Chinese Takeout Korean Style

Even takeout in Korea is unique—the guy comes speeding along in his motorbike, which he’s allowed to ride on the sidewalk, weaving around the finely-dressed women in their clopping high-heels and the hobbling geezers hawking up phlegm, and will find you wherever you’re working. He’ll hunt you down like an animal. Yes indeed, this helmeted man will wander the halls of your school until he gets to you, enters the classroom nervously, and hauls a huge steel box onto one of the little wooden third-grade tables, unpacking your lunch quite quickly before vanishing into dust.

This is the third time you’ve eaten lunch with your Korean co-teachers this week, and the third time they’ve paid for you despite your intense protests. You can shriek at the top of your lungs, honorable male, you can tear out your hair, you can gnaw on your elbows or pull out your teeth, but they won’t let you pay for so much as a toenail. One of them rushes over to the confused delivery man and thrusts twelve thousand won in his pocket before you can figure out how to get to him, an apt strategy. Napoleon himself would be dumbfounded, Epaminondas would throw his Corinthian helmet down on the floor—no beans.

No familiar white cartons reddened with China’s towers of curving bamboo rooftops, either. The food is laid out on plastic plates and sealed in saran-wrap, and the reddish soup is one of the hottest things you’ve ever slurped down in your life, but it’s also druther tasty. If you burp it down the wrong way you’ll have to blink tears out of your eyes.

The finish is the most interesting part. You’ll notice as you walk around Korea that there are plates piled with finished food lying around outside apartment buildings and various places of business, sitting on the hot tar and eagerly gathering bugs—though it must be said as an aside that the swarms of hunting dragonflies here really keep the mosquito population at bay. These piles, these platters, are left for the delivery men. They come back to get the plates.

So we put the plates in a black plastic bag and set them down in the school’s hallway, where our old friend will presumably pick them up and carry them back at some point in the future.

Isn’t that odd?

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