LASTING TRANSITIONS

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Korean Reciprocity

Wednesdays are my chill day of the week. I have no classes in the morning and I can just sit back and relax in my office preparing lessons, or even sleep on the comfortable couches if I please until my afterschool classes start at 1pm. Although, today my three afternoon classes will be postponed to next week due to the fact that I will be joining our school teacher’s volleyball team for a school vs school tournament this afternoon at a school in the nearby town of Ilsan. I’m greatly looking forward to this volleyball tournament today, except that I’ve been hammered with the common cold for the last few days. I don’t think I’ve ever blown my nose so much in my entire life; it’s horrible! However, despite this inconvenience, it has made for a splendid experience learning more about my Korean co-workers, friends, and of course, Korean culture.

Is there actually a cure for the common cold? Apparently a few of my fellow Korean teachers believe so, as they had me gulp down some pretty nasty-tasting potions, derived from who knows where, in attempt to quell my overwhelming symptoms.

I infact feel a little better today, but I believe it’s from my visit to the local rural pharmacist, rather than the medieval-like alchemy I was mercurially swigging.  My fellow teachers had great intentions, but it turned my stomach into a vicious whirlpool that almost saw the light of day.

After my co-teacher and I visited the local pharmacist, I left with a bag in my hand and a worried smile as I was given a three-day supply of five different pills which were all grouped carefully and hand-packaged into individual packets that I need to take with food three times a day. Five different pills! I soon thought that my stomach whirlpool would be the least of my worries.

“What are these pills? What am I taking?” I asked David, my co-teacher.

“The pharmacist gave you some special medicine without a prescription,” David responded.

“Without a prescription… isn’t that illegal?” I retorted.

“Yes… but perhaps he did that special for you, and perhaps there are not many good doctors in the area,” David said.

“Okay.” I said. After a brief pause, I continued, “… but I still don’t know what I’m taking. There is no label or anything on this bag to tell me what I’m taking.”

“No worries Paul, it’s all good.”

I chuckled for a moment as David is picking up on the expressions I continually use with him, such as “no worries” and “it’s all good,” after of which I quickly snubbed the apprehension I previously had about the medication that was in my hands.

When I arrived to school this morning, I was personally greeted by my principal, vice-principal, and several teachers to ascertain my condition and to see if I was okay. Each one offered a helping hand, but I sent them all off with the impression that I was getting better, despite the fact that I could hardly talk, and the promise that I would play in the volleyball tournament this afternoon. It truly felt good to know that all my fellow teachers and staff genuinely care about my condition and offered their assistance.

After our principal’s mother passed away nearly 10 days ago, and following tradition, each staff member at our school, including myself, gave a token amount of 50,000 won ($50) to her in order to help pay for the funeral cost. In response to all of our kindness and sincere remorse immediately following our principal’s loss, and to attempt to make things a little delightful despite the sorrowful situation, our principal has joyfully offered to take us all out for a lavish dinner after our volleyball tournament. What I’m quickly beginning to discern is that Koreans extensively and delightfully practice genuine reciprocity.

To give a fun example of Korean reciprocity, I must share a charming story that has been on the tip of my tongue for the last few weeks…

…Fatigued, my co-teacher dropped me off on the main drag that runs through Gimpo City after a rough day of teaching. During my short, quick walk back to my apartment, I caught view of “my joint” and my mouth immediately began to water. “My joint” is a kind and informal name given to a small, cozy Korean restaurant just a few blocks from my apartment that serves up the spiciest and tastiest seafood vegetable soup I have ever had.

Gimpo Seafood Restaurant (aka. "My Joint")

Inside "My Joint"

If you recall in a previous blog post, this happens to be the same restaurant that was chosen by my fellow teachers when I randomly ran into them during my first night-stroll around town. Quite frankly, I have made a bit of a habit of frequenting this cozy, delectable restaurant at least once a week since that favorable outing.

During that first evening at this restaurant enjoying a mountain of ‘bu chim gae’ (Korean potato cakes w/ vegetables) and ‘mak-kkolli’ (korean rice beer) with my fellow teachers, there were a two young Korean businessmen sitting at the table adjacent to us.  They inadvertently heard me speaking English and one of them conspicuously edged in to ask me where I was from and what I was doing in the city of Gimpo. After my introduction, the kind fellow bought a bottle of mak-kkolli for our table, from which we the gave a toast and included the young businessmen that purchased it for us.

The following Tuesday evening I walked by the restaurant again and immediately began craving ‘bu chim gae’ and ‘mak-kkolli’. I made a quick call to Wassim, a great Lebanese friend from Canada that lives down the street, and he agreed to my request to meet up at the restaurant later in the evening. When we arrived, I noticed the two businessmen again, and we happened to sit at the table next to them. After getting our fill of mak-kkolli and bu chim gae, we noticed the businessmen with a kettle of red seafood soup boiling infront of them. Both Wassim and I were very curious about the soup and I happened to ask the men what it was. They pronounced the soup in Korean, but I was able to discern that the soup had a large quantity of mussels floating around in it. “Wow, looks good. Perhaps we will try it next time,” I said. A few moments later while Wassim and I were amidst conversation, two medium-sized bowls of the red seafood soup were placed infront of us compliments of the two businessmen. We both said thank you and quickly dug in. What first hit me was the fresh seafood flavor, and then POW!, a shotgun of spice exploded in my mouth catching me totally off guard. “Está muy picante!” I exclaimed with Spanish accent. I then nodded to the businessmen in thanks and quickly learned what to order the next time.

The following Tuesday I was invited by Wassim and Larissa to join them at the same restaurant and share this exact soup that Wassim and I had been talking about all weekend. The kettle of soup was plopped down on the table grill and I took a deep breath pondering the spiciness that I would soon endure. Wow! Again, it hit me hard and I quickly began sweating profusely. I ordered a beer in hopes to quell my burning tongue, but it did not suffice. Wassim and I then began discussing ordering a small bottle of mak-kkoli as we believed it would compliment this soup perfectly. A few moments later a bottle of mak-kkolli was set in the middle of our table, although it was not per our request. We all took our eyes off our food and began looking around the room. We soon discovered that it was the same two businessmen whom had requested that a bottle of mak-kkolli be brought to our table. We said thank you and drank to our immediately relief; the mak-kkolli gratefully extinguished the burn.

The following Tuesday evening I was planning to go to Seoul in order to catch glimpse of a small festival that was occurring solely for a week or so. I had nothing in the cabinet dinner-worthy and had no desire to cook in a hurry. Thus, without a moment to lose, I grabbed my camera and jacket and headed to ‘my joint’. I quickly sat down next to the heater and was handed a menu. I motioned that I did not need a menu, but quickly pointed to the items I wanted: bu chim gae & red seafood soup. Due to my lack of speaking Korean, I motioned with my hands to describe that I wanted small portions of each. The kind waiter smiled and nodded her head, and said, “Arraser,” which essentially means ‘okay’. A few moments later my lack of speaking Korean paid its consequence.

To my surprise, a super large potion of red seafood soup and a super large portion of bu chim gae were placed infront of me. I was at the verge of saying something, but quickly realized that it would be futile and desired not to make a scene. I immediately called Wassim and a few others to see if they would care to join me for some tasty, sumptuous food, compliments of myself. However, to no avail, everyone was busy doing something. Just my luck, I thought. I shook my head, smiled, and then took a few bites of the steaming bu chim gae.

After relishing a few scrumptious bites, I noticed that the two businessmen were sitting at a table across from me. How come I didn’t notice them before?!? It blew my mind that I walked right passed them without even taking notice that they were even there. I then saw that they were drinking soju (Korean rice liquor), and I quickly made the decision to practice Korean reciprocity. Thus, I flagged the waiter and motioned with my hands that I’d like to buy the businessmen a bottle of soju, and to my delight it was soon brought to them. They happily looked over in my direction, smiled, and raised their glasses of soju in the air. Since I didn’t have one to raise, one of them grabbed an empty glass, poured soju into it, and handed it to me. We all chinked our glasses and drank to our health, as far as I know. I shook hands with them and then sat back down at my table with my stomach already calling it quits.

One of the businessmen peered over and questioned,  “You wait for friends?”

In slow, simple English, I responded, “Friends working tonight.”

I then contemplated for a moment and attempted to explain to the businessmen in simple English that I could not eat all this food infront of me and would like them to join me. They happily agreed and what was soon-to-be-wasted food was hogged down. We all had quite a bit to eat, and at this point I was feeling fairly jolly, so I decided not to follow the urge to hustle to Seoul in the bone-chilling cold. Good decision, because the night was just about getting started. The businessmen ordered another bottle of soju and I was poured a few glasses. I hesitated for a moment, but then figured it would be okay as long as I drank it slow and didn’t have too much. Moments later, their girlfriends showed up to join our festive evening. They didn’t speak a lick of English, but that didn’t matter. I spent a good portion of the evening continuously asking what things were in Korean and how to pronounce them, and to everyone’s enjoyment they would attempt to explain everything to me. In many instances we had to utilize the Korean/English dictionary in our phones to describe something specific, but it didn’t matter as it surely brought a few laughs when the wrong word would pop up.

Mr. Song & I

After a shot or two more of soju and an hour and a half later, I decided to call it a night; however, I did not initially tell everyone that. I essentially explained that I needed a breath of fresh air for a moment with a plan up my sleeve to head to the register and pay for our entire evening. Therefore, I got up and slowly sneeked to the register which was by the front entrance. My furtive attempt failed. Both businessmen, Mr. Song & Mr. Hahn, quickly rushed to the register and explained to the cashier that I would not pay a dime whatsoever. I vivaciously tried to hand the cashier my bank card, but the businessmen joyfully pushed it away from her and motioned that I should put it back in my pocket. With a slight grin and a head nod, I put the card back in my pocket, shook their hands, and said, “see you next Tuesday.”

My attempt at successful Korean reciprocity will soon have its day…

10 comments on “Korean Reciprocity

  1. carmen
    November 18, 2010

    telling all these wonderful stories about Korea makes me want to go there so bad. You seem to be having the time of your life there. is it possible that you will ever want to come back to the states? why would you?

  2. Dan Henrickson
    November 18, 2010

    Great blog post Paul! I wonder if they wouldn’t let you pay, because they are older than you. That can be a Korean custom for the oldest person at the table to pay. No matter why, it’s sure nice of them.

  3. rachelshae
    November 18, 2010

    this was hilarious! hope all those pills went down OK–i’m hungry just reading about all your meals!

  4. Carey Macy
    November 19, 2010

    The businessmen must have a chase card. They keep paying for your stuff, just like the commercial where the brother keeps paying for the other brother’s stuff because he wants the points. 😉

    Paul, you friendly man. You have made two businessmen your sugar daddies! I will be right over to get some free food also!! 🙂

    • Carey Macy
      November 19, 2010

      the plane ticket will tottally be offset by the free meal.

  5. Carey Macy
    November 19, 2010

    and, howdy! Just anticipating your reply. 🙂

  6. Carey Macy
    November 19, 2010

    April (my girlfriend) has a friend who I think is Japanese and that culture reinforces men pay for everything. So when she goes out with her friends he who are mostly women, he will pay for everything. Even if it is a large group. Wild. I wish America could keep those kind of strong traditions without someone complaining that it offends them.

  7. Adam Bender
    November 19, 2010

    It astonishes me how quickly you make friends.

  8. Tom Branch
    November 24, 2010

    Paul…Stay low and keep us informed as things develop there !!!!

    • Gavin
      March 7, 2011

      The same experience I had over there to be honest, really strange — despite my best efforts I had lavish meals put on me continually and gifts from my hyung. Although I was allowed to pay for 3-4 meals while I was over there, and I bought him a bottle of expensive wine, he ended up forking up nearly 500 pounds in dinners and special meals and presents. I would ask where to buy a cigarette, and on two occasions who wouldn’t let me decline taking the whole packet of his.

      To keep up with him (by gf’s sister’s boyfriend) would have been a full-time job, I’m only thankful I didn’t have a second, nor was I of higher status to anyone! In Korea, even if you’re on your own, I found myself never short of women who wanted to mother me! this despite having lived on my own for near-on six years in the UK, and being as independent as a 30 y/o. A truely strange, but in my opinion a great way of living.

      Yes, the same with my girlfriend, as one of your respondees said previously, she only ever paid for one meal during my stay, but gave me the money to pay for it on her behalf (she is a student at the moment admittedly but I experienced much the same things, in terms of who paid, or at least who seemed to).

      Do very much miss the food! My supply of soju will soon run out too!

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