“You can take this guy!” The echo of Moondoggy’s lunatic advice bounced around inside my brain for several seconds as I stared into “Hungry Tiger” (HT)’s angry, bloodshot eyes across a distance of about two feet.
“And then what?” interrupted the more self-assured voice of My Own Better Judgment. This was a voice that I trusted a lot more than I trusted “Moondoggy wisdom” – especially when my health and safety seemed at stake. Indeed, there was little or no upside to any fistfight between me and HT. Losing would be painful, at minimum. And win or lose, repercussions would ensue. Police reports, no doubt. A free trip to Seoul for me, perhaps one-way. For street fighting I could be sent back to the United States.
On the other hand, by simply abandoning my pride on the spot I would be left with a slew of more rational options. I could, for example, poop in my pants and beg HT to spare me a beating right there in front of my favorite rib joint. Absurd and unlikely? Yes – and yet a possible option.
So I am not saying that I was facing a life or death situation at that time; only that I had to act decisively. Without taking my eyes off of HT, who at close quarters and unhinged might strike swiftly without warning, I took note of that part of the crowd within the range of my peripheral vision. Sad to say, there were some familiar faces there. Many were regulars from the rib joint. In addition, I spied what I thought to be one of my students in her school uniform, most likely on an errand, who was skirting the edge of the crowd very slowly and all bug-eyed. She had probably never before seen any of her teachers in this rough part of town.
All public school teachers circa 1973 invariably wore slacks and ties and dressed professionally inside and outside of the schoolhouses. They were highly respected at that time by a public who expected them to strictly avoid the more disreputable part of town. All uniformed students from all schools paused and bowed low (girls) or paused and removed their hats (boys) whenever a teacher approached. Schoolhouse Royalty included me. Any teachers encountered out of place threatened deeply-entrenched prevailing proprieties. Once suspected of deviancy from the norm he or she could be disciplined – perhaps fired – for perceived indiscretions.
Peace Corps Volunteers who taught in public schools were also advised during training to follow these strict rules. In practice, however, many Volunteers quickly discovered at their assigned service sites that they were pretty much Teflon where strict rules and regulations were concerned. For example, most of the locals expected Volunteers, as outsiders and “guests,” to discover their personal comfort zones and to recreate themselves – but within reason – during their terms of service. In short, we Volunteers on Jeju Island enjoyed a double-standard.
The only person to ever admonish me for habitually hanging around the waterfront after dark was the KCIA agent assigned to me, who would occasionally pop out of dark doorways in the early hours of the morning to remind me that I was out-of-place. He would sometimes hail me a cab and even pay the fare while attempting to keep me out of trouble and harm’s way. So, as I stood there facing HT on that Saturday in front of my rib joint I wondered just where he might be in my time of need?
My best guess is that he was probably in the encircling crowd waiting to see what I was going to do. So, it was in those few final pregnant seconds before the birth of my decision that I also noticed that just to the right of HT, in the front row of the encircling crowd, and directly facing me, was a young apprentice from Mr. Bu’s dojo, which was located in the warehouse just across the riverbed from my rib joint. He was carrying his small supply of packaged chewing gum that he would hope to sell that evening in cheap restaurants up and down the riverbank. I sensed that he and the majority of the crowd wanted me to follow HT northward down the Sanjicheon Ditch to its mouth and thus into that most primitive zone of labyrinthine streets and alleys interfacing Jeju portside.
Civilization, in contrast, was located in the exact opposite direction, upriver, and along its right bank to where the bustle suddenly meets the hustle of the East Gate Rotary traffic hub. Hundreds of islanders entering and leaving the vast public market on the south side of the rotary would be milling about there, overcrowding the bus benches. Some fools would be braving the treacherous curbsides in order to hail one of the furtive taxis that darted in and out amidst the confusion of inbound and outbound diesel-belching buses constantly circling about at that location. Policemen and policewomen were constantly present at the rotary, for there was a police box there.
So that is where I headed. With a “Let’s go Bill!” I turned my back on HT and split the crowd while sauntering southward toward the rotary. We ignored HT, who quickly caught up with us and ran circles around us trying to intimidate us into reversing our course. As angry and frustrated as he was, he did not touch us. When we reached the rotary we found space on a bench in front of a loading bus and I sat down with Bill. HT stood right in front of me grunting “Gaja!” “Gaja!” (“Let’s go!”) while I responded “Wae geurae?” “Wae geurae?” (“What’s your problem?”) – and this went on for a good five minutes. I suggested to Bill that he might as well leave and explore the vibrant marketplace and find some fun while I would remain in the rotary with HT. We could hook up later, I suggested. “Good Luck!” he said, and wandered off. Another half-hour passed with me sitting there at the busy rotary with HT pacing in front of me and speaking unkindly at me, and to me, and about me to strangers, and generally making a pest of himself. Finally he got bored and walked off. I never saw him again, though I expected that I might.
Nothing bad ever came of my refusing to fight HT that I can tell or will admit to. I sometimes but not often review my options on that day in retrospect and imagine up all sorts of possible scenarios for decisions I did not make. Today the Korean government has taken to calling Jeju “Peace Island.” I suppose that perhaps because I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and conscious of it that I naturally and understandably opted for peace instead of war with HT of the Tiger Division on that tense afternoon back in 1973. I therefore acted wisely in the Spirit of Things to Come.