I don’t tend to read food blogs, but in the past year or so, there seems to have arrived a meme spreading around Korea that Korean food must be popularized in the West, as Japanese food has been. I suspect this is not just because Japanese food being popular irks your average nationalist in Korea — Japan’s international popularity in general does, after all — but also because, if you go to some places in North America, you’ll see Koreans running many of the “Japanese” restaurants. (In such places, side dishes of kimchi are often available in far greater occurrence than, say, the availability of “kimochi” in Japan.)
Anyway, this leads me to the topic of “drunken rice”. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s been discussed over at Fat Man Seoul. Essentially, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries held a contest for the creation of an unofficial pet name for the drink “makgeoli,” apparently because foreigners cannot pronounce it.
Which, by the way, is bullshit. Makgeoli is a drink most Westerners who are not teetotal will encounter in Korea within a few months of their arrival here. I’ve never met a Westerner who couldn’t pronounce “makgeoli.” Of course, it doesn’t sound the way it looks, because the romanization system is really just a one-to-one correspondence of Korean letters — not phonemes, mind, but the locations of letters in a word. In other words, it’s designed for the people who need it least to be most able to use it, in other words, but there’s a precedent for that. As long as Koreans are comfortable with nobody knowing how to pronounce anything written in this system, who am I to complain?
Anyway, in the comments on that post over at Fat Man Seoul, someone points out that this stupid term, “drunken rice,” is not supposed to replace the name makkeoli, but… well, the purpose seems muddled, but it is supposed to be a “pet name.” Fat Man replies that other foods don’t have pet names to make them more comfortable or accessible to Westerners.
This is, of course, in error. Official pet names, no, I don’t think they exist, but lots of Korean foods have semi-formal “pet names” that are used for exactly this purpose.
A number of Korean foods have ill-gotten “English” pet names. How many times have how many random people turned to you and said, “Korea[n] Pizza!!!” over a pajeon? (It’s a terrible analogy, as pajeon is nothing like pizza. At all.) Or, over samgyeopsal, “Korea[n] bacon!” The role of rice in the making of soju is for most brands exceedingly small as far as I know, but people still call it “rice wine” or “rice vodka” or other things it plain isn’t. Koreans are so often making analogies between Korean things and Western things that, in their opinion, are similar, apparently for the benefit of Westerners who cannot grok differences.
The assumption that Westerners cannot grok the difference is one of the real problems. See, what we have is older guys who are, in all likelihood, assuming Westerners are like them. Some older guys tend, in my experience, to be less comfortable not just with the names of “foreign foods” but also with actually eating anything non-Korean. The likelihood of being uncomfortable in this way probably goes up with age, but some young guys are like this too.
Which is why I look a little askance at Fat Man Seoul’s argument that this is Koreans calling Westerners dumb. In fact, it seems to me, it’s just a few ignorant older guys assuming everyone else (across cultures) is as ignorant as they are.
An analogy is how I used to get mad when certain older Korean guys would talk to me as if I obviously knew nothing about Korean history, culture, society. I’d signal that I knew more than they thought — commenting on the radical drop in status women underwent as the Joseon Dynasty took over, alluding to the very long history of hereditary slavery in Korea, hinting that I’d read more than a few pages about the Korean war — but they’d go on telling me very simplistic, watered-down stuff about modern and earlier Korean history.
It bothered me till I asked them about the places they’d lived abroad, and I discovered (to my dismay) that they’d lived in places for two, three, five, or ten years without really learning anything about the place. The history? A smidge. The culture? They’d laugh and use the word “weird” but there was little more to their sense of things than that. Now, I’m not talking about all Koreans who go abroad. I’m talking about the ones who assumed I knew zilch about Korea… they also happened to know zilch about the places they’d lived.
That’s when I figured out: they were just assuming — against all evidence to the contrary — that I was as lazy, ignorant, and mediocre as they were. Bing! It was suddenly so easy not to get offended. And I also could respond quite differently. I’d either nod and say, “Oh? Really?” to some random, indoctrinated trusim, or I’d be more forward with the fact that what they were discussing was not really news to me.
Which is not to defend this idiocy, about the drunken rice. It’s rather simply to point out this is not unusual except to the degree to which it’s been officialized. Korean society right now is in a haphazard jumble about how to better its profile on the international scene. There are things Korea could do, and possibly benefits that might accrue, but nobody’s being realistic about that. It’s more about the muddled panic at the moment.
Which means sensible advice won’t make a difference anyway, even if they did ask us. It’s like the young, aspiring author who asks, “How can I make a living writing horror novels?” Aside from saying, “Be Stephen King,” what can one say in a few sentences? Nothing useful. One has to say, “Look, you need to study the publishing industry. You need to consider whether you really are writing bestseller material — stuff that Dan Brown’s audience will eat up. You need a day job for now. You need to ask yourself how filmable your novels are. You should consider other ways of doing it, like podcasting your stuff or releasing it online and getting a following that way.” In short, you can’t answer the question usefully, because that young author isn’t in a position to understand what you’re saying anyway.
So I think Fat Man Seoul is overstating things. In fact, to me this seems like it’s the same old story: a group of Koreans “trying to figure out how to make X easier/more comfortable for/more attractive to foreigners” in every possible way they can…
… except, er, talking to foreigners.