Click here for Part 1. — Ed.
Above the sweet sizzle and smoke of ribs, eel and chicken gizzards everybody in the joint sensed there was trouble brewing at our table. In fact, you could have cut the tension with a knife. The noisy crowd abruptly had fallen silent. All across the room the usual crowd of patrons – fishermen, fishmongers, sidewalk vendors, cab drivers, prostitutes – all sat there frozen in a combination of morbid curiosity and anticipation. The Americans were in trouble. All hell was about to break loose.
After three hours of hard drinking at our expense “Hungry Tiger” had suddenly jumped to his feet. He stood there unsteadily and stared coldly into my eyes. Gaja! (“Let’s go!”) he ordered. His chair toppled to the cement floor behind him. A couple at the table there leaped to their feet and backed away. The manager and the help had retreated into the kitchen area, where I knew they could peer out in my direction from a safe distance through strategically-placed holes in the walls.
I was the new Peace Corps Volunteer on the island. I figured that this town, Old Jeju City, was now my town. This rib joint was my chosen sweet spot and safe zone; a place where I could toast my occasional guests over a greasy griddle of roast black pig parts and squid or, most often, just casually kick back to imbibe and tend my grill in silence while surveying the usual crowd at a distance, thinking deep thoughts. Hemingway might have disapproved of this joint, for it was not a clean, well-lighted place.
Bill from the mainland was my guest on this particular afternoon. We were surrounded by jovial folk who, though poor as church mice were really enjoying their tight bonds of friendships while cementing them in soju. In contrast, here we were, Bill and I, seated across a small table and well within range of a swift kick or a hand chop from a sullen, resentful, red-faced, well-oiled ROK Tiger Division killing machine on his way back to Seoul from the Vietnam War. I’ll just call him “Hungry Tiger” or HT here, for I didn’t catch his name; yet I clearly recall after all these years that he was hungry for a fight.
HT was particularly angry at me. “Wae geurae?” (“What’s your problem?”) I kept asking him. He spoke no English and my Korean was lousy, so my silly question repeated over and over only made him angrier as the afternoon deteriorated. Bill had become mainly an observer at this point. We were both Peace Corps Volunteers. Informal protocol was that if you were being hosted in somebody else’s town, and an awkward situation developed, you stood down and waited it out while the local Volunteer resolved the problem.
If HT had his druthers, the big fight would most likely take place outside in some dark alley, where he could do me some bodily harm, unseen, and perhaps get away with it. While I was a big palooka in those days, I was also Peace Corps Volunteer and a teacher of middle school girls.
I believed that if Peace Corps was to stand for anything during the Vietnam War era, it was patriotic service in the name of Pacifism. When taunted by strangers, those of us who were like-minded used to respond with a knowing wink that we were “lovers, not fighters” and thus ignore the taunts and carry on by refocusing our energies even harder on our volunteering. I never catered much to “explaining” Peace Corps service to outsiders in peacetime or in wartime. For me, Peace Corps was then and remains today an enigma that wears both horns and a halo. In 1973, it was what it was.
And so it was a Saturday afternoon and Bill and I had found our groove and were minding our own business when in barges Hungry Tiger, already three sheets to the wind. Soldiers on leave tend to prowl in packs so HT’s standing alone there in the doorway was from the outset, unusual. He paused there, eyes narrowing to a squint, to size up the place. Spying out no friends, he fixed his attention on Bill and I seated at my favorite table. He began to track in our direction, dragging along an empty chair. On arrival he parked it between Bill and me and invited himself to sit down. We were not off to a good start. That was three hours previous to this moment of truth. It was now approaching sundown. “Gaja!” he repeated, loudly. What to do? What to do?
I do not know where this story actually begins except to guess that it originates in some vast maelstrom of cross-cultural history and emotions too complex to fathom, and then becomes set into motion along no specific trajectory till it results in some random event like this one. Hungry Tiger and I had very little in common when we first met. We were two strangers speaking different languages colliding in a portside greasy spoon on a remote island in the northern reaches of the East China Sea. One of us was a mellow fellow and the other one was on a bender and had serious issues.
Three hours later the two strangers had determined beyond a doubt that they shared absolutely no common ground on God’s Great Earth. That was my position as I stood up to follow HT to some final resolution outside the seedy restaurant and into the underbelly of Jeju City’s Dickensian waterfront district at dusk. I don’t know how Bill felt at that moment. He had the greater experience with Korean soldiers between us. Bill had joined Peace Corps straight out of his military service in Korea. However, that particular evening, if Bill had an opinion or a better idea he kept it to himself. And so out of curiosity if nothing else he also pushed his chair back and rose to his feet to follow us outside.
It is time to describe Hungry Tiger in more detail and in context, perhaps thereby revealing why he was packing a lot of bad attitude into the rib joint that day and so hell-bent on unloading some of his pent-up hostility upon me. Picture this:
Here is an official U.S. military evaluation of its Korean Tiger Division allies in the field during the Vietnam War: “Their discipline is superb, their leadership skilled and eager, their equipment beautifully maintained, and their firebases immaculate. They plan most meticulously for field operations, gather intelligence quite intensively, and emphasize local security; hence, their casualties are very, very few and the enemy’s are many, with the ROK’s having the highest ratios of weapons captured.” Reading these plaudits while contemplating this anonymous photo reveals a lot about HT, I think. The evaluation, confirmed by the photo, reveals that Tiger Division troopers like HT proudly took the fight to the enemy and beat the enemy at its own game. These documents give credit where credit is due and deserved. The only way to capture lots of weapons from the Viet Cong was to “catch them with their pants down.” The kill ratio for the Korean Tiger Division in the Vietnam War was something like 25 to 1.