It’s Monday. Today is a special day. It’s the first day of the new semester – a new school year, new students and new teachers.
The day started with a lot of bowing, smiles and a “manaseo bangapsimnida” every now and then.
A crowd of 53 students – the whole school – are neatly seated for this special occasion – the parents are escorted inside the hall, the local police chief gets a special seat and the vice-principal hops up the stairs with his crutches.
I engage in a conversation with one of the new teachers, my co-teacher disappeared; he probably went out for a smoke. We sing the anthem and then something else – if the other teachers stand up, I stand up, if they bow, I bow. Observation is the key.
Later the day my co-teacher comes to me: “Today is a special day; we have a teacher’s dinner after school. Do you like raw fish?”
My mouth says, “yes, sure”, while my head thinks about wriggly-almost-still-alive sea creatures.
I’m not even a fan of Sushi, so Sashimi is worse.
The restaurant hits your nostrils with something fishy. It’s a traditional place, so I have to take off my shoes and sit on the floor. I’m used to the shoe-thing by now – I only wear shoes with laces when I know I don’t have to take it off. But the floor, oh the damn floor, I will probably never get used to it.
I choose a seat next to another female teacher, the table closest to the wall. The wall will come in handy later.
Some of the dishes are making their way to the table. It doesn’t look too bad. Cabbage salad, sweet potato with cream on top of it, cooked tuna with a dash of mustard, dumplings, two sushi pieces for each person, raw prawns and a few other random dishes.
I am enjoying everything on the table. Almost.
Someone is making a toast. One of the new teachers stands up, bow and say something in Korean. The other new teacher does the same. I assume they are saying welcome to the new teachers. One of the important teachers mumbles something in Korean and says my name. I do a quick nod-bow, smile and say “Jal bootak deurimnida”.
The teachers clap their hands; they cheer. It’s as if I just told them the meal is on me. They think my Korean is amazing but I actually just uttered one of the 13 phrases I know.
The janitor comes to me, with a red soju face, and says “Ahh Mandela. Nelson Mandela. Novel.”
I reply, “Yes, Long walk to freedom.”
He smiles from ear to ear, “Nelson Mandela, Nobel peace…”
“Ohhh, Nobel Peace Prize? Yes!”
He nods his head and moves on his bum back to his seat on the floor. The cushion below his bum moves all the way with him.
The next round of food comes to the table. It is a huge plate of raw fish, prawns wrapped in a deep fried batter, other sea creatures, pumpkin, sushi hand rolls and a tiny plate of corn topped with melted cheese.
I grab a deep fried prawn with my chopsticks. The cabbage salad next to me is a good distraction. It’s something I eat, it’s close so I don’t have to dip my sleeve in another dish and it makes me look busy as if I’m enjoying the whole spread. I try some pumpkin and burn my mouth with the corn-and-cheese. I pick up a lettuce leaf, stare at the pile of raw tuna and then boldly pick up a slimy sliver. I dip it in hot sauce, wrap the lettuce leaf around it and put the whole thing in my mouth. I’m chewing for a good few minutes – the raw tuna is not going anywhere. My colleague picks up one of the sea creatures with her chopsticks, whatever it is, it’s still moving. I put another spoonful of corn-and-cheese in my mouth while still trying to chew on the raw chunk of tuna. Finally, it’s in my stomach. I have the after taste of the Pacific Ocean in my mouth.
I’m stuffed. I’m over the dinner. I don’t know how to sit anymore. The waiter took away my cabbage salad distraction. My back is leaning against the wall; my legs are stretched out under the table. The third round, rice and soup, is being served, more bottles of soju meet the shot glasses and the word “noreabang” is going around. One of the teachers quickly Googles a number for the closest “noreabang” to reserve a room. I don’t get the Karoake obsession.
After two long hours, enough food to feed more than a dozen families in North Korea and enough soju to cause a whole lot of ugly hangovers tomorrow; the dinner comes to an end. Some of the staff members excitingly head out the door and up the stairs of another building to a “noreabang” while I bow, smile and say goodbye.
On the way home my co-teacher says, “next time we go for gogi”.
“That sounds delicious, Mr. Kim! I can’t wait.”
*Manaseo bangapsimnida – It’s nice to meet you.
*Jal bootak deurimnida – I look forward working with you.
*Noreabang – Singing Room / Karaoke Room
*Gogi – Meat