Chickens Fried by a ‘Donky,’ Reunions 8 Years in the Making

Sometimes, I feel like a teenager. I feel like I’m 21, leaving the U.S.A. for the first time on a seven-day trip to the Czech Republic. Sometimes, I’m going to South Korea for the first time.

It was almost eight years ago that last one happened. And, while sometimes it seems like no time has passed, the gray hairs becoming even more apparent in my beard and on my arms tell me otherwise.

Estevez has a few on his head, as well. This afternoon, I spoke with my Jinju, South Korea friend–whom at the time we met I called Steve–on Skype from New Zealand. Besides the occasional short email back and forth, it was the first time we have heard each other voices since 2005. Like me, he left Korea earlier than he had originally anticipated. Unlike me, he never looked back–mostly. Since leaving this country in a bit of haste in late 2005, Estevez has made a name for himself, as an actor on a popular television show, as the voice of a goddamn Power Ranger, and as a father. Needless to say, plenty of time has passed since we sat on the curb outside a bar when a dude with a cadre of young girls announced to us he was “the No. 1 Sexy Korean Guy!”

It was a fascinating conversation, catching up in our first of hopefully ongoing Skype conversations, this one serving as my first interview for a planned article series on why some expat teachers leave Korea and come back; in his case, why he didn’t. I have a few others interested in telling their stories. I’m sure there are more. My three trips to Korea and back, two of them abbreviated, have seemed to me in the past the most unique of tales to tell. But, like the grays in my hair and the internet reunions technology has blessed me the ability to have, time has a way of changing the narrative.

While we attempted to speak (there was a problem in the beginning with the sound on his end), Estevez wrote on a piece of paper something that would made immediate sense to the other: Donkey Fried Chicken.

Or, Donky Fried Chicken, for those in the know, those still here. Oh, the memories. The memories of eight years gone by, and the impermanence of life. The drunken, delicious baskets of fried chicken. The donkys.

What soon follows is a post I wrote in an old blog in April 2007, between Korea Part 1 in 2005, and Korea Part 2 in 2010. At the time I was feeling occasionally wistful for what might have been, and what had been, while working as a managing editor for a newspaper in Princeton, NJ. I wanted to make sure some of the more interesting tales not yet written got their moments.

It’s also appropriate since, on a recent walk home from my school here in Busan, I noticed a sign for Donky Fried Chicken in Jangnim. I didn’t realize they still existed! I noticed one in Songdo, near the beach, the other day as well.

Memories fade with time. In 2007, less than two years away from South Korea, details were still pretty fresh. Today, as Estevez referenced an idea we had about dressing up as celebrities to see if some unsuspecting Korean would mistake us for them (tangent: a shopkeeper near my school recently called me Bruce Willis), I thought about how, nearly a decade later, there are things I have forgotten about my first time here.

Good thing I planned ahead. Notice how I, too, misspelled “Donky,” despite it being correct this way. I’m an English teacher, what can I say? Enjoy.

Donkey Fried Chicken
April 23, 2007

My memories of South Korea are sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker. It all depends on my mind at the time, and whether or not the events that took place were strong enough to warrant memories 1 year, 5 months later.

One night, after a particularly heady bout of alcoholism at one of Jinju’s finest watering holes, a few of us not yet ready to call it a night headed out for some more beer and chow. While Jinju was a city, plenty of its eating establishments did have a curtain call somewhere in the vicinity of midnight, leaving us with not as many choices.

Walking the distance in the cold of December was beginning to wear off my buzz when we stumbled upon, in all its deliciousness, Donkey Fried Chicken.

No, I did not mean Kentucky Fried Chicken. See, this is Korea, not Kentucky, and the colonel didn’t get his passport stamped at the airport. But, the donkey did, and he’s got a heaping of greasy-ass chicken for your drunk ass to tear apart. Very greasy, very greasy.

Oh man, just the thought of it now is making me salivate.

One man was working at the Donkey. Working is a bit kind — he was lounging behind the counter, sipping beer, watching television, probably wishing he was somewhere else. Hey, it was 3 a.m., after all.

The four or five of us — myself, Estevez, the guy from Canada who played guitar and wanted to start up a Dave Matthews/Decemberists styled rock group to play at Zio Ricco’s with me until I decided to haul ass back to the States, and a couple other people who, I apologize, have disappeared into the mental ether, slogged through our pockets to come up with enough dough to get ourselves an order.

One thing you must know, chicken is prohibitively expensive in Korea. Not just at this place. Several occasions (but not many, again because of said expensiveness) I wanted some, and the only time it was of a reasonable price was a chicken sandwich I got on a lark at the only Popeye’s in Jinju. So, who knows how truly chicken that chicken may have been. A foreign teacher could bank thousands of dollars during a one-year stay, so long as they drink only in cheap bars and eat primarily gimbap (sushi, which you could get for a buck a roll). Have a steady diet of fried chicken, and you’re bound only to break even.

Despite the price, when the five or six pieces came out of the deep fryer and onto our paper plates, we tore into them like wild animals. Between gulps of Hite beer and the numerous wipes one had to do to keep the copious amounts of grease from running down one’s chin, it was drunken ecstacy.

We weren’t done. With a few dollars remaining, we ordered a smaller portion of pieces and waited. Discussed teaching. Discussed some of our malaise about being there. Remember, it would be only a week or so from this point where Estevez would start a chain-reaction of teacher exodus, resulting in both he and I leaving within a week of each other, followed by a few others in the coming couple months.

Once the second order was out of the fryer, our non-English speaking friend behind the counter took a delivery call. And, yes, he let the four or five drunk foreigners watch the store while he was gone. It’s a different world over there.

After he’d returned, after we had scoured each piece of chicken for its remaining meat, we left our Donkey Fried Chicken, only to encounter a couple of older, noticably drunk natives pounding away on what can only be described as a cross between a pinball machine and one of those Friendly’s restaurant lobby attractions where you use the little mechanical arm to grab a cheap stuffed animal from the machine’s bowels.

They were having a ball. So were we. Feeling bold, one of our crew decided to play along with the gentleman, and soon we were all cheering someone on for some stupid prize in a rusty machine, outside of a Donkey Fried Chicken on some quiet, moist street in downtown Jinju, South Korea at around 4 a.m. The memory of it is quite surreal.

Truly, I do not condone overabuse of the spirits. But if you cannot help yourself, I advise you to find a Donkey Fried Chicken. Words cannot express. And, hopefully, a couple of intoxicated Korean men will be waiting outside for you.

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