Anatomy of a Teacher Dinner
The teacher dinner. If you teach English at a public school in Korea, there’s no avoiding it.
Truthfully, I dread these dinners. I never know if they’re going to go for one hour or three. Most of the time I don’t even know that they’re happening until the morning of the event.
Dinners are solitary social events for a non-Korean speaker. For several hours, I sit on the floor and pick at fat-encrusted pork while all of my co-workers chat and get boozed on soju. It’s my fault – I really dropped the ball on studying Korean after the first year.
When I heard on Friday about a 6th grade teacher dinner for Monday, I was immediately seized with one thought:
How can I get out of this?
Then I realized that I couldn’t, and nor should I. It’s all part of the experience of teaching in Korea. If I wanted to avoid awkward moments, coming here was the wrong move.
So I considered myself lucky that I’d gotten advance notice and steeled myself for Monday evening.
Here’s how it played out.
5:23 The school nurse drives me and my co-teacher to a duck restaurant. We are the first to arrive. I stand back while the two women discuss seating arrangements. The most important people always sit in the middle, so we settle onto our floor cushions at the very end of the table.
5:25 The sixth grade teachers arrive. They sit at the opposite end of the table, leaving an odd gap in the middle.
5:27 Everyone stands up abruptly, so I copy them. We bow and greet the head teacher, a 50-year old ajumma wearing some sort of leopard print sofa fabric. She assumes her position to the left of center, and we all sit back down.
5:29 The vice principal enters. Everyone stands. It’s just like playing My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean. He sits next to the head teacher and adjusts his belt buckle for the forthcoming duck feast. When he sits, we sit.
5:31 The moment we’ve all been waiting for: the principal has arrived. I linger on my knees for a bit, thinking “Seriously?” Yes, seriously. I stand. The principal is about ninety, and the nicest man you’ll ever meet. He insists that we should sit down, but no one budges until he lowers himself onto his cushion in the prime spot. My knees crack loudly as I sit.
5:35 Plates of raw duck meat are delivered to the table. The women busy themselves with inserting the skewered meat into tabletop rotisserie cookers while the men crack open bottles of soju.
5:40 The head teacher gives a speech. The women who were previously tending to the duck scramble around to make sure everyone has a full shot glass for the toast. I take cider (Sprite) and try to smile like I know what’s going on. She shouts, “Oui-yo!” and everyone clinks glasses, fighting to keep their glass lower than the others in order to show appropriate levels of respect. We raise our glasses with two hands and turn our heads to the side, the customary way of taking a shot.
5:43 The vice principal gives a speech. We take another shot.
5:47 The principal gives a speech. Everyone laughs raucously at something he says. I laugh especially loudly.
5:50 The head teacher of the sixth grade gives a speech. I watch the fat drip off of the duck meat as it rotates slowly. It is hypnotizing.
5:53 The meat is ready. I volunteer to transfer it from the skewer to the tray, awkwardly flicking a piece of meat across the table in the process. Everyone at my section of the table has a good chuckle. My co-teacher tries to take over and accidentally spatters the head teacher’s left hand with duck fat.
5:54 Panic ensues. The nurse whips out her wet wipe and dabs the head teacher’s hand. My co-teacher lunges across the table and attacks with her own wet wipe. I do nothing.
6:05 I realize that I haven’t spoken a word to anyone except for ‘oui-yo’ during the toasts.
6:10 People approach the principal with shot glasses and bottles of soju. As a mark of respect, it’s the done thing to offer the higher-ups a shot at least once during the meal. The principal accepts them all with good grace, but pours most of them into the nearest bowl. It’s the thought that counts.
6:15 The principal offers me a pity shot of soju. Foreign teacher fail. I accept it, glad that my grimacing face is turned away when I swallow.
6:30 I experiment with the side dishes, eating shredded greenery in individual pieces so as to keep busy. Fleetingly, I wish I hadn’t abandoned my Korean studies last semester. Then I remember how no one could understand my pronunciation anyway.
6:45 My co-teacher, who has been chatting at the other end of the table, returns. She and the vice principal start talking about me, but not to me. I realize she is telling him about our vacation in India. I get so excited, I join in on the conversation. The first thing I say is, “India, train, very sick.” Then I mime vomiting, all while the voice in my head is going, Lauren, stop talking right now. The conversation sort of dwindles away after that.
7:00 I accept another pity shot from the principal.
7:05 The duck rotisseries have all been turned off, chopsticks abandoned, and side dishes emptied. I take this as a good sign – surely the dinner will wrap up soon. Then I remember – rice. Rice always comes at the end of a meal. That’s another half an hour at least. The new 6th grade PE teacher sits next to me and offers me a shot. “Cid-uh or soju?” he asks. “Soju,” I say.
7:10 The PE teacher reveals that he speaks a little bit of English. This is mainly because he has been drinking ‘English juice,’ as soju is also known. He insists that his friend has seen me at the pool, and says that I must be a good swimmer. I’ve never been to the pool, but I don’t have the heart to tell him that.
7:15 “Stop!” shouts a male voice from the opposite end of the table. One of the sixth grade homeroom teachers is jokingly telling the young PE teacher that he should leave me alone, I’m spoken for. “Just talking!” he hastily explains, as everyone laughs. Embarrassed, he picks up his bottle of soju and joins the party at the other end of the table.
7:20 The rice arrives. I have never seen people eat so slowly. My legs ache.
7:30 The vice principal looks at his watch, then signals the 6th grade head teacher. She nudges one of the male teachers, who retrieves a full bottle of soju from the kitchen and circulates until he has filled everyone’s glass. We toast one last time. The new PE teacher delivers an unexpected one-liner that makes everyone laugh, nearly to the point of tears. I laugh, too. It is so funny that another bottle of soju is produced.
7:32 We take our final shot. This time, everyone stands up. I am the only one groaning as my sore legs unfurl after 2 hours of sitting cross-legged.
7:35 The nurse drives me back to the school so I can get my bicycle. We learn that we were born in the same year, 1981, and we both think it is too cold in the morning. Just as our mutual language runs out, we arrive at the school.
7:40 I detour to Baskin Robbins, blaming the principal for getting me liquored up and abandoning my healthy eating plan.
7:55 Happily nursing an ice cream coma on the couch, I decide that maybe teacher dinners aren’t so bad after all.