Jun 16, 2008  •  In Funny, Korean, Personal


Before I start…

The Lakers are still alive! Although I was rooting for the Celts I secretly wanted LA to win so the series will continue. Geez I feel like such a traitor. But a compliment from my friend Marcia (who, unfortunately, lives on the wrong side of the continent) was all worth it: “I knew there was a reason I *adored* you…hehehe”

Back to the post.

This is a story written by my little sister, who is currently a PhD candidate in Classical Art & Archeology. She is smart as a whip and one of the funniest people I know (and I’m not only saying that because she’s my sister). As a former Fulbright scholar, she spent a year abroad teaching English to middle schoolers in a rural town in Korea. While there, she wrote this piece for the “Fulbright Review,” an annual compilation of poetry, prose, illustrations, photos, etc. It was met with immense enthusiasm and although a full 3 years old now, I felt the need to share it with my readers…

by Suzy _____

It starts out with an invitation. Better yet, an incontestable request of my presence.

“Su-jee, Kim Hyun-Tak’s parents are taking the teachers out to dinner tonight,” my co-teacher announces to me just as I am about to leave school for the day.

“Oh, I actually made plans to . . . .”

“That’s OK, I will see you at 7.” Paper Park (as he is known around school because of the similarity of his Korean name to the word for “paper”) struts away, leaving me behind to cancel any previous engagements.

We arrive late, in typical Korean fashion, to be welcomed by insas[1] all around. The upcoming meal seems promising as the restaurant’s choice of banchan[2] is top-notch, the grilling meat has triggered my salivary glands to work overtime, and there are enough bottles of soju to satisfy a small army of ajeossis[3]. However, I am not looking forward to this meal.

Although I learned quickly enough that my physical appearance allows me to pass without a second glance/wide-eyed stare on a crowded street, it was the little things that always reminded me that no matter how much I can handle spiciness, no matter how I swallow raw-squirming-tentacles-sticking-to-inside-of-mouth-chewing-assiduously-until-next-Tuesday octopus like it is nothing out of the ordinary, I am not a true Korean. For example, I don’t like to climb mountains in my spare time. And if I am forced or tricked into it, I don’t do it wearing heels. I don’t brush my teeth after every single meal. I like the way my skin looks when tan. I obey the unspoken rule of line formations. And I cannot eat while sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Now I know it was not genetics that gave Koreans a special aberration on a certain chromosome to allow them to sit through an entire meal (literally) with their legs neatly folded in front, back, or to the side of them. If this were the case, I would be in the clear. No, it was years and years of practice. Starting at infancy, Korean babies are positioned on heated floors (most likely surrounded by excessively cute pillows to protect their oversized heads from inevitable falls), and I’m convinced that that’s where they stay until they can walk freely on their own. No high chairs and seat boosters for these kiddies. Just conditioning of their growing bones and muscles to prepare them for hours upon hours of sitting on floors, or, to a foreigner, torture.

Getting back on track, the first fifteen minutes or so are fine. I’m enjoying my meal along with the rest of the diners. It’s around the time the second round of meat comes out that I start to feel it. Or don’t feel it is more like it. I have heard that people who have recently had their limbs amputated can still feel their appendages, as if the whole “I’m sorry sir, we could not save your gangrene arm” incident never happened. Similarly, I can remember what it was like to have feeling in my legs and can certainly see that they’re still properly attached, but stab a chopstick through my calf and I probably would not flinch. Stage One of Flooritis — not so bad yet. Yet.

Stage Two: The cerebral center of your body is sending your heart vital messages to keep pumping blood to the legs, but to the untrained blood vessels (i.e., mine) the flow is being calamitously blocked by bent knees. To make matters worse, gravity is not on your side, and you hope to God that your heart pumps strongly enough to propel blood down to your pinky toe for at least another couple of hours. I imagine every blood cell as a soldier outfitted for war. They all start out strong and full of confidence, but once they hit the first obstacle (upper thigh), a few fall behind. At the next, (lower thigh) some are captured and taken prisoner. Then a cataclysmic blow takes out more of the blood army at the next skirmish (knee), and by the time you reach the toes, only the few lucky ones remain, shell-shocked from battle.

And then this is when dinner becomes a Choose Your Own Adventure ordeal. At this point, you have the choice of adventure A, B, or C.

A) Continue to endure the agony of Stage Two. The pain is worth it for the galbi[4].

B) Stretch out your legs underneath the table. While this at first seems like a viable option, you will either end up kicking a fellow teacher sitting across from you who will then forever remember you as the foreign teacher who has no manners and touched them with your feet (a huge sign of disrespect) OR burn your leg on the built-in stove that the juicy galbi is sizzling on. Either of these options will be unbeknownst to you since your legs are probably numb by this point. So once again, scathing looks from that teacher all year long or a ruined pair of pants and a branded shin.

BC) Get up and leave.

Should you choose A, you advance onto Stage Three: This is basically a fluctuation back and forth between Stage One and Stage Two. You have periods of complete elation. You’re enjoying your meal, you’re making conversation with your principal (in English!), and your co-teacher keeps bringing you soju shots. Then, it feels like the microscopic blood soldiers have organized a revolution and are turning against you. One of them gives the command, and suddenly you drop your spoon and clutch your legs as millions of miniature shots are fired from within your legs. As if massaging them will settle the revolt, you try everything from gently squeezing to heavily pounding on your legs. Amidst all this, your ankle bones are digging into the thin flesh stretched over them, and at this point you are cursing your own nervous system. You’re glaring angrily at the food for being so irresistible and consequently making you suffer like this, you’re incapable of concentrating on anything your principal is saying, and your co-teacher…well, he’s still bringing you soju shots.

At this point, you have another problem on your hands: during the lapses of agonizing sensation you’ve gone through course after course of meat, rice, noodles, etc. So on top of everything, it is getting extremely difficult to sit up straight. Your full stomach is starting to make you slouch, which in turn presses your overstuffed belly into the front of your pants. The seat cushion you had marveled at before seems useless now as your tailbone digs into the floor beneath (stupid, futile tailbone). All you want to do is lie down on the warm floor and take a nap, but you are a cultural ambassador. Ambassadors do not slip into food comas.

As the last course is finally eaten, a teacher who lives near me offers to drive me home. I spring at the chance to alleviate all the pain, and my rising from the table is comparable to a young foal taking its first steps.

Luckily, by the time we are through with the bowing and proper goodbyes, I am rejuvenated, cured. My hunger has been satiated, and I’ve regained complete control over my lower appendages. That’s when Paper Park rushes over to catch me before I leave and says, “Su-jee, you must come to second round with us. Another restaurant for more drinks and anju[5], then karaoke afterwards!”

Before the lower part of my body can protest at the prospect of another episode of Flooritis, out from my mouth escapes, “Sure!”

Suzy _____
Fulbright ETA 2004-2005

Suzy was born in Taegu, South Korea, and moved to New York when she was five years old. Upon her return, she found that although Korea has changed significantly over the years, the street food is just as good as she remembers it. She graduated from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, with a BA in Art History and will be pursuing a Masters degree in Art History/Archaeology at the University of Maryland College Park in the fall with the intent to eventually obtain a doctorate and teach at the university level. [Ed. note: this information is outdated, as the story was written 3 years ago.] She is currently teaching at Baekseok Middle School in Cheonan, and when she is not working out hard at the gym, she can be found eating seasnails by the seashore or banging the norae (even though she hates that).

1 Korean way of formally greeting someone (as well as bidding farewell to them), usually accompanied by bowing.
2 Side dishes served with rice at every Korean meal.
3 A term used to describe middle-aged Korean males. (Also, “middle-aged” is used loosely here, as some of my students have referred to my twenty-two-year-old friends as “ajeossis.”)
4 Literal translation is “ribs” and its culinary equivalent is “marinated rib meat.” Also known as perfection.
5 Drinking side dishes ranging from fruit platters, peanuts, dried squid, buffalo wings, or French fries.

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