I recently celebrated my birthday. Unfortunately, my school decided to celebrate the end of 2012 on the same day. A few days before the party, my co-T casually mentioned it in passing.
“We will be having raw fish at the work party on Friday!”
“Yes. This Friday.”
“Oh. But it’s my birthday…”
“Really? Congratulations! We will celebrate at the work party.”
“I thought I might go out with my friends, since it’s my birthday…”
“The party starts when school finishes. Someone will take you in their car.”
Right. Work party it is!
My fabulous family had sneakily managed to have a gorgeous bouquet of flowers delivered to my school for my birthday. Not only were they beautiful, they were apparently from a trendy florist. Everyone in my staffoom wanted to have their pictures taken with the flowers, and with me and the flowers. I felt like Miss America.
The feeling followed me to the restaurant. I walked to my place, bouquet in my arms, waving gracefully, and nodding a regal thanks in response to all birthday wishes. The co-workers who were seated with me gave the bouquet a place of honour on our table, right next to the sliced octopus and live shellfish.
The restaurant was on the waterfront, and a fishing boat had docked just as we arrived. Large squiggling fish were brought into the restaurant and minutes later, large plates of sashimi (or hwe in Korean) were brought out.
The dinner proceeded in normal Korean work party fashion- large quantities of alcohol and hot sauce were consumed. Nearly everything on offer was dipped in the hot sauce, and then washed down with soju.
Koreans must have digestive tracts of steel. A co-worker told me that Koreans start eating kimchi when they’re about 6 months old. I find this absolutely mind-blowing; I’ve lived in Korea for almost 4 years and I still find kimchi difficult to eat.
The highlight of my evening came when a co-worker came staggering over bearing this:
“Berrrrrrrry berrrrrrrrrry healthy!” she exclaimed, rolling her R’s for emphasis. “Is your birthday! You berrrrrrrrrry old. Is berrrrrrrrrrry good for you.”
“Ah… thank you….”
Of course she knew how old I was; my staff knew everything about me. I suspected the results of my health check had been published in the staff newsletter as everyone seemed to know about them but me. I decided not to be insulted by her reference to my age; I am no spring chicken, but I’m hardly Methuselah.
“You eat!” she insisted, pushing the seaweed towards me.
I couldn’t refuse. Not only was she in her sixties, we had attracted the attention of everyone at the table. I took a large piece and sniffed it. Bad idea. I dipped it in the hot sauce, took a deep breath and stuffed the whole thing in my mouth.
Rejection was almost instantaneous. Clapping my hand over my mouth, I could feel tears welling in my eyes as I struggled not to spit it out. It was warm, slimy and cartilaginous, and tasted like the ocean. The hot sauce wasn’t helping matters either. Forcing it down, I shook my head when she offered me another piece.
“Is healthy!” she insisted.
“Why on earth would anyone want to eat that?” I asked with a shudder.
“Is good for…. hm…… is good for….” she consulted with my co-T. “Ah! Is good for soft poo. You old now….. maybe you need.”
With that astounding explanation, she got to her feet and wobbled away, humming to herself.
And to think I was worried I wouldn’t have an exciting birthday…