Our employee dinner at Outback Steakhouse had been over a year in the making. For our first employee dinner my coworkers really wanted steak. “You should tell Hye Won this is where we want to eat,” they coaxed us. “She will listen to you because you are the new foreign teachers. If we ask she will say no!” Barret and I were still new to Korea, so we had no interest in western food. However we were caught in an awkward position and when our boss asked where we wanted to eat, Barret gave his goofiest smile and chuckled, “How about Outback, yuk yuk?”
“Oh, I am so embarrassed,” our boss responded. “Outback is expensive and I was thinking of someplace smaller. We can do that another time…”
When the time came for our Christmas dinner, Hye Won picked a buffet without our input. It was enormous and well decorated with chandeliers and cushioned chairs. As we were led to our private room, we became excited by the expanse of food. Barret and I chose all the bizarre items we ordered in normal restaurants and since the Japanese nuclear disaster hadn’t yet occurred, we spent an ungodly amount of time in the sushi line.
When we all rejoined the table with heaping plates, our boss was silently seated before an empty plate. “I am really disappointed no one waited for me to arrive. I wanted to make a speech and give a prayer, but it is too late now. I am the wanjangnim and it is very rude that no one waited.”
An uncomfortable silence followed. The gray cloud hung over our table for a good hour until Barret played the ‘curious foreigner’ card.
“So, what do you call these?” Barret queried as he indicated a creature we privately called the Sea Penis.
“Hmm, it tastes alright. Hey Stephanie, try this nato. It is a Japanese soy bean thing.”
“That is really tasty and healthy for you,” my boss added.
I dipped a chopstick in and then held it to my mouth. There were still thin cobwebby strings as slimy as slugs leading from my utensil to the dish. I didn’t have to say, “Oh god, this is the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten.” I am pretty sure it was written all over my face, but at least the tension was broken and we were able to enjoy the rest of the evening.
The following Christmas my boss decided to skip the drama & embarrassment so she immediately offered to go to Outback. The steaks were tender, the pasta was tasty, the salads were perfectly dressed, and the baked potato was a delightful slice of comfort food. The experience was just want you would expect to find from a strip mall chain back home. When everyone left holding complimentary bags of bread, I realized I missed the excitement of Korean restaurants. I want pissy bosses, unidentifiable meat, and pregnant assistants that eat their own weight in seafood. I don’t want to know if I am looking at a bowl or a cup and, of course, I want my chopsticks to win the struggle against all things slippery.