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I’m sitting at Gwangjang market with fellow interns Kristi and Sharon, feeling a little bit of everything. I feel I must surrender myself to what’s happening around me to maintain some sanity. This sounds dramatic, but only because Kristi has just ordered a plate of squirming octopus and I don’t think I am psychically prepared for what’s to come.

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Kristi [right] smugly regards me as I contemplate my life choices. Photo: Arca

I watch the two of them converge on the plate with ludicrous gusto and I discover that my resolve has unceremoniously left the building.

“I can’t do this Kristi,” I say while white-knuckling my chopsticks. “People have died eating this!”

And it’s true, people have choked to death on this dish. The neural activity in an Octopus’s recently dismembered tentacles is well and truly all-systems-go, and those suckers are strong, hence the advice on eating them being: chew fast and without mercy.

I weakly promise I’ll give it a go before we leave Korea. One of the tentacles climbs off the plate and makes a run for it across the table, Kristi grabs it with her chopsticks and yanks it up towards her face, but the bugger isn’t letting go without a fight. I suppress many a shudder over the next half hour.

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This thing could lift a building. Photo: Arca

Korean food seems to occupy one of two spaces. Chilli so dastardly you cry for your mother, or pepper so strong, pungent and numbing that it burns away the taste of anything else and leaves you with a curious sensation like somebody's been kickboxing your tongue and throat.

I adore chilli and tend to assault my food, eating at an alarming speed. It’s a terrible and annoying trait, especially while eating with friends, but I can’t seem to stop shovelling red hot kimchi into my face, along with strips of chilli beef I lovingly dip into… more chilli. My fellow USyd intern Aaron humours me, he loves all things spicy. Kristi thinks we’re both deranged.

Adventurous eating is something I pride myself on so I couldn’t shake the sense of deep shame I felt at backing out of eating the octopus. I tell Alex, the producer on the Line 6 show, that I want to do it - and what better incentive than allowing myself to be filmed while it’s all happening, risking humiliation and dishonour?

Full disclosure, I have a peculiar fear of octopus. As far as I’m concerned, they’re too intelligent and too alien and too something. I don’t generally eat octopus as a rule, because my fear makes me respect them. Eating one when it’s still moving is nightmare fuel for me.

My aversion to them is so strong that I can’t look at them for too long (even pictures!); I also can’t get too close to one even if it’s behind glass in a tank.

So of course, I tell this to Alex and Kristi as we meander through a late-night fish market in search of my culinary Kryptonite.

“Am I going to die?” I say to Alex, as he whirls his little camera around the cramped, damp aisles full of screeching fishwives.

“Well, maybe you’ll choke or throw up, but you probably won’t die,” He says, fixing the camera on my wimpy face. “But think of the views if you DID die!”

As we pass stalls and tanks and mounds of dried fish I try to self-soothe by thinking about all the soju I’ll drown myself in immediately after this idiotic hazing.

I’m holding my chopsticks out in front of me like a crucifix. Photo: Alex Minchin

Here we are, sitting at the table, staring into a plate of wriggling, writhing, slimy horrors. Kristi begins chowing down because she’s brave and also out of her mind. Alex spears great big disgusting chunks of octopus and levers them into his mouth, moaning theatrically while maintaining eye contact with me.

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Alex committing acts of terrorism against me. Photo: Alex Minchin

He’s trying to psych me out.

It’s working incredibly well.

Emboldened by Alex, Kristi starts in on me as well, telling me to just shut up and eat a tentacle. I can feel my stomach folding in on itself in fear as I pick up my chopsticks and try to tune out my dining companions’ horrific slurping.

“I hate both of you,” I say, with a hysterical edge to my voice.

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Kristi and Alex dangle octopus legs and viscera in my general direction to try and make me cry. Photo: Alex Minchin

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I contemplate fleeing to the airport. Photo: Alex Minchin

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I attempt to unstick my baby tentacle while Kristi holds the plate steady. Photo: Alex Minchin

Alex trains the camera on me and I pick up a pathetically tiny piece of tentacle and shove it into my mouth. I can feel it try to desperately find purchase on my gums as each sucker gropes my teeth and tongue. I taste a smear of cold, salty phlegm and a tentative first press of my teeth finds what feels to be a coil of living rubber band. I smash the absolute crap out of it and swallow it as quickly as I can, but the sense-memory of its frantic groping doesn’t leave me until I’ve peeled off a layer of my mouth with non-flavoured soju a few hours later.

The taste was not worth the trauma.

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Morning show time, I’m sitting with the host chatting about refugees. Photo: Valerie S

It’s my last night in Seoul and after doing a segment on the morning show about refugees in Korea, saying goodbye to everyone and tying up loose ends throughout the day, I return my TBS lanyard and run out the doors to meet Kurt and some of the other producers from the Koreascape team. The producer gang are taking me out for barbecue because they’re a bunch of sweethearts.

We go to a really fancy place. At some point a group of elderly women walk in, receiving plenty of fanfare - it turns out they’re all famous and a bunch of the producers get all giggly and chatty with them. One of my fellow diners is a woman named Michelle who’d just returned from North Korea. Amazingly, we’d grown up only a few neighbourhoods away from each other in Sydney.

It was a night of happy discoveries: I spotted a buzzer next to me on the table and couldn’t read the labels, so I asked Kurt what they meant. He said one button was for beer, the other soju, and the other was to call the waitstaff. Kurt and I both abused the soju button until the restaurant became hazy and a little muted. We ate 2 kilograms of meat and chilli and were laughing so loudly and obnoxiously I’m surprised we weren’t asked to leave or quieten down.

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The least incriminating photo of the evening. Photo: Michelle A

Some genius then suggested we visit a bathhouse (jimjilbang). It was about 1am, and I wasn’t aware that they were open that late. Apparently, a lot of them are 24 hours, and you can sleep in them as well.

And that’s how Kurt and I ended up spending a night in a jimjilbang, thoroughly sauced, massaged and steamed into incoherency.

My blissful sleep was interrupted by one of Kurt’s friends, Michael, who we’d excitedly called during barbecue to come hang out with us. Michael and I were supposed to do a street fashion piece together but on the day of our shoot it was too hot to be outside, so we canned it and said we’d catch up another time to do something else.

It was 5am and Michael turned up at the jimjilbang looking for us. I decided to let Kurt sleep since he had work in a few hours; and went to meet Michael outside. I felt pleasantly drowsy as we walked around Hongdae until sunrise, drinking banana milkshakes.

In Seoul you can get anything you want, anytime you want, and that sense of freedom is what I believe gives the city its very unusual sense of serenity and safety in spite of its crowding issues, terrible litter and streets full of kimchi flowers during the weekends.

I’m ready to leave Seoul but not quite ready to go home to Sydney. I wish I'd had more time to explore places outside of the city, but eh, you can't have it all I guess.


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Being silly at Changdeokgung palace. Photo: Kristi Cheng

About the Blog

Parallax records the experiences of final year students of the B.A. (Media & Communications) degree who have won competitive overseas internships to work in Asian, Indian and Latin American media organisations.