While traveling abroad, no matter what country you call your own, you invariably run into some problems. Maybe it’s language or tipping. Perhaps it’s addressing someone by name or trying to exchange money. But no matter what country you’re in, something will be quite different from your home and oftentimes, that leads to some problems. Most of those problems can be solved with a simple phrase book, a friendly stranger or a little luck. Korean’s, on the other hand, tend to face another problem and their problem can’t be solved as easily. Koreans have a very hard time with food.
Most Korean dishes are mildly spicy and overloaded with chili pepper. I think it’s pretty delicious, but honestly there’s nothing particularly special about it. Yet, in Korea and to Korean, I’m an extreme minority. Koreans are fanatical about their food. Food is not just for subsistence, it is for enhancing mood, curing ailments, increasing stamina and boosting intellectual capacity. Do I believe that stuff? Certainly not, but I come from a culture that typically doesn’t make such claims. Korea does and they do it with nearly every type of food. Just for a fun, I’m going to ask my wife about some random Korean dishes right now and let’s see what she says.
"여보, can you tell me a few dishes we eat regularly that possess some sort of healing power?”
“Um… kimchi (김치) helps maintain your immune system.”
“Of course it does.” I said sarcastically.
“…Dwenjang chigae (된장찌개) can help prevent cancer. Chili pepper increases metabolism and ginseng increases your body temperature.
“Really? That’s why people eat ginseng?”
“Yeah, and that’s why you can’t eat it. You’re always hot and sweating anyways.”
That’s true. I’m always hot in Korea. It’s also a slightly true stereotype. Most Koreans (my wife including) believe that most foreigners are sweaty and smelly. It’s somewhat true though since all public spaces in Korea are ridiculously hot and that’s most likely place the interaction occurs.
Still, to a Korean, their food is not only the most delicious and perfect for every situation, but it is crucial for maintaining good health. Besides the medicinal reasons for their connection to their food, Koreans have a very strong sense of ethnic pride. Anything that is viewed as being uniquely Korean is immediately placed on a very high pedestal and a great deal of pride is taken in them. The Korean language, Korean Confucianism (many say that Korea out-Confucius China), Dokdo, tae kwon do, turtle ships and Baekdu mountain range are all examples of things Koreans revere. Food is the same way. Ask a Korean about the origin of their most internationally known food, kimchi, and they’ll give you a nice little lesson that will include an angry rant about how Japan tries to claim it as their own. They call it “kimuchi” in Japan. Let’s see what my wife says when I ask her how she knows kimchi is not a Japanese dish.
“How do you know kimchi is Korean?”
“Because we know that it’s ours.”
Solid (Kimchi is Korean though). Again, I give you those examples to highlight the sense of pride that Koreans get from their food. But pride in their national flavor is not all that interesting -- it occurs is most nations. Tell an Italian that pizza is Greek or a Mexican that burritos are American. They’ll be pissed because part of their tangible culture is being stolen. The problem that Koreans face when traveling has nothing to do with a dispute over the origin of food, it has to do with what food they eat and the reasons for eating it.
From their mouth:
“While traveling abroad, have you ever had any problems with food?”
“I did when I was in Australia.”
“Australia, huh? How long were you there? I asked expecting to hear an extended time period.
“One week and you had problems? What kinds of problems?”
“My family and ate four Australian meals in a row and had to switch back to Korean food.”
“Only four meals? Was it that bad?”
“We needed kimchi.”
He really "needed" fermented cabbage smothered in chili pepper. Jerry (I only know his English name) is in his mid-forties. He’s married, has two daughters and recently started a new job in a small construction company. He and his family went to Australia for a week and, in less than a day and a half, they all had eaten enough Western food. When I asked him why they needed to switch back to Korean food so quickly, as many Koreans would, he used the word “need.” He needed kimchi. I have heard this countless times. They need some particular dish and if they don’t get it, then something terrible could happen (like open-mindedness or maybe a dash of spontaneity might be added to their personality). But then again, the first Korean into space couldn't go without her kimchi either.
"If a Korean goes to space, kimchi must go there, too," said Kim Sung Soo, a Korea Food Research Institute scientist. "Without kimchi, Koreans feel flabby. Kimchi first came to our mind when we began discussing what Korean food should go into space."
I saw this behavior on my honeymoon in the Philippines. Groups of Koreans would stay in Korean-only hotels, eat only Korean food and socialize with only Korean people. In Vancouver, the Korean Mecca of Canada, Koreans (more so than other Asian races) are known for their tendency to shun the local culture, and group together. After school, parents pick their children up and bring them to Korean restaurants. Of course, it’s natural to group together with people similar to you, but Koreans seem to take it a bit too far. I have had tons of students move to the US to study English, only to spend their time with other Koreans, drinking soju, singing karaoke and speaking only Korean.
I say that, yet the streets of Seoul are filled with Western-style eateries. In many places, it’s hard to find Korean billboards between the TGIF, Outback and McDonald’s signs. Non-Korean food has definitely been accepted here, but it is still seen as more of a novelty or a treat. If you ask Koreans what “junk food” is, they will say chicken, spaghetti and burgers. They distinguish it by its origin. I know that eating McDonald's is bad for me, so I try to eat there rarely. Eating McDonald’s regularly makes it junk food and that is unhealthy. Having it once a month makes it a meal. And therein lays the problem with non-Korean food. All of it is viewed as junky or something that negatively affects your health. This mindset, coupled with the idea that Korean food is hyper-medicinal, leads to people “needing” kimchi or other Korean dishes. I know that vegetables are good for me and a doctor will tell me that I need the vitamins contained in vegetables, but I’m not walking around saying, “I need broccoli” or “I need a banana”. If a Korean doesn't feel well on vacation, the first thing they blame is the non-Korean food they were forced to eat.
In the end, it boils down to one thing and it’s not preference. It’s superiority. Like many other races and ethnicity's, Korean’s believe that they are pretty exceptional. You're not going to find many people walking around claiming to be superior to others, but it’s more easily seen when you look at negative light in which foreigners are portrayed in the news and Korean history, oftentimes as the cause of many problems in Korea. Somehow, Caucasians have become somewhat of an exception to this rule, but African, Middle-Eastern and especially other Asian races have a pretty hard time here. This type of ethnic exceptionalism finds its way to food and surfaces with such comments as “I need kimchi” or “I don’t eat American food because junk food is unhealthy.”
Oh yeah? I don't eat Korean soup because it's boiling when it's served to me. Take that!