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John Buckley's Blog
Beer and brawls before Beijing - a Vailite's Olympic stories from China's underground
Our trip to China may not have involved the typical cultural sites, but what I saw will likely be burned into my memory forever.

Beer and brawls before Beijing - a Vailite's Olympic stories from China's underground

By John Buckley

August 25, 2008 —  As I sit here watching the Beijing Olympics closing ceremonies, it occurs to me that it’s high time to get my blog out on the trip to China I took the week before the Olympics even started. If procrastination were an Olympic sport, I sir, would be a Phelps-like icon.

For those of you who have been following my blog for the last couple years, you may remember entries about wild boar hunting in Borneo, climbing the tallest mountain in South East Asia and traipsing off into the unknown with a Burmese monk in Myanmar. So you might think that what follows might be an interesting account of backpacking along the Great Wall, studying kung fu with some Shaolin Monks or getting back to nature in the scenic Tiger Leaping Gorge. Well, I’ve got news for you, I did none of that.

In fact, on this trip to China, I did essentially two things: got drunk and laid on the beach; not necessarily in that order. But along the way, some pretty hilarious things took place, so here you go.

This trip to China took place during our summer vacation. Though children back in the States enjoy a three month summer vacation, the children in Korea get to enjoy a grand total of three days off from their rigorous hakwan schedule in the summer. So short on options, but wanting to get out of Korea for a few days, my English friend Mark and I decided on Qingdao, China. Qingdao is only a short flight from Seoul, is the site of the Olympic sailing events and is also the city that brews Tsingtao Beer (pronounced the same as Qingdao, yet inexplicably spelled with a T). When Mark proposed this plan to me, he had me at, “Tsingtao Brewery.”

Our first few hours in Qingdao got off to an ominous start. As we took an exploratory walk down towards the beach, we quickly became aware that we were being stared at by nearly every passerby. Now, living in Korea, we’ve become quite accustomed to being stared at by the locals. But in Korea, the stares almost always seem to be an interested and friendly stare. The stares we were getting during our first few hours in China bordered on intimidating. We couldn’t tell for sure, but we were pretty sure we were on the verge of getting our asses kicked. The stare that worried me the most and got us moving the quickest was from one rather tough looking dude who I noticed stare at us, who then tapped his buddy on the shoulder before pointing directly at us. For a country about to host the entire world, we joked that they better get used to the sight of these strange looking creatures. Maybe we just weren’t wearing our Right Guard that day, because luckily, all the people we met after that first walk turned out to be amazing (though we did continue to feel a bit like a circus act, with strangers stopping us to take our pictures with them).

Early on in our trip we discovered a place literally called “Beer Street”. Naturally, this jumped to the top of our list of cultural sites we had to see in Qingdao. Unfortunately, due to this discovery, we really saw very little else during our stay in China. One restaurant/bar in particular became our second home during our stay. We found it on the first night, befriended the rather large staff and soon became the Norm and Cliff (TV show Cheers, for my International readers) to the Chinese Sam Malone and his bar of Asian Diane’s and Woody’s. Over the next couple days, we became fixtures at this place and for some unknown reason developed the tendancy to shout a Fonzie-eque "Heeeyyy!" everytime we entered.

Beer and brawls before Beijing - a Vailite's Olympic stories from China's underground
Our new best friends in China

On our first night there, we helped one of the employees edit the English menu he’d been working on. Of the many items on the menu that we looked over, we got a chuckle out of donkey being on the menu. So naturally, on our second night (and subsequently on the third), we decided we had to give it a go. Little known fact, donkey is actually quite delicious! Then again, it was covered with so much spicy sauce that it tasted identical to the lamb and deer we also ordered.

The other great thing about this place was that it gave us our own special Olympic preview of China’s strength and shirtless determination to sporting excellence. Every night we found ourselves engrossed in shirtless competitions and feats of strength like arm-wrestling and push-up contests. Sadly, we were no match. And while I’m on the subject, I should note that Chinese men have a strange obsession with going shirtless. Even when they’re wearing their shirts, they seem to feel the need to air out their belly by pulling their shirt up below their armpits. It sounds strange, but after a few days, we decided ‘what the hell’ and joined right in. I have to say, hanging the belly out may look bad, but it feels so good!
Mmmmmm, donkey
On our second night, after eating donkey and drinking at this bar, we asked our new friends if they knew of anywhere to go dancing. So when the bar closed, we packed into a few cars and headed out on the town. Unfortunately, the dance club they took us to was closing down for the night. After being in Korea, a land where the bars never close, China surprised us with a very early closing bar scene. Unfazed, our new friends took us to the Chinese version of a Norae Bang (karaoke room). Soon, we were joined by nearly the rest of the restaurant’s male staff, including the owner.

Beer and brawls before Beijing - a Vailite's Olympic stories from China's underground
Courtney from Canada and Gillian from Scotland were the only two ladies in a room filled with sweaty, shirtless men.

Of course, this night quickly erupted into debauchery with us joining in on the shirtless trend while belting out Western songs as our new buddies jammed out to the Chinese hits. It may be true that we didn’t visit a single museum or palace in China, but this night will be burned into my memory for far longer than any long-winded scenic tour.

The one “cultural” outing we did make while in China was our tour of the Tsingtao Brewery. After walking through a museum of the history of the brewery, we ended up in a beer sampling area. This wouldn’t really be worth noting (we did drink enough Tsingtao to make China re-think Communism, after all), except for the fact that we were then joined by a rather large group of Chinese tourists, many of whom had children with them. Still not really worth noting, until I mention that all of these children joined in on the beer sampling. I’m telling you, if you haven’t seen an eight-year old wandering around with a beer in one hand and a bag of nuts in the other, well you just haven’t lived my friend. I know it’s disturbing, but quite entertaining, I assure you. In fact, the only thing that could have provided me with bigger sense of shocked amusement would have been if a monkey knife-fight had broken out over a racist comment about proboscis monkeys being less smelly than macaques. DESC OF PHOTO

Later on, when they gave us a pitcher of beer to enjoy at the end of the tour, we were joined by a father and son at our table. The father looked proudly on as his small child gave a beer cheers to a Western dude, me. Capping off this strange foray into different cultural norms, I watched as a young boy slammed his beer down to empty and then as his mother refilled his glass from hers. To quote Homer Simpson, “To alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s little problems!” Get used to that phrase kid, I think you’re gonna need it later on in life.

Speaking of drinking in China (wait, I think I’ve been doing that during this entire blog), the Chinese we met seemed to only know one way to drink. . .down in one! Now, I’m not one to avoid a cheeky pint or two, but I’m not accustomed to having to chug every beer that is offered to me. I can’t tell you how many people offered us a beer and a cheers, only to expect us to slam it down with them. One or two of these is fine, but this followed us nearly everywhere we went. No wonder the trip was a blur!

The crowning evidence of this came during our visit to an Olympic Village party site. We just kind of happened upon this place and decided to stick around because there was beer a flow’in and hot models walking a runway. After settling in with a couple beers we really took notice of the fact that these Chinese people were really packing down the beers. They even had several “beer chugging” contests up on stage, where contestants were given 1.5 liter pitchers half-full and were expected to chug their contents as quickly as possible. This seemed impressive, until the third round where a robust Chinese guy insisted that they chug full 1.5 liter pitchers. Thinking no way this was possible, we watched in amazement as the brazen lad chugged the pitcher as quickly as you could pour it on the ground.

As this was happening, the atmosphere was clearly getting quite raucous. As a Chinese pop singer sang to the crowd with people dancing on the tables and chugging beers, Mark told me he had a feeling something bad was about to go down.

I think his exact words were, “I have a feeling something illegal is about to happen.” Not two minutes later, a fight broke out in the back of the crowd. The next thing we knew, pockets of fighting began erupting all around the crowd. Beer bottles were being broken on heads, people were bleeding and women were jumping in the middle of it all trying to pull their husbands/boyfriends away, some taking swings themselves. In America, this would be broken up by the cops in about five minutes, but the police here seemed to just let it all go on. They did end the show and turned off the lights, but the fighting continued for probably an hour. During this whole thing, we didn’t move. We just sat their drinking our pints talking to a random drunk stranger who had plunked himself down at our table. At one point, a kind waiter came over and told us not to leave as it was quote, un-quote, “maybe a little dangerous for us to leave”. Point taken, we sat and just watched the excitement wondering if this was all just training for the Olympic party scene a week later.

All-in-all, I know I’ve had more culturally enlightening trips in the past, but this one proved to be among the most entertaining. As an American, we and the Chinese certainly have our differences, but I will concede this: in the world of drunken, sweaty, shirtless arm-wrestling, China is clearly the best! Much respect to China, as the Chinese people were incredibly friendly, accommodating and hilarious.

P. S. – Free Tibet!

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Vail travel: being a wayguk (foreigner) is way fun
Just before the cops showed up and said "Oh!. . . "
John Buckley 

Vail travel: being a wayguk (foreigner) is way fun

By John Buckley

July 21, 2008 —  There’s just something about being a “foreigner” that suits me. I realize that seems like a strange title to give oneself, but that’s what the Koreans call us, and frankly I’ve come to embrace it. Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world, so indeed, being one of a handful of white faces strolling around in an Asian city of a couple million makes a guy stand out just a tad. We, a motley crew of English teachers from around the English-speaking world, are unavoidably foreign, and though I have been here eight months now, everyday seems to bring a new reminder of this fact.

This point was driven home to me even before I stepped foot on Korean soil. While making arrangements via email with the director of my school to meet her at the airport, I naively asked, “Is there a specific place in the airport I should plan to meet you?” Her response came in a single line, “Don’t worry, you’ll be the only white guy coming out of the airport, I’ll see you.” – Gloria

Not yet accustomed to this foreign status, I stumbled out of 14-hour flight groggy and worried that I might be spending my first jet-lagged hours in Korea sitting on a street corner yelling the single name I knew in Korea . . . Gloria, help me! Adding to my anxiety was the fact that upon exiting the baggage claim, I noticed that there were in fact, two other foreigners walking nearby. However, one looked like a Texas oilman wearing a 10-gallon hat and a cheap suit (I felt pretty confident Gloria wouldn’t think that was me) and the other was a muscle-bound soldier-looking type. Now, I do photograph extremely well (I had earlier emailed a single image of myself looking kind of buff, if I do say so myself), but I was pretty sure Gloria wouldn’t mistake me for this guy either.

Although her math was slightly off, true to her world, I exited the baggage claim suddenly awash in only Asian faces and indeed saw a woman I soon learned to be Gloria, walking immediately in my direction.
Since that first night of experiencing life as a foreigner, I’ve come to appreciate the daily quirks that come with this title. These are just a few of my favorites, though I’m sure I could come up with many more:

“Hello, how are you? I’m fine thanks, and you?” – No matter where I go in my daily routine, I am greeted with this phrase by no less than five separate children in any given 30 minute span. Though I do feel the urge to teach them a slightly varied list of other greetings (maybe something like: how’s it hang’ in bro? What up homey? Or even a more honest; how are you? I’m freaking terrible man; my parents make me go to school like 80 hours a week! And you?), I none-the-less enjoy these exuberant exchanges that take place everywhere I go. Though it’s sometimes difficult to respond to each and every one of these encounters as I whiz by on my bike on my way to school, I get a kick out of the giggles and excited mumblings when I do respond, so unlike some of the other more seasoned (i.e. grumpy) foreigners, I always try to give them a shout out.

Vail travel: being a wayguk (foreigner) is way fun
The "round Bruce Willis" conducting late night international relations. You can't always trust a mystery liquor poured from a Budweiser bottle, then filtered through a hot chili at crotch level of a Korean man. This stuff tasted like spicy lighter fluid, but our new friend was quite insistent on showing us good hospitality.
John Buckley 

You get to be 5-years old again (take that self-reliance!)– Raise your hand if you thought being a five-year old was the greatest thing on Earth? If your hand isn’t up, get back to work you titan of industry. When you were five, people went out of their way to do things for you; they kindly overlooked your foolish mistakes and they let you take a lot of naps. Well that’s a lot like what being a foreigner in Korea feels like.

As one example, at many of the restaurants in Korea you get to cook your own meat right at your table. They either fire up gas burners under a Teflon plate, or bring a bucket of smoldering wood chunks and place them under a grate in the center of your table. It seems like this should be easy enough to manage on your own, but for some reason, every time we eat at one of these places the owner ends up hovering over the table turning the meat, cutting it up with scissors and then placing it in a side dish in front of us. What service you might think! Yeah, that’s what I thought the first couple times this happened.

Then I began to look around and noticed that this particular service was not on offer for all of the Koreans in these restaurants. So I’ve since deduced that something we’re doing is either not cooking the meat to their standards, or perhaps more likely, burning the crap out of their hard to clean grill pieces. Whatever the case, we generally get our own little sous chef every time we eat at one of these places. I’m still waiting for the moment where one of these proprietors will pick up a piece of meat with some chopsticks and perform the “airplane” trick to get me to eat it. That would truly be the coup de grace in the life of an incompetent foreigner.

Vail travel: being a wayguk (foreigner) is way fun
One of the many Korean barbeque restaurants. Here comes the airplane. . .
Photo by some foreign dude 

As another example, the bike that I pedal around here in Korea had the pedal break off a couple months ago. Though it would have probably been an easy fix at a local bike shop, laziness had gotten the better of me and I hadn’t taken it in to get fixed. I was just making due pedaling around with a peg sticking out from under my foot. Then one night, not long ago, I was in a local bakery near my school. The owner, who seems to have taken a liking to me, followed me outside as I mounted my bike after a bread purchase. He began pointing at the missing pedal and uttered some words in Korean that I obviously couldn’t understand. He then led me around the corner to a stairwell where an old bike was parked in the corner. He opened up a little closet and came out with a pair of pliers. Not really sure what the guy was up to, he then proceeded to pull and twist on the pedal of the old bike. Not knowing any words to inquire about what he was up to, I just watched as he pulled the pedal off of this bike and then as he screwed it onto my bike. I’m really not sure if this bike actually belonged to this guy or if he was just willing to pull off a small misdemeanor as a favor to his new foreign friend. Whatever the case, I’ve been biking around with a fully functioning bike pedal again and that guy sees 2 bucks from me couple times a week for bread.

The other beauty of reliving my kindergarten years is the naps! My work schedule consists of less than 4 hours of work from 4:40 to 8:30 pm (with four ten minute breaks); so let’s just say I’m well rested. Unfortunately I don’t get to color as much as I’d like to.

On a scale of 1-10, you automatically jump up at least 2 points – Let me tell you, if you’re ever in need of an ego boost as a pale-skinned, blue-eyed Westerner - well, head to Korea! I may not be the best looking guy west of the Mississippi back home, but when you’re told on a daily basis (albeit, mostly by 12 year olds) how handsome you are, damn it, you start to believe the hype. You might also be ready to head to Hollywood upon your return to the States as I often get compared to the likes of Kevin Costner, Owen Wilson and Nick Cage. Even my robust English friend Mark who, to put it nicely, is rather big-boned gets compared to a “round Bruce Willis”. Now, I realize that these movie stars are probably their only frame of reference, but it’s still nice to hear every once in a while. My only question is whether they think I look like a cool Bull Durham Kevin Costner or a lame Water World Kevin Costner.

On the downside, through language difficulties and different cultural norms, Koreans are also very quick to point out any flaws you might have. Just as often as I am told I am handsome and look like a movie star, I also get told that I have a wrinkly forehead, gray hairs and a big nose. At 32, my age has been guessed at anywhere from 22 to 65. It can literally be a roller coaster of emotions from minute-to-minute over here.

Cut the small talk! – Though it is a strange thing to get used to, I know that anytime I’m out and about, I don’t have to make meaningless small talk with strangers. So for those times when you’re riding in a taxi and wish the driver would shut up and let you zone out, Korea is bliss. They don’t understand you and you don’t understand them. This is kind of a double-edged sword though as there are many times you wish to the Heavens that you could get your message across or understand what is being said to you, but you oddly get used to the fact that you’re a mime walking through a crowd.

I’m freaking awesome, I can read Korean – But I have no idea what any of it means. It’s like a Shakespeare class I took in college. I could read the entire five acts of A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, but until I got to class and the teacher explained the whole thing, I had no idea what that rascal Puck was on about.

You’re Above the Law – Now, I’m sure this theory has its limits, but as far as I can tell, foreigners can more or less get away with a lot of crap as long as they’re not a danger to anybody around them. It seems that more often than not, the language barrier is often too much of a hassle to overcome. I’ve been to several parties where the police have been called and the cops had no idea what to do or say. I’m sure we didn’t win any friends with the neighbors, but the police more-or-less urged us to be quiet and left us alone for no other reason than they couldn’t tell us to shut up and go home.

I should clarify that I go out of my way to never purposefully offend my hosts in this country, but it is comforting to know that if I ever do cross an unintentional line, my best defense is ‘gee, I just didn’t understand’.
I should clarify, that I go out of my way to never purposefully offend my hosts in this country, but it is comforting to know that if I ever do cross an unintentional line, my best defense is ‘gee, I just didn’t understand’.

I don’t mean to make light of this, but it reminds me of the end of the movie Kingpin where Bill Murray’s character (Ernie McCracken) wins the bowling championship and a million dollars. . . “Finally Big Ern is above the law! I can buy my way out of anything!” Yep, being a foreigner in Korea is a lot like being Big Ern. You know you’re making an ass of yourself most of the time, but you are who you are, and you just hope you don’t get “Munson’ed” too much like this guy. . .

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I do love skiing, even in Korea
Where's Buckley? The author makes his first appreance in a Korean ski village.

I do love skiing, even in Korea

By John Buckley

January 15, 2008 —  Growing up as a young ski racer in Vail, there were certain things that we just didn’t question our coaches about. Questions like: “Why does your breath smell funny this morning?” “What’s that funny brown stuff in your teeth that you keep spitting in the snow?” -and- “Why do we have to wear these skin-tight, neon suits in below freezing weather (and more importantly, can I put a sock down there)”.

Above all, the brain buster we knew that might result in actual brain busting was “Why do we have to do this?

I do love skiing, even in Korea

I still recall one such day filled with questions that begged to be asked. Our coach Phil had made us hike up the mountain below a perfectly good chairlift. This would make us tough, we were led to believe, though I still think Phil was just having girl trouble and probably hung-over to boot. Truth-be-told, hung-over or not, coaches were just cruel bastards.

And so as we grinded to a halt and Phil instructed us to put on one ski and throw the other one in a tree well, we couldn’t help but muffle a grumbled, “You want us to ski down on one ski, why would we do this?”

Big mistake. Sensing our escalating mutiny, Phil decided to assert his power over the 15-year-olds of which he held all the power. Take that Tiffany, or whatever her name might have been. “Yeah, one ski. And unbuckle all of the buckles on your ski boots.” Damn that Tiffany.

Defiant questions still swirling in our heads, my smartass friend Trevor was not above the challenge of serving as the mouthpiece of our adolescent discontent. “Phil, when in the hell are we ever going to need to know how to ski on one ski with our boots unbuckled?” I’m sure Phil’s diatribe of an answer had something to do with being prepared for all conditions on a racecourse or some sh**. I don’t know, I wasn’t listening. I was busy listening to the voice of my 30-year old self.

“Dude, do what he says. One day you will be skiing in Korea. You’ll be on man-made snow. You’ll be on 160 cm rental skis, the edges of which couldn’t cut through a fart. Your rear-entry rental boots will be three sizes too big and the beginner skiers surrounding you will swarm like the locust on the apocalypse. You will thank this man.”

Fast-forward 15 years. I’d been chopping at the bit to go skiing in Korea for over a month now. With reports coming in from home of epic powder days and endless snowstorms, I just wanted to get out on the slopes. At the very least, I needed to humor myself and to possibly satisfy the inner turmoil that stirred in my soul as a result of leaving behind a perfectly good ski season. I had to chase my own “white dragon” (random heroin addict jargon I picked up while watching CNN International – to be clear, I’m addicted to skiing, not heroin).

I do love skiing, even in Korea

The day started early, at 5:30 a.m. to be exact - a time I should mention that I had not seen in Korea since my first jet-lagged morning on foreign soil. (Let’s face it, when you have to work at 4:40 p.m., 11 a.m. seems like such a logical time to wake up). I met up with a group of Koreans, only one of which I had vague acquaintance with. They directed me onto the correct bus and we were off on our two-hour journey to Muju Resort.

Upon arrival, my new friends helped me walk through the process of renting skis and boots. Having never really done this before, I probably would have needed help doing this were the process to be completed in English. Much to my chagrin, the racks and racks of ski boots all looked the exact same: the rear-entry rental jobbers that I consistently mocked back home. The non-skiers out there may have no idea what I’m going on about, but the skiers reading this will get a good chuckle knowing how big of a snob I’ll admit to being. When it came time to pick up my skis, I politely inquired if they might have anything a bit longer, perhaps anything newer than circa 2004. Granted there was a major language barrier to contend with, but I took the confrontational look on the rental guy’s face to mean, “160 cm, deal with it”.

The rental process behind me, I embarked towards the mountain content to be back at what I’ve always known best. Taking to the slopes, it took me a moment to get my skis under my feet. My turns slid from side to side without much grace. My feet shifted around in my boots. A small child nearly lanced me with his ski tips. The “white ribbon of death” took on a new meaning as I actually began to sense death at every turn.

But then the lessons of my youth returned to me. Phil’s goofy laugh through tobacco stained teeth echoed in my ears. Stay centered, keep your shoulders squared to the hill, be strong on your downhill ski. . . ignore the girl sending a text message while simultaneous snowboarding; poorly.

It wasn’t long before I began to get the feel for my short skis with the dull edges. The crumby rear-entry boots that were much too big (in Asia, I know!) were a challenge that was not too big to surmount. I actually began to feel good about my skiing, and more to point, began to enjoy my skiing. I can’t pretend to know good heroin from bad heroin, but I have to imagine that the addict will take either one just the same. I was skiing and I was happy for it.

At the end of the day, every skier wishes to be left with tales to tell of deep face-shots, cliffs dropped and of corduroy shredded beneath their feet. But I defy you to find me a true skier who in the absence of all of that, can’t find joy in the simplicity of making good turns, of feeling the bite of cold air on their faces and of remembering what drew them to the sport in the first place – to feel happier moving quickly along a snowy surface than standing stationary on top of it.

My coach Phil may have taught me a lot of lessons that have been long –since shelved, but there will always be one that remains. Learn to ski well and love doing it. I do love skiing.

commnet icon  1 Comment on "I do love skiing, even in Korea"


Ahern — March 11, 2008

You just couldn't stay away from your 'white dragon.' I couldn't believe it when you left the country without skis.


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When You Smell Burnt Hair, Don't Go Looking for Snacks
John Buckley reflects on Colorado sports franchises while enjoying a South Korean basketball game and going one-on-one with a little dried squid
Photo by John Buckley 

When You Smell Burnt Hair, Don't Go Looking for Snacks

By John Buckley

December 10, 2007 —  I’ll admit it; I’ve never been the world’s biggest basketball fan. I grew up in a state where the Denver Broncos ruled the land (even during seasons such as the current debacle) and one where we were then fortunate enough to be granted an NHL team that won Sir Stanley’s Cup in the first year of the Colorado Avalanche’s existence. Baseball was always fun to watch because it went well with Coors beer and this year’s Rockies-fever carried us all the way to the World Series before we got swept by the Yankees in Red Sox clothing.

Colorado basketball? I’m 31-years old and my 5-year old nephew has seen as many Denver Nugget playoff victories as I have. True, they’ve been steadily improving over the past several years with additions such Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. I’ve taken notice, but not enough to claim true fan status.

And what exactly is a Nugget? I’ve heard the term in reference to a portion of marijuana and also as a butt nugget, and that’s about it. I’d hate to hear from the lawyers at McDonald’s, so I’ll leave that one alone. But wait, there was once gold in them there hills, which is what first drew my family to the state in the 1800s. So kidding aside, I know the name has something to do with gold nuggets, though the team’s play over the years has been anything but golden. Whatever the origin, you have to admit, it was a pretty funny choice for a franchise name. So in that regard, I throw my full support to the Nuggies.

My past ambivalence towards the sport aside, when I got invited to attend a Korean Basketball League game this week, I jumped at the chance to attend. You see, I’ve come to realize that just walking outside my apartment’s door in Korea is a ripe opportunity for entertainment, regardless of the occasion. So I made plans to meet my friend Kathleen and her boyfriend Paul outside of the Daegu Shilay Che Yuk Gwan (at least that’s how it sounds), home of the Daegu Orions. With none us of possessing cell phones, this seemed a rather vague and risky set of meeting directions. That is, until I recalled my email exchange with my current boss about how I would be able to find her when she met me at the airport. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll be the only white person walking out of the airport”. As un-PC as that sounded in an e-mail, I arrived to find she was right on the money. And sure enough, the second Kathleen and Paul walked up to the arena, I spotted them with ease.

As we approached the ticket booth, we realized that the most expensive tickets were US $15, apparently not needing to pay inflated salaries to the likes of A.I , Jay Cutler or Joe Sakic. Ultimately, we settled on the $8 seats and were pleased to find our seats at mid-court about 15 rows up.

The arena itself was not as impressive as the Pepsi Center or Mile High Stadium. It had a kind of high school gym atmosphere, with the matched enthusiasm of a State Championship setting. I was hoping to spot Jimmy Chitwood walking out from beneath the stands, but he didn’t show up. Had he been there, he would have found that the rim of the hoop was exactly 10 feet from the floor, just like in good ole Hickory.

Unlike in Hickory, he would have found several thousand Koreans dancing and beating balloons together while chanting “O-ree-on-say” (Korean for O-ri-ons). I can’t say that Koreans dance only in my presence, but it’s a nice thought. Kick it...

When You Smell Burnt Hair, Don't Go Looking for Snacks
Buckley with friends Kathleen and Paul outside of the Daegu Shilay Che Yuk Gwan in South Korea

When the game got started, Kathleen and Paul explained to me that each team is allotted three foreign players, which seemed to equate to three rather large African American players on each team. Random Fresh Prince of Bel Air reference; wait for it. . .at the start of the game, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the episode of the Fresh Prince where Will joined Carlton’s Bel Air high school basketball team. West Philadelphia, born and raised - the mantra of his wealthy, skill-challenged teammates was to “just pass it to Will”. Surveying the size of the players during warm-up, this looked to be what was in store for the game that was about to be played.

Ethnocentric that I am, I kind of assumed that the American players would dominate this Korean game the way that the 1992 “Dream Team” did during the Olympics of that year. But as I watched the warm-ups, I began to see that these Koreans could actually play. I was a bit saddened that I might not get to see the Carlton dance, but held out hope none-the-less.

Truth-be-told, as the game got going, the Koreans seemed to possess the kind of quick ball-work and intensity that you now see in International play against “America’s best”. Though the Americans provided some highlight worthy dunks, it was clear that the game plans of each team revolved around much more than just “pass it to Will”. It was actually quite refreshing to see these two cultures working together and appreciating each other’s assets and brand of play.

Though the game itself was quite entertaining, the real treat for me was found in watching the scene unfold. Having been here for two months now, I frequently revel in watching Koreans (a strange and foreign culture) just enjoying themselves. I don’t do that enough at home in my own strange culture. I looked around and saw families enjoying their weekend together, couples sharing kisses under the lights and small children finding joy in salty snacks and the company of their friends and family. Ah shucks.

Though a cursory glance around yielded many familiar images to those of any sporting event at home, there was also plenty to take in to remind us that we were, in fact, not in Kansas anymore.

As we sat there and watched the game, being urged to cheer at the prodding of a male cheerleader in a red jacket and white gloves, I commented to Paul that I thought I smelled burnt hair. Wondering what might be producing this peculiar odor, I decided to endeavor to find myself my own salty snack at half-time. Without an endless concourse of choices such as could be found in the Pepsi Center, I approached the only snack bar in the vicinity. Noticing that the smell of burnt hair seemed to be emanating from the distribution of grilled, dried squid, I declared this to be one of those “when in Rome” moments and ordered my own portion.

Now I watch my fair share of culinary travel shows. The host inevitably gets served something wacky and ingests it with phrases like “very interesting”, “the texture is so unique and intriguing” and “this is the epitome of the cultural background of this country’s street food”. Without the burden of cameras trained on my reaction, I struggled through a few bites before proclaiming, “Man, this smells like burnt hair and it tastes even worse”. None-the-less, I gnawed off most of the squid’s tentacles before deciding to give the body mass a try. Big mistake. I’m writing this hours later and I’m still hiccupping up fish bait.

As I sat there gnawing on my squid, I was fortunate enough to be distracted by the half-time entertainment of belly dancers and adorable cheerleaders. The culmination of the festivities came in the form of paper airplanes littering the playing floor. Having witnessed several CU Buffalo marshmallow fights, I first assumed this to be an act of random belligerence. That is until a man took the floor with a microphone and began picking up the folded pieces of paper. Evidently, each sleek airplane was simply the delivery device of kindly notes written to the beloved O-ree-on-seys. The man collecting the numerous pieces of paper then read the hand-written notes to the crowd. The crowd roared with laughter and adoring approval after the reading of each note. I couldn’t help but wonder what these notes would have said to the 5-7 Denver Broncos (the Orions are apparently ranked 10 out of 11 teams). I don’t think they could have been read aloud to a stadium filled with families and young children.

As the second half continued, I began to question my overall ambivalence towards the sport of basketball. It was actually really fun to watch and to be a part of the crowd. Now, I can’t say this will translate to me purchasing season tickets to the Nuggets when I get home, but I will certainly make an attempt to follow more games than I have in the past. Or not, maybe I’m still on a squid high.

Whatever the case, I would certainly make the effort to attend another Orions game. Whether I’ll endeavor to join the cow-costumed fan club remains to be seen. See picture montage below.

Next up on my Korean sporting agenda: a ski trip to Muju Ski Resort with a group of Koreans. I have more than a passing knowledge of the sport of skiing and now know to steer clear of the squid snacks, so stayed tuned...

View a youTube video of the Korean Basketball League experience by clicking here.

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