Page Four: The First Supper


'You meet all kinds . . .'

That night we met Ian's friend of a friend who'd originally given him the idea to come to Korea. It was our first time in a Korean restaurant. It was also our first chance to meet Dave. I don't know which one sticks out clearer in my mind.

The restaurant was one of those conveniently located in the basement of our new home. Though there were approximately 30 other 'foreigners' living in the building and in theory, visiting these restaurants, when we walked in all conversation stopped and we were immediately the center of attention. It seemed staring was going to be a common theme of my life in Korea.

The restaurant was like a million other ones throughout the country. Part of it had tables and chairs while about a third was set aside for those who wished to sit, traditional style, on the floor. Every table had a built in gas burner for custom cooking the 'bulgogi' (grilled beef) right in front of you. They were connected to the gas by either small pipes that ran willy-nilly over the entire floor or by the small gas canisters familiar to any camper.

Though about 8 a.m. Michigan time the smell of the grilling meat mixed with the fresh garlic had my mouth watering. The other, yet unidentified, exotic smells promised some serious eating was about to take place. We sat down, maneuvering our chairs around the pipes and the 'ajimah' ('old aunt') came up to take our order.

"Suck my dick? Kiss my ass?"

What the hell was Dave doing!? I gave Ian a shocked look. One he returned with a touch of embarrassment.

"Bulgogi, okay?"

The totally oblivious woman nodded with a smile.
"Suck my dick?"

Apparently Dave was a bit fixated and, by the looks of the woman, quite desperate.

"Three," he said next. Holding up three fingers. Then he decided to show off, "sam."
What a linguist! He had been in the country for over a month and he could count to three!!

The woman confirmed, "sam," and then headed back to the kitchen with a last quizzical look at Dave as he asked her to "schlob his bob."

"I love that," Dave nearly had tears in his eyes he was laughing so hard. "You can say anything you want and no one can understand. It's great."

"Great man, really, really funny," I said, making a mental note to never introduce any woman I had, did or would ever know to this guy.

The ajimah came back with a load of beef she proceeded to pile high on the burner in the middle of the table. Apparently thinking our lack of Korean signified an inability to turn on the burner she did that too. Then she took out a big pair of scissors and began to cut the meat into bite-size portions. Once she was satisfied that we wouldn't do anything to screw it up she went back to the kitchen. Next she came out with a tray of side dishes that, as the Korean proverb says, had the table legs ready to break under their weight.

There were several kinds of kimchi, whole cloves of garlic, various dipping sauces plus a whole load of stuff I had no clue about. Things were looking up again. Next to sleeping, eating was my thing and Koreans, to my eternal gratitude, seemed to take it nice and seriously.

My happiness was soon dampened by the realization that I truly sucked when it came to using chopsticks. This proved to be a great source of amusement to the other diners, Ian and Dave, the entire wait staff, passerby, and for all I know God in Heaven. The most embarrassing part was when the ajimah took pity on me and scrounged up a fork. I couldn't have felt more ridiculous.

The stares were also back in force. It seems Koreans are practically trained from birth to believe that Westerners can't use chopsticks and, on the off-chance they ever see one in a restaurant, that is the first thing they check out. Of course I wasn't doing much to dispel the stereotype. Dave and Ian on the other hand weren't bad. Dave was even able to stop talking about sex for long enough to tell me not to worry - it only took a couple of weeks to get the basics of chopstickin' down. Damned if he wasn't right too.

From this first night I began to become truly enamored of Korean food. Maybe it was because I was starving, maybe because it was my first meal overseas, I don't know but to this day the thought of that 'first supper' makes my mouth water. Even now whenever I go back to Korea after a long absence the first thing I eat is traditional-style bulgogi.

That first night though I was more concerned with exactly how in the hell you ate it. Furtive glances around the room gave ample illustration. First you grab one of the big lettuce/cabbage type leaves and hold it in your hand. Next chopstick some meat into a sauce or two and then put it on the leaf. Then grab whatever else looks good - some raw garlic here, a little kimchi there, whatever. You top it all off with some rice and then roll the leaf into a ball. Kind of a Korean burrito.

The next key is to fit it all into your mouth at one time. If you chicken out and try to do it in two bites it rarely works - the whole thing falls apart in your lap. It makes for some seriously crammed mouths until you get the proper sizing figured out. I ate a mountain of food that night, followed closely by Ian. Dave was somewhat more used to things and seemed content to ramble while we munched.

A little way into the meal the ajimah came by to see if we wanted some soju (an age-old Korean alcohol similar in 'taste' to vodka though not as strong). By this time all the spices were beginning to get to me and drinking anything other than the tiny cup of water at the table sounded pretty good. Why not dive right in and try everything?

At that time you drank soju straight or straight. This current business with soju cocktails was still a few years from becoming popular. Poured into shot glasses and either sipped slowly or slammed down in 'one shot' soju was cheap, common and not all that bad.

It was also a test of one's manhood. Asking me how many bottles of soju I could drink would turn out to be one of the more common questions I could pry out of my students. Being able to drink more than two bottles (about a pint each of 40 proof liquor) was considered the minimum acceptable amount for any 'real' man. We stuck to one for the three of us that night - no need to prove our manhood so soon after arrival. Plus Dave was bad enough sober.

Later, when the bill came the price of our gluttony turned out to be all of $6 each. I'd have been happy with that meal at triple the price. We got out our 'funny money' (it always takes me a few days to get used to a new currency), put it together and paid the bill. This was also a source of amusement to those around us - Koreans treat each other, they don't split the bill. The idea of walking up to a cash register, passing around money and carving up the bill to the last cent was considered quite ill-mannered and improper. We unwittingly barged our way right through that custom . . .

By this time it was about 10:30 and Dave decided it was time to burst a few bubbles. First, as we waited for the elevator to take us back up to our places, Dave pointed out that they were almost all shut down. Apparently once the office workers went home for the day most things in the building ended up this way. Five of the six elevators were turned off, the heat or 'air-conditioning' was either turned down or off, even the water was sometimes cut. In the fiery innocence of having no clue I asked why this was - didn't the people who lived in the building count? Dave got a good laugh out of that.

Next Dave took us up to his room - we were curious to see what a 'finished' room looked like. Pretty spartan but not bad. Plus the man had a view, a real live non-gray-screened view! It wasn't much but if you craned your neck around you could see the Han River and some large hills off to the southwest. A hell of a lot better than the crap we had.

Then Dave kind of hustled us out. Said something about having to get to bed - 5:30 came damn early. Ouch! That little clause in the contract about a 7 a.m. start time suddenly reared its ugly little head. We took off but not before one last bit of advice from Dave, "watch out for the doorbells," he warned, "they shriek like hell."

"Sorry about all that. I had only talked to him on the phone before and didn't realize, uh . . ." Ian didn't quite know what to say.

"I got you. No problem. How did you meet the guy anyway?" I'd only known him a few hours at this point but Ian didn't seem like he had much in common with Mr. Schlob My Bob.

"Oh, I was friends with his fiancee. She told me to call him about the job when I first thought about coming to Korea. He was pretty helpful on the phone . . ."

"Wonder what she would have thought of the little scene at the restaurant?"

"Good question, come up to my place for a nightcap?" We had stopped at the store earlier.

"Sure, sounds good to me."

A few years later I would be the best man at Ian's wedding.

One day, two people - you meet all kinds . . .


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