I met fellow MBA alumni tonight for dinner in Myeongdong, a trendy shopping district in downtown Seoul. I did not see any other foreigners tonight. Foreigners don’t typically spend much time in Myeongdong, which caters largely to Koreans. Myeongdong starts rocking around 7 p.m. each night and slows down about 11 p.m. on weeknights and at 1 a.m. during the weekend. I felt estranged not only because I was a foreigner but also because I am older than most of the people, err, youths, who wander around Myeongdong.
We dined tonight on budae jigae (solider’s stew), an interesting concoction dating back to when locals collected and cooked with leftover food available near U.S. military bases. The need to scrounge for food has virtually disappeared in Korea, but the stew remains and is quite popular among Koreans today. (Many traditions begin out of necessity.) Soldier’s stew is made of ramen noodle, spam, hot dog, kimchi, tofu, macaroni, onion, and egg, as well as a hodge podge of other foodstuffs I can’t recall. Although it may sound
unappetizing, the stew actually tastes pretty good. In fact, one of the biggest restaurant chains in Korea, Nolboo, specializes in serving budae jigae. We drank some soju, a rice alcohol, to wash away remnants of the stew.
I almost left to go home at about 9:45 p.m., but then my fellow alumni decided to go to a pub for some drinks. I felt obliged to join them. Tonight going out with friends and coworkers after work, a common practice in Korea, trumped my habit of going home after work. I came home about 11 p.m., breaking up the party earlier than I think my fellow alumni would have. I usually don’t make it a habit to stay out late at night, especially on a weeknight. I made an exception though to join alumni I haven’t seen for at least two months.. My wife took care of my son tonight. Tomorrow night it will be my turn to stay home while my wife joins some coworkers for a movie.
Two alumni paid for dinner and for drinks. I thought it was a very nice gesture. I offered to pay my portion, but they wouldn’t take my money. Their kindness reminded me of a Korean custom mentioned at work today, "gae." "Gae" are Korean quasi investment clubs. A group of friends get together and deposit money into a joint bank account. Members of the "gae" then take turns dipping into it when they need funds. The "gae" have a rhyme and reason I don’t quite understand. Some people benefit from "gae" more than others. Group buying power is a plus, as is compound interest on a large sum of money. However, I don’t really understand why anyone would join a group that jointly saves money so the members can spend it on themselves when needed. Our alumni group created a joint account, and we all contribute 10,000 won (about $10) each month. We plan to use the money for group activities and to donate to our university. This, however, is not a "gae." If each of us could dip into the account to pay for personal expenses, such as a pleasure cruise, then it would be a "gae." However, the money is earmarked for social events and donations. I don’t think I would join a "gae" even if I could.