Lost in Translation…. and Soju


It was a cold and windy night in Incheon as I walked down the dark streets close to my apartment. Earlier in the day my fellow teachers had pulled me into the break room and asked in broken English, “Daniel, are you free tonight? We are going out for CheeMek.” After they had explained that CheeMek was a combination of Fried Chicken and Beer; I wholeheartedly agreed to the proposition. It was approaching eight at night, the time we agreed to meet, and multiple scenarios swam through my head. ‘Would my drinking tolerance be high enough to match the Koreans or would I be under the table by the end of the night? Is it insulting to deny a drink or should I just pound away and hope for the best? What happens if I throw up on my principal?’

I shrugged away my concerns and met up with my coworkers at the chicken café. We started light, only with two shots of Soju, before the fried chicken was placed before us. Let me explain, the dry fried chicken in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area compared to the delicious Fried Chicken that these beautiful Koreans can make, tastes like Mad Cow in comparison. If these two chickens were placed inside a boxing ring then the mouth-watering Korean chicken would KO my dear shriveled Washingtonian chicken in the first round. So it goes without saying that I ate more than my stomach hungered for… which I soon learned was a grave error.

“Oh, Daniel, you can eat so much. That means you can drink a lot. Let me pour you another drink,” the gym teacher exclaimed while her cheeks were reddening by the second. Shot after shot was poured and the night was quickly turning into a blur. The scene from Rocky ran through my head when he was dazed and confused after a powerful right hook. I knew that if I did not have a quick counter punch then I would be down for the count. I thought to myself, ‘what could I do to get these silly Koreans on my level. Come on, Daniel, think!’ Suddenly, a magnificent light bulb appeared above my head and I knew how I would bring glory back to this faltering American.

“So, do you guys want to learn some American drinking games?” Such a simple and humble sentence if said earnestly, but a devastating one if carried out. “Of course we want to learn American drinking games,” my coworkers agreed together. I went on to teach them popular activities that are played in America; such as Kings, Card Golf, and Thumper. I will express it clearly that this was an effective counter punch that had my coworkers feeling and looking quite red in the face. It was not long before one Korean felt comfortable enough with his English that he decided to ask me a sincere question.

“How many girlfriends have you had?” he probed. “Oh, a fair amount. I had some throughout High School and College,” I answered. “No, no. Sorry, sorry. I mean, how many lovers have you had?” he probed again. As he said the word ‘lovers,’ he made sure to use hand gestures so I would understand the question. I understood. I also could not help but laugh as the question would never be asked in America by a coworker. The other teachers, excluding my coteacher who lived in America, wondered why I was laughing because apparently that is a common question to ask in Korea. My coteacher explained that Americans consider that a private affair and that westerners would not ask colleagues questions of that nature.

Dinner had come to an end and we said our farewells, telling one another that we will see each other again in eight hours when school starts. I walked home with bright lights blaring and horns honking from every direction. I thought to myself, “This is Korea.”

Daniel Calabrese

Daniel Calabrese

EPIK Teacher in Incheon

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