During my seventh day of winter camp Mr. Jo came in and invited me to have lunch with the rest of the staff keeping the school running during the winter vacation.
“You know yukgaejang?” he asks.
“Gamjatang?” I ask quizzically.
This is like me saying to a Swede “have you had American beef stew?” and they reply with “pork mush?”
“No, no, no. Very spicy,” he says. “It’s okay?”
Yes it’s okay. The last time I shared a meal with the Vice Principal and other staff was during my first week teaching at school. Since then, my relationship with my colleagues has been very formal. Polite. We have an adult language, different from the way we communicate with our students, but we can’t communicate with each other past the rudimentary basics.
When I enter the small teacher’s lounge, the big stone bowls of Korean beef stew are on the table. I do a dozen little bows to everyone and we all chow down. We perch on the edges of the deep leather lounge chairs and huddle in towards the table. We’re like ferrets in a warm den, tunneled in the earth away from the cold. I sit across from the grandmotherly custodian decked out in paisley rubber boots and an apron. The Vice Principle sits next to me and further on at the end is my co-teacher, Mr. Jo talking with the assistant. I’m completely silent, listening to their Korean chatter which always sounds like raindrops hitting stone, while I slurp up the rich spicy broth with strips of tender beef and veggies. When I sneeze, they all pass a roll of toilet paper down the table so I can wipe my nose. I notice the sweat forming on their foreheads as the red pepper heat builds in their bellies. They pat their cheeks and beneath their noses as they sip up.
“Heyheyheyhey!” the vice principal nudges when I finish. “Not too hot?”
“Mashisoyo. Delicious,” I say.
“Go to Vietnam, with boyfriend?” he asks. Apparently the intel on my upcoming trip has reached the higher ups. When he asks it is as a father figure would, looking out for the best interest of his youngest daughter.
“No boyfriend,” I say.
“Oh-oh-oh. Sorry,” and he looks down at his empty bowl, maybe a little disappointed and concerned.
It’s as if suddenly we’ve gone from being polite strangers to family all huddled together over a shared meal. I now know, that my singledom and my upcoming 28th birthday (that’s 29th in Korea) will be the next topic of conversation over our final meal together before I depart South Korea. It’s as if the next meal will be Korean Thanksgiving and I have to prepare for the questions that I know will be on everyone’s minds. For the next month we will be strangers again, until we share some Korean soul food at the end of year dinner. This country is so surprising that way, from strangers to family and all of its wonderful intimate pitfalls too.