Some locals will be joining us. Will explain.
I groan to myself as I leave my apartment and look at the new message on my phone. Chris (my newest colleague, Alex’s replacement) and I decided to go for dinner at my long-time favourite dak galbi restaurant down the road, after a very long and exhausting day putting on entertainment for the children and running around in a series of energetic games. He just wanted to dash to the gym for a quick workout first, but somehow he’s apparently picked up a gaggle of beautiful girls, none of whom will speak English, and our quiet, relaxing dinner will instead be an awkward and tiring encounter where I spend the entire time playing interpreter, despite my own limited Korean skills. I groan again.
However, it turns out that Chris is just as unenthusiastic as I am, and somewhat perplexed. The English-speaking guy who works at the gym just invited himself and his friends to come to dinner with us, he explains in the manner of someone who still needs to have the situation explained to him. I ask if maybe he’d given some kind of signal that he wanted them to come along, and he shakes his head. I really don’t have the energy, he sighs. The guy asked me what I was doing tonight, I said I was going for dinner with a friend, he asked where, and then he said “We’ll join you, see you there in 20 minutes!”.
And so they do. Really, this sort of thing does not happen in any other country I know of. You don’t just invite yourself to join total strangers on their dinner plans. But actually, we end up having a really good time, once the soju has been opened, and the dak galbi is sizzling, and I’ve gotten over the fact that I am the only female in a group mostly consisting of Korean businessmen, and am also the youngest at the table. This was established immediately after we had all exchanged names. An exchange of ages always seems to occur before you’ve even had the chance to say “nice to meet you”. It’s necessary in order to know the appropriate behaviour, and these guys are fairly serious about the formalities. I am chastised for speaking to the man next to me without calling him “Oppa” to show respect for the fact that he’s my superior, and Chris gets into a confused fluster when he is reprimanded for failing to put his arm across his chest when pouring soju for the man next to him, but then reprimanded again for doing it correctly the next time it’s his turn. We are friends now, the man is saying in Korean. Chris looks uncertain as to what exactly has changed in their relationship. About five shots of soju, I reckon.
By the end of the meal we are all getting along like old friends, albeit old friends who have never been able to communicate very well. I am doing one of the things that I really, really wanted to do when I first came to Korea – sit in a traditional restaurant with local people, and experience a part of their lives. I’m speaking Korean, I’m learning new things about Korea, I’m engaging in the solemn ritual of soju-pouring with people who take it all very seriously, I’m eating from the steaming pan in the centre of the table, and I’m not being excused from polite formalities just because I’m foreign. I don’t do it perfectly, mind you – for example, I’m supposed to turn my head away from an Oppa (an older male) and cover the side of my face with my hand when I take a shot of soju. How on earth does one do this when sitting at a small, circular table, surrounded by Oppas? There are some little technicalities I haven’t quite worked out yet.
And of course, I still haven’t managed to find an appropriate coping mechanism for the next-day consequences of a soju-infused meal. Other than hiding under the bedcovers all day and swearing never to touch the stuff again, that is.