When I first arrived in Korea, I thought Koreans were quite pushy and a little rude. It seemed like everyone had somewhere they needed to be, and that place was as far away from me as possible.
But gradually, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t me. My co-workers are extremely busy, and most of their work doesn’t involve me. They do however, care about me and my well-being, and since they rarely have time to sit and chat, this “caring” takes odd forms.
Take today’s lunch for example. We were being served bibimbap, a delicious combination of rice and veggies. Usually it comes topped with a large dollop of kochujang, a SPICY red pepper paste. For some reason, my school puts meat in their kochujang so I don’t take it.
Today, for the first time, someone noticed. Instant pandemonium.
“Don’t you want kochujang Carrie-teacher?” the head cook looked distinctly alarmed by the possibility that I might enjoy bland bibimbap.
“We have some without meat! I will get it!” the nutritionist announced running off.
I waited awkwardly, holding up the lunch line. Nobody seemed concerned about the wait; they were all discussing the scandalous discovery that I had been eating bland bibimbap for almost 9 months. Oh the horror! How had no one noticed before now?? Poor Carrie-teacher!!
The nutritionist returned with a bright red bucket and spooned a large dollop on top of my rice. As she turned away, the head chef also came running over to give me a spoonful.
“Korean-style!” they announced, smiling at me happily.
Reassured that once again, all was right in the world, the lunch line began moving. I made my way to my seat with trepidation. I like spicy food but the amount of kochujang in my bowl could send a rocket into space. How could I eat enough to be polite and yet keep myself from bursting into flame?
My co-workers thought my hesitation was due to the fact that I’d never seen kochujang on bibimbap before. They helpfully stirred it for me. My rice was the colour of a fire engine.
Taking a deep breath, I took a small spoonful.
“Good?” a co-T asked in concern.
I gave her the thumbs up. I thought if I opened my mouth she could hear the screams of my taste buds as they burned to death. Grimly, I kept eating. My pale skin (the curse of redheads everywhere) turned red.
“Carrie-teacher, bibimbap is much better, yes? Your face very red. Very good.”
If turning red was a compliment to the chef in Korea, she was about to get a big, big compliment. The flush began to extend down my arms and I could feel my eyeballs beginning to sweat.
The head chef and the nutritionist came by to check on me. I smiled at them in thanks as I felt my internal organs begin to melt due to their close proximity to the raging inferno that had once been my stomach.
“You like Korean food?” the school nurse asked.
“I love Korean food,” I replied, trying to keep the tears from rolling down my face. I was flushed right to my fingertips (and quite possibly, the tips of my toes.)
Everyone nodded, satisfied.
I do love Korean food. Korean food is fantastic! I just prefer it a few million degrees less spicy. 😀