I should’ve known that I couldn’t finish up my first year in Korea without a more traditional style 회식 dinner.
This was the closing dinner, basically – all staff gathering to eat, drink, congratulate each other for surviving another year with these crazy kids, and say goodbye to the teachers who will be leaving (transferring to other schools, which is mandatory every 4-5 years for Korean teachers).
We went to a smoked duck bbq restaurant. The seating was traditional – long, low tables, charcoal grill in the middle of each table, and everyone sits on the floor. Once the meat came out, so did the beer and soju. Cups were filled and we had three or four toasts in a row, not including a speech by the principal which ended in a toast.
Curiously, a few of the men (as far as I could tell, one head teacher, one security guard, and one janitor-type-guy) began coming around to each table, sitting down, pouring a round and taking shots. I stopped calculating how many shots they must be taking if they were going to visit every table, but it was a lot.
The head teacher came to my table, where I was sitting with two of my co-teachers. We were drinking beer and soda. I had beer still in my glass (because I hate beer). He said, “Maddy, Maddy!” and indicated that I should bottoms-up the rest of my beer so he could pour me a new one. I obliged (did I mention that I hate beer?), and we toasted each other and he moved on.
After we had mostly finished eating (although drinking continued), two teachers came out dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean dress) and plastic tiaras and put on a show. They introduced themselves as the “Ijang Sisters” (one’s surname is “Lee,” which is pronounced in Korean as “ee,” and the other’s is “Jang”). Apparently they are the star act of every 회식 at my small school.
Spoons stuck into empty soju bottles became microphones. There were jokes. There was a quiz, and winners received 5,000 won gift certificates (about $5).
There was a raffle, and in spite of my internal mantra of “please not me, please not me,” the principal reached his hand into the box and called out my number. Of course! (Perhaps I am one of the only human beings on earth who would rather not win a raffle to avoid going up in front of everyone to receive the prize.) I had to go up and say thank you into the microphone (a real microphone this time, not a soju bottle).
Then there was singing. Not noraebang (karaoke), thankfully. I might’ve seriously considered an Irish goodbye at that point. The Ijang Sisters were doing the singing, but they also handed out the lyrics and invited everyone to sing along.
And then suddenly everyone around me was singing and crying and I felt emotionally out of the loop. Although I can totally understand why enduring a long hard school year with a group of people and then singing a moving, nostalgic song together would produce tears and feels, I couldn’t participate really. Language and cultural barriers, all that.
This was the song, by the way (a song that most of them grew up listening to, and has now been brought to the cultural spotlight again by a very popular current TV drama):
And actually, now that I’m reading all the lyrics translated into English, I can understand why they all cried.
Anyway, then there was a funny song, an original composition by the Ijang Sisters, specifically referencing situations and hardships of teaching at my small school, which made everyone laugh.
And then I started laughing, not because I could understand the song (I couldn’t), but because the head teacher was clapping in time and waving his song lyric paper around, and he was smacking it right in the face of the security guard sitting beside him, but the security guard was so drunk that he didn’t even seem to notice – his eyes were closed, face beet-red, and he was swaying and clapping along to the song (completely offbeat). It was among the more hilarious things I’ve witnessed.
Thus ended the entertainment for the evening. The Ijang Sisters made their exit amid thunderous applause.
The head teacher gave one more speech, and apparently decided that I should make the final toast of the evening. Why? I have no idea. He passed the mic my way, with an instruction that included the word “Eng-uh-lish-ee.” So I stood up and said quickly, “For happiness in 2016. Cheers” and they all said “Cheers!” which was cute. It was also somewhat comforting that most of them probably couldn’t really understand what I said anyway (due to lack of English or excess of alcohol).
And then my co-teacher drove me home, and hence I had survived 회식 yet again.
I’m not saying this was wildly crazy. It was pretty tame, really. But it was the most hweshik-y hweshik I’ve attended yet (out of the whopping three I’ve been to).
I’m just grateful I didn’t have to sing.