Sunday, June 24, 2012

Eating in Korea and other Culture Shocks

--> Those who knew me before the age of 14 can attest to the fact that I was once a very picky eater. My diet consisted mostly of frozen chicken nuggets, spaghetti, and Kraft Mac n’ Cheese. Although my tastes have expanded greatly since then, there are still some foods that I’ve always been hesitant to try, particularly in the seafood arena. So I don’t know if it was the jet lag, the head spinning amount of new things to process, or the four shots of Soju (it's the staple Korean liquor, it's about as strong as watered down vodka and tastes like it too), but in the last 24 hours I’ve eaten, and rather enjoyed, both pig bone soup and intestines…of what animal do you ask? I don’t know, their innards were about noodle sized and tucked away in a massive plate of seafood, so perhaps a fish?

Pig bone soup (Gamjatang in Korean) was actually my first meal in Korea so I was eating it unawares but I’m glad I did because it is AMAZING. In fact, I think I might be hard pressed to find something I like more. Pork is pork right? I didn’t enjoy the intestines as much but it wasn’t because of the taste, because honestly, at least the ones I had didn’t taste like much without soy sauce. They kind of look and taste like plain ramen noodles, only a little more squishy... 

Gamjatang, just add rice.
So I want to do a series of posts on Culture Shocks since I know I’ll encountering a lot of that. Though I should note that I think the term “culture shock” has a bit too much of a negative connotation for me. While I expect to have uncomfortable, frustrating moments, as I said before, that’s kind of why I am here…to be shocked and surprised. I certainly shocked my co-workers in return, who politely mentioned at the dinner table that they thought westerns were taller. I admit, the change in the height bell curve here has been nice for me. I’m still short; it’s just less obvious.

So onto actual culture shocks: I already mentioned the shoe thing, so I think they next thing would be introductory conversations. I mentioned how some students came in asking me questions that might raise some eyebrows for teachers in the States: How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend? But in Korea this helps them determine your social status and how they should treat you. While I’m still not sure how I feel about the emphasis on status yet, I think it’s interesting that these seemingly personal questions are accompanied by a shy disposition. When I answered the students’ questions they basically giggled and ran away. I asked a teacher in the room if I had embarrassed the students and she replied that they are just shy.

Though I find the disconnect between such forward questions and the shy attitudes a bit hard to understand, I am certainly feeling some shyness in the reverse. Many of the teachers who speak English have been very friendly in speaking with me and offering to show me around when they have the time. I am excited to speak with them and want to establish connections with them, but I admit I find it difficult to ask an older person about their age and if they are married (granted the latter is pretty much a given), even though this is a big factor in determining your relationship with that person.

I find it almost painfully embarrassing to ask an older person about their age and marital status like I’m conducting a census, since I’ve been taught my whole life that it’s extremely impolite to do so. It’s not that you have to ask people how old they are or ask personal questions, but it shows an understanding of their cultural emphasis on status and hierarchy. Even a few years of age can make a big difference in the way people treat you. I’m trying to rid myself of the fear that I will encounter the one Korean person who is offended when I ask them about their age.

On my first day I got to attend the school’s 42nd birthday ceremony. For the most part it was a lot of people making speeches that I couldn’t understand, but at the end the kids put on a sort of talent show. It was like a battle of the bands meets dance competition. Between school, work, and more school I have no idea when students in Korea find the time to be so awesome.

The students put on some fantastic musical performances, including a great rendition of one of my favorite American songs, Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” I’m devastated I didn’t have a camera to record the dance performances. A few groups of boys danced to K-Pop songs, which turned out to be like a live version of America’s Best Dance Crew. If you don’t get that reference, then it reminded me of the time I went to a Backstreet Boys concert in sixth grade. That not ringing a bell either? Then imagine a group of high school or middle school boys emulating these guys, cause that’s what they were doing, and the girls were screaming like they were the real thing:

Korean K-pop band U Kiss. Note: the students dancing were dressed like this.
 And the girls who danced were trying to move it like these girls:

The girls were not dressed like this, they wore their school uniforms.
I think this is the group another teacher told me the girls were dancing to. EVERYONE listens to K-pop, young and old. I'd post music videos but the internet connection I'm stealing is too slow. You can Youtube them easily though. During the ceremony, I found it interesting that the boys’ dance moves were noticeable more energetic than the girls’. They were all talented, but the boys flailed and shimmied while the girls kept their limbs controlled and close to their bodies, often repeating the same moves. It seemed like a clear demonstration of the different behavioral expectations for boys and girls in Korea. Though all students tend to be shy on some level, the boys seem more forward and confident than the girls, who’ve probably been taught to be more reserved and demure. 

After the ceremony I went to a dinner hosted by the school’s Chairman for all of the teachers. Teaching is a highly respected profession in Korea; being a teacher here is akin to being a doctor or lawyer in the States. My school in particular is one of the best in the area, almost the equivalent of a private school in the US, so the teachers have a lot of school pride…which they exhibit in the form of loud toasts and shots of Soju. After giving a toast (of which there were many), the teacher giving the speech would shout “Yeogang!” (the name of the school) and everyone would respond by shouting the Korean word for “for”, to emphasize that the toast is “For Yeogang.” Even just sipping after each toast, I still managed to drink four shots of Soju. I’ll save the “drinking-in-Korea” post for another time.

In big girl news, I finally figured out how to turn on my hot water (to save energy you turn it off and on)…don’t make fun, this would have been an easy task if my control panel wasn’t in Korean:

What I'm working with...I have no idea what most of those buttons do.

1 comment:

  1. Keep not asking what's in your food. It's better that way. You'll feel more comfortable about the age thing in just a few weeks, I bet, and then it will become a hilarious joke.



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