Did My Food Just Move?!

Years ago, I moved to South Korea to teach English and get out of my Canadian rut, and the experience was anything but dull. My job was in Daejeon which is about two hours from Seoul by bus. It’s a medium-sized city by Korean standards, about 1.5 million people. In my short time there, I only ventured once to the ginormous capital Seoul and spent most of my time in and around Daejeon, exploring the different areas as well as the wall of mountains that seemed to protect it from the outside world.

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I liked my job, the people I met, and learning about the rich culture and history of this country. However, it was not free of challenges as it was my first real confrontation with culture shock. These cultural differences were by no means impediments to living there, but rather fodder for the stories I would tell when I went back home.

First off, it’s important to note that I am a large, blonde, blue-eyed woman, so moving there made for many a jaw-dropping exchange, let me tell ya. In short, I felt like an albino Amazon in the land of dark-haired little people who never, ever let me forget it. The kids I taught felt no qualms about calling me fat, petting my blonde hair and gawking at my left-handedness which seemed to solidify my freak-dom.

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Adults stared at me in public and children followed me on my way home from school to yell out the few English phrases they knew in the hopes I would say something back, which always caused a barrage of giggles. Aside from a few inappropriate glares, I never felt disrespected though, as I found Koreans to generally be very polite and reserved and respectful. They did get a little crazy if Sogu or Karaoke was involved but were otherwise rather unassuming.

Some of the noticeable cultural differences I found had to do with etiquette. It was quite common to see people make the horking sound and spit their hearts out – anywhere, anytime. I also witnessed burping, passing gas and picking one’s nose on a massive scale, all to the chagrin of nobody…but me. Even though it never stopped grossing me out, my horror eventually subsided (slightly) because I realized that nobody is trying to be offensive; it’s just what they do and what they accept.

I also found out some of the things that I was accustomed to doing were not socially acceptable in Korean culture such as blowing your nose in front of people (which I have done umpteen times), passing things with the left hand or even one hand (to which I have never given a second thought), showing the bottom of your shoes (which is damn near impossible to avoid when crossing your legs), and sticking chopsticks inside of your rice (which I probably would have done on purpose had I not been told upfront never to do it). So, do those things make me disrespectful or ignorant? Certainly not; just different.

I fell in love with the food which was always fresh and spicy – my faves being Bibimbap, Gimbap, Kimchi jjigae, Hameul Pajeon.

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However, the food was probably one of the biggest reminders that I was living in a different culture. On a number of occasions my friends and I would go out to eat and actually read menu warnings about how the LIVE octopus should be eaten with caution…as it could suction onto your esophagus and clog your throat, thereby, killing you. Yes, you read right – food that could kill you if you’re not careful. Or if you’re too drunk.

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Then there is the controversy about Koreans eating dog meat, known as Gaegogi. When I first arrived I thought “oh my god, how barbaric!” However, after living there awhile and giving it more thought, I realized that as a meat eater, it would be rather hypocritical of me to judge who eats which kind of meat. And for those who are still not convinced, they only breed a certain kind of dog for consumption and have been doing so for ages. It’s not like they’re out hunting down people’s pets.

I never did partake and can’t say that I would have  if I was offered it, but I certainly don’t judge anyone who does. There really is no difference with cats or bugs being eaten in other cultures or cows and pigs being eaten in my own which many find offensive and/or disgusting.

Korea definitely opened  my eyes to cultural variation as well as the dangers of cultural exclusion and prejudice. I don’t want to think about what I would have missed on had I went there with a closed mind.

I’m fiercely proud to be from Canada and of the many traditions and cultural practices I observe, most of which I give no thought to. However, my time in Korea taught me to feel the same pride at being let into another culture if only for a short while to see what makes them unique. Whether I indulge in food that moves or not.