01 July 2008

Very Superstitious

Last night, after a grueling day at the office, the staff from the school all went out for my official welcoming party and Perry's official goodbye party. We went to a place in Suyeong (a party neighborhood near the beaches) for samgyeopsal (sam-geeop-sall), a traditional Korean feast of fatty pork (think huge slices of thick cut bacon) cooked on a tabletop grill of some sort served with all sorts of fixin's, to which I will return in a moment. The grills are usually round recesses covering a small bucket of charcoal and topped with a domed metal griddle which drains into a little ditch around it's edge. Some of the fixin's, like mushrooms, onions, bean sprouts, and especially garlic cloves go right into the ditch to be roasted in the draining bacon grease. There are usually a couple of cold salad-like deals (there has usually been a shredded cabbage salad with carrots and cucumbers topped with a creamy dressing similar to thousand island or peppercorn that I love), always kimchi, some little sliced peppers of hades in even more hellacious pepper oil, and my favorite, a red bean and garlic paste that adds a sweet kick to the whole thing. A small bowl of seasoned sea salt is nearby to sprinkle on the pork as it sizzles. I could eat that out of the cellar. (BTW: My blood pressure when I went to the hospital last Thursday for my Korean alien card was so high they are making me come back, so I should probably steer clear of the salt cellar...but, one little pinch won't hurt). Also provided are a basket of leaves to wrap it all up in, usually lettuce and sesame. This place differed in that the griddle was a slanted slab of granite heated to operational temp by gas from below. It was much larger than the traditional metal griddle and this helped with the crowd. The only negative of the whole night was that the ventilation in the small private room could not stand up to the smoke generated by the three tables all going full blast and some people, especially Perry and Sarah, who were by the windows, really go fumigated good. As it was we all reeked of sizzle when we walked out, which isn't all bad. Periodically throughout the meal someone would scream something in Korean and we would be obliged to fill our glasses with soju (the unique Korean 40 proof neutral grain spirit that will seriously mess you up) or maekju (the local beer, called Hite, is pretty bad unless you are eating Korean food, with which it goes well for chemo/culinary reasons I am still trying to figure out) and made a toast to Perry or I. This was the first time I met the owner of the school. She was a very happy person in her 60's. At one point our supervisor advised us that it would be proper to go over to her table and have a drink of soju with her individually. She could really put it down. Neither of us could speak a lick of the other's language so our exchange consisted of big-smiling, mmm-mmming, back-patting, hand-squeezing, and head-bowing. It worked. She knows I respect her and I know she is proud to have such an intelligent and handsome megook (American) on her staff. At least I think that's what she meant.

After dinner we walked down toward the main drag and walked down into a basement establishment I felt with no small trepidation might be the source of more soju, but it was another local tradition, the karaoke bang ("bang" is used to denote public gathering places of various purposes. PC bang for instance provides computers with internet to chain smokers for 1000 won ($1) per hour). I sang "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder well enough to give myself way too much confidence and attempt "Let's Stay Together," by Al Green. After massacreing that I redeemed myself by grabbing the spare mike and busting out some harmonies on a slow girl-ballad I can't recall. Later I jumped in and saved Clayton on "Wonderwall." The Korean teachers and administrators and especially the owner could all sing very well. I thought it was a blast. If you went out to dinner and got moderately wasted one of these places would be a great place to sober up before braving the subway.

This was exactly what we did. The Suyeong station was nearby so we hopped on and had planned to get off one stop west at Mangmi junction and walk about ten minutes up to the school to get our scooters, but Perry was talking to one of the Korean teachers (Lana, who no longer works at the school but was friends with Perry and so was invited) and didn't tell us to get off even though I kept saying "this is it, this is it," so we ended up going all the way over to Yeonsan-dong station and taking a bus all the way back over to the school. It took an hour to get home but should have been much less. Not all bad though: I got a lot of photos of both the evening festivities and night street scenes that I will post shortly.

Well, time to go to work. I didn't eat breakfast yesterday and never really recovered. They feed us lunch at the school and it is some real Korean home cooking. I am trying to eat it for a variety of reasons, but it really doesn't appeal to me much or hold down my appetite. I can't even begin to tell you what we had yesterday: it defies description. Rice is always present (it is my job to go down the the kitchen and get the huge pot of rice for our floor and put it in the warmer and start it). There is usually a miso-like soup and a green-vegetable (usually seaweed of some kind). The kimchi at school is the strong variety, fermented for a long time. I still haven't acquired that taste. So I am going to get something to eat. probably fruit. Speaking of fruit, I have been eating raw fruit, vegetables, and fish since I got here and have had no intestinal problems at all. This culture almost revels in the swapping of spit. The water purifier/cooler at school has a spigot and the whole floor shares a few small tin cups for drinking. At these communal eating deals, all of the bowls on the table are shared. Bryan told me that the only table taboo he had ever encountered was that it is impolite to lick your fingers when eating chicken. You are always provided, by the way, with a small warm wet washcloth at the beginning of each meal. You are only given water if you ask: "Mul juseyo": "water give me, please." Gotta go!