In the middle of the tour of the hostel two drunk men walk in. Keun Woo gestures towards one of them and giggles, he is my boss! They smell like soju, and they want to know where I’m from. Pangap Sumnida, I say as they are leaving. Nice to meet you.
Everything shifts then. They come back and surround me somehow, even though there are only two of them. They want to know everything.
Do you know Korean?
Only a little.
Do you believe in…. Korean philosophy?
They want to teach me about Chi. We sit at a low table, and Keun Woo’s boss sets up six cigarettes in a row. The other guy, who Keun Woo just refers to as the painter, rubs his hands vigorously on his cheeks and waves his hands at the cigarettes like an esoteric healer, trying to move them without touching them. His friend leans over conspiratorially and says into my ear: his Chi is very strong. He raises his eyebrows. But when the painter finally succeeds in knocking one of the cigarettes over, everyone thinks he cheated. Keun Woo stuffs tissues up his nose and binds his mouth with a dish towel from the hostel’s kitchen so we can be sure he’s not breathing the cigarettes down. The Swedish girls I’m supposed to be sharing a room with stumble out and look horrified.
The boss and the painter consult with each other so intensely that I always think something huge is about to happen, but they always just set up the cigarettes again, rub both cheeks, and try to knock them down. I try to do it myself but apparently my Chi is not strong at all. They laugh. They teach me how to say “Chi.” The beginning consonant is somewhere between a “G” and a “K”–I have it all wrong. They try to read my personality in my face. That is part of Korean philosophy, they tell me. The painter shows me a translated word on his Smartphone: “pure, genuine, real.” Suddenly I feel like crying.
I should have learned so much more Korean.