One of my favourite things about Korea is the garden furniture often set up outside Seven Eleven, turning them into probably the cheapest bars in the city.
There’s one really close to my apartment, set one road back from some major traffic, it’s neighboured by a bibimbap restaurant and looks out over the back of some other kind of restaurant that I have no desire to ever eat in ,based on the things I’ve seen going on from that sweet spot by the Seven.
It was the end of my working week and I stopped off there, it being nicely positioned at the halfway point in the three minute walk from the station to my front door, to ease into the weekend with a beer. I pulled up one of the red plastic chairs, cracked a beer, lit a smoke and took up my notebook.
I was getting to the end of that first, freedom beer when I became aware of a shape, a figure, hovering nervously at the edge of my vision. Looking up I saw a tall, young kid- polo shirt, chinos and those thick-rimmed specks so popular, and so fitting, in Asia. Removing my earphones I returned his uncertain smile and said “Hi”. I noticed then his friends, stood further off to one side, four or five kids in their late teens or early twenties, at once trying to disassociate themselves from him and any potential embarrassment, while simultaneous hanging on the moment.
The “Envoy” explained that they needed my help with some English. His friend had made a movie and they wanted to add some sort of caption and could I help?
As soon as I agreed, one of the group, the director, was jettisoned from the others and shoved my way. He was a goofy looking kid, yet possessed of an artistic intensity and integrity. He had shoulder length hair and wore his baseball cap inverted. He produced a Macbook from nowhere with a magicians flourish and placed it in front of me. The movie he’d made featured a kid, another of the group, shot mostly from behind and above- a GoPro camera fixed to his backpack- wandering around Seoul high-fiving strangers. It was a simple and wonderful idea. I loved it.
Once they had me hooked the rest of them all dashed over, surrounding me.There’s a kid with his hair fringed in a wide slash over one eye, wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the periodic table beneath the slogan “SCIENTISTS DO IT PERIODICALLY”; another, the star of the movie, was a pale collection of effeminate limbs and joints. He has a fluffy bundle of hair that seems to be exploding from beneath the rim of his baseball cap (right way round but pushed slightly back on his head). He’s wearing black denim cut-offs and a baggy white t-shirt that I think (should) read “FRANKIE SAYS RELAX”, but doesn’t. His whole style seems cut and pasted from a decade that was years gone before he was born.
Between them they cobbled together their English to explain in fractured sentences and heartfelt ideas what they wanted to say. I pulle dout my pen and notebook and began to fill in the cracks, smooth out the language and hopefully give them something they could use.
My first draft gets translated back to the group, there’s some discussion in Korean and then ideas for change are passed back. I write a second, something about how we’re all just friends waiting not to be strangers- my second beer gone, the third begun- and there’s an awkward moment as the words get translated. The moment stretches as the group consider it for a moment, asking for further clarification from ‘The Envoy” and then everyone breaks out smiling, happy. Apparently, I’d nailed it.
With the same legerdemain as he’d produced the laptop, the director hands me a bottle of cola and a box of chocolates, his intensity dropped in favour of this goofy, clownish smile. I accept but also demand a photo:-
Job done they leave to prowl the streets, directionless but free in their youth, close in their friendship, the night holding all the possibilities in the world, including the one we had shared.
(You can see the video here- although, unless they translated it in to Korean it appears they decided not to use my text afterall.)
Smoke Break. Seoul. S. Korea. July 2014
There’s a restaurant of sorts and a 7/11 right out back of it. The 7/11 is equipped with an array of plastic B&Q garden furniture so that you can sit and enjoy your beer in a grimy backstreet amidst the tobacco and abattoir fugue that emanates from behind the scenes. Kitchen porters dash back and forth. They run outside and unload delivery trucks, hose them down and fling vinyl sacks of body parts inside. Every now and then, one of them runs outside for a moment of respite. None of them smoke a cigarette through, just a few furtive puffs and with a flick into the street it’s gone and theyve donned gloves and back to work.
"It’s been a long week". Seoul, S. Korea. July 2014
Is it the way I tell ‘em?
I’ve been told by several people over the years that I’m a good raconteur. I love that word- raconteur*.
Anyway, I suppose it stands as some testament to my ability when people begin to take my tales and anecdotes and repeat them as their own. Now, this would be fine, I suppose, if I didn’t know about it. I mean what you don’t know can’t hurt you, right?
What really irks me however, and this has happened more than you’d think, is when people begin to pass their stories off as their own WHEN I’M THERE! Have I told them the story so well in the first place that I have somehow made them believe that they were there, that it is their own? Or have they passed it off as their own so many times before that when they told it again in my presence they have actually forgotten it was mine to begin with?
The first time this happened, I was sat in an izekaya with a friend and a few other folk and he began recounting the tale of his flight to Tokyo all those years before. I listened intently as I love to hear a good story as much as I like to tell one but very quickly I got this sickening feeling creeping up my spine, like some spider made from the feeling of tin-foil on fillings.
The (long) story (short) involved all us soon-to-be-teachers hitting the inflight booze pretty hard until the crew gave us free run of the galley leading to us sleeping the rest of the way and this one annoying ginger kid puking up all over himself.
As my friend was telling ‘his’ story he mentioned a ginger kid hitting the sauce, he came up with sound bites that were central to my own retelling of the story, even the details that I had used in the telling. Without a doubt he was telling MY story. He had never been on that flight, had never seen the kid slumped against the bulkhead covered in his own sick, his glasses squashed awkwardly on his face. He didn’t know that the flight attendant who’d spoken to me was a pretty woman in her late 30’s or any of the other minutiae that I could recall, having been there, but had left out of the story as they were unimportant.
The audience were laughing in all the right places, he had my timings pretty much down too, and I just sort of smiled. In my head I was screaming “WHAT. THE. FUCK?” What was he thinking? Did he REALLY believe he’d been there? Did he feel even slightly guilty telling my story in front of me? Would he realise half-way through and a knowing guilt slip into his voice? - I spitefully hoped for the latter. I thought about challenging him, asking him for some of the details that only I could’ve given but thought better of it, he was my friend, after all. But at the same time I felt so betrayed! A theft had occurred. He’d stolen my story, he’d stolen a bit of my life! I tried to console myself by seeing it as a compliment, a tribute to my ability to tell a good tale.
But it happened again, it’s happened a few times over the years, different people, different stories, but that first time is the one I remember the most. Since then I’ve dealt with it in different ways- I’ve challenged the person for more information (that they don’t have or answer incorrectly, as I point out), or I’ve simply told them, as soon as that eerie familiarity creeps into their words, “I think you’ll find this happened to me, not you”.
But I’m always left wondering- do they really believe when they first start to regale their audience that this is truly their story? That’s the part I can’t quite understand.
In a weird 21st-century-kind-of-way, I’ve also noticed the same thing happening across social media. People have stolen my status updates- I don’t mean they have ‘shared’ them or anything, I mean they have taken my updates, reworded them slightly and passed them off as their own, perhaps forgetting that they will appear, like a slap in the face, in my newsfeed.
The old adage is that everyone has a story. Actually, everyone has lots of stories but some of us are just a lot better at telling them than others. If storytelling’s not your forte then leave it to those that can. Go live your life, don’t steal other people’s just to make yours more interesting.
*Admittedly, the first time someone said this word at me I simply smiled and said ‘thanks’ before scurrying off to look up what it meant…
Som is waiting by the bike, trying perhaps to grab a moment between fares- time enough for a glug of water, a cigarette, or to shoot the shit with the others like him- but some of us are wanting to get away.
I signal with a barely imperceptible twitch of my index finger, but this is how it’s done, and even amidst all the other bodies spilling out of the station, Som notices.
This is his pickup, his patch and he’s driven me before. He’s got a thousand destinations memorised, and the faces and prices that go with them. I hop on the back of his bike, the shifting gears kind, and while it might not look like much Som knows every inch of it, has tweaked the engine, has polished the body work, has scratched and dented every inch of it in time. I wedge my bag between me and the grubby orange back of his tunic. There’s a symbol, a swirl, an incomprehensible sigil to my eyes. It certifies him as ‘official’, or perhaps it denotes his territory, or his gang affiliation but this is Thailand and those definitions are likely to blur, and I’m not sure how it works with these guys.
I smell the oil and sweat of days and bikes and heat, as well as the faint whiff of a carefully applied pomade. His hair is a neatly styled bouffant, coiffured to give him the look of some oriental henchman from a bad 80’s flick, straight out of Central Casting, but this is now and my life is in his hands. He’s missing some wraparound shades.
Gunning the bike into life with a flick of his wrist and a jerk of his flip-flopped foot, he slides us effortlessly into the molten river of twilight traffic. I’m plugged into justice-white earphones, my shuffled up soundtrack for the ride is Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Som’s earphones are tarmac black and I wonder what his soundtrack for this journey is. The disparity between our journeys- driver and driven….
The assembled cars and buses crawl painfully up and down six lanes of traffic but through this grid-locked, grid-like maze a swarm of bikes buzz and flit around. I see his face, caught for an instant in the mirror, caught in the harsh white flash of a tail light, changing the tone from twilight shadows to a sinister red, his jaw is working feverishly on a wad of gum- wired on M-150 (Red Bull’s stronger, scarier brother (Don’t trust a drink that has a number instead of a name!). The muscles in his jaw are firmer, more pronounced than the ones in my arm. He could probably bite through the traffic in his way if he wanted to.
His thumb is tipped with the eerie talon of a fingernail, he jabs at the indicator, a half nod to order amongst the chaos, and we weave around taxis, trucks and tuk-tuks; there’s pick-ups laden with the sun-stained labourers, towels round their faces to fend off the exhaust fumes; buses filled with half-dead commuters who loll out of the windows.
He never hesitates, never misses a beat. He’s man/machine following his tarmac-trapped destiny. This is what he does, this is all he does.Som is a master of the road, but overly cocky. He lives at the wheel and breathes only the road (but I can’t help but think he’ll die that way as well). He jams the throttle, slipping the bike like a knife into the ribs of this gridlocked mess; he works the road, he works his jaw and Cobain is screaming in my ears and I could keep driving forever, tell Som to just keep driving…
The traffic gets deeper and denser as we approach my destination but Som finds roads within roads, and when they all run out-without missing a beat- he hops up onto the pavement, dodging pedestrians and street stalls and STOP.
Dismounting, I hand him a note and he’s already away, back into a sea of tail lights, exhausts and folding darkness- night rider.
Original Text 26.01.13 Bangkok/ Photo Dec ‘13. Ha’noi.
This is Victor.
I’ve met Victor a couple of times, or at least seen him around. He can be found in bars all over town peddling his wares; little phone-strap trinkets strung from his fingers, representing all the signs of the Chinese zodiac, although this time his waistcoat was also clipped up with all manner of tat and he had some silver elephants dangling from his right digits to complement the menagerie on his left.
He speaks with a slight, lispy overbite and a clipped, almost colonial, accent. His English is impeccable.
I’ve seen him around before, even bought one of his talismans before, a night long ago with a long-ago girl amidst floods and confusion. Tonight, Rumjuggler and I try and try to resist his pitch, even as he tells us he does this to support his crippled, 94-year-old mother. Ultimately we fail and I invite him to sit with us a while, to share his story. He tells us how lucky we are to travel; he argues that the Anglo-Saxons are the oldest civilisation on earth, until we tell him otherwise and then he posits that they’re at least the most interesting. He asks us why we ‘fled’ England and nothing we murmur feels good enough on my own tongue, except to me, except to Rummy- who knows how I feel because he feels it too.
We buy some of his charms.
Victor tells us his grandparents fled China, way back when, they took a boat, looking for a better life- only a pillow each and a mosquito net between them. Nothing else. He tells us he used to work for an air-con/ refrigerator company, working his way up to ‘Credit Supervisor’ despite only having a high-school education. His English is self-taught.
The company ran out of business in the 90’s but he’d gotten out before then, decided to go his own way and be his own boss. I had to respect that. His favourite thing about his work now is getting the chance to interact with so many people, getting to practise his faultless English and eking out a living as his own man for him and his mother.
I’ve seen him before, I’m sure I’ll see him again.
On the inside, looking out. Bangkok. October 2013