Black Tar

In retrospect, Korea may not have been the best choice for me and my addiction problems.

I have this student and he yearns for my attention. He yearns so freaking hard I can see the tendons in his neck straining. I imagine he waits all week for the moment on Wednesday when he gets to march into my classroom, bypass his seat, place himself approximately two feet from my face (Me? I’m always doing something harmless like sitting and looking cheerful*), points at the cup gripped in my hand and begins to recite what he has been waiting to say since last we saw each other: 커피!  커피! 커피! 커피! 커피! 커피! 커피! 커피! 커피! 커피! 커피! 커피!  커피! 커피!!!!!

You can see that this is irritating even in Korean. But what is he saying? What single word could drive an 11 year old boy into a rabid frenzy every goddamn week?



Because, it seems, this is a habit that only I have cultivated in Korea. Now, you and I know I’m given to bouts of hyperbole (the best hyperbole in the history of human events), but I say this in all seriousness: I cannot live without coffee. In the event that I forget/run out/am robbed of my caffeine, my consciousness retreats below the most unholy of headaches and series of physical spasms that makes this scene from “Trainspotting” look tame. On those hellish days, I run on nothing more than brain stem power. Though my heart beats and my lungs fill, Erin doesn’t live here anymore. The mind recoils at the very thought of this.

So why is Korea less than ideal for the caffeine freak?

Exhibit A: The price of 1 kilo of ground coffee = The price of 1 kilo of high-quality blow, and is almost as difficult to find.** To be sure, there are bajillions of choices for the instant coffee drinker in Korea, but anyone who knows anything about coffee knows that instant coffee isn’t coffee. Especially instant coffee that is cut with enough sugar to put you into a diabetic coma. There has been more than one occasion where I find myself stumbling to Megan’s apartment, realizing that I have no means by which to procure coffee for the next morning, and, in a panic, I beg her for something to carry me over, something to just get me through the next day, I’ll pay her back, she knows I’m good for it…And she sends me home with a few tablespoons of coffee in a Ziploc baggy, and I rub some on my gums, and my chemistry rights itself, and I sleep.

Exhibit B: As far as I can tell, it’s considered unhealthy to drink anything in quantities greater than 1 ounce. Something to do with digestion, I was once told. If anyone ever offers to make you a cup of tea (or instant coffee) it will be presented in a dixie cup. At lunch, one does not drink with a meal, but waits until  finished eating to wash it all down with a thimbleful of water. So imagine being the one person in the country who wanders around with a large, phallic thermos of coffee everyday, everywhere. People will take note. (No judgment on Korean lifestyle practices. They clearly know something we don’t, as the life expectancy game reveals. Though I may be ravaged with disease, parts of me do feel much healthier since acclimating to life here. Not my raped sinus cavities or consumptive lungs, but, you know, that’s probably the coffee’s fault. )

classroom, with majestic thermos in the foreground

Exhibit C: The concept of caffeine as nature’s greatest gift to mankind (after the miracle of fermentation) is overlooked here. Say you find yourself at a bus terminal at 6 am, with 20 minutes to kill before you jump on a bus to Seoul. Perfect time to find a latte, yes? No. There will be no coffee shop open to you, weary traveler. You will have to wait two hours to fight the horde of suited business men at the rest stop on the side of the highway, but by that time you will be too weak and befuddled for lack of coffee that you will move too slowly and only sustain a few bruised ribs from men throwing elbows and money in their haste to get a weak Americano.

Exhibit D: An occupation involving kids is an occupation that doesn’t allow you a whole lot of room for flaws. Children have the best critical eyes and no thought-filter in place. You would be surprised how only knowing a little English/Korean makes absolutely no difference in this situation. There is no hiding from them. Whatcha got there, a cup? What’s in the cup? Coffee? What’s it taste like? Can I have some? Why do you have it? Why do you have so much? What’s wrong with it? Why does it smell that way? Why do you smell that way too? Why won’t you let me touch it? What’s wrong with your hands? Why do you shake like that? What will you do if I take it? Oops I spilled it haha! Teacher? Teacher? Teacher? Starbucks Starbucks Starbucks? 커피?커피? 커피?

So what I’m saying is that Korea is a place where people have relationships with food and drinks that involve their health. Addicts, your shit will get called out.  (For the record and my paltry defense, coffee isn’t all bad for you.) If you can’t handle me reeking of coffee, or tweaking out when I reach my 5 cup maximum at lunch time, or acting like a junkie when I don’t know where my next hit is coming from, please don’t laud me for my energy amid 3rd graders, and please don’t accept when I offer you (a gratuitously generous gesture on my part, knowing that this will cut into my own intake, and thus, ability to live) a cup from my sweet thermos. Even though it tastes like the water that runs through the rivers of heaven.


**I may exaggerate. (Also, Mom & Dad, I have no idea what cocaine is.)

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