“Hey Mandy, would you like to join us for dinner?” Emma asks as Mandy enters the teacher’s lounge. Although lounge might be the wrong word for the room as it was more a collection of desks and computers – closer to office cubicles than a comfortable room with couches. But it worked well for planning lessons and correcting essays which was what Mandy had observed most often happened here.
“Sure, I’d love too! Thanks.”
“Great. A group of us from work usually go out together for dinner a few times a week and you’re welcome to join us.”
“That would be wonderful. Maybe you could explain some of the food for me – I ate Korean food in Toronto sometimes of course but some of the food here is completely new to me. Well, actually a lot of it looks different to me.”
“My parents are Korean and some of the food was new to me when I arrived too.” Emma replies laughing, “Don’t worry, most of it is delicious. Has anyone asked you if you like kimchi yet?”
“Just about all of the students, yeah? Everyone seems surprised when I say I like it. I tried to explain that I make a spicy salsa so I’m used to spicy foods but that just made them laugh. Which is when I learned there is a Korean word – 설사 – which sounds similar but has a completely different meaning. I never thought the Korean word for diarrhea would be among the first words I would learn.” I reply smiling at the thought. Who knew learning Korean would make for such interesting stories?
“Oh my god, I can just picture that.”
“What’s so funny?” Paul asks as he walks into the teacher’s lounge. “Mandy, did Emma get a chance to invite you to dinner tonight? We’re curious about how your first week is going and of course, we’d love to show you around Bangi-dong. What do you feel like – chicken and beer or galbi and soju? Oh wait; do you know what galbi is? Have you had soju?”
“Whoa! Are we playing 20 questions? Where to start… yes, Emma invited me out and I said yes. I’d love to get to know you all better and see more of my new neighbourhood. As for food, it doesn’t matter to me as I’m sure it’ll be good. But no, I’ve never had soju before” I reply smiling at Paul. “Oh, we’re laughing at one of the new words I just learned. I’ll tell you about it over dinner.”
Paul is another of my new co-workers. He’s the youngest of the friendly ones – a group that includes Emma, Min Ah, Kyung Mi and Young Jae. I had quickly learned that there were three types of teachers at my academy. The friendly, outgoing ones who had quickly introduced themselves to me and tried to make me feel comfortable were the first type and I was happy to have the chance to get to know them more. The second type was quieter and older (in their 40s) but nice and helpful – they were the head teachers for the most part. The final type was thankfully the smallest group as it was made up of a few teachers who seemed almost unfriendly and uncommunicative. Luckily there were only three of them but unfortunately, James – the teacher I’ve been shadowing as I’m replacing him – was one of the latter so I’ve taken to asking Emma any questions I have since James would just grunt and walk away. Luckily, the students are an absolute joy to get to know and teach.
“Okay,” Paul replies “Emma, did you get a chance to invite James? We should say bye at least since it’s his last day.”
“No, I haven’t seen him yet. Mandy, is he still in his last class saying goodbye to the students”
“No, he left directly from the class. He told me I could take whatever was left in his desk and left.”
“What? Did he say goodbye to anyone?”
“I don’t think so. At least I didn’t see him do so. Umm, was he always this distant?”
“Oh yeah,” Paul answers, “I’ve been here for almost 6 months and he never once joined us for dinner or anything – and only once for the work dinners when Director Kim takes us all out. He was the only other guy until Young Jae started, but it was impossible to make friends with him. Luckily Young Jae and then Jake were friendlier because otherwise I’d have been entirely surrounded by girls.”
“And that would have been horrible why?” I ask laughing.
“I spend too much money that way – too much shopping!”
While still laughing we leave work and I’m thinking that I’ve made a great choice coming to Korea. With a few minor exceptions, I’ve got some fabulous co-workers who are already starting to be great friends and it’s only been a week. I’m living in a nice neighbourhood which according to my guidebook – yes, I just said guidebook. I did move here but it’s an entirely different country and I’m a Virgo so I bought both a Korean and a Seoul guidebook so I would know just a little about the place that would be my home for the next year. But to finish my thought, my guidebook says there’s a lot to explore around Bangi-dong. I can’t wait! But first, it’s time to have dinner with some new friends.
“Daniel and Sun Hee think your first Friday night out should start with galbi and soju so we’ll meet them at our regular galbi restaurant. You’ll like them; Daniel’s a Korean-Canadian who’s fairly new to our group. In fact, I think he’s the most recent arrival before you. He works with Sun Hee, a Korean girl and Claire, a Kiwi girl at another academy just down the street.” Emma said as we walked out of our building, “Young Jae and Kyung Mi will join us after they finish their last class. Hey, I think Daniel’s from Toronto too.”
Emma, Paul, Min Ah and I crossed the street and walked into the smaller side streets where everything was bright neon signs and people. For me, that was what stood out the most during my first week in Seoul. The sheer number of people – everywhere and at any time of day – and the brightness of the night. There were more people walking the side streets now, at 10pm, than in Toronto during rush hour. I’m not joking; there is a constant stream of people walking, on scooters and in cars all the time. I knew that there were more people in Seoul than in Toronto but I never expected it to be like this. Don’t laugh but I treat walking in Seoul like playing hockey. I remember my coach as a kid telling me to watch people’s shoulders/chest to see how they will move. It works just as well here to avoid running into people as it did to know when to check them in hockey. Yeah, I’m a dork sometimes!
And while you don’t notice them as much during the day, once it gets dark there are neon lights everywhere. There is so much neon that it’s never truly dark here. But the oddest thing for me is the red neon crosses – every church has one, usually on the top of the spire. It makes me wonder… why neon, why red? I would love to hear the story behind that.
Soon enough I’m jolted from my thoughts and deer-in-the-headlights gazing by Paul announcing that we’d arrived.
“Mandy, do you know you spent the last couple of minutes staring at everything like you’re a kid in a candy store,” Paul asks as we enter the restaurant. “We were going to tell you a little more about our friends but you just looked so enthralled with everything.”
“There’s just so much to look at. I know I’ve just arrived and I have lots of time to see and do everything but it’s just that I really want to see and do everything. I’m trying not to gawk like a tourist but it’s so hard.” I reply laughing.
We enter and are waved over to a table that already has three people at it.
“Mandy, I’d like you to meet Daniel, Sun Hee and Claire. Guys, this is Mandy our new Canadian teacher.” Paul says as we joined them.
“Hi, it’s great to meet you,” I say as I shake their hands.
“Hi Mandy, welcome to the group,” Daniel responds. “This place is famous for its BBQ pork or daeji galbi in Korean. I hear you’ve never tried soju. What about bekseju or bokbunja-ju?”
“Umm, no. What are they?”
“Hi Mandy, they are other Korean alcohol you should try,” Sun Hee replies, “Both are more like wine while soju is more like vodka. Bekseju is similar to a slightly sweet white wine although it’s rice-based not made from grapes. And bokbunja is a sweet red wine made from berries. They are all drunk from shot glass-sized glasses, although the glasses are a little different.”
“Oh, thanks. Those sound good. I’m not much of a drinker and usually drink wine or beer so perhaps I’ll like those better. But I want to try everything. Although perhaps not all at once,” I say with a smile.
“You should definitely try yogurt soju or other soju cocktails if you’re not a fan of shots. Don’t worry we’ll take you to a soju-bang, a bar that specializes in soju cocktails, soon,” Claire adds.
We chat for a while, getting to know each other while waiting for our meal. The food arrives much quicker than back home which is great because I’m starved. In addition to the meat that was ordered, everyone has their own small bowl of rice that comes in a metal bowl complete with a lid. There are several small dishes in the centre of the table around the grill filled with different food, mostly veggies I think. Oh, did I mention that galbi – regardless of what kind of meat – comes to the table raw and we grill it ourselves on the grill in the middle of the table. I watch as everyone picks up their bowl of rice with the lid on and gives it a shake before removing the lid. I, of course, copy them. Hey, when in Rome…
Paul and Daniel start grilling our meat and I notice that Daniel is kind of cute. Nope, don’t think that, I admonish myself. He’s part of your growing group of friends and it’s never a good idea to date a friend. What if it doesn’t work? He’s not cute, he’s not cute, he’s not cute. I repeat to myself. Luckily, Young Jae and Kyung Mi join us just then and I’m distracted by the greetings.