The Fine Traditions of Korean Drinking (Jan 12)

Today was one of those days that you know you just aren’t going to fly during. The crew know it, and the officers know it because the boat is moving from one fishing ground to the next on the chase of what has been lately elusive tuna. In the high seas you aren’t allowed to fly and the net has to be covered with a tarp.

I spent the morning outside with the helicopter, nearly an hour climbing around it, poking and prodding and inspecting just to get a really good sense for the machine I was flying out here. I worked out after that, in the sun of the day it was a hot workout also. I took regular breaks to head down into the galley and top off my water bottle with cold water from the filtered system. I must have drank nearly 4 litres of water over 2 hours.

The plan was to keep working out, then send some messages using my GPS and maybe watch a movie. These days are easy days if you didn’t already surmise that much. That was the plan, it was my plan, I liked my plan, it was going to make for a good relaxed day. I finished one more set of dips (using the railing of the stairs to the helicopter landing deck as bars), challenging even more because of the changing angle of the bars as the boat rocked against the swells of the ocean, and then headed down to the galley to top off my water bottle one more time.

However this time, unlike the previous 3 or 4 times I’d been to the galley to fill my water bottle it had a few more people in it than just the cook. Our observer was peeling garlic (Koreans love garlic, they’ll eat whole cloves raw as a chaser for drinks) our deck boss and chief engineer were fiddling around with some snacks at the counter, and passing a shot glass with Johnnie Walker Black Label poured into it back and forth, the bottle resting on the counter in front of them. It was hardly noon and they’d already worked the bottle down ¾ of the way to empty.

It was about this time they noticed me and called me over, “PILOT! Pilot! Come here.” The chief engineer had asked me my name the day before, and when I told him it was Nicholas he automatically started calling me “Nicholas Cage-y-u” (I don’t know how to type the Korean accent so, you know – sound out the extra letters and you’ll get it). “Nicholas Cage-y-u, you drink.”

The engineer poured another shot into the glass. Our work day was long done befor it even began in this patch of ocean because we weren’t legally allowed to fly, or else we’d be named air pirates, and charged with international piracy – which I’m not exactly eager to add to my resume. Our company manual even states that we will get no support if we violate international law in such a manner. So, because it is a new boat and I’m trying to build new rapport with the new crew, also because I like Johnnie Walker Black Label, I accept – take the glass, raise it to the two older Koreans standing and watching and take the shot.

For those of you that have never had Johnnie Walker Black Label it is a smooth drinking whisky that once you’ve mastered you can handle in sips or shots without flinching. The cook had turned to watch as well – perhaps expecting me to twist up my face and gasp for air as the whisky burned my throat, however it didn’t burn my throat, and my face didn’t twist up. The shot was smooth, chilled, blended scotch 12 year old whisky. It was delicious.

The deck boss, chief engineer and the cook all exclaimed their surprise at my ability to take the shot straight like that, laughed, and patted me on the back. Then, as if he hadn’t noticed him in the corner of the booth peeling garlic, the chief engineer grabbed the bottle and shot glass and made his way over to the observer from Tuvalu. Then began our lesson in the finer points of Korean style drinking.

The Chief Engineer poured a shot for the observer, and then paused him from taking it to explain how if you are younger than the person pouring the shot you use your left hand to either support your hand holding the shot glass, or touch the fingers to about mid forearm, or across your ribs. If you’re pouring for someone elder than you – the same principal applies. If you’re younger than the person giving you the shot, out of respect when you take it you’re to turn your head away to the side from the shot pourer and drink.

If there is a toast involved, and the glasses are to be clinked at the end, the older drinker will tap the bottom rim of his glass against the top rim of the younger drinkers glass. So, with this fresh knowledge the observer took his shot. This lesson went on for a few more drinks between the engineer and the observer, I politely declined to be poured into the game, however stuck on to learn more about Korean style drinking. That lesson eventually ran its course, at the end of which the Chief Engineer exclaimed that he prefers the “American style” where everyone toast, and drinks together as equals without the pomp and ceremony of who is pouring and why and what and how old each person is.

The Chief Engineer likes a lot of things American style though; for instance his breakfast is not the typical Korean rice and egg and kimchi. No, he prefers to wait until the stove top is clear, and then he slices up tomatoes and other vegetables and grabs a few eggs and cooks them in a pan with the veggies making a Korean attempt on an American style omelet. The conversation turned to speaking Korean, and learning to speak it – and then he suggested that the Observer and I should each move to Korea and teach there, that English teachers who speak Korean can make exorbitant amounts of money. That the jobs in Korea pay good money.

After listening to the same track about teaching in Korea a few times I started to loose interest. So did the other two guys at the table. So I rolled out my headphones and placed one earbud in my ear – universal sign language code for “I’m done listening to you” used most often in the gym, when someone you don’t want to talk to, talks to you. In this case I was just trying to get enough attention on the act so that they wouldn’t be surprised when I stood up to leave. The observer, long since done peeling the garlic by now, also got up to excuse himself and the engineer – with his now empty bottle of Whisky, went back to making a snack.

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