I remember hearing about the term “culture shock” soon after I arrived in Korea. Well, I thought about this as I was so very much in shock from the vast difference between my remote little province in Atlantic Canada and the highly populated, busy place I found myself in. It was too hot and it smelled bad. Everyone looked ‘different’. No one, even the other Canadians, understood me and I mean the Koreans didn’t understand much of my language and no one there at all understood my specific culture or background. This is because Canada is very diversified across 3000 miles. Canada’s people are not homogenous like they mostly are in Korea. It’s funny because many times the businessmen I spoke to were confused when I’d try to say that Canada was different from area to area. My home province had higher unemployment for example, than some other provinces, I had said. One man could not understand that Canada was not homogenous(the same people, culture and economy throughout the country) and I remember he said in a confused way, “…No jobs in Canada…??…” I could not make him understand.
The main thing that gave me culture shock was their food. I had been expecting to eat meals consisting of Canadian-Chinese food, which is sweet, in spite of being salty, and tasty. I thought I’d find all kinds of variations of pieces of chicken or pork in batter, deep-fried with thick, sweet sauces and accompanied by seasoned fried rice. After all, it was near China, right?
The only book I could find before I went overseas to Seoul was an old, out-dated one at the public library. It would have been so wonderful if there had been internet back then, or even someone around my city who knew and could have prepared me for what was in store for me. In that library book it said Korean meals consist of food in many little bowls. This was true but there were no little bowls of sweet and sour chicken balls or fried rice. Or deep-fried egg rolls with plum sauce. The bowls there had fermented cabbage or Korean turnip or cucumber all rubbed with hot red pepper flakes. So strong and sour. The sticky, short-grain rice was always plain and white. Many times there would be a hot bowl of soup with little fish in it, even for breakfast.
I would eat at a big, long table in the basement of my building and teachers ate for free, which was good. My boss must have been making money from getting the cleaning and cooking woman to feed many others in the area as well. There were a number of long tables for people to sit and eat down there. I can remember being down there at first 23 years ago, in total culture-shock and I remember the smell of garlic and kimchi and the heat that hung in the air at first. I recall my anxiety and fear that I couldn’t help but feel at the time. All those Korean strangers. And none of them spoke English. What was remarkable to me was that when it was a soup that was served to all those Korean men sitting eating at the long tables, there would be about 25 of them all slurping the soup very loudly all at once! They all had their heads down looking at those bowls, intent on slurping their soup, but using spoons, mind you. I thought it was so funny, because in my experience, slurping was always frowned upon, and it was so loud, ha ha!
Of course, I was not at my building for long every day because most of my teaching jobs were outside in a far-away place in Seoul. Some were across the entire city. I travelled many hours almost every day on the subway and buses and sometimes taxis to get to all of these jobs. Therefore I wasn’t at my building most of the time in order to be able to eat for free in the basement. So I had to eat at workplace cafeterias, which was all very different to me, as I’d have a tray-full of authentic Korean food there each time which was complimentary. That cafeteria food could be actual raw squid in spicy sauce and all the accompaniments like rice, soup and kimchi or it could be another whole authentic meal. This happened if I was at Anam Semiconductors or LG Cellphones because there were so many employees there all day and they ate lunch and supper together every day at work. Most times, though, I had to grab a snack at a convenience store or buy a snack from a street cart or a bakery. I didn’t mind and crunchy rice snacks or waffle-fish with red bean filling were lovely to eat. The public transportation and outside food had to be all paid for out of my own pocket, as my contract stated this and I had agreed to it and signed it back in Canada before I flew over there. The travelling to teach mainly adults was better to me than staying at my institute and teaching little Korean kids all day, which is what all the other teachers in Korea like me were stuck doing. I was lucky to have travelled so much while teaching and I had invaluable conversations with the Korean businessmen, diplomats, civil servants, office workers, engineers and housewives. It was very enjoyable for me but still was difficult in ways at the same time. Some foreigners would have preferred staying at their institute every day teaching children instead of what I did.
One huge new stressful wrinkle that added to my shock was that there was no fork available anywhere to eat with. I was not prepared for having no utensil to eat with. I would have to get used to chopsticks. Just using the chopsticks alone was so novel to me, but there were also so many other new stresses to face at the same time all at once. I ate with chopsticks every day and concentrated very hard. I had never used them in my life. It took a whole month for me to be able to use them comfortably, even with daily practice and no other alternative. I do remember that. After a month I could pick up a targetted, single grain of rice, which to me was quite a feat.
During the first few times in that basement kitchen, another Canadian taught me to say, “It’s delicious!” by saying, “Mashiseyo!” I always remembered how to compliment the Korean cook or host that way. That was very important to me, along with thanking them, of course, which I learned as soon as I could too. One time at first, the cook was serving cold, cucumber soup, which was customarily served in the heat to help cool people off. It tasted sweet and vinegary at the same time. It was very nice and so different to me. It was very muggy and there was a heavy, humid, relentless heat in September when I tried the cold soup.
As time went on, after a few months there were no men sitting at the tables very much anymore and the variety of foods given to me had dwindled because the whole country was in big economical trouble due to the 1997 Financial Crisis. My boss must have not been buying much for his kitchen down there other than rice, eggs and kimchi during the ‘crash’, because by January of 1998 that’s all I was served when I went downstairs to have a meal. I found a plastic bottle of ketchup to put on my bowl of rice that had a barely-cooked fried egg plopped on top of it and I mixed it around with kimchi. This is not a fancy meal but even today if I eat a bowl of this same meal it is a great comfort food to me. I have even greatly missed eating that meager meal and I am happy when I have something like it to eat today.
I added ‘barely-cooked’ before ‘fried egg’ because they only fried eggs partly sunny-side up and there was a lot of raw white and yolk to every fried egg they cooked so it could be mixed around with the hot rice. Sometimes the runny uncooked part of the egg will still cook a little more while it’s mixed with hot food, depending on what type of dish is served that way. Even the fried eggs were so different than what I was accustomed to and I found that alone to be so strange.
You can see how every single thing was so different for me when I was in Korea. The main thing that stood out to me while I lived there was the loneliness. I was so very lonely. Mostly everything I did was while I was alone. This is why I cherish the fact that a neighbour in Karak-dong, Sang Hyun, wanted to be my friend and gave me great company on some days. I started to realize after I was back in Canada for a while that, yes, I had succeeded against great odds over there. I always think of that stark, almost constant loneliness and of having no fork, for example, and having to try not to get lost and I think of the severe language and culture barrier I had to constantly struggle to overcome. This may very well be the reason why my memories of Seoul are so very important to me now.