When they say ‘fresh seafood,’ they really mean freshMaybe I’m odd, but I don’t recall ever spending time with one of my teachers or professors outside of class. Not even a beer or a cup of coffee after class. That’s not to say that I didn’t get along with my teachers; we just didn’t interact socially. So when I started teaching in Korea, I was surprised at how frequently my students wanted to hang out with me after class and on the weekends. I saw such invitations as kind gestures, a way of making a foreigner feel welcome. But sometimes it turned out to be more of a hazing ritual than a welcome mat.
I found this out the hard way after I’d been in Korea for about a month. A group of my students, mostly businessmen in their 30s and 40s, invited me to grab a bite and a few drinks with them after our Friday evening class.
“Sounds good,” I said. “What’s on the menu?”
“Fresh seafood,” one of the guys replied.
“Great, I love seafood,” I said.
“All right! Let’s go!” they all shouted.
The restaurant was a hole-in-the-wall a few blocks from the school. Since I’m not really comfortable sitting on the floor, I was relieved to find that the place had tables and chairs. So relieved, in fact, that I didn’t bother asking what we were going to be eating.
A few minutes later the waitress arrived with a plate piled high with a slimy, writhing mass of something. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t quite dead. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a plate of octopus tentacles apparently just separated from the rest of the cephalopod seconds earlier. When they said fresh seafood they really meant fresh.
“Help yourself,” said the class ring leader.
Easy for him to say. I had just used chopsticks for the first time in my life about four weeks earlier and was still getting the hang of it. Snagging a moving target, especially a slippery one, was going to be a challenge. Eventually, I managed to get a firm grip on one of the tentacles, but it was suctioned to the plate. As I tugged at it I realized that everyone was looking at me. I eventually dislodged the tentacle, but as soon as it left the plate it also left my chopsticks, sailing over my right shoulder and sticking to the wall behind me. The entire restaurant erupted in laughter.
As I watched my students deftly pluck the tentacles off the plate and pop them into their mouths I felt like a failure. I had to give it another shot. As soon as I put it in my mouth, the tentacle clung to the back of my tongue and I thought I was going to choke to death. I pulled the tentacle off of my tongue and threw it to the ground. Again, everybody in the place began laughing hysterically.
I realized that eating “fresh” octopus was akin to fraternity members making pledges swallow live goldfish. My students appreciated the effort more than anything. By the end of the night I finally ate some octopus, although not enough to fill me up. When I got home the first thing I did was order a pizza.
The writer, an American, teaches high school in Seoul.
by Dylan Alford