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“How Kim­chi became my Best Friend”
“How Kim­chi became my Best Friend”
  Date: 2009-07-18 23:42     View: 3387  

“How Kim­chi became my Best Friend”   (2007 Essay contest)


                                                                      Thrien, Thomas

                                                                      Samho Middle School (Ulsan)



I would like to write about some of my experiences as they relate to adjusting to living in Korea. The story that I wish to share with you pertains to a kind of Korean food that westerners either love or love to hate. As I have done both, I believe that I well qualified to expound upon this subject.

The best way I can explain Korean food is that it seems strange to the western eye. It is a bit spicy because it is often marinated with chili sauce, and there is such a vast variety of pickled foodstuffs that you are guaranteed to be served with at least one of these side dishes with every meal.

Allow me to expand on one pickled side dish that you are guaranteed to have served to you with every meal. The name of this fare is Kim­chi and it is perhaps the best known of Korea’s many delicacies.

I had done some research on food, before embarking on my grand adventure, but research alone could not prepare me for what I was about to encounter. I had read that Korea’s national food was a fermented, pickled, spicy cabbage called Kim­chi. Having come from a German background, I already enjoyed sauerkraut, which is fermented and pickled cabbage that is later prepared and cooked.

For some as of yet unexplained reason, I equated the two styles of cabbage and I was quite eager to get my first taste of this exotic Korean sauerkraut. I did not have to wait long to have my first encounter. My plane touched down around 4 pm at the newly opened Incheon International Airport (May 2001). I was met by the school bus driver who drove me to my new school. The teacher that I was to replace still had a week to go on his contract, so he was kind enough to take me out for my first Korean dinner.

My first dinner in Korea was Galbi and of course one of the side dishes was Kim­chi. It looked a bit strange compared to sauerkraut. It was red and came in relatively large pieces, but most importantly to my untrained eyes, it was served cold.

Nevertheless, being determined to sample the much anticipated exotic side dish, I bravely tried to eat my first piece of Kim­chi. Much to my horror the Kim­chi was indeed spicy as my host had tried to warn me, but at the same time it was also quite sour and definitely chilled. I was extremely disappointed that what I had imagined in my mind was far removed from the reality of what I was eating.

Slowly but surely I have come around and changed my mind about this Korean delicacy. The change was long and slow in coming. I now eat Kim­chi with almost every dinner and I quite enjoy the taste of Shin Kim­chi (very sour). This change came about in several ways. My Korean friends and my Korean girlfriends always enjoy eating Kim­chi and they were constantly talking about the health benefits of eating Kim­chi.

I also learned that by cooking the Kim­chi before eating it that it became much less spicy and had a similar taste to “Ha­lop­shies” a Ukrainian dish of rice balls wrapped in cabbage leaves simmered in tomato sauce. My favorite method of cooking Kim­chi is to fry it in pork grease when cooking pork ribs or pork bellies. It has now become such a central part of my dinner that if I forego having Kim­chi for more than two days I really start to crave it.

I have learned to enjoy Kim­chi in stews of various kinds as well as dipping it in soup to warm it up before eating it. One day in the future perhaps, I will also enjoy eating it cold as the Koreans do. For now it is good enough to say that Kim­chi is not the horrible disgusting side dish that I first thought it to be. By taking the time and learning from first hand experience exactly what Kim­chi is and how it is prepared and eaten, I have gained a great respect and genuine fondness for this food. Every time I go home to Canada for a visit, I make sure to bring along some real Korean Kim­chi for my friends and family to enjoy.

As you may have guessed by now, the Kim­chi that I am writing about is merely a metaphor for living in Korea. Although everything that I have written is absolutely true, it is also equally applicable to many of the trials and tribulations that foreigners must endure when they chose to spend a year or many years in a vastly different country and culture so far from home.

Initially we arrive with our preconceptions, our educated guesses and our assumptions. Depending on the picture that we have painted in our mind’s eye, we are sure to be confronted with the flaws in logic in very short order. Just as I had imagined the Kim­chi to be some exotic oriental sauerkraut, many of the preconceptions about Korea are equally wrong.

There are two basic reasons for this. The first reason is that human beings are inquisitive, imaginative creatures that try to picture the unknown. Unfortunately, we can only use past experience to model future possibilities. Never having seen Kim­chi before and having only a brief description from some Korean students in Canada it was impossible to create an accurate picture in my mind. In a similar way, even after seeing pictures of Korea it was impossible guess what life would be like living here. For example, Koreans drive much the same way that Italians do. In the first six months of my stay in Suji, I thought that red traffic lights were optional in this country. Buses, taxis and cars routinely went through red lights, some without slowing down.

The second reason that people create erroneous conclusions is partly the fault of Korean culture itself. Saving face is an important part of most Asian cultures and Korea is no exception. There seems to be a concerted effort to always portray Korea in the best possible light to foreigners. The most negative comment that I have ever heard a Korean make about his own country is that “Korea is a developing nation.” This may be true in some of the more remote areas of Korea, but it is equally true in Canada and in the United States as well. Equally true is the fact that Koreans will claim things to be much better than they actually are.

I have worked for schools that have supplied erroneous information about students, schedules and teachers by Koreans, not out of any malicious intent, but rather because they tend to stress the positive aspects of any given situation. An example of this would be Haeundae Beach in Busan, perhaps the best known beach in Korea. It is large and has beautiful white sand, both of which are true. What is often not mentioned is that, in the summer it is incredibly crowded. Unless you enjoy be packed in a tight space by other people (sardines anyone?) it would be best not to visit this beach on a hot summer weekend.

Having sampled the bitter taste of disappointment, we are now faced with the decision of quitting and returning from whence we came, never to venture far from the familiar, or learning exactly where we went wrong in our thinking and adapting to the new situation. Had I not tried to eat Kim­chi after the first disappointing experience, I would never have learned how to enjoy it. By exercising the latter option and utilizing a lot of patience we can with time reach a place of understanding and accommodation.

Eventually that understanding and accommodation may develop into a true fondness and appreciation. I truly enjoy eating Kim­chi now, and I miss the taste of it whenever I go home to Canada for a visit. Of course a lot of time and effort must be employed to reach this kind of Nirvana, but ask yourself this question ‘If the objective you are trying to achieve is easily obtained, was it worthwhile pursuing in the first place?’ My difficult time in adjusting to eating Kim­chi has made me enjoy and appreciate it so much more.

All of the things worth having in life are deserving of the maximum effort and utmost perseverance, whether it be true love, blissful happiness, children or the opportunity to live and work in Korea as a teacher of your native tongue. Whether or not your time in Korea is successful or not, is reflective of the effort that you put into your experience. When I first arrived in Korea, I was unable to use chopsticks, but after a few weeks of practice with a single grain of uncooked rice, I quickly became adept in using chopsticks and rarely ever use a fork any more.

Those who stubbornly work at enjoying themselves despite the potential pitfalls generally do have a good time and enjoy themselves. I have known teachers, which in spite of any problems or concerns have kept a bright outlook on life and have enjoyed themselves.

Those who are too disinclined to make much of an effort quickly find themselves at a loss to explain why they aren’t having any fun. It is like the man who is complaining of his constant hunger, but is too lazy to get off the couch and go to the refrigerator.

Living in Korea is not always like a bowl of cherries. There are many conflicts and disputes that arise from the language barrier or a misunderstanding between differing cultures, calling your Korean girlfriend “my sweet pumpkin” will surely ignite an argument. The concept of not losing face forces many Korean children to affirm that they understand a lesson that they truly do not comprehend.

There are other issues such as recurring culture shock, which usually happens when one is tired and not as aware as one should be of their immediate surroundings. The effects can even be felt once you have returned home. Once while visiting Canada, after a particularly hectic day of running around town trying to accomplish numerous tasks before my return to Korea, I finally arrived at my mother’s house for dinner. During dinner something did not feel quite right. I found myself rummaging through my mother’s refrigerator looking for some non­existing Kim­chi. When my mother asked me what I was searching for, I asked her where the Kim­chi was. I felt very embarrassed when I realized that my mother does not keep Kim­chi in the fridge on a routine basis. I had become the victim of reverse culture shock.

Then there is the occasional case of homesickness to contend with. It is rare for me, but at certain times during the year when my family has their gathering and I am not there, I feel the distance and the alienation that comes from having chosen this particular career path. This is especially acute at Christmas time when my entire family would converge on my mother’s house. I also miss seeing lifelong friends who are back in Canada, but certainly not as much as family.

There are some very subtle differences in the approach that Koreans take when dealing with foreigners as opposed to dealing with other Koreans. Koreans share a culture and a history together so that they can speak to each other in way that is not understandable to a Westerner. Koreans seldom take a direct approach in a conversation, but rather they have a round­about way of reaching the main point of the conversation. This can be very confusing to a foreigner. We are much more used to a direct speaking style and a fairly quick arrival to the important facts that we wish to discuss.

For example, the husband of the owner of a private school once invited me out for dinner. He asked what I would like to eat and we settled on some sashimi. We had chatted for about one hour in idle chit­chat, when suddenly without warning he began to reprimand me for a few petty misdeeds. It seems that the whole dinner had been planned to berate me few being one or two minutes late for class and not smiling often enough in the hag­won. I would have expected this had I been called into the office. Having this kind of conversation over a delicious meal made me instantly lose my appetite.

The only effective way that I have found to overcome the obstacles that I have encountered in my seven year stay in Korea has been to be patient and steadfast. I have indeed had my share problems to contend with, but at the same time I have also been blessed with many wonderful experiences along the way. I have made some of the closest friendships here amongst the Korean people. I have traveled widely throughout the Korean peninsula, and seen much of the scenic beauty that this land has to offer.

I have seen too many of the younger teachers flee in the middle of the night rather than staying and trying to solve their problems. I have heard the complaints of teachers who don’t understand why Koreans behave in a certain way, but don’t try to understand the culture around them. Finally I have had to endure the complaints of people who have had legitimate grievances, yet fail to better their circumstances. They either assume that the Koreans will all stick together in a dispute or they don’t wish to go through the expense and the trouble of righting the wrong that has been done to them.

All of these people eventually return home and tell tales of woe about their awful experiences while in Korea without accepting any of the blame themselves. There are always two sides to any story and the truth usually lies somewhere between the two. I have always tried to take these kinds of stories with a grain of salt.

I think that I can best summarize my experiences by saying that living in Korea is not always like a bowl of cherries. It is much more like a bowl of Kim­chi. Sometimes it is sour, sometimes spicy, sometimes it stinks, sometimes it needs more salt, but it always takes time and effort to fully appreciate. Once it has been appreciated it shall be yearned for, and there will never enough to quench the insatiable soul. The friends that I have made here have enriched my life and have helped me to understand how things function in Korean society. The beauty of the Korean countryside has made me understand the attachment that Koreans have to this beautiful land. The Kim­chi has allowed me to understand what a true craving is all about. Which brings me to the topic of my next essay, “Is there anything as too much Kim­



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