Different Food…”Culture Shock”

These are examples of pickled vegetables and other similar side dishes found in Korea. I do not know what many of these are and never had many of the ones pictures here. I do see lotus root slices – they are brown with holes in them, pictured on the left, and I see quails’ eggs on the right. We do not have these foods in Canada, but I had lotus root slices and quails’ eggs a few times while I lived in Seoul.

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.

The bean sprouts were bigger than ones back home. They are soybean sprouts – that’s why! Many bowls of soup were piled with them and other loads of different vegetables, meat and /or fish. The sprouts were cooked to perfection each time, meaning they were still crunchy. (KongNaMeul)

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.

Musings about Korean markets in the 1990s…

So very different from Canada….

Fresh food was for sale in a lot of areas. On the sidewalks sometimes, and at huge, sprawling vendors’ markets, and at stands outside of corner stores. Prepared ‘street food’ was for sale on the roads in certain areas. Small, blue-coloured Daewoo trucks drove slowly through residential neighborhoods, with a man’s voice on a loudspeaker announcing seafood or Asian pears or even eggs for sale. These were all affordable, or they were even great deals. Like I’ve mentioned in former blogs here, you could see a man selling roasted chestnuts outside of a venue, or come across a truck selling bags of rice snacks next to a subway station or you could go to a stand selling freshly cooked ‘boongobbang’ (waffle-like cake filled with red bean paste shaped like fish) beside a factory.

There were underground malls adjacent to subway tracks and above-ground markets that had hundreds of stores in clusters of buildings, covering a lot of city blocks, that sold just electronics, for example. Many times the buildings that housed these ‘markets’ were a number of stories tall, and there would always be vendors at these same markets who had their wares on the street too. Food courts were large and in malls and big box stores.

Malls were huge, but were in 6, 7 or 8-storey buildings to save precious space and they sold high-end clothes and jewellery. Prices of food and necessities were good at most places but clothing was always high-priced everywhere, no matter what. There were no sizes for tall, big-boned women like me. And when I wanted gloves or a hat, for instance, there were only fancy, expensive choices. In Canada, by contrast, there were elite stores but also there were always more affordable ones that were usually cheap department stores. I could have bought cheap, affordable gloves or scarves or winter hats in a North American department store for a few dollars each, but in Seoul each of these items was over 8 dollars and nowadays the price would be much higher 22 years later. In November of 1997, I needed sneakers or boots and saw some spread out on the pavement, outside, below some apartment buildings, but they were too expensive and the sizes were small. I looked at the men’s ones, since I knew I couldn’t fit into women’s sizes, and they weren’t much bigger than the women’s sizes and also, these men’s boots were not at all rugged or practical. Everything was made to wear while going from a car or subway into an office building – even the men’s winter boots! They reminded me of men’s dress shoes I would see in Canada. I wanted something made for walking long distances or even hiking or at least going through some snow. So I never bought any footwear while I was there and had to make do with one pair of sneakers from home.

An example of street food, which is popular.

One thing that was so interesting was that one time in Seoul, I was at a very large place where people could buy vegetables, and not only did they have carrots for sale, but they were in a space the size of my city block at home. That city block was full of carrots piled there right on the pavement. You walked and walked a long way to pass the mountains of carrots. Then you had an area the size of another city block piled with onions, just piled there for a long way, like the carrots were. A large area the size of my neighbourhood in Canada had all the common types of vegetables on the ground for sale. You walked a very long distance to get your vegetables at this place. I thought that was something I certainly would never have seen in my country and I marvelled at such a set-up. The population was so high they needed to do it that way.

There were grocery stores all around, and I would find them with difficulty, as they were usually in basements of buildings that had other businesses in them, and the signs were all in Korean. I was always struck by how there were no potatoes or milk or bread made with wheat like they’d have in my area of Canada. There were no fridges full of cartons of cow’s milk. Just some little plastic bottles of ‘flavoured’ milk, perhaps strawberry or coffee flavour, and the banana one is very popular with foreigners today. The tea sections had expensive green Korean ‘loose’ teas, and big glass jars of lemon or plum to mix with hot water. Some kinds of tea in bags were ground barley ‘tea’ in bags or ground corn in tea bags. ‘Job’s tears’ tea was popular and was usually a powder mixed in hot water, called ‘nut’ tea. I found some Lipton ‘black’ tea in bags like at home but Canadians in the Atlantic region think Lipton tea is not very good, and we have better brands of ‘black’ tea – my older relatives all would have perished without their King Cole or Red Rose tea! I had no idea that the tea we use in the west is called ‘black’ tea. Now, if I order tea in an Asian establishment I must remember to call it ‘black’ tea or the server won’t know what I’m asking for.

Packaged spicy ramyeon ‘noodle soup’, seafood made into street food, what looks like raw blood sausage, Korean pancakes and fish and vegetables.

In Kyeongju we walked through a sprawling market of mostly produce, where you passed items set out on a the street by many vendors. The picture above with the vegetables for sale reminds me of what I saw there. In the picture above, the prices show how items, some in packages, cost a dollar or two or three each. The prices are in Korean won and I always estimate if something costs 1000 won, it would be around one American dollar. The stock market fluctuates, but that’s how I figure it. Also, I figure ₩1000 is around a Canadian dollar too sometimes, to make it simple.

In Pusan, we were in a gigantic fish market downtown where we came upon anchovies for sale. I never knew what anchovies were because we do not eat them or sell or buy them in my area of Canada. They are little silver-coloured, dried fish. This indoor market had a few large boxes of big anchovies (still small, dried fish) in a section. In that same section beside the big ones, were a few boxes of a size a little smaller, then another few boxes of the slightly smaller next size, and so on, until you saw a few boxes of tiny, tiny anchovies. Maybe there were 8 different sizes. I thought it was amazing to see the sheer amount that was needed, as there were so many of those little, dried fish for sale in that one area of the market.

Speaking of these anchovies, I had soup with different sizes of the tiny fish in it while I lived in Korea. I like fish in general, but I didn’t want to have soup with little fish in it in the morning. One morning I was finishing my nice bowl of Korean soup in the basement of my institute and there had been a bunch of these anchovies in it – they were all in the bottom of my bowl!

I should mention that in one area of the old downtown there were many little jewellery stores, and it was thought of as a ‘jewellery market’. I went in a few of these stores, and it was amazing to me to see many display counters showing pieces with only one particular coloured gem, like a yellow one. Then after looking at many counters of yellow, I saw many counters where all pink gems were showcased, and then blue gems, and so on. Counter upon counter and row upon row of just one colour! Then more! I couldn’t believe the sheer amount of one kind of coloured gem in one spot and there were many other stores with the same set-up in this famous ‘jewellery market’ as well. At home we’d have smaller stores with smaller displays and only a few stores in my city at that.

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