Sea Creatures And Soju Shots: A Korean School Dinner
Before we had hit the interstate the first calls for “one shot” rang out in the back of the bus. Seated at a makeshift table next to the highly revered principal of the school, I looked at the clear liquid petrol sloshing in my small shot glass, took a deep breath, and swallowed down any reservations along with the soju. Instantly, the fluid took control of me, burning every inch of my throat on its way down to my very core, rattling me into a cold spasm reaction.
Nearly two months had passed since arriving to teach English in rural Korea, my first time living abroad, and they had been months filled with bouts of isolation, confusion, exhaustion, and excitement. Even the simplest of daily errands required Goliath like mental strength. The intricate and complex script and language loomed over my head, while the lack of human interaction weighed on my shoulders.
“Kon bae!!” and more drinks were poured to kick off the annual ‘Jumbong Elementary Staff Friendship Trip.’ Bewildered as I set my glass down, it was soon explained to me that this custom of teacher dinners occurs monthly. Since this was my first trip with the school, the friendship committee selected a special restaurant on the rocky coast of the East Sea, a two hour drive away.
Inside the coach bus, over thirty staff members from the school sat beneath an attempt at disco era, dimly lit colored lights. The men were privy to the rear of the bus, where the final six rows of uncomfortable bus seats were arranged to face each other around a small table. The women mechanically settled in, two by two, for a nap in the less social seats towards the front.
Korean drinking etiquette involves pouring and accepting drinks as a sign of mutual respect. The routine throughout the bus ride consisted of some yelling and a group shot, followed by snacking on dried squid and slices of pork ankle meat. A person would then volunteer to graciously fill up the principal’s glass and the exercise would begin again.
Dusk was settling down upon a dimly lit parking area when we finally rolled to a stop. The staff disembarked the bus, falling in line towards a staircase taking them up the side of what looked like an abandoned warehouse.
Entering in an alcohol induced haze, I maneuvered around the bedroom sized tanks of eels, reservoirs holding every kind of fish, vats everywhere overflowing with mollusk creatures. My eyes were assaulted by the myriad of sea life in one building, and the organized chaos of the knife-wielding workers.
“Dinner?” I asked a fellow teacher, pointing to an aquarium busy with intertwining eels.
“Delicious,” was the reply, and we headed upstairs.
I staggered into the restaurant to be greeted by more raised glasses pointing in my direction from the staff. Six shot glasses were shoved in my face, and a chorus of, ‘kon bae,’ from all the staff. I grabbed a glass and unleashed what I thought to be a ‘cheers’ to the crowd. I was met with a roar of approval as I dropped the shot down my throat, and settled my numbing body in at the dinner table.
Six plates of beautifully presented sea creatures and raw fish were brought to the restaurant from the market below, and set out in front of me. A fully functioning crab rested on the first plate, snails in full armor steamed on another, and closest to me held what looked like slivers of a thick, goiter pocked skin, dribbled with a clear, viscous fluid. My neighbor’s eyes opened wide at this. He quickly bypassed several plates to grab this entree and slurped down its liquidy contents.
I leaned to my left, nudged my fellow teacher, Mr. Science Kim, my name for him to differentiate between the vast number of Mr. and Mrs. Kims working at the school. Concentrating every ounce of energy to move my lips, I asked, “What do you call all of this?”
In alcohol improved English, he began, “This is snail of ocean, this crab. I show you how to eat. Here, I believe, cuttlefish. This, I don’t know, but delicious. Halibut, and ah… Do you know blower fish?” He blew air into his full cheeks making it instantly recognizable.
“Yes, yes. Only a little bit poisonous, not to worry.”
“That fish is poisonous?” I said trying to come to terms with the impending meal.
Appearing out of thin air, the waitress dropped what looked like a camping stove in front of me. My eyes fixated on the worn black knob of the contraption as my head tilted from side to side trying grasp, both what I was to do with the only cooker at the table, and how to properly operate it in my present state.
“Can I help you?”
I glanced up to see the tell tale black baseball hat with the superman logo, Superman Kim. A genuine smile spread across his face, he stretched his hand out in my direction. Up until now, I had thought of him as merely the energetic fourth grade teacher that made sure his class arrived to English class on time.
Guiding me through the process of drunkenly cooking a sea smorgasbord stew, we spoke in English, mine fluent and natural, his surfacing despite a cloak of shyness and lack of confidence.
“Koreans are very shy, that is why we don’t speak to you. But we are very curious.” He paused, reflectively, “Soju is a good English teacher.” We laughed.
“Much, better than I am, I think.”
Between tossing clams in the boiling pot, he shared pictures of his newborn daughter on his phone. Flipping through the pictures, he paused, a faraway look in his eyes. “Oh, she is so cute. My dream.”
“Superman, I want to pour you a shot. What is the Korean word for respect?”
“There is a Korean word – we say ‘Jung.’ Its meaning is hard to describe. When we first meet people we have a duty of respect, almost like a brother. We will help you. We will take care of you. It is our pleasure.”
“Gamsa hamnida (thank you), Superman, I have much jung for you.”
“Mr. Wick, you are a good ambassador for America. I hope you enjoy Korea enough to do the same for it. Kon bae.”
Leaving the restaurant at the end of the evening, weakened by endless amounts of soju, we threw our arms around each other, partly out of necessity, but more so out of respect.
Currently getting his Master’s Degree in Technical Communication at Montana Tech, Jon is also the Managing Editor of the travel site www.theexpeditioner.com, which has just completed publication of The Expeditioner’s Guide to the World: Intrepid Tales of Awesomeness from the Open Road (avaliable on Amazon.com).