After work yesterday, Mr. Kim drove me to a restaurant near my apartment. We met all of the other DalSeo High School teachers there for a staff dinner. There were about sixty teachers in all, which seemed like a lot to me. I was disappointed to find that it was a traditional sit-on-the-floor restaurant, because I can never get comfortable sitting Indian-style.
The first thing that I noticed when we entered the dining room was that there were LOTS of soju and beer bottles on the tables. Each four-person table was stocked with three bottles of Hite (beer) and one bottle of soju. Mr. Kim didn’t miss a beat – he was pouring beer in my glass before I had time to pick it up. He made sure my glass never went empty throughout the meal. At one point, this meant quietly stealing a bottle from a table of teetotalers beside us.
Each table had a large bulgogi pot sitting atop a gas stove. The pot was piled high with several different types of mushrooms, some of which I had never seen before. I snapped a picture, but it came out blurry. I am definitely keeping my eyes open for a decent camera this weekend.
Mr. Kim wanted me to try everything. He seems intent on making sure that I experience as much Korean culture, especially food, as possible while I’m here. I liked the first few things I tasted, and I did a good job of faking it with the ones about which I was ambivalent. Then came the pumpkin. The waitress brought us a bowl of pumpkin chunks that appeared to have been baked. They were topped with some sort of super-sugary glaze. I had trouble cutting my piece of pumpkin in half with my chopsticks, so Mr. Kim motioned for me to eat it in one bite. Big mistake. I have never come so close to tossing my cookies at the dinner table before. I got it down as fast as possible and spent the next few minutes washing the taste away with beer and water.
After the pumpkin I was much more careful, eating small bites and going slowly. Fortunately, there weren’t any other foods on the table that I didn’t like. The best thing I had all night was a breaded and fried white fish with a spicy-mustard sauce. The bulgogi was also pretty good. Beneath the pile of mushrooms were chucks of roast beef. I even experimented with the mushrooms (which I don’t like) and found a couple that were good.
At some point during the meal, a teacher sitting across from me leaned over and said, “I love this bulgogi; what do you think of it?” If I hadn’t been on the floor already, I would have fallen over. She spoke perfect English. As it turns out, Ms. Park lived in Cleveland for a year while she was in college. Before long, a couple other teachers were speaking to me in English. It just so happens that Mr. Hwang is (almost) fluent in English, too. Where the heck have these people been for the past two weeks? I have passed them in the hall and said hello to them, but they have only spoken to me in Korean before.
My best guess is that Mr. Kim could be responsible. He has been very nice to me and is always eager to help, but I wonder if he is trying to keep me all to himself. Any time I have a question for another teacher, he finds out and reports back instead of letting me talk to them. Maybe he worries that I won’t help him practice English if I start spending time with the other teachers. I’ll have to try to strike a balance going forward.
At the end of dinner, the principal stood up and gave a speech. It was very funny – I know this because everyone else laughed. As soon as the principal was finished, he handed the microphone to one of the new Korean teachers. The principal said something to her in Korean and everyone started clapping. She looked like a deer in headlights, so I thought he made a joke. Once she regained her composure, she sang a song. All of the veteran teachers thought this was hilarious.
As soon as the first teacher finished, my office-mate Ms. Shin was called up to the front. She told me that she was terrified, because she is shy and doesn’t like to sing in front of people. After Ms. Shin, a few other new teachers introduced themselves and sang. It didn’t take long for me to see the writing on the wall.
Sure enough, they called me up to the front. The principal said something to me in Korean, and Ms. Park told me that I was supposed to introduce myself. I gave a brief introduction in Korean (my name and home country), and then I told them a bit about myself in English. They all thought the Korean introduction was great because, “you talk so funny.” I thought they were going to let me off the hook and not make me sing, but I was wrong.
In a panic, I went with my old standby. I sang the chorus to Cheeseburger in Paradise:
“I like mine with lettuce and tomato
Heinz 57 and french-fried potato
Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer
Well good God Almighty, which way do I steer?”
It was truly awful. I was so nervous that I forgot one of the words. I don’t think anyone noticed, though. As soon as I finished, I handed the mic back to the principal and hurried to my seat. I could feel my face getting red. When I sat down, Ms. Shin said, ” your face red like big grape.”
Once the singing was over, the rest of dinner went off without a hitch. We left after the last new teacher was introduced, and Mr. Kim drove me home. Despite the fact that my neighbors apparently hosted a party next door, I fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed. It was the first good night’s sleep I’ve had since arriving in Korea.
Until next time.