Friday, March 11, 2011

"You use chopsticks very well."

Going out with Korean co-teachers is unlike any dining experience I've ever had.

I don't just mean that in Korea's professional world, it's perfectly acceptable to knock back a few beers or some Soju with your co-workers and hit up the 노래방 (norae-bahng, or singing room) for a little karaoke into the early hours of the morning. Korea tip: if you are ever at a 노래방 with your Korean friends or co-workers, singing anything by ABBA will send the room into a happy, drunk frenzy.

What I'm about to illustrate is a typical dinner night with my co-teachers:

5:20pm- The time dinner is slated for.

6:15pm- The time we get to the restaurant. I want to stress that this is not because Koreans view time as a relative thing (this is not a "it'll get done whenever" culture); this is simply because most of the Koreans I know are so busy I don't actually have proof that they sleep.

6:16pm- We sit at a table with about 2357809 tiny side dishes (mostly vegetables hidden among spicy sauce; sometimes they are unidentifiable as vegetables; sometimes that's because they're meat). As the youngest at the table, I am culturally supposed to pour the water, but I usually don't get the chance (or, yes; sometimes I forget). Food is ordered and I'm never sure exactly what it will be.

6:18pm- The conversation switches between fast-paced Korean, with lots of gestures, laughter, and what I can only describe as 'Korean sounds' (often crucial to story-telling, I'm sure... I just never know what any of it means). I try to follow along but sometimes feel awkward paying complete attention to a conversation everyone knows I don't understand. This is when I analyze the 2357809 side dishes and pick at the less meat-looking ones with my chopsticks.

6:25pm- The conversation breaks from Korean as a co-teacher turns to me and asks,
"So Laura-- what did you have for breakfast today?"
"I had cereal."
"With milk?"
"Yes; with milk."
Somehow, this is incredibly funny.

6:27pm- The conversation resumes in Korean. I practice with my chopsticks again. Before I came to Korea I thought I was pretty good at chopsticks. Since living in Korea, I've seen things done with chopsticks I never thought imaginable. And I still can't cut cabbage kimchi with 'em. Damn.

6:30pm- The main course arrives. I'm already full from the side dishes. Maybe this wouldn't have happened if I spoke more Korean.

6:46pm- We finish the main course and I think I'm about to burst. I hear my co-teachers order rice and soup. I always forget about that sneaky post-meal-meal.

7:00pm- We finish dinner and my co-teachers notice there's no coffee machine in the restaurant (which is standard for a lot of Korean restaurants). This can only mean one thing:

7:03pm- We get in the car to drive to a coffee shop. At 7 o'clock in the evening. Maybe they don't ever sleep.

7:05pm- We order coffee and the conversational pattern continues between Korean (some of which I can understand and surprise both myself and my co-teachers when I laugh at the appropriate times) and a slow-paced English conversation where I break so many grammatical laws that my friends at home would never believe I teach this language to children.

7:45pm- We head out. Teacher dinners are always fun and interesting for me, but honestly I'm glad when I can be home before 9pm this time. Usually, when foreign teachers go out with staff, it's an all night affair.

For anyone who is ever nervous about dining with their staff-

  • Don't be. They know you are out of your element.
  • Remember that you are not only a teacher, but the school jester. Let them be entertained by you.
  • Try. Try the food. Try chopsticks. Try the alcohol if it is offered to you. Just try.
  • Never accept anything from another person with your left hand; use both hands, or if you only have one hand free, make sure it's your right hand. Never offer anything with your left hand, either.
  • Be content people-watching if you can't join in on the conversation. Or practice with your chopsticks.

Unless you can already cut kimchi and fish. In that case, I might be asking for your assistance.
Share |

1 comment:

  1. Laura, I enjoy reading your blog when I see a post in my news feed. This sounds a lot like when I hang out with the Africans I work with (except, as strict Muslims, they don't drink)... How long will you be there?