Dinner on this table is alive and well – for a moment anyway.
Along with my colleagues, I am celebrating the start of a new school year with a dinner at one of Banyawol’s finest restaurants. Seated in my socks at a low table on a warm floor, I tuck into a serving of Nakji Jeongol – a Korean seafood stew. As a live octopus is dropped into each heated pot in the centre of our tables, I’m not sure if it’s the chilli or boiling water that will kill them. Our octopus’ desperate attempt to escape the wok is foiled by an attentive Maths teacher with a trusty ladle. She lets out a momentary gasp and giggle before sealing the creature’s fate and thrusting him back into the dinner pot.
Nakji Jeongol includes squid, prawns, various shellfish and vegetables stewed in gochujang (red pepper paste) and is served Korean style – with a myriad of side dishes.
While some Koreans enjoy eating octopus and squid live, I am relieved that we are all keen to wait until the octopus is dead and cooked before serving. I ladle up a portion of the stew and find I have unwittingly given myself the head of the octopus. Since Koreans don’t use knives, I am particularly boggled as to how I am going to eat it. The waitress rescues me by slicing it into pieces with a pair of scissors, and my bowl fills with black ink. I am relieved to find that the head is delicious – far tastier than the rubbery tentacles in any case.
The sound of metal chopsticks clinking against seashells is interspersed with conversations around education. Tae-yang tells me that Koreans place a large emphasis on education, since it is one of the ways in which one can move into a higher social class. “How do South Africans feel about education?” she asks. I give her the short answer. South Africans know that investing in education is an important means to address the social inequality bred in our political history. Yet our educational system is flawed, under-funded and under-staffed. I tell her that things are changing slowly. “Not fast enough”, I add.
I change the subject. I always feel uncomfortable describing South Africa negatively, not because I am blind to the problems in my country, but because afro-pessimism has little value. South Africans will agree that our patriotism includes a healthy dose of cynicism. We know that transformation begins with an acknowledgment of our social and political faults. But this critical appreciation of our home is not always easy to explain to foreigners abroad.
Being a representative of my country in this small neighbourhood, which is homogenous in both race and language, I want to give Koreans a sense of the diverse social atmosphere in South Africa. Tonight, that includes an explanation of our school system, including the influence of Bantu Education.
Suddenly, it’s not just the octopus that’s hard to swallow.
The Culture Muncher by Deva Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.