On 회식 and other matters

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” (Through the Looking Glass, anyone? No? Just me? Okay, moving on.) (I used to have quite a bit of that poem memorized, though, for realz. I was a strange child.)

But seriously, let’s talk about 회식 (hwe shik).

This is the term for company dinners in Korea, which are generally a big deal. They are an opportunity to strengthen coworker relationships outside the office, and typically involve a lot of food and a LOT of soju. Potentially followed by a lot of singing at 노래방 (noraebang), a.k.a. private karaoke rooms you can rent by the hour. Basically, these dinners are a combination of everything I don’t handle well, and they can last for hours and hours, late into the night, even on weeknights. Needless to say I was not particularly looking forward to my first 회식 experience tonight.

I wasn’t off to a good start when, while finishing up my work at my smaller school at 4:30, my co-teacher got off a phone call and told me my main school’s dinner started at 5 and I’d better hurry over there ASAP. No one with a car was available to pick me up, so I had to walk – okay, no big deal, it only takes about 15 minutes between the schools – until I got out to the main road and realized I’d left my flash drive in the office. I need that flash drive to take to my main school tomorrow, so I had to go back for it.

Since Daegu’s weather is seemingly even crazier than the weather in Wisconsin, it was almost 70 degrees today after being below freezing the last several days. What the heck, weather. This meant that I was also sweating in my winter clothes (even with my jacket off) as I hurried to the main school to meet my other co-teacher so she could drive me to wherever this dinner was going to be. I arrived at the school a breathless hot mess and ran up three flights of stairs to my co-teacher’s office… just in time to meet her coming out of the office, so back down the stairs we went while I gasped out apologies for making her wait. (She was really nice about it, of course.)

The restaurant wasn’t too far from the school and turned out to be a bulgogi restaurant, yay! It also had chairs, which surprised me since I’d envisioned everyone sitting on the floor, traditional-style. Before the meal started, my co-teacher told me that this was a welcoming dinner for the new principal and new teachers. Which included me. And all the new teachers would have to introduce themselves. Which included me.

So, about 10 minutes later my co-teacher prompted me to go up to the front of the room (where there was a microphone and podium) and introduce myself to all the teachers. I managed to get out a few sentences in Korean, which everyone loved. I don’t think they knew I could speak any Korean (I like this; let’s keep the bar low and I can continue to dazzle them with my meager vocabulary).

To my surprise, after I sat down and everyone started eating, there was little to no drinking going on at all. The teachers at my table were all drinking Sprite. This was a real relief since I’d heard stories of the intense pressure to keep up with the heavy drinking of one’s coworkers, and I am certainly not a drinker. For perspective, I think all the alcohol I’ve consumed in my lifetime would fit into a single pint glass. Maybe a pint and a half. So. Yep. I love me some alcohol.

As far as the food goes, I’m afraid I will never be able to live up to Korean expectations for eating. I simply cannot consume as much food as they can in one sitting. It’s not that I don’t like it – I’ve actually been eating just about everything here, from kimchi and super spicy soup to various roots and vegetables we don’t eat in the States to bibimbap and squid, and I really do enjoy almost all of it. (Okay, the squid was kinda chewy. And tough. And not good. But everything else has grown on me and I think my spicy food tolerance has already increased.) In Korean culture, it is really important to be able to “eat well” – to eat whatever is given to you and finish it and not be picky and that kind of thing. I forced myself to accept more food when it was offered even though I really didn’t want it because I didn’t want to be rude…

…and just when I had given up and resigned myself to the fact that I could not “eat well” by Korean standards, my co-teacher said to me, “I think you eat Korean food well.” Maybe she was just giving me points for trying (since I’d been asking about/trying all the side dishes, called 반찬 (banchan)), but I’m gonna count that as a win. Especially for my slow-eating, small-portion-consuming self.

After we’d eaten, I looked around nervously, noting the TV, microphone, and stereo system in one corner, not to mention the disco balls hanging from the ceiling – oh God, the restaurant IS the noraebang? There’s no escape! – But once again my fears were dissipated when my co-teacher turned to me and said, “Should we go?” Surprised, I stammered, “I’ll go when you’re ready to go.” “Mm… let’s go,” she said decisively. I was more than happy to take her up on that offer.

Since we were one of the first groups of people to leave, I asked her in the parking lot whether people tended to stay a long time at these dinners. “Mm… no,” she said. (She begins nearly every sentence with a thoughtful “Mm…”) She explained that it depends on the school, and apparently my main school is a sober bunch. They don’t party hard. I totally lucked out on this since I think it’s really rare to have a group that doesn’t drink late into the night on these occasions, and I’m beyond happy about it. This school’s 회식 culture and I are a match made in heaven.

*     *     *

In other news, I STILL have not seen a living soul in this apartment building. Due to the fact that I mostly hear their footsteps and voices really late at night (like, past 11 p.m. and sometimes till 1 a.m.), I have officially concluded that I am, in fact, living alone in a haunted building. It’s okay, they seem like friendly ghosts.

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