Having been on this plane of existence for 28 years (29 in February) you'd think that I would have had enough experience in eating for this to be a non-issue. No need to tease with the nipple in order for latching-on to occur! Just pass me a mocha and a sushi roll and I can take it from there. And yet, day before yesterday, I found myself back to square one.
My university has a cafeteria lunch room where all teachers are allowed to eat for free. The food is extremely decent. Most of the selections are Korean which is quite all right for me though I am constantly asked by my Hangukin colleagues if it is "not too spicy? No? Are you sure?" No, no, it's fine. Please don't worry.
Day before yesterday I decided to partake of the free lunch for the first time. It was Bibimbap, fried egg with rice, red bean paste and various amounts of fresh veggies. The dish came with a complimentary bowl of seaweed chicken soup, which looked delicious. I took my bowl of fried rice and seaweed broth back to the table where I chatted with a Hungarian teacher who was not named Kelmon. Kelmon is a nice man if a bit of a droner. Still, we chatted, or rather Kelmon went on a bit while I had a highly satisfying bowl of seaweed broth.
"Have you noticed how many wedding parties there are today?" Kelmon asked.
I had, in fact, noticed the large amount of white SUVs with balloons attached, the many young couples in bridal gowns, formal satin traditional robes and more modern black suits criss-crossing the streets of Sukhbaatar Square and the general air of festivity in UB. "Yes," I replied. A 35-year-old tutoring student and electrical engineer not named Bat-Amgalan had told me earlier that day that October 6 was an auspicious day according to the Mongolian calender. Many young couples planned their weddings to take place on October 6. It was interesting because of the flavor of arithmancy associated with the sweet tradition of marriage. Also it was the only time I remember Bat-Amgalan saying something that did not involve megawatt generators.
"You know," Kelmon said, "My wife and I were married in UB on this day five years ago. It was like an assembly line because there were so many couples getting married. There was this long, long line around the Sports Arena and these horribly over-worked civil judges. It was very much like being in a marriage factory if such a thing can be imagined. 'I now pronounce you man and wife. NEXT!' The wedding party after us was already coming in through the doors just as we were saying our vows."
"Mm.." I said, finishing the seaweed broth and starting in on the rice. My own sister's wedding had also been a civil ceremony. The judge, who also no doubt had had a lot of weddings to complete that day (the civil union proposition for gay couples had just been signed into law scarcely a month earlier), had nevertheless managed to retain the emotionally intimacy of the wedding vows despite the fact that- rather like Kelmon's ceremony- the next wedding party was hanging out in the corridor next door. Unlike Kelmon's ceremony the second wedding party was celebrating the union of an older gay inter-racial couple in Indian-print paisley pajamas. As we exited the chapel-esque civil union ceremony room both men warmly grasped our hands and said "Mazel Tov." This greatly astounded my sister's new mother-in-law. "Now how on Earth did they know we were Jewish?"
Eighteen months and two continents later I was digging my spoon into my fried rice with great anticipation when Tae Hee sat down beside Kelmon. He took one look at my empty broth bowl and my full rice bowl and said: "You're eating that wrong."
"Yes. You should eat the fried rice first and then drink the broth. In Korea, the soup comes after the main course. It cleans your palate."
"Ah. Oh well, live and learn." I once again started to dig my spoon into my fried rice.
"No," said Tae Hee, "You need to get another bowl of soup."
"I... oh really? Oh..." I was a bit taken aback There was a slightly authoritative tone to Tae Hee's voice. Plus he was my direct supervisor in the English Education department.
"The kitchen staff will give you another bowl of broth. Don't worry, it's all right. You won't have to pay or anything. Believe me, it is better that you have broth after the rice. It will settle your stomach more efficiently, especially since this rice has spicy red bean paste in it."
Automatically I went back up to the kitchen server, who cheerfully offered another bowl. I returned to the table with my second bowl of seaweed broth just as Tae Hee was started in on his own bowl of fried rice. I watched him carefully, not wanting to be chided for making another mistake. I had been planning on eating my fried rice as was, fried egg on top, fresh cut veggies below, red bean paste below that and finally the supporting base of rice. Tae Hee was not eating it that way. Instead my EE supervisor was energetically mixing his rice, making sure that the rice, egg, veggies and paste were well and truly mixed before he took a bite.
I mixed my rice as well. I thought about how smart Kelmon had been to finish his rice before Tae Hee had sat down. Kelmon's bowl was empty and now the small, pale, bespectable man was droning on through lips only slightly stained by red bean paste about how one could properly photograph ceremonies or protests in China without being hasseled by security. Tae Hee was beginning to get slightly unfocused and he appeared to welcome the distraction of my sitting down again. "Good, good," he said as I energetically mixed my bibimbap, "Bibimbap and broth together are the best way to eat the meal."
I automatically took a large spoonful of rice and put it in my broth. "NOo!..." Tae Hee cried as he saw this! He actually reached across the table to stop me but it was too late. "No, no, .. I meant together in your stomach!"
"Oh! Oops! I'm sorry,... " I said, wondering if I would be marched back to the kitchen counter for a third bowl of broth.
"Ah no, it's okay," Tae Hee smiled, "Nevermind, maybe it's okay. I've never tried it like that. Maybe it will taste better."
I ate my new, ricey, seaweed soup. It wasn't bad at all. "It's nice," I said to Tae Hee.
He smiled reassuringly. "Well, if it tastes good, then I guess it's okay."