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Tripping in South Korea: Raw fish, hot sauce and hard liquor

The author celebrates with hwe, raw fish and soju (rice liquor).

carrie kierstead

Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their adventures – those times when, far from what's familiar, you must improvise in the midst of a wild travel moment. They are the stories you can't wait to tell when you get home.

I celebrated my last birthday in South Korea. Unfortunately, the school where I work decided to celebrate the end of 2012 on the same day.

"We will be having raw fish at the work party on Friday!"

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"Oh. But it's my birthday…"

"Really? Congratulations! We will celebrate at the work party."

"I thought I might go out with my friends…"

"The party starts when school finishes."

Right. Work party it was.

The restaurant was on the waterfront, and a fishing boat had docked just as we arrived.

Large flopping fish were brought into the restaurant and minutes later, large plates of raw fish (hwe in Korean) were brought out.

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Normally I'm a little squeamish about meeting my dinner before I eat it, but this fish was delicious.

The meal proceeded in normal Korean work-party fashion – large quantities of alcohol and hot sauce were consumed. Nearly everything on offer was dipped in the hot sauce, and then washed down with soju. Koreans must have digestive tracts of steel. (I've learned Koreans start eating kimchi when they're about six-months old. I find this mind-blowing; I've lived in Korea for almost four years and still can't swallow the spicy fermented cabbage that makes even my eyeballs sweat.)

The highlight of my evening came when a co-worker came staggering over bearing a bowl of seaweed.

"For you!" she announced, beaming. She bent over to put it on the table then collapsed, giggling on the floor beside me.

It's your birthday – you are very old, she announced, adding: It's very good for you.

I decided not to be insulted by her reference to my age; I am no spring chicken, but I'm hardly Methuselah.

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"You eat!" she insisted, pushing the seaweed toward me.

I couldn't refuse. We had attracted the attention of everyone at the table. I took a large piece and sniffed it. Bad idea. I dipped it in the hot sauce, took a deep breath and stuffed the whole thing in my mouth.

Rejection was almost instantaneous. Clapping my hand over my mouth, tears welled in my eyes as I struggled not to spit it out. It was warm, slimy and cartilaginous, and tasted like the ocean. And the hot sauce really wasn't helping matters. Forcing it down, I shook my head when she offered me another piece.

"It's healthy!" she insisted.

"Why on Earth would anyone want to eat that?" I asked with a shudder.

"It's good for … hmm …" she consulted with a co-worker. "Ah! It's good for soft poo." You're old now, she added, maybe you need it.

With that astounding explanation, she got to her feet and wobbled away, humming to herself.

And to think I was worried I wouldn't have an exciting birthday.

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