The following was written as an entry in the contest mentioned on this site, which was announced to me via a trackback to my own site.
However, if I understand correctly, it seems that I need to create an account over at Koreanblog to get my entry included, and I’m not about to do that. I’m disapppointed that it’s not going to count as an entry over there, but I’m still going to post this here. It seems I was wrong, and my post actually has been entered into that contest. Cool.
I’m just glad to have a chance to write something nice. Though some people might not guess it from my writings, I enjoy Korea immensely; I would not still be here if I did not.
So, without further ado, what comes after the line below is my entry.
Food: in Korea, people rightfully take pride in the food. They talk about it, a lot. I remember when I learned some basic language for food, like “delicious” and “hungry” and “full”, how suddenly something like forty percent of the conversations in Korean I was overhearing on the street suddenly became ever-so-slightly explicable to me. It seemed like, on buses and sidewalks and over their cell phones, everyone was talking about food so much of the time. And perhaps rightly so: Korean food is among my favorite cuisines in the world, and fascinates me enough that I’m learning to prepare it on my own, dish by dish.
Now, there are a lot of ways in which food figures into the Korean-foreigner experience: the surprising delight of it; the healthiness of it and the weight loss so many of the heavier foreigners among us (myself included) happily undergo on a Korean diet; the way older people sometimes assume we don’t like it spicyhave you ever eaten sun doo boo jjigae without spice in it? It does not work.and of course the whole shift to chopsticks and how, sometimes, a few years into our stay here in Korea, we foreigners suddenly find using a fork awkward and inconvenient.
But for me, the most profound thing I realized about Korean food culture was something I was intensely aware of when I first arrived, promptly forgot, and then remembered again when I visited my family in Canada. In Toronto, we went towards Chinatown and ended up in some kind of Asian-fusion restaurant. We ordered our dishes and when they were brought out, they were placed in front of us, each dish in front of the person who’d ordered it.
Now, I’d known that was coming. I’d absolutely known that we’d each be eating off our own plates, each having only the one dish plus whatever side dishes we ordered. I’d known that my family wasn’t used to any other kind of eating, certainly not the one-pot-in-the-middle-of-the-table communal eating style I’d gotten used to in Korea. So when my own Thai noodle whatchamacallit-fusion dish came, and I realized what this would mean for this meal, I just tried to accept it. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Toronto, eat Asian food the wrong way.
But I couldn’t help this strange feeling that was growing inside me. As I dug my chopsticks into the dish of noodles, and looked around the table, at each person focusing on his or her own dish, the feeling grew. The conversation started up again, about whether this food was anything like what I eat on a daily basiswhich it wasn’t except of course for the kimchi side-dish I orderedand about the decor of the place, about my other sister’s wedding which we’d all attended just a few days before. And while it was good to be with my family, of course it was, there was something about the way we ate, each of us from one plate alone, not sharing… there was something about it that saddened me. There was something terribly lonely about it, for me. I can’t imagine anyone in my family actually understanding this experience, of course. They’ve not lived what I’ve lived, they don’t know what eating together means to me, and it’s unsurprising, of course. It’s not their culture… but somehow, now, it has become mine.
And so eating has become for me a kind of communion with whomever I eat with. Sharing food, sharing place, this isn’t limited to the dinner table anymore; despite my own obstinacy, now I even offer people pieces of an orange if I happen to be eating one. I can’t say that this food culture has made me a better person, or more generous. I can’t say it’s made me more communally-minded, but I can say that it has changed me. When I was teaching in a hakwon, I didn’t understand why my students usually all wanted to go out for dinner a couple of times a month, or at least once or twice during the two-month class term. But after I gave in and went to dinner with them, sharing food and drink and stories, I think I understood it a little better.
There’s something about eating with someone, spooning one’s soup from the same bowl as the other, that does make you feel more clearly your connection with that person. It can soften distrust, strengthen confidence, and intensify respect; it can deepen curiosity, confirm your suspicions, or push aside uncertainty. Now I believe that if I really want to know someone, I should eat with that person. This is not the dinner-party notion of my old days in Canada, where eating was kind of an occasion for socializing with strangers, of having sparkling conversation and showing off one’s wit, where the company is far more central than the food, and thus the food must be “special” somehow to balance it out. The eating together I value now is of daily foods, things that people can and do eat any day of the week: kimchi jjigae, bbyeotagu tang, soon doo boo jjigae. This is eating together for the sake of eating together, of enjoying good food with people whom you also enjoy, respect, and want to be connected with. Sometimes, the food is so important that conversation can wait till after we’ve finished, an old Korean notion I actually do understand, a little, now. It took a while for me to catch onto something as epicurean as this, but when you get it, the idea is impossible to shake.
Now, even when I am on an occasional exercise kick, my eating is nothing like fueling a machine, the way I understood it for so many years in Canada. Eating is something profoundly more meaningful than that; it’s a way of blurring the boundaries that daily life set up between myself and the people around me. It’s a way of connecting very basically, along the lines of the one thing we humans all have in common: food. So I find myself smiling, laughing at myself as I prepare food for my girlfriend, for friends, and thinking about how I can do this with the utmost care. I’ve heard Asian-Canadians talk about the importance of food in their households, and somehow, my house is like that, too. Like the mother of a Chinese-Canadian friend of mine, when I cook I really do make an effort. It’s not so much about putting your heart into it, or putting your back into it, as it is paying careful, close attention to what you’re doing, being patient and attentive. Just like we should be with other people, when we’re eating it.
And then, when I put the steaming bowl onto the table, we eat, I and whomever I am with. My happiness in this is different from any other happiness I’ve ever experienced in my life, in any other place and time.
We eat together, and I am happy.