A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
Before I came to Korea, many people told me about the infamous Korean hweshik. Put simply, it’s a staff dinner. But hweshiks are infamous for drunken antics as your coworkers let off some steam after those long, stressful work days.
I’ve socialised with coworkers outside of work, but the idea of getting drunk with everyone you work with – including your boss – sounds terribly awkward to me. I come from a society where news websites run alarmist articles on posting drunk photos of yourself online because OMG WHAT IF YOUR BOSS FINDS OUT THAT YOU ARE AN ADULT WITH A SOCIAL LIFE?!, after all.
After a day-long school festival with teachers busily setting up displays, giving speeches and ushering the students around to sing and dance in adorable costumes for their parents, my colleagues decided they’d earned an evening of getting on the turps.
I arrived at the Grade 6 teacher’s wife’s kimchi jiggae restaurant to see three bottles of soju and two big bottles of beer on my table.
The male teachers immediately grabbed the soju and shot them down before I could even say hello. The school principal tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a shot. I like the principal. She’s a middle aged lady who wears fabulous sequinned floral coats and tells me I look pretty every day. Soju makes me violently ill but I’ve also been told that it’s rude to refuse a drink, so down the hatch it went. The principal cheered and heartily slapped me on the back, making her way over to the next victim.
After I wolfed down some pork bossam and politely tried to follow a conversation in Korean next to me, the other table called me over.
An ajeoshi chatted away to me, pouring me more shots. I’m not quite sure what he does at the school. I usually see him watching telly in the admin room.
“Call me Oppa,” he said. Big brother.
“Um, no,” I said. “You are the same age as my Dad.”
“Where is your Dad from?”
“Really? I am from Geojedo too!”
“You are probably one of my uncles. I’ll call you samchon.”
He laughed. “You are… good girl!” he said in English.
A man I didn’t recognise asked, “What do you think of the Grade 2 teacher?”
The Grade 2 teacher is wonderful. He plays games with the kids, and even dances along to the stupid songs I teach to his class. He arrives to class with various stationery he thinks I might need and helps me call attendance – which usually takes me a very long time because all the names are written in Korean.
“He’s nice,” I said.
“SARANGHAE!” the men roared at the Grade 2 teacher at the next table. She loves you!
I buried my face into my hands. The Grade 2 teacher suddenly looked very interested in the bottle of soju he was holding.
“He is single,” explained another teacher who speaks English. “We want you to…make a boyfriend and girlfriend.”
“Oh dear,” I said. “I have a boyfriend. Also… I can’t date someone I work with. That’s weird.”
I decided to change the subject. “What’s your name?” I asked the man sitting across from me.
“I’m Mr Jeong,” he said. “You teach my son in Grade 5 and my daughter in Grade 2.”
The Jeong kids are some of my favourites. They both try to trick me to give them extra stamps and lollies. The Jeong Brother is a red belt in taekwondo and laughs like the Count from Sesame Street when I catch him trying to trick me. “Hoh hoh hoh!” His friends are creating their own restaurant in one of my classes. Their restaurant is called Crazy BBQ which sells barbecued mice.
The Jeong Sister is a sweet kid with a big toothy smile who cheekily talks to me in Korean outside of class.
“Sorry. Ellie Teacher doesn’t speak Korean.”
Mr Jeong cackled and poured the billionth shot of soju for everyone. I wondered if it would be appropriate to catch up with the Jeong family in 10 years for a drink.
Some of the teachers went home after dinner, including the now very embarrassed Grade 2 teacher. Everyone else decided to go eat some sashimi.
We arrived at a nearby sushi restaurant and devoured plates of fresh fish.
The school accountant, a blonde lady who wears fuchsia lipstick and had never spoken to me before, suddenly started talking to me in English.
“I want… go to… your country,” she said loudly, gesturing wildly while eating soup.
“Oh. That’s great!”
“I want to go Sydney. Melbourne. Great Barrier Reef. Where is cheap?”
I explained that I didn’t really know. I usually stay with friends whenever I visit other cities.
“Your country… good. Where…?”
Her fingers slipped and she accidentally threw her soup spoon at me.
“I think she is drunk,” whispered a teacher.
The accountant snorted. “You know, she is… Kim Il Sung!” she said, pointing to the teacher.
“Yeah? Well, you are Kim Jong Il!”
More sashimi arrived. The ajeoshi and Mr Jeong propped up both side of the accountant, who fell over every time she leaned a little bit too far. I got into a conversation with the Grade 5 teacher on Australian slang and taught him how to say “no worries.”
Suddenly, the accountant vomited under the table and passed out.
The other teachers propped the accountant up to sleep on a bench and asked the horrified wait staff for some napkins.
“Are you okay?” asked the Grade 5 teacher to me.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m more worried about her.”
The accountant snored and drooled all over the bench. Another teacher called the accountant’s husband – who showed up an hour later to swing his wife over his back and carry her home, like a grumpy caveman.
“Better her than me!” I thought.
The accountant could never look me in the eye again after that evening. The Grade 2 teacher suddenly wasn’t available to co-teach with me for a while, until one day I inadvertently taught him how to do the Macarena and we were friends again. We never did have another hweshik while I was working at that school.