I didn’t recognize my host father’s contact by name when it was added to my Kakao messenger friends list. Instead of Hangul characters, the name “one way ticket” accompanied a cropped candid shot of the smiling adult with an overgrown teenage haircut I chalked it up to a gag he had neglected to right. Months later, however, his self-label – and the depth of our relationship – remained unchanged.
Uncomfortably huddled around the kitchen table on the first night at my homestay, my host mother introduced her husband as someone who doesn’t talk a lot unless he drinks a lot. He understood enough English to grin at the description, taking the introduction as a cue to offer me beer and see how I held my alcohol.
The man unwound, the spirits washing away the intercultural barriers and stiff demeanor he had thus far shown his wife, his children, and me. He grabbed his two boys in broad bear hugs and smiles to match; to his wife, he dusted off his English with saccharine love stories from their past. Still in my suit and drinking at a steady pace half as fast as the man I would have called a stranger hours before, the two held pleasant conversation while treating the beer cans like checkers. She’d tactfully moved them further from his reach, and he’d finish a story with a theatrical gesture, outstretching his long arms to recapture and then drain his drink in protest. At one point he spilled, and my host mother and I caught eyes – she flashed a labored smile as she beat him to upright the can.
The conversation in between each can wasn’t unpleasant, or even that awkward; though the imbalance in sobriety was just too great to ignore. Politely declining another glass or gratefully accepting one felt like a test, a test which would determine the parental faction I would befriend. Eventually, he crawled into a full-sized camping tent erected indoors. Settled, he began to play and sing along to all the English songs he knew. By now, he was on his own – his wife crushing cans and tending to the children, doing chores unaccompanied. I had been briefed on the gendered drinking dynamics where men would flex the number of soju bottles they could down, but felt unprepared and unsure as the antics continued. Literally bowing out once he began to chant a solo-chorus of “Puff the Magic Dragon” in his tent, I let the juxtaposition of the man’s warmth and his wife’s warranted hesitation trickle in and begin to color my impressions.
Every morning after sported a similar tone of caution. His wife would hastily apologize; now sober, he would remain somber if he wasn’t audibly vomiting one room over. To cover the sound, she’d blow dry her hair even though she hadn’t washed it. Those mornings, the two host brothers and I would stare at the table and eat breakfast quickly. Too young to let out a long enduring sigh but too old to ignore that their father was hungover, they nervously switched from silently playing with one toy to the next. His drinking progression was linear, reaching a pit stop of flushed character before the final destination of paralyzing, colorless sobriety.
The words the man shared between midnight and noon could be counted on one hand.
Despite his daytime gruffness, my host father was fond of music and had impressively diverse taste. Downloading all of his songs from YouTube and playing them from a USB in his car, the playlist would playfully meander from obscure 80’s Korean rock ballads to modern singles like 아메리카노 (“Americano”) before returning to ajeossi [1. Middle-aged man] hiking yodels. During the winter months when it was too cold to bike, he’d drive me to school, sitting taciturn aside from the occasional guttural throat clearing. One morning after de-icing the windshield with a once coveted “DOOM” floppy disk, he turned on the radio and unceremoniously announced, “This one, I like – Disco, but sad.” An ethereal voice preceded an upbeat electric organ tap before giving way to the sudden chorus jolt – “ONE WAY TICKET…ONE WAY TICKET TO THE BLUES.” I processed intently, both pleased that his mystery name had been discovered and wondering why, of all banal disco hits – of all music in human history – had this one aligned with the man enough to adopt it as his digital name and identity.
The Jamaican/Ghanaian/Curaçaoian collective Eruption etched their mark in history with the 1978 one-hit-wonder: “One Way Ticket”. The track is repetitive (albeit dreadfully catchy) with a cringe-worthy bridge – “Gonna take a trip to lonesome town, Gonna stay at Heartbreak Hotel”. Despite it’s dull melody and content, the tune roused my hungover host father to hum-sing at 7 AM.
I hardly saw my host father during the fall. As a third grade high school math teacher, he would often eat breakfast quickly and leave, throwing us a monosyllabic acknowledgement our way if we were lucky. He’d return home long after I’d fallen asleep. The occasional out of place shot glass or beer can cast an arms length from the bedding on the floor suggested he still had time for a “night cap.” I thought that we’d have more time to share at home together after the Suneung [2. A college-entrance exam taken in the third year of high school, equivalent to the SAT] exam and final grades passed, but was naïve to expect contact sans-liquor. Even if he came home early on the monthly school half-day called “family day,” I’d find him strewn on the floor, gambling on his smartphone as his kids galloped in circles around him. It’s not that they didn’t care; they just seemed no better able to acknowledge their father as their father could his children. His wife, too, often took to simply ignoring the man, referring to him in the third person even though he lay outstretched drinking beside us.
Direct requests for help, play or even presence, were lost on the sober man.
I return often to the rhetorical question whether he and his drinking habits were shaped by society, or whether he helps shape the societal norm himself. Perhaps because a certain level of alcoholism is culturally tolerated (if not societally inescapable), or because my host family has never known a different father, I became acclimated to his tendencies and predictable character. His balminess, his chill and the melancholic morning transition between the two.
I sensed myself searching for a label for my host father; was he a “happy drunk” or a “struggling alcoholic”? The seemingly primal, ethnocentric urge to pin down my host father’s drinking habits and assign accompanying narratives were of course entirely my own. This was his life, not a lifestyle – there was no moral judgment to be made by me, the outsider. All that could be said from flatly from my perspective was that alcohol didn’t release his character; it was his character. The fuel gave the mathematician a missing dimension. Dry, the man was dry; not stubborn or even rude, just numbingly neutral. Weekend daylight hours could come and go and I’d be unaware that he lived here were it not for our quick meals together. His children knew not to bother asking him to play – not because they were scared of him, but because they preferred more responsive playmates. His wife could count on him to vacuum the house in their vacuum of interaction. If the family wanted a their father, he needed his ticket, his fuel.
Like kindling in a fire, each drink enlivened the man, inviting the family to approach the increasing warmth. Drunk, he’d sing protest folksongs from the 70’s and share well-marinated views on atheism and socialism – with language that surprised his wife and I in depth and presence. With an emotional closeness that would evaporate with the morning sun, he’d tell me about his love for his wife and boys. Pointing a shaky finger at the boisterous younger one, he’d tell me that he saw himself in him – oh, and he was an accident, an endearing one. His spirited character at night nearly made up for his eerie daylight shell. Alcohol was his “one way ticket” to personhood, and our ticket to a temporary visit with a tender, profound, animated father.
Robert Little is a 2015-2016 ETA at Changwon Science High School in Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do.