The Quirks of Life in Korea: Fourth EditionPosted: November 16, 2010
Eating: Physical Requirement or Social Necessity?
When I think about the differences between a typical meal in Canada and a typical meal in South Korea, I am invariably reminded of my first dinner in Korea, way back in February. I had touched down 12 hours earlier and was feeling the physical and mental effects of a change of address to the opposite side of the globe. My room mate, Jason, and the teacher that I had been hired to replace, Jordan, said they would take me to the nearby city of Guri to meet some new people and experience authentic Korean BBQ. When I arrived, there were roughly 15 other Westerners already there, and I was told that more were on their way. We took our shoes off at the door, as is custom in many establishments in Korea, and sat on small mats on the floor. The table surfaces were not quite one foot off the floor, and were equipped with round grills. The owner brought beer and soju, and before I knew it, people were filling my glass and grilling food right in front of me. The table became littered with dozens of small side dishes, all of which are free. I was told that it was all you could eat meat, and that the beers were cheap. I put back my small glass of beer, and had the shot of soju. When I put the shot glass down, people were already moving to fill it back up. I learned that this too was custom; when someone finishes their drink, it’s considered very rude not to fill it back up for them. In fact, to some very traditional Koreans, filling up your own glass is in very poor taste. You can see the dilemma here. I finish a drink, someone fills it back up. I finish a drink, someone fills it back up. We stayed at the restaurant for what seemed like ages; eating and talking, and talking and drinking. When the meal was finished, I was told that my share was just 10,000 won – or about $8.75.
This is how many meals go in South Korea – lots of people crowded around a table, picking at a common grill in the middle, while consuming large quantities of alcohol. I don’t drink with dinner every night, but I find that any time I’m in a restaurant, it’s tough to spot a table without at least one bottle of beer or soju. Eating here seems to be less about the food, and more about the experience. In fact, some restaurants won’t even serve you if you show up and ask for a table of one. I guess, in their mind, it just isn’t worth their time to have one of their tables tied up by a single patron, when they know that a group of 3 or more will more than likely walk through the door. When you consider how cheap many restaurants are (I can go to cheap restaurants every night for the same price as going out and buying enough groceries to last me a week), it’s easy to understand why restaurants here are always brimming with people. I know more than one westerner here that has never turned on the stove in their apartment, because eating out is just so affordable, easy, and enjoyable.
Ever since that first night, I was hooked on the Korean style of eating a meal. I go out for dinner several nights a week, and have yet to find a Korean dish that I really dislike. I look forward with eager anticipation to taking my friends and family at home out for a night of Korean BBQ and 노래방 (noraebang.. that’s a story for another day…).
I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me…
Have you ever had that feeling that you were being watched? It happens to everyone at one point or another. That indescribable, fleeting feeling that someone, or something, is watching your every move, making your heart beat faster and the hairs on your neck stand on end. You glance around and see nothing but ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, barely even acknowledging your existence. No mysterious stranger gazing at you from across the road, no unmarked van parked in front of the house.
Try being a foreigner in South Korea, where, unlike Canada and the USA, there are not large populations of visible minorities. Many Korean natives, especially of the older generations, don’t hide their curiosity of foreigners and don’t hesitate to stare. I find that this is always especially noticeable whilst riding the subway:
I glance up from my book and notice that the guy sitting across from me is staring at me as though I’m the first white person he’s ever seen. I glance back down at my book, read a few more lines and quickly steal another glance. Yep, he’s still looking. Okay, back to my book – I’ll read a whole page this time. He can’t possibly still be looking at me after a whole page… Damn! He’s still looking! What is it? Do I have something on my face? Is my fly down? No.. Ok, well I’ll just ignore it. Maybe he’ll get off at the next stop. The train stops. He doesn’t get off. He’s still staring at me. I know what I’ll do. I’ll just stare him right in the eye, turn the tables, and keep looking at him until he looks away.
That scenario has played out more than a few times since I’ve come to Korea. It’s also how I now hold the record for the longest staring contest of all time.
I’m not trying to offend or criticize here at all. In Canada, most of us have grown up surrounded by people from very diverse backgrounds; people of every race, religion, and colour you can think of. It just isn’t like that here. Sure, there’s been an American military presence here since the end of the Korean War in the ’50s, but it’s only been in the last decade or so that foreigners have started arriving in droves to work, travel, and live, and it must have been very strange indeed for the older men and women of Korea to suddenly see so many foreigners in their country. So although the staring can be a little awkward at times, I can certainly understand their curiosity.
Welcome to the Space Jam
Canada: 9,984,670 km²
Estimated 2010 population: 34,314,000
South Korea: 100,210 km²
Estimated 2010 population: 48,875,000
Geographically, Canada is nearly 100 times larger than South Korea. South Korea, however, has 15,000,000 more people. And it shows. Take a walk around Seoul and you’ll immediately notice the lack of natural green space, and an abundance of high-rise apartment buildings. Not many Korean families live in actual houses because the cost of property is just way too high. I had difficulty explaining the concept of a basement or a back yard to my students, because none of them have one. Golf here is a rich man’s game, even more so than in North America, as golf courses have to charge obscene green fees in order to pay their property tax.
Let’s consider an equation: l/p = s where l is land, p is population, and s is personal space. In Canada, s would be relatively large. Korea, on the other hand, would have a significantly lower s value. Simply put, personal space just doesn’t exist here. One of the first pieces of advice I was given when I arrived in Korea was not to get offended if I was pushed or bumped while out in public without being offered an apology (thanks Soulbee, if you’re reading this!). It’s good advice. This is most noticeable while on the subway, or in the busier parts of Seoul. People coming and going on the subway will shove past people with little regard, lest they miss their stop, or brush past slow moving pedestrians in the shopping or bar districts of the city. It’s just a part of the culture, and its not considered rude or offensive to push past people if they are in your way. It took me a long time to get used to this, and I’m sometimes still irritated if I have my back to someone on the subway and don’t see them coming until I’m “politely” moved out of their way.
The number of people also becomes obvious when standing in lines, be it at a busy convenience store, in the ATM line, the escalator line to get out of the subway, or basically anywhere else a line is formed. If you want to get in there, you need to get in there! Older Korean women, known as ajummas, are particularly notorious for pushing past people or jumping in front of lines. It’s always funny/terrifying to see a little old Korean lady hustling through the subway, throwing shoulders at anyone who gets in her way. On the other hand, its maddeningly frustrating to stand in line at an ATM line only to have someone swoop right in out of nowhere just before it’s your turn to use the machine.