I woke up after a bizarre series of dreams and was soothed by my return to brain jumbled madness after a season of atypical, boring, dreamless sleep. The first day of summer had started smoothly with exclamations from the daycare teachers that I had arrived.
I prepared for camp, and then hesitantly agreed to lunch with Jack.
“One more person will come.” He added.
I asked who.
“He’s the oldest man in this school.” I was surprised by this identifier; maybe he meant longest employed man, but it’s hard to tell with Jack. I remembered the ill-fated lunch with the admin staff back in Seoul and then decided whatever, I will move forward without fear.
It’s a new thing I’m trying: in potentially awkward social situations, I’ve started telling myself I’m not afraid and that I will stand tall and move forward regardless of other’s perceptions. There’s the bonus that I’m foreign and “she doesn’t know better” is built into my potential mistakes.
When the oldest man emerged, I cringed inside. He’s the one who eyes me strongly at lunch and is the one whose job I may have put in an awkward position after the spat with the post office.
Don’t be afraid! I greeted him warmly from the backseat of Jack’s van. He and Jack chattered in dialect and I was cool as a cucumber.
We got to “this famous noodle house” and Jack ordered three servings of 콩국수 for us. It’s a seasonal dish. I had no idea what to expect outside of noodles.
Various retirees and navy men filled the place. I thought about setting up the silverware, a polite Korean custom, and wondered if that would be weird since Jack and the man were sitting unmoving and in hungry silence.
Don’t be afraid! I started to set out the chopstick and spoons in napkins. Jack at first misinterpreted; he thought I was getting my own and then reached for his. In a tangle of hands we eventually figured it out and the oldest man commented to Jack that I have good manners (“she greets people well” were his words). I guess he’s not holding a grudge after all!
What was finally set before us was the least of all expectations: there were noodles in what looked to be a giant metal bowl of beige milk with ice cubes. The flavor was impossible to guess, and even after the first bite I still managed to feel surprise.
“This tastes like 미수” I commented to Jack who smiled and explained that the broth (paste?) is made from the same ground beans. In the old days it was hard to get protein during the summer months so Koreans ground beans and made a special broth for noodles.
“It’s a true folk food. But these days the beans come from China,” he smiled ruefully, “some people grow them on the farm here but only for their family. Other vegetables make more money.”
I imagined a mega bean farm spanning hundreds of acres across China.
I continued to eat the noodles which defy description in English. All I could think was 고소하다. Plain, mild, nutty. It was like eating chewy noodles in unsweetened iced almond milk.
Was it good? I honestly don’t know. I did find it easy to eat and weirdly homey. Jack said his grandma used to grind beans herself to make this dish. It did have the taste of something you might feed to malnourished kids or rehydrate in space as an astronaut.
I managed to finish ahead of the men for once because I did not have the stomach room for a giant bowl of bean milk.
“You have to drink it all,” Jack said while the oldest man heartily slurped all the contents down.
“No, I can’t.” I sat in a peaceful, full silence while Jack drained his bowl.
I waffled back and forth if I should offer to pay my share. I’m in Korea and it’s Korean custom for the inviter or the oldest person to pay. But Jack doesn’t understand how much Korean custom I know so maybe he expects me to pay? But I don’t always want to be seen as the token foreigner. Sometimes I just want to be the coworker, not the exotic implant from far away.
I thanked him for lunch as we got in the car and he seemed startled. Maybe he did expect me to offer.
But I figured if he really felt short $4 he could ask me. I opted out of being the foreign monkey and into just seeing myself as a Korean resident.
It turned out to be moot anyway because as soon as we returned he disappeared for three hours and then reappeared briefly only say he was leaving early. Did he apply for it? Or does he have seniority to duck out early during the summer?
Some light was shed in a potential answer when I went hunting for string in the fifth grade resource room. Behind the conference table was a perfectly centered stack of yoga mats that was not present when school was in session.
There was no string to be found so I happily closed out the day testing camp crafts for next week. Oreo moon phases, sticker constellations, and even faux stained glass planets are all to come. With disappointment I realized I didn’t recognize any names on the attendance sheet. Then again, I don’t know most of my students names. There are quite a few from 5-5 and 5-6 so my fingers are crossed that they are not the trio who regularly fist fight in the bathroom.
But we know how my luck is!
In any case, I hope my group of nineteen 12 and 13 year olds will delay their moody onset of puberty enough to still enjoy arts and crafts! Not that they have a choice, this teacher has high expectations and too many years with brothers to tolerate any mean-spirited tom-foolery.
Countdown to my final form, Ms. Frizzle, in 3 days.