My adult student, Mr. Jeong, had been learning English for about a month so conversation was rough. He didn’t understand that “How are you?” is a question. He saw it as a greeting where all he had to do was repeat it back and despite a few daily attempts to explain otherwise, it had become his quirk.
So when he invited me for dinner to a beef restaurant, I was like sure. I was fine splurging on the occasional beef barbecue and my boss would be there and it was a good chance to be immersed in the culture and just get out of the house for more than working or walking.
Then my boss couldn’t go.
I saw him on the bus stop bench outside my school at 6:50 and asked how he was and he asked how I was and only I answered.
We got in the car and drove to Yeosu Proper, a place I rarely see being on the outskirts so I marveled at the new view, but then a Kpop song came on the radio and I didn’t know it but I liked it. So did Mr. Jeong. He was singing along with the girl group. Drumming on the steering wheel. He liked it so much that he might have known the title or group if I asked but my ear for Korean wasn’t quite good enough to catch whether he knew the lyrics or just mumbled along.
Our restaurant was also a butcher’s shop with display cases where customers picked out their meal while it was still bloody, and Mr. Jeong couldn’t find the one he wanted. He was kind of arguing with the owners, like he wanted them to bring out their private cache of the good stuff.
Meanwhile, I was looking at the prices.
Beef is expensive in Korea.
Not steak, but regular old chuck. Ground. Ribs. Any sort of beef that isn’t a hamburger at a restaurant is a minimum of $20 a serving here.
Mr. Jeong picked a $50 Styrofoam tray with two beautifully marbled slabs, one slightly larger but with a small bone. He looked over to me and said, “Service,” because that was the Konglish that meant he’d pay. I knew it’d be impossible to fight that and I wanted to be polite so I let him.
The restaurant beyond the butcher’s display cases was Korean-style where we took off our shoes and sat on slick hardwood, cooking the food on a grill before us.
That was when I saved a woman’s life.
As I was in the corner of the shoe rack, taking mine off while trying not to get in the way of the family coming down from the large step separating the restaurant from the butcher’s, a question mark-shaped granny slipped off the hardwood, down the step, and caught herself on me. I just happened to be in the way.
However, she got as close to hugging me as any strange woman in Korea, a culture with very conservative policies on men and women touching in a familiar way. She was so grateful. Her family too. I wish I’d known enough Korean to ask if she was okay, but my gesturing is pretty top-level so I think she understood.
Mr. Jeong didn’t care about my heroic standing one bit and was calling me over to the table he was already seated at. He took the view of the TV, while I was against a wall watching a happy family argue over who got the last piece of meat and it became a sword fight of chopsticks trying to elegantly snatch up the piece and the victor was the little sister who speared it.
The place was loud.
Mr. Jeong and I were silent.
We waited for the owner to bring our order of beef, no longer on that Styrofoam tray, but now on a proper plate with 10 side dishes, mushroom caps, half an onion cut down the middle, and a chunk of fat.
I know what to do at a Korean restaurant, but I’d rather not have the responsibility so I took charge of conversation. “Do you like this restaurant?”
“Mm,” he grunted as he used scissors to get the slabs into chunks.
“Do you come here often? A lot? Many times?”
I was trying to make it as pleasant as possible, for my own sake, and I can keep conversations going, but he wasn’t biting, so I left it at “It looks good!”
To which he replied, “Mm.”
That first bite of meat was better than all the convenience of delivery.
Straight beef, juicy-rare, in my mouth, no salt, no spicy vinegared pepper sauce, nothing. Unadulterated beef—it squirted.
Lately I had put on some flab, more softness than size, so I was fine with the smaller portion. The meal was enough, especially with the kimchi, garlic cloves, and the rest combined within lettuce that I experimented with to get the right balance of zest to mess with sauces dripping out.
Then he called the owner over.
The owner brought us more beef. Ten slices that calorically were probably equivalent to our previous course.
So I kept eating.
I didn’t ever want to eat more than my share so I’d watch for him to take a piece before I took one, but since he was busy flipping the slices and cutting them smaller still, he wasn’t eating that much and the beef was getting well done, which is the Korean preference, and he’d then stack the too cooked pieces on the half of the onion as like a safe zone until the stack got too high and he’d pile them onto my dish.
We (I) had eaten half the slices and he was cooking the other half when he got up without a word.
He hadn’t flipped the new slices yet and I wasn’t sure if he needed to pee already from the one beer he’d had or if he had a leg cramp from sitting cross legged but he was probably used to it unlike me in my freshly washed and thus stiff jeans.
I just kind of waited, unsure what to do.
So when he came back, the side he’d left the beef slices on was well-done but the other half uncooked.
The pieces turned out fine.
But after we had finished eating them, I was full. My nose was running from the garlic cloves and spice. The waist of my pants felt tight. I was happy and lethargic. General post-dinner sentiments.
Then, of course, the owner brought over more. Because that was where Mr. Jeong had gone to when he left me with momentary responsibility to not let the beef burn.
So we’d gone through about three bulbs of garlic, a bowl of spring onions, half an onion, and $100 worth of beef and another course was here to be devoured.
That first bite was delicious. These were a chore so as not to be rude. I wouldn’t want him to waste his money on food we couldn’t finish, but it became clear that he couldn’t communicate friendship through words. His English wasn’t good enough and my Korean was worse. The Korean way when other communication broke down was food. A common greeting in Korea is “Have you had (most recent meal)?” This luxurious and never-ending spread was his way of welcoming me to the country, to the city, to his life, and while he and I couldn’t talk, he could have a conversation with anyone else here and I couldn’t. So maybe this was his way to make me comfortable while away from home.
So we got through that third when, at last, he said something to me. It was in Korean. I didn’t know the word. It was raised up at the end like a question though. I repeated it. He nodded and I said, “Okay,” also nodding.
I had learned to say yes to these situations, even if in a non-committal way. Maybe I get a fun experience out of it. Or a story. Maybe he was just asking if I was full and ready to leave.
So whatever I said yes to, he called over the owner.
They seemed to argue. Mr. Jeong was insistent on something. The only word I could pick out was “Migukin,” or American. And he seemed to be pointing at me. Like he was fighting on my behalf.
We continued sitting, in silence, for about 20 minutes. The neighboring table left and new customers filled in and they had two little girls, one who could barely walk and one who could barely talk, and the one that was trying to walk had her back against the wall and sidled along until she got too close to me and then she rested her big baby head against an electrical outlet box and stared. Mr. Jeong talked more to their parents, more to the kid who could respond but didn’t than he did to me while we waited for whatever we were waiting for.
Which turned out to be another course of beef. This time it was ox tail soup. Or, as I like to call it, spinal cord soup.
The owner brought out a bowl big enough to give myself a sponge bath if I wanted.
I waited. Mr. Jeong insisted. The second bowl was not coming. Mr. Jeong sprawled out with his arms behind him, only leaning forward to pat his food baby, which was surely a twin to mine till this new course.
This was hearty soup with chunks of meat and cellophane noodles and everything that made soup a meal. It cost about $20 to $30 normally. With the three Cokes he forced on me, his beer, the beef, and now the soup with a side of steamed rice, the meal was probably $200 total.
And I was full. I was leaking broth with every spoonful I put in.
But I didn’t want to waste his money.
As I ate the soup, I tried piecing the Korean I’d heard and I’m pretty sure the conversation had the owner saying, “The boy has eaten enough,” and Mr. Jeong replying vehemently, “He’s American! Do you know how much they can eat?”
Which I guess was true, but the final polite spoonfuls were not pleasant like that first taste of beef.