South Korea (Part 3)
Summer in Seoul is nice. I love Summers. So for that matter Summer for me is nice in any city. Being born in a country where there are four seasons I still call Summer my favourite season. That’s why living in Queensland Australia is just perfect. Although at times the rain can come down like you have not seen before. Can’t beat Summer though I just love it. In Seoul nobody sleeps in Summer, so it seems. You can walk on the street at three, four, five….hell even at quarter past five in the early morning and deadset it will be packed with people. Eating joints will be choc-a-bloc with people. Areas like Myeong-Dong or Apgujeong-Dong are absolutely packed during the day as well so pretty much the whole damn day people are out and about. What am I doing out on the streets at this hour, you may ask? Well you see Koreans love drinking. Any excuse for a drinking party. It is almost encouraged there as every one I spoke to enjoys to go out and get “on the piss” as we say. Drinking is a national pastime in Korea. If you do not go out after work for a drink with your colleagues or work buddies then you are not regarded as normal. And the hierarchy there is such that if your supervisor, boss or whoever you report to at work wants you to join, then you’d better be ready and turn up….five even six nights a week.
But whether it is someone’s birthday, the birth of a child, a move to a new house, a promotion, a farewell, a new girlfriend/boyfriend, a new pet, hell…..even a new pair of shoes is a good enough excuse to get blasted. So they all (this can run into hundreds) meet at some restaurant that is most likely owned by a cousin or some sort of far related family member of one of the organisers. The funny thing is the manner in how they get to that restaurant or wherever they decided the meeting place would be as everyone knows where it is and at the same time nobody knows where to go. Get it?! So on a warm evening in June 2006 I found myself in a maxi-taxi with fifteen Koreans all on their mobile phone (by the way Koreans are married to their mobile phone.The mobile phone comes first….everything else comes second. And the more technology advanced the damn things are the better.) at the same time calling their mate, cousin, brother, sister, son, daughter, even their dog, all trying to find out the location of the restaurant or wherever the place is were we all supposed to meet. I tell you if you can be a taxi driver in Seoul, then you can handle any Cuban missile crisis like a walk in the park. I think this guy must have done at least a dozen U-turns and been instructed a hundred fifteen different ways to get to this meeting place by fifteen Koreans all at the same time. On top of that traffic in Seoul is right down tragic….and that’s on a good day. So three hours later we finally arrived at this restaurant only to find out that it was just three blocks away from where we started. Once arrived we all go in, shoes come off and you sit on the floor where cushions are placed. That’s easy for a tiny Korean, not so easy for moi and certainly not for three hours non-stop. Dining in Korea, whether this is with family, friends or work colleagues, is a very important part of their culture and certain table etiquette is still observed.
Then the food comes out. This can be bulgogi, samgeytang, galbitang, samgyeopsal (my favourite), bimbimbab, accompanied with an array of condiments. And there is plenty of food and it keeps coming, all good stuff, tasty and healthy. Depending on the occasion speeches will follow. Now in Korean culture the elderly are highly respected. What they say goes, period. A little different than in the “Western” world what I have experienced anyway. So at certain occasions only those that have reached a certain status will be invited at these gatherings and then I am referring to work related gatherings. I remember at my welcome party back in September 2005 every one was dressed really schmick. Suit and tie. And not just any suit, no, no all brand names. I thought I had misunderstood the occasion as here I rocked up in jeans and T-shirt seeing all these people dressed as if we were invited to a Royal dinner. When I asked my secretary why they were all dressed in suits, after all it was an informal gathering. What she said to me stunned me even more. She said that that’s how they dress every day, most of them anyway. They need to look good towards others. Some of these men’s wives don’t know what job they are in. They believe they are some sort of director or high up in some company. Status is very important in Korean culture. I looked at my secretary with a certain stare as if I was saying “You are shitting me?” to name a good old Ozzie phrase, but her facial expression was as if she was telling me “You’ll learn”. Back to the speeches. The eldest of the group starts followed by the next in line. Its important that all have their say. Status!, remember that! Then comes the Soju and Makgeolli. The Koreans love this stuff. I must say I never in my two years in South Korea took a liking for both beverages. Now there are different varieties of Soju (burned liquor) and different qualities. A good high quality Soju is nice like a good Sake is but the stuff that was flowing at this party was cheap as “piss” and horrible. But the locals loved it and drank it like a fish. It flows like there is no tomorrow and they love to mix it with beer. There are many types of “Poktanju” invented known as “Soju shots” or “Soju bombs”. The glasses are raised non-stop and refilled for the next round of cheers and this repeats itself over and over again. Now as most Koreans are not heavily build and quite tiny, you can imagine that it does not take much for them to be absolutely gum-smacked. In fact it does not take long at al before most of them are totally legless. I remember going to a place called Sunchang famous for its Gochujang where I was invited with a group of chefs to do a cooking demonstration using Gochujang.
In the evening we strolled into this local joint that was really a tent that was set up during this festival. As we sit there enjoying a cold beverage this lady dressed in drags walks up to me. At first I thought she wanted to take our order for another round of drinks then she pulled up her apron and underneath it there was a penis made out of nylon and other fabric that was tied around her waste. She had a pair of scissors in her right hand. Apparently she was a local performer trying to impress a group of foreign chefs. All in good fun we joined in with the laughter of the rest of the audience of whom most of them were well on their way getting “pissed as a fart”. And so was most of the gang at my welcome party. So here I was still sober as a “testicle on dry-ice” sitting amongst a group of South Koreans who really did not know from the front what was going on at the back. At this stage any attempt of having a normal conversation proved to be fruitless. Once dinner is over next on the program is always “Noraebang” (song room) the Korean version of Karaoke. Another national pastime in South Korea. They love their noraebang. They all get really into it and here you can experience dance moves that have never been seen on this planet, not all necessary in tune with the beat I might add. The ties come off and tied around their heads and off they go. This goes on until the early hours in the morning. Walking the streets in Seoul at this hour you would not know what time of the day it is judging by the amount of people that are still out and about. It’s packed everywhere, burger joints, coffee shops, restaurants all packed, unreal! And another fact that I have found is that, although I believe that in any large city population wise or otherwise there is a presence of crime, I have not seen any incidents on the streets of Seoul in the form of street fights, brawls and what have you. Intoxicated people, yes…plenty but never a fight as a result of that, never in my two years in Seoul. I have been to cities that could most definitely learn from Seoul, another city that “never sleeps”. The next day, or later that morning rather, I was curious to see who would turn up for work and who wouldn’t. As a matter of fact no one called in sick. All were there as fit as a fiddle. Any Executive chef out there understands fully when I say that I felt like I was in paradise. To be able to go on a night out with your workmates of whom most of them at the end of the party would have needed genuine support to make it back home or wherever they decided to spend the morning before getting ready for work and have them all turn up for work felt like a dream. I can tell you you do this in other places I have worked and you would have to close down the restaurant s in your hotel for a day….or two.
to be continued…