been under the kitten’s body.
I was relieved, though I still suspected that he had hooked a stray kitten and was planning on whipping it over the mini-cliff edge. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I smiled, brightly and fake and continued speaking Korean. “Cute! Cute animal baby! I like that. I love that! Cute! Cute!”
The man was baffled. He shrugged and looked down at the kitten. It was mewing quietly and walking in a tiny circle. Now that I was closer I could see that it had bright blue eyes that had probably only just opened for the first time recently. The man took his hooked pole and slid it around the cat’s neck, and then lifted. The kitten stayed on the ground, but his head whiplashed back. I punched the man’s pole-holding shoulder and stepped between him and the kitten.
The kitten was mewing loudly again from behind me. I shook my finger in the man’s face, my fake smile gone with a scowl in its place. “No!” I said.
The man tried to reach around my body with his cat-grabbing pole but I slapped it away from us, shaking my finger in his face some more.
I turned and picked up the kitten, holding the tiny trembling body to my chest. I glared at the man, lifted my chin, and marched away.
Megan was waiting for me on the sidewalk, slack-jawed staring. “I was about to come over, and then I saw you hit him,” she said. Then she focused on the kitten. “Aw, can I hold him? I always wanted an orange cat. I want to name him kim chi.”
We continued walking home, and every Korean we passed spotted the kitten and smiled. A corner store employee emptied some vegetables from a big box, and donated the box to us as a new kitty house.
We took the kitten to the vet that day and I picked up kitten formula the next morning. For the following two weeks, Megan kept the kitten in her apartment, feeding and petting him. Sadly, he got sick, quit eating, and finally died in her hands.
The following morning we walked up to the park and used sticks to dig into the semi-frozen ground. We set the kitten’s body in the hole and covered it, even topping the grave with flowers.
He may not have had a long life but the last two weeks spent inside a warm apartment was a better way to go than being flung from a cat hook off a ledge.