Tales from the Vault: Korean Curios

Given the ongoing state of chaos and confusion caused by the joust of the giant egos – Donald J T vs Kim J U – I thought it relevant to continue the delve into my executive past by again focussing on the two years of near constant chaos and confusion I spent back in South Korea.

I would love to say that after the initial shock and awe of my first working week I started to settle into a bit of a rhythm. The truth however is that the only regularity to the rhythm was the huge sweeping variations from high to low and back again. Anything could happen at any time and usually did. Often this was just finding clumsy well intentioned translations that made you chuckle or despair (see below), but more often it was the experiences.

More than anywhere else I’ve ever worked the lines between at work and outside worked were blurred. As an expat I was given some leeway on this, but I really did pity the local Koreans, whose lives were not their own, but were the companies – or in particular in our area, were Sally’s, our psychotic ex army leader. Nights out with Sally were regular, predictable, very aggressive and scarily messy. With military precision each round was planned and executed in record time, whether it was drinking, eating, singing or cavorting. Most often a heady combination of all four several times over. Woe betide any poor young sap who could not keep up.

Within a few weeks it became apparent to all that I did not suffer the usual expat aversion to Korean food. This became an ongoing challenge for Sally and the gang to find more and more bizarre and unsavoury “traditional” dining experiences to test me out and ultimately break me. The one that did the trick – but only afterwards I hasten to add – was the “live octopus” restaurant that we trooped all the way across town to dine at one Tuesday evening. My memories of the meal are somewhat fuzzy – as always – but I do recall literally fighting with the hot red sauce soaked octopus as I attempted to prise it from the plate as it’s grippers held firm and fought back. This bizarre ritual seemed to amuse the clan immensely, and it was only then that one of them – Seagull was his “English” name – warned me in broken English that I needed to bite hard and regularly before I swallowed. After the event I was told that this is because there are scores of deaths every year at these restaurants due to early swallowing, as the tentacles if left fully formed and unbitten, tend to strangulate you on the way down. Who knows the truth of the story, but it succeeded in making me a little more wary of my colleagues choice of cuisine from then on.

And yes, one time, and only the one time, they tricked me into eating dog. We were at an off site retreat half way up a mountain close to the border. So close in fact that you could hear the guards trying to intimidate each other with blaring music and propaganda – though I am still unsure as to the impact on the North Korean psyche of having Tom Jones’ Delilah blasted at them – I kid you not. Anyhow, the day had been long and arduous and Sally was back in his natural habitat. We were all hungry as we traipsed in to the only restaurant in the base village. I was confidently told it was a homely place that had two dishes – chicken or dog. We went round the table with me ordering last. One by one my peers put in their order – translated it went along the lines of…Dog. Dog. Dog. Dog. Dog. It got to me. Chicken please. Sorry sir – no chicken left. Only dog. Great. And yes, it did taste like chicken.

One time I was able to return some hospitality to my South Korean brethren. On a business trip to Ireland I introduced Sally and Seagull to the pleasure of Dublins’ Temple Bar and the traditional Irish trio of Guinness, whiskey and music. We were having a ball and I was showing off a bit, desperately wanting to show Sally in particular, that we could do a bit of this fun stuff too. I implored the band to play my favourite song – Sally MacLenane as it happens – but they were having none of it. Sally got wind of this and started to show signs of anger. Now at this stage angry Koreans were a rarity in Temple Bar, and the band were not sure what to make of it. When Sally disappeared to the Gents, I had one last go at the band…”listen, this guy is a colonel in the Korean army, he’s killed 30 people with his bare hands and he wants you to play Sally MacLenane” was the gist of my final plead. Sure enough as Sally reentered the bar, the band struck up a slightly rigid version of my favourite ditty. All was well until later that evening, when it became clear to me that Seagull had told Sally the whole tale. At this point, Sally turned to me and said somewhat aggressively – “there is one thing I do not like about this tale.” I was a little perturbed and trying to judge if I could make the door. “It was 40, not 30”. Boy, did we all laugh. Eventually.

I often wonder what became of Sally and his sidekick Seagull. I can’t help but feel that his more natural skills will currently be being honed just in case they are needed. If they are, then watch out Mr Kim!

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