Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Alien Abductions

Some truths are stranger than fiction. What you are about to read actually happened on an evening in August, 1998, when I was living in South Korea, teaching English.

I have told this story at my local Toastmasters club and I told a shortened version during a phone-in show for CBC's Ontario Today, and I am planning to fictionalize it in a chapter of Gyeosunim, the sequel to Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary.

This is a story of alien abduction. Before this happened to me, I didn't believe in such a thing. Now, I fully believe in alien abductions. Because I was the alien.

Why we decided to change our plans was beyond me. We were, after all, creatures of habit, predictable. It was Friday. I knew where we would be in a few short hours.

The ex-pat community was much smaller than it had been when I was there a year ago. Economic hardships saw English language institutes close. Friends came and went. But because Lori and I worked at different institutions (Lori was at Chŏnbuk National University; I was at Jeonju University), our pool of friends was substantial.

And we were all predictable.

Every Friday, when the work day was done, Lori and I would meet at our apartment. It was a low-rise building, only five stories high. Each floor housed only six apartments. But the third and fourth floors were occupied by the English teachers of Jeonju U. We were a community in of ourselves. Doors were often open, which meant anyone was welcome to come in. If a door was closed, it meant knock first, then enter. But if the door was closed and locked, it meant that either the residents were away or otherwise occupied. We'd come back later.

On Fridays, doors were almost always open. All of the teachers would get home, change out of suits and dresses, slip into something more comfortable—it was summer, after all—and get ready for a night of "social intercourse," as the owner of our regular hangout called it.

When I arrived at the apartment, I would change, blast my tunes through Koss speakers hooked up to my Discman, and crack open a bottle of OB Lager. A corner store near the apartment sold the beer in quart-sized bottles. Perfect for a Friday. I would drink one, maybe two, before my wife and some of our co-workers would meet up with us. We'd order in dinner—I had mastered ordering pizza, in Korean, over the phone. "Manny soh-suh, chuseo. Posot, bego."—lots of sauce, no mushrooms. When all the teachers were gathered, we'd hail a couple of taxis and head to one of our two regular ex-pat bars: Urban Bar or TwoBeOne.

But on this August Friday night, we'd change our plans, completely unsuspecting the consequences that our actions would have on our evening.

As I said, I don't know why we changed our plans. It seemed to happen sometime when I went back to the corner store to pick up more beer. Some of the teachers had been held up—a celebration with some students—and we'd be heading out later than usual. And so we all gathered in Ashton's apartment, eating mediochre pizza, listening to music from home, and chatting about our week. A recap, or download, of the stresses we faced of teaching in a foreign country.

Someone had talked about going to a night club. A Korean night club. Though there were people like Lori and me, who had been in Chŏnju for more than a year, not one of us had set foot in a Korean night club. We wondered how they differed from Western night clubs, how they differed from the pubs of Urban and TwoBeOne. Though our regular bars were focused on bringing in the ex-pat community, Koreans were welcome to mingle with the wae-gooks—foreigners. Would we be as welcome at a night club geared towards Koreans?

We decided to go to Pappy's. It was located on the fifth floor of a department store, of all places. The entrance to the nightclub was through a side door off a narrow alleyway, near the Gaeksa, an ancient residence that formerly housed government representatives that visited the city. It was now a common meeting ground in the centre of the downtown core. Next to the Gaeksa was a modern building that housed a KFC on the ground level. The scent of the 11 herbs and spices mixed with the scents of the city—foreign to me as the smell of KFC was to Koreans. And across the alley from KFC was a simple entrance to Pappy's.

You could access the nightclub by either taking an elevator or by using the stairs. This entrance didn't get you into the department store; it was exclusive to the club.

By the time we were ready to go, there were at least nine of us. I remember Raymond, Ashton, Russ, Steve and Hae-sung, Dave and Julia, and Lori and me. There may have been more, but these folks were definitely there. They were our usual Friday crowd from our apartment building. And in the time it took us to get together, eat, and decide our plan for the evening, I had lost track of the beer that I had consumed, mixed with a bit of makkoli, a creamy fermented type of rice wine. In a word, I was drunk. A bit. Still able to function, but definitely impaired. I trusted myself to do just about anything but drive or handle heavy machinery. Luckily, on this evening, I'd be doing neither.

We took the elevator. There were only two buttons to press: a G and a 5. Straightforward. At the top, when the doors opened, we were greeted by a bouncer who was dressed in shiny silver-grey slacks with a matching bow tie and a crisp white shirt. He was surprised to see us, to see foreigners. So many wae-gooks. Indeed, a lot of eyes were on us. I could almost imagine the music suddenly stopping, the crowd in the room turning all eyes to us. But that didn't happen. Sure, lots of patrons close to the entrance stopped what they were doing and stared, but the music continued, most of the young Koreans From the elevator, another 'host' escorted us to a table. We had a long sofa that held four of us. Chairs were gathered around the remaining three sides of the long, oval table. Menus were placed before us: it seems that service was paramount. There were no pedestrian beers: no OB, no Cass, no Hite. There were premium beers only: Exfeel and Budweiser. (Both of these beers tasted extremely similar and weren't my idea of premium beers, but this was Korea in 1998). We ordered Buds for everyone and the server went to fill our request.continued without noticing us.

Pappy's was large, dark, packed. From our table, it was hard to see where the dance floor ended. The paremeter of the club was dimly lit, giving the impression of endless expance. Lights on the ceiling were small and scattered in a random pattern, giving the illusion of stars. Blue neon lights accented the bar. Black light projected from somewhere on the dance floor.

None of the music was recognizable, but that didn't matter. It had a good beat and wasn't the teen bands to which our We all felt extremely underdressed. Because our regular Friday-night haunts were casual, we had dressed in jeans and t-shirts. Only Ashton, who almost exclusively wore a three-piece suit, fit in, though he was only in his slacks and shirt. He had left his vest, tie, and jacket at his apartment. Because it was a hot summer night, I was in shorts and a t-shirt. I was about as casual as could be.students subjected us. This place sounded like a proper night club. Very techno.

The Korean patrons, by contrast, were dressed for a proper night out. Dresses on the ladies. Men in slacks and dress shirts. Most of them head-to-toe in black. Hair was perfectly coiffed or jelled. They struck poses around the dance floor or cut it up. And one thing was certain: you looked at them and then looked at us, and you thought to yourself, something is not right. Something is definitely wrong.

Our drinks arrived on a silver tray, and on a silver platter an exquisitely sculpted fruit swan accompanied it. Pineapple, strawberries, kiwi, and cherry tomatoes (cherry tomatoes often came to our table at Urban). With the delivery, our server slipped some paper onto our table. The bill. Raymond turned it over as we all reached into our wallets for the cash, and we learned that the bill came to 27,000 won—about $25—over what we had calculated. Because Hae-sung was with us, and because Ashton and Steve had a good grasp of the language, they took the issue up with our server and we learned that the fruit platter wasn't complementary. Yet none of us ordered it.

Our server explained that patrons always ordered food with drinks, and because we hadn't ordered he chose the least-expensive item on the list. He just figured we wanted something but we forgot to order.

Thoughtful guy.

We had him take the platter back. Thanks, but no thanks. If we had wanted food, we would have asked for it.

He wasn't pleased, but he took the platter back.

We were all keen to dance. None of us had done any in a long time. The last time Lori and I had danced was the previous October, in Seoul, at a Thanksgiving feast hosted by the Canadian embassy. There was no dancing at Urban; TwoBeOne had a dance floor, but it was small and uninviting.

The dance floor at Pappy's was huge and beckoned us. We all abandoned our table and joined the Koreans. More eyes were on us as our presence became more apparent. Space was made for us on the varnished wooden floor. There were only three women in our group, but we didn't mind. All of us formed a circle and performed our various semi-drunken moves. And at one point, Ray, Russ, Ashton, and I noticed that there were a lot of very attractive women dancing around our circle in circles of their own. And so, without a word, but with a knowing nod, the four of us split from our group and joined the closest circle of women.

You'd think we were lepers.

No sooner had we joined the girls than they shrieked and moved off, and were immediately replaced by a group of young men, who took up the circle and continued dancing. Raymond, Russ, Ashton and I looked at each other, puzzled by this turn of events, before we looked around the dance floor and made a startling discovery. The women were dancing with the women; the men were dancing with the men. Never the twain shall meet.

Well, that might work for Koreans, but we weren't interested in dancing with guys, so we bowed out and rejoined our group.

The night went on. We continued to dance, rest at our tables, drink more beer, and dance some more. At times, some of us were on the floor while others were at the table. We mixed it up. We enjoyed ourselves, ignoring the stares we attracted. As the evening wore on, we talked about heading out, of returning to our apartment building. It was coming up on 2 AM: time to call it a night.

While some were finishing up the remains of their beer and others were still on the dance floor—including Lori—I figured it was a good time to visit the men's room. And this is where the evening took a bizarre twist.

On my way out of the washroom, two young men were standing in the door way. The spoke as I passed by them, but because they were speaking in Korean I didn't think they were talking to me. It was when I heard the work ching-goo—friend—that I looked at them and realized they were talking to me. They were gesturing towards the exit, which was on the opposite side of the bathroom from the dance floor. They were telling me that my friends had left.

I thought it a little strange that everyone in our party, including my wife, would leave Pappy's without me. But perhaps they thought I had already left myself. Who was I, in my now fully drunken state, to question? And now these Korean lads were escorting me out.

There was a long line of people waiting to take the elevator, so my escorts suggested we take the stairs down to the street. I didn't see any of my friends in the line, so I guessed that they did the same thing. I hadn't been in the washroom that long, so they should have been in the lineup if they had planned to take the elevator.

Proceeding down the stairs, each of the Koreans walked on either side of me, each held an arm to steady me as we negotiated the stairs. How nice, I thought, these guys are being extremely courteous, making sure this drunken foreigner doesn't fall and break his neck. Such kind young men.

We made it down the stairs and headed outside, onto the narrow street, and I started looking for Lori and my friends. They weren't there. What was there was a car, idling in the alleyway with the rear door open to us. Two occupants sat in the front. Before I could react—assuming I could do anything in my state of intoxication—my arms were twisted and I was pulled into the back of the car by one of my escorts, pushed in by the other.

"Gah!" exclaimed one of my abductors. Go!

"Odi gah-yo?" said the driver, turning to face us. Go where?? He too was a young man, dressed for the club. Designer glasses and styled hair. The front passenger was a young woman in a grey blouse. She tilted her head downward, her long, straight hair covering her face. Clearly, she wanted no part of this act.

Anywhere, just go, shouted one of the guys beside me. And off we went.

Now, at this point in my story I must admit that in this time in Korea, I was starting to become cynical. I was tiring of hearing how everything in Korea was wonderful, when clearly it was not. The country was trying to recover from an economic disaster, where banks and huge companies were failing and the IMF was bailing out many East Asian countries. At this time in Korea, the west was seen in a bad light. And from what I could see, the Korean economy had only itself to blame. I was also becoming tired of how westerners were being made the bad guy and I was vocal in showing my dismay at Koreans. They were in a state of disarray.

Nothing was organized in Korea, let alone crime. And even though I was sitting as an unwilling passenger in the back of a Hyundai Elantra, I wasn't concerned for my safety.

And my abductors were fuelling my confidence in my well being. They argued over where to go, what to do with me. Here they were, with a perfectly good plan for getting me out of the night club, with absolutely no plan for what to do when they actually had me.

I started to laugh.

The guy to my right didn't like that. He began slapping my cheek. Yet, he was barely making contact with my face: the slaps felt more like pats. Also, he said "Haji-ma!" in a whiney voice while he struck me, which was something similar to saying "cut it out" to a small child who was misbehaving. This caused me to laugh all the more.

I already told you that I was wearing shorts. These shorts were khakis, with pockets on the sides. In the right-side pocket was my wallet. The young man who was getting frustrated at my laughing felt the wallet pressing against his leg, and he ordered that I take it out of my pocket.

I stopped laughing. The wallet had all of my identification. My work card. My university ID. My credit cards. I was not willing to part with it. My photo ID and Canadian credit cards were no use to a Korean, so I knew that if he took it, it would end up thrown out.

He took my wallet and removed the cash inside. There was 50,000 won, almost $50. Once he had the cash, I snatched the wallet back. I looked at him with an expression that said I was willing to fight to keep it. He let me keep it.

We roamed aimlessly around the city. At this late hour, there were very few cars on the road. We competed with taxis as we seemed to spiral away from Pappy's, and then back towards the night club. Almost 25 minutes had passed and no plan had been made. We turned onto a street, dark lit, only about two blocks away from Pappy's, and we stopped. The lad who stole my money got out of the car and motioned for me to get out too. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen here.

He wagged a finger at me, and for the first time, spoke English. "Pappy," he said, "don't go." He hopped back into the car, and they screeched away. It was only as they were turning a corner that I figured that I should get a license number. I got a partial.

So that was it. They didn't want foreigners at their club. They were hoping to scare me. "Pappy, don't go."

I walked directly to Pappy's, hoping to find Lori and my friends. Surely, they were worried about where I got to.

By the time I was at Pappy's, the last of the partygoers was on the street. The doors to the elevator and stairwell were closed. A bouncer was guarding the entrance, and in Korean told me that no one was inside. My fellow teachers had left, probably assuming I had gone on without them—something I was prone to do and had a history of doing.

I prepared to walk back to the apartment. It would probably take me an hour. Lori would be worried, but there was nothing I could do.

Actually, as luck would have it, I stuck my hands in my front pockets and felt a piece of paper. It was a 5,000-won note. More than enough for a taxi ride (cab fare was dirt-cheap in Chonju). I walked to the Gaeksa and hailed a cab.

There is more to this story. When I returned at the apartment building, I was met by Lori and Russ, who were trying to hail a cab, to retrace their steps in search of me. When they learned that I had been snatched from Pappy's, we went to the police. That experience was surreal. Perhaps I'll share another time.

So that's my tale of alien abduction. I was the alien, a foreigner in Korea. I was the one abducted.

Thankfully, no probes were involved.

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