Summer of Soju

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It’s a Thursday evening and I’m waiting for Joey and his lady friend to come and pick me up from Duryu park. I’ve spent most of the day seeking refuge from the sun, reading beneath the shade of an oak tree, occasionally glancing up from a page to watch old people march around the pond as part of some exercise class.

But now, as I’m waiting by the main road, a heavy rain starts to fall and Daegu suddenly erupts into madness; Koreans scurry for cover like headless chickens, umbrellas get turned inside-out and car tires skid across the road as if it’s made of ice.

The rain begins to saturate me, so I run back into the park, down a hill and across a path to a sheltered bench that I saw on my way out. Through the rain, I see three old ladies sprinting towards me with their hands above their heads, panting like dogs as they arrive at the shelter. They’re about to take a seat next to me but instead choose to remain standing when they notice the bench is wet. I take a tissue out of my bag and hand it to them, and the old ladies bow their heads as they wipe the bench clean.

The four of us look onwards at the chaos consuming the park, at the leaves being blown into people’s faces and the frogs being thrown out of the pond as the water overflows, all in the comfort of our very own private shelter.

Joey calls me some fifteen minutes later, telling me they’ve arrived in a yellow Hyundai by the park entrance. I bid farewell to the old ladies and trudge out of the park, my feet squelching in my shoes as I battle back up the hill.

I reach the gates and see a faint glimmer of yellow - a beacon of hope - glowing through the fog and rain. I rush towards the car and the window slides down; and there she is, Mimi, gazing from the driver’s seat, her soft blue eyes like a pair of sapphires.

I almost forget about the rain.

’Leon, you’re soaked,’ she cries as I tumble into the car.

‘I know,’ I shiver.

She starts the engine and cranks up the heating. ‘I’m Mimi, by the way.’

‘I know,’ I say again, and the car jets off.

‘Right.’ She giggles. ’How are you, then? Besides this awful weather, enjoying Korea so far?’

‘Yeah.’ I nod. ‘It’s an interesting place.’

‘Oh yeah?’ She glances at me. ’What have you guys been doing? Besides drinking soju?’

‘We went to Busan last weekend,’ Joey answers. ‘Went to a jimjilbang.’

‘You did?’ She laughs. ‘Just the two of you?’

And Justin.’

Right… and that makes it less weird, I guess?’

She turns the car onto a steep hill and I gaze out of the back window.

The city lights twinkle like stars in the distance.

’It was fine,’ Joey insists.

‘Yeah,’ I smirk, ‘and dare I say a little fun?’

‘Sure,’ she snorts, turning another corner.

‘Where are you taking us, then?’ I ask her, leaning my head forward.

’Oh, this nice little spot that not many people know about. It’s just a GS25 on top of a hill, really. Maybe some people know that… but most people don’t know that they actually do pretty good food up there. And you get a beautiful view of the city.’

‘I’ve never been,’ Joey says, raising his hands, ‘so don’t blame me if it’s bad.’

’Well, don’t praise him if it’s good, either.’ Mimi winks over her shoulder. ’Praise me.’

Mimi parks the car on top of the hill, in front of the glowing GS25.

I stretch my arm out to feel the rain, much lighter now, and look over the hill to see the clouds gently fading away.

A few Korean teens stumble around the GS25 entrance, drinking, laughing, dancing. ‘Annyeongahaseyo,’ they all say as we walk past.

Mimi heads straight to the back of the shop to put in an order.

Joey rests his chin on her shoulder. ‘What are we getting, then?’ he asks.

’It’s a surprise,’ she says, batting him away, and soon enough a lady from behind the kiosk delivers three bowls of kimchi noodle soup.

We slurp them outside, gazing upon the city; the glowing buildings, the flashing signs; it all feels so distant up here, like a murmur in the background.

‘Good, huh?’ Mimi smiles at me.

‘Mmhmm.’ I smile back. ’Great.’

’Have you been to any other bangs, then?’ she asks. ‘Besides the jimjilbang?’

‘Well, we went to a games one the other night. And that weird fishing place, if that counts.’

‘Ha!’ She turns to Joey. ’You took him there?’

‘Of course.’ He grins proudly. ‘This trip is all about new experiences, however odd they may be.’

‘Right!’ Mimi giggles. ’Well, you know what my favourite bang is?’

‘What?’ I ask.

‘Norebang!’

‘What’s norebang?’

’Oh, it’s awful,’ Joey frowns. ‘A low tier bang, for sure.’

’Well, I like it,’ Mimi defends, placing a hand on her chest. ’It’s karaoke, basically, in private little rooms. But the best thing about it is you can bring your own drink. Now, what is so bad about that, Joey?’

’Sure, it sounds great… but you forgot to mention all the terrible songs your friends choose!’

‘Hey!’ She blushes. ’Well, that is kind of true. But that’s just because I go with my Korean friends. They love K-pop.’

Joey shakes his head. ‘It’s a nightmare.’

‘Yes…’ Mimi sighs, ’perhaps it is, sometimes. But they have, like, thousands of songs!’

‘Thousands, eh?’ Joey smirks. ‘A real operation then, is it?’

‘Yep…’ She rolls her eyes for me to see and lights a cigarette. ‘It’s a full-blown operation.’

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