As many of you probably know, I was a proud and happy anthropology major all throughout my Vassar days. And, if I do say so myself, I was pretty good at it, too. I learned the many lessons of Anthropologists past, and, like many of my kind, came away with Boas and Geertzian principles of cultural relativity and a fear of making sweeping cultural generalizations as much a part of my education as wine and cheese Fridays. That being said, here is a list of five sweeping, mostly very petty, cultural generalizations about things I find strange about Korea based on my observations so far.
1. They consider the tomato a fruit, not a vegetable.
And I don’t just mean a fruit in the biological, technical way – yes, I know, it has seeds, and thus is technically a fruit. I mean that if you go to a smoothie stand, you will see a display of vinyl food options that usually stars strawberries, bananas, and tomatoes. On my trip to Andong a few weeks ago, I enjoyed a tomato popsicle, just out of curiosity (yes, happy to report that the larva incident hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for strange foodstuffs). And it wasn’t bad – they emphasize that lovely, slightly sweet flavor of a fully ripe tomato, which sort of works. But also, I admit, is still a little weird.
2. They love complication.
Well, maybe they don’t love it, but things do certainly seem to get complicated mighty fast here. Whether its the complex structure and serving of meals, as mentioned in a previous post, or trying to pick up a letter from the front desk of your hotel, it’s unlikely it will be a simple thing. I was first clued into this by the labyrinthine visa process (which began in a personal bio and HIV test for everyone, and ended in the assignment of ‘alien registration cards’, which need to be updated every time we change cities). My most recent favorite example of this is the language book I recently picked up in an attempt to learn something beyond hello and thank you. Since the Korean language is written in an alphabet called Hangul (which has a fascinating backstory – look it up if you’re interested) the first step is learning that alphabet. Chapter one, thus, was devoted to the six basic vowels and six basic consonants. Great, I thought, not a problem. So I learned these, or tried to, and was proud of myself until I turned to chapter two, which was devoted to the four combined vowels, ‘four consonants’, and nine ‘final consonants’. Okay. Mastering these, and ready to start learning actual words, I turned to chapter three, which was devoted to…. four more vowels, five ‘aspirated’ consonants (I have enough trouble with ‘wh’, thanks), and five other ‘final consonants’. Next chapter? Words? No, Fool! It was seven vowel combinations, five ‘tensed consonants’, two more ‘final consonants’ and six ‘double consonants’.
I tell this story not to point out that the alphabet is complicated, because many Asian languages are far worse, god knows. It was the structure of the book that got me, and struck me as quite Korean. The first chapter seems simple, and there’s no indication that there’s another chapter to follow of other stuff. And when you’ve finished that, tacked on is yet another, of more, randomly organized into a different chapter. You’d think that maybe the alphabet could go into one big section, perhaps divided into subcategories, or perhaps that the chapters had to be organized this way as the first chapters acted as building blocks for the later ones. Nope, and, as far as I can see, nope. And that’s Korea for you.
3. The businessmen wear a particular unofficial uniform.
Which consists of a shiny suit and pastel tie. They really love the shiny suits here – department store men’s sections are filled with such sheen they’re almost blinding. Most commonly, the shiny suits are in a silver-grey color, and nine times out of ten will be worn with a white shirt and a pink tie. Once I noticed this, I noticed so many that I began to wonder if perhaps there isn’t a television character who wears this particular combination and is so popular that everyone has begun to ape his style, a la Miami Vice. I’m a little ashamed to ask the local presenters, so the mystery remains, for now.
4. They cut everything with scissors.
The first time I went out for Barbeque here, I noticed that the waitress brought a silver bowl of tools, which consisted of a pair of tongs and a pair of scissors. That was odd, I thought, an odder still when she took the cooked meat off the grill with the tongs, and sliced it into pieces with a few easy snips of the scissors. But hey, I thought, it was quick and easy, and effective. It was a nice solution, I thought, but I figured that knives were probably still around somewhere. Well, maybe, but so far everything that needs to be cut during a meal will be cut with scissors. It is immensely practical, especially considering that there are no forks to hold anything in place while you cut it with a knife, but it takes some getting used to. And just when I thought I was used to it, I ordered noodles at a restaurant. The waitress delivered them, then without ceremony took a pair of scissors from her apron, stuck them point-down into the broth in the bowl, and scissored the noodles into smaller pieces.
5. All the women wear heels.
This is impressive, considering there are a fair number of cobblestone streets around still, but it’s nonetheless true. Well, partly true – there are some very glam flats worn about, too, but the point is that I haven’t yet seen a woman wearing a cruddy pair of flip flops yet (although there are some primo violations of the ‘no stockings with sandals’ rule) – the average Korean woman has very put-together footwear. Women’s shoes here tend to have mid-size heels, and are often glitsy in some way, whether it be patent leather, metallic plastic, or bejewelled details (although there are some really beautiful, interesting ones among them). Interestingly, the shoes only occasionally match the outfit – sometimes it seems as though what is worn above and below the ankles are two entirely separate entities in terms of style, but the important thing is that the level of formality must match (dressed up with dressed up, etc.) Shoes are also sold everywhere, arranged in no particular order on shelves, hanging from the sides of booths, or laid out on the floor, and it seems, often, that there are no other sizes than what’s out. There certainly is no such thing as a size nine heel available anywhere in the city – believe me, I looked. One recent Monday, desperate for a shoe fix, I walked into a store that had the most beautiful pair of red Satin D’Orsay sandals, with a snakeskin stilleto heel (also red, and very subtle and retro and beautiful). I went up to the woman at the desk (as this was the high-end district, it wasn’t one of the jam-packed-on-racks places) and asked if she had an American size nine. Well, her eyes grew wide as saucers, and she frantically made an ‘X’ shape with her arms (the Korean sign for ‘no’, and one I had grown to understand well when looking for size nine). Then, as though that weren’t bad enough, she actually came around the desk to stare at my feet. My apparently gargantuan, freakazoidal feet. Good thing I don’t wear something really out there, like a nine and a half.