It was staring at me.
I was sitting next to my boss, the principal of the Korean school were I teach English, when he dumped a spoonful of soup containing the dead cat fish in my bowl. Dead. Cat. Fish. “This good.” He said in his broken English, “I give to you.”
“Ah, thank you.” I pasted on a smile and hoped I wasn't wrinkling my nose. In South Korea it is incredibly rude to say no to someone higher up the hierarchy than yourself. And at school, The Principal is alpha. So I ate it. It tasted like sand, which is understandable since cat fish are bottom-feeders, but at the point I was willing to hold that fact against them. Using my chopsticks, I picked off tiny pieces of white meat from the ribs, avoiding the skin which had turned green in the soup. Not looking in its blank eyes, I poked around the head a bit, pretending to look for more meat. Looking around, I noticed the teachers to my right enjoying the soup, The Principal snacking on his own dead fish. The teachers too my left were eating salad mixed with raw fish. Oddly, no one was picking at the side dishes- a staple at any Korean meal. These side dishes are usually cut up vegetables- cabbage, onions, horse radish, spinach- smothered in chili pepper sauce. Usually, the bowls would be picked clean.
Thankfully, there wasn't much meat on the fish and soon I could sit back, send The Principal a fake smile and discover the sudden urge for salad- without the raw fish.
Rather than the meal, the company was the most enjoyable part of the night. Koreans have this delightful drinking tradition, where you pour a shot of soju (rice liquor) for the person you want to honor, they drink it, then pour one for you in the same shot glass. Of course, everyone wants to show respect to The Principal by pouring him a shot, and by the end of the evening he had five empty bottles stashed next to him. I poured him three shots, just to make him drink. And to pay him back for the fish. As he got more and more drunk, he got more and more exuberant; chatting to me in broken English about countries he’s been to and songs he likes, all accompanied by wild gestures that nearly knocked me over.
I think The Principal enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his, telling me: “I older boyfriend.” while pointing at himself then me. Then, when my co-teacher explained what he’d actually just said, he quickly backtracked, “No, no, no, no! Boy, ex! Just friend. I older friend.” And preceded to tell me about his wife and two daughters.
After an hour and a half we were done eating and drinking, and I was heading home in a taxi flagged down for me by my co-teacher, smiling and shaking my head. Next time, I’ll tell The Principal that I’m allergic to fish.
S E Gambrell