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Culture Talk

On the city streets, riding in the back seat of a taxi, crowded on a city bus, seated at a sahng (floor-table) in a restaurant, ambling the aisles of the grocery store, walking to school, over the phone, in my office…absolutely everywhere, I observe and absorb this colorful culture in which I now exist.    While I won’t pretend to love everything I have noticed or convince you that I warmly embrace all that I see, I offer the following observations and my embryonic experience at understanding the Korean society from a culture sharing, not culture shocking perspective.


Let’s start on a positive note, and what could be more positive than the word “yes”, or “nay” as it is pronounced in Korean.  Korean people use this word incessantly, especially in conversations.  They nod and interject “nay” after every other word I speak.  Coming from a western society, I understand this phenomenon to mean that I should get to the point of my story more quickly or shut up.  You know how it goes — you start a story and within the first few details uttered, the other party says, “yeah, yeah, yeah…what about it” (meaning: get to the point or move on, and if you can’t do it quickly, then shut up).  So to rid this cultural (language) baggage that I have brought with me to Korea, I begin to sever my sentences mid-way to let the Koreans have the floor.  Of course, in my attempt to accommodate their discussion desires, I wind up confusing the Koreans who, I find out later, use this word as an indicator that they are intently listening and understanding and ‘positively’ want me to continue. So, all in favor of this communication concept, say “nay”!


With the strange winter weather and suddenly being in the midst of hundreds of kids each day, many of us teachers have come down with colds.  As we pass this infliction and information around, I learn that culturally speaking, we would totally “blow it” if we were to dispense our nasal congestion into a tissue (that is, blow our nose) while in the company of our Korean counterparts.  Evidently, the Koreans consider this act terribly rude and most definitely would think of us as quite snotty.  However, they do not think a thing of relieving themselves of excess mucus at any time or in any public place, as I have seen the most glamorous and classy-looking Koreans walking or standing on the crowded city streets where, in one fell swoop, they form a giant flim ball in the back of their throats and then haaauuuck it up and hurl it to the ground just inches from my feet!  Not the ‘spitting image’ I want to portray.


Now that I have whet your appetite, let’s talk about food :>).  I love Korean food!  It is healthy, colorful, spicy, delicious and absolutely the focus of the Korean culture. In fact, the most common expression in the Korean language after saying “hello” is “have you eaten yet”.  This is their equivalent to our “how ya doing” or “what’s happening”. If your answer is “no, I have not eaten yet”, you are sure to be catered to in the traditionally generous and hospitable manner of the Korean people. If a full meal replete with numerous side dishes is not available, some kind of snack will be close at hand.  Dining is definitely a communal concept here and the cultural conduct is all about sharing anything edible.  Nowhere is this more evident than at the grocery store where one can actually consume a complimentary and complete dinner including wine or beer and even coffee and dessert all while stocking up on staples for the week.  This is not your random ‘end-aisle’ demo of the newest cardboard-like cracker from Nabisco.  This is more like a live performance of a culinary cacophony as the cast of cooks tout their tasty treats and shoppers stop and surround the stations in order to satiate themselves.  Without intending to ‘bring up’ the topic of congestion again, I must say that with the multiple ‘demos’ occurring in every aisle, every department, and at every hour, traffic is often at a stand still.  Once while waiting in line for a piece of what looked like thickly sliced ham (but turned out to be SPAM of all things), my cart was pushed aside to make way for a Korean family of four who simultaneously grabbed their green plastic toothpicks and proceeded to inhale the entire plate of ‘junk meal’.  At that point, I decided it was best for me to “delete all SPAM” and move on to the wine tasting.


Perhaps the best analogy for this cultural confoundedness would be ‘fool’s gold’.  We’ve all seen it, many of us have ‘panned’ for it and some have even bought it because it seems so real–it looks so authentic.  It has that rugged, hunky, nugget shape or those perfectly smooth rounded corners of a big bar of richness.  With its lustrous allure, it entices us all into its radiance promising great satisfaction and sheer rapture if we are to indulge ourselves in it.  BUT, it is not really gold, it has “fooled” us into this euphoric ecstasy.  The same could be said for Korean desserts or bakery items–they are all as exquisite as gold jewelry with their glamorous shapes and unique forms; they beam brightly in rich colors of pink, green, yellow, red and chocolate brown.  There are stacks of luscious cake-like layers, crocks of creamy custards, shiny spheres filled with sinful sensations and tantalizing towers of treats all tempting us toward a truly sweet ending to a perfect meal.  But noooooooo, these dessert decoys have not a lump of sugar in them!  The truth is: only the masterful designs and outward aesthetics are “sugar-coated”, the actual taste is more like plain white styrofoam.  What is more troublesome is: bakery items that are not meant to be sweet like garlic bread, ham & cheese croissants and even pizza turn out to be honey-glazed, filled with whipped cream or laced with some kind of fruit jam or sweet sauce!


The most incredible and fantastic issue of all is that tipping is not allowed or accepted in the Korean culture.  At first this was the strangest custom for me to adopt, especially after spending more than 2 years in the ‘service industry’ in America where tips were my entire livelihood.  The idea of getting out of a cab or salon chair or up from a restaurant table or a bar stool and not leaving at least 20% of my total bill was an anathema.  However, I have learned what a luxury this is and realize that here, service professionals are paid adequately and are respected for their passion and dedication to their tasks.  This is nothing like in the states where we must supplement a server’s income just to keep them remotely interested in showing up to work.  Service professionals here go out of their way to ensure that you (locals AND foreigners) get the most timely, friendly, respectful, quality service.  I tip my hat to this culture on that one.

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