“Oh and Sam, we are eating fish.”
On a list of all the things which make me want to vomit, seafood is right up there.
“Sam, are you okay?”
Whenever my co-teacher asks, “are you okay?” she means “are you okay with that?”
We’ve been teaching together for almost three years. She knows the answer is no.
“Yes, of course it’s okay.”
I’m not sure why she still checks with me. Once, I asked my co-teacher if I could sit the seafood dinners out and I was smacked in the face with “it’s compulsory”. Once, I was even told that a post-dinner noraebang session was “compulsory.”
My school sits not too far from the sea which means the dinners are almost always at one of the seafood restaurants sprayed across the seaside.
These seafood dinners play out similarly. But one particular episode is tattooed in my memory:
We drove for about 15 minutes until we arrived at the beach, where we stopped and walked to our restaurant. We’ve eaten there so many times, but I still don’t know the name of it. My shoes squelched against the restaurant floor as we walked past the bath tub–sized glass tanks filled with large, orange crabs blissfully unaware of their ill-fate which lay ahead.
Plates carrying strips of raw fish waited patiently for me on our table. The fish was accompanied by more plates of more fish. On one plate lay three little fish covered in red sauce. They still had their eyes. On another plate lay just a single, whole, blackened fish complete with eyes, scales, fins and bones. There were other dishes with sea creatures I couldn’t identify: some looked wet and jelly-like, some were still in their houses and some were still moving.
The second we sat ourselves down everyone started gobbling down their raw fish as if they had been starved for days.
“Sam are you fine?”
“Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.” That was the truth. In my books rice, seaweed soup and kimchi constitute a meal – not a delicious meal; just a meal, with no accompanying sides of adjectives.
The female teachers gossiped animatedly about the students and the male teachers swigged shots of soju while I tried my best to not look conspicuous.
“Sam are you boring?” (I was quite offended the first time I was asked this, but turns out my co-teacher is just asking if I am bored.)
“Not at all.” I took an enthusiastic spoonful of rice and seaweed soup to prove I was fine, but the damage was done. All eyes were on me and my rice and seaweed soup.
“Sam, you are not eating!”
“But it is not enough!” She called the wrinkly waitress over and muttered something to her. Something about an egg.
“What did you ask her? I’m fine, really.”
“I asked her if they had eggs; she will fry you an egg.”
I prayed this was a joke. But the wrinkly waitress hobbled over to me ten minutes later, looking thoroughly confused, carrying a lonely fried egg on a plate. I looked down at the egg in front of me. Everyone else looked at me looking down at the egg, their chopsticks frozen halfway to their mouths.
“Sam, are you fine now?”
“Yes…” I attempted to cut the egg with a spoon and a chopstick. No one at the table was eating; they were all glued to the show.
Meanwhile, a commotion had begun at the next table. The teachers were shouting and clapping loudly. The P.E teacher had already finished his third bottle of soju. The vice principal was starting on his fourth. Their faces were almost the same colour as the gochujang. The P.E teacher was standing akimbo while swinging his hips wildly to a Korean song that the vice principal was belting out. He grabbed the vice principal’s arms and twirled him around and then let him go. The vice principal staggered dangerously, but sat down successfully.
The P.E teacher stopped suddenly. Something had caught his attention outside the window. He ran outside and came back in cradling a ginger cat. The cat had small patches of fur missing from its body, its legs were stiffly splayed and its claws were out – unnoticed by the P.E teacher who sat himself down and started feeding the stray from his own plate as tenderly as if he were feeding his own child.
Gradually the soju was taking its toll on some of the other teachers who had started running around and drunkenly serenading the other guests at the restaurant with “Don’t Worry, Be happy”. The guests tried their best to ignore my co-workers while the restaurant workers merely stared.
The evening was drawing to a much-needed close. Teachers were slowly filing out, still humming “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and paying no attention to the P.E teacher who eventually stood up again and started slow-dancing. His forehead was drizzled with beads of perspiration, but he looked completely at peace, unlike the cat which was still trapped in his arms.
I grabbed my bag to go. I looked down at my plate. I forgot about my fried egg.