[eating for their country]

Topic: The Mission

I once heard that an American diplomat described his job as “Eating for my country.” My experience of the diplomatic life so far suggests that he wasn’t kidding.

Last Wednesday the local staff at the Mission, along with a number of lower-level Koreans, were invited out for Korean barbecue at Woo-Chon, a sprawling restaurant on 35th Street in Koreatown. I ended up seated away from Charles and Young, so I was pretty much left to socialize with Koreans, using their limited English and my even more limited Korean. The food was fantastic — two different kinds of beef barbecued at the table, plus seafood pancakes and the usual vast array of side dishes — and the drink flowed freely. Along with the usual soju, there was also a Korean grape wine that came in bottles shaped like soccer balls and tasted like Manischewitz. I was informed by one of the Koreans that this concoction would strengthen my arms and legs — especially my third leg. “Go home, make baby,” he assured me. Meanwhile, Mr. Yoon, sitting across from me, was working his way through all the toasts he could come up with: konbe and another Korean toast that I’ve forgotten, then “Salud!” and finally rounds of “Hallelujah!” (This was especially funny because Mr. Yoon is a Buddhist who grew up just minutes from the famous Bulguksa temple in Kyongju.) He was terribly pleased when I taught him “l’chaim,” and once I was drunk enough, I celebrated a round with “Taehan Mingook,” the formal name of the Republic of Korea and a popular chant during World Cup. At some point the discussion turned to the fact that my first name — Joshua — sounds like a Korean three-syllable name. It was decided that my Korean name would be “Cho Syu-wa,” which made me kin to Ms. Cho, one of the administrative assistants. I told Mr. Yoon that I would be Cho Syu-wa if I could have a name stamp. I asked him the word for name stamp in Korean, and he thought for a moment, then declared, “Right now, I don’t remember.”

We staggered out of the restaurant at about 9:30 and made our separate ways home. My clothes smelled so strongly of barbecue and smoke that I had to leave my dirty laundry in the bathroom on the far side of the apartment so we could sleep.

The next day was a “brown bag lunch” with Professor Gari Ledyard, a leading scholar of Korean History — though retired, he holds for life the title of King Sejong Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. The “brown bag” aspect was a misnomer, however, as sandwiches and fruit were provided. Professor Ledyard spoke on the topic of Korean-Chinese diplomatic relations through history.

Then on Friday, one of the lower-level officers came to ask me if I had any appointments over lunch. When I said no, he informed me that Minister Lee would like my company. The lunch included Charles as well, and the four of us ate at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. I had a moment of chagrin as I realized I was now one of those UN officials you read about discussing the disaster in Darfur over filet mignon. Then we moved on to Ambassador Kim’s golf game, which is apparently quite good. Still, the major focus of the conversation, as of so many lately, was Security Council reform. I was pleased that Minister Lee seemed genuinely interested in my opinions, at one point declaring, “I think Mr. Joshua is very eloquent!” I’m not sure whether this meant, “I think Josh has well-stated opinions” or “I think Josh talks too much, and this is my way of saying so politely,” but I like to hope it was at least some of the former.

On Wednesday this week, I will be taken out by Ambassador Shin to Osteria Laguna, where I will perhaps not order the beef. And then we have our “End-of-the-year Ceremony” on December 30, the nature of which remains mysterious, but which I suspect will involve food. Such are the challenges of the diplomatic life!