CONTRIBUTED BY SIBO LUNGU
On any given day, the table in the staffroom at my school is filled with a variety of foods. It’s not a potluck; it’s not the last day of class; it’s not Thanksgiving or Chuseok, nor is it someone’s birthday. It is simply my daily lunchtime in Korea.
Koreans have a very interesting relationship with food. It’s not just a love and pride of their food that’s unique, but also their desire to eat with a group and share everything that is intriguing. My co-worker will unwrap a bun that would easily be considered only ½ a serving to most people I know (including myself) and cut it into four pieces so everyone can have some. And this is her only lunch!
Now I don’t want to generalize and say all Koreans are this way, but this sharing culture is something that I see often at work and when I travel around Korea. And it has certainly taught me some wonderful lessons.
A week or two after we arrived, my husband and I had our first crash course in sharing. One evening, we were strolling down the streets of Hongdae hungry, blinded by the flashing neon lights of the restaurants and wondering which one looked the most inviting. In full exploration mode, we walked into a Korean restaurant, were greeted friendlily, shown to a table, and handed a menu. Just as we would do in America, my husband scanned the menu for what he wanted, and I scanned the menu for what would cater to my cravings.
The waiter came back and we happily pointed out our orders. His response: “No”. We were stunned. What do you mean No? You don’t have it? We tried again, me ordering my octopus noodle dish first, and hubby ordering his beef. No. He saw we were puzzled, and after a few attempts at sign language on both parts, he left and returned with another staff member who spoke better English. “Share. One. Together. Two people,” he said as he pointed at the menu and the sole gas burner in front of us. Aaah! We felt like idiots.
Never once did we look down at our table or at all the other tables and question why there was only one cooking burner in the middle of the table. This being a Korean restaurant, one burner means one menu item-to share. Oh the horror! My husband almost never likes my vegetarian dishes or exotic foods like the octopus I as eyeing, and I don’t eat beef or pork. This was going to be a problem.
After our initial shock subsided and we laughed at ourselves, we decided on a chicken and kimchi rice dish that turned out to be delicious.
Lesson 1: Korea has taught me how to share with my husband. I now eat a little more meat, and he eats a few more vegetables. I think compromise was somewhere in our vows…
Traveling around Korea, particularly at the numerous festivals, one sees the same sharing. People at tables share drinks and food all the time. One weekend in Jinju, I remember taking notice of a group of middle-aged men sitting and eating at a table and sharing a bottle of Chilsung cider. One man would fill up each person’s cup before they merrily toasted and drank. I commented to my husband that this would NEVER happen in America. They would have all ordered their own super-sized ciders! And so would we! Even though I almost never finish my drink and have to carry the bottle in my bag afterwards, I still always order my own drink. This new concept of sharing I saw was both practical and kind. You begin with one or two bottles to share, and if you need more, more is brought out.
Lesson 2: Less waste. More sharing.
After being here four months I can honestly say I have had some memorable experiences around Korean people. Personal space disappears here, but once you open yourself up to it, it can be interesting. Sitting at festivals, families often come over and sit by us to chat in the little English they know while we stumble through hello, thank you, I am from America and gracious smiles. I have shared ciders, soju, and rice wine with more random strangers in the last four months than in my entire life!
Lesson 3: Not everyone who invades your personal bubble is a weirdo.
So back to my work situation: When I started, I noticed the Korean teachers would always buy yummy baked goods from Paris Baguette and place it on the table to share. I routinely brought my Tupperware lunch for myself like I used to in America. Initially, I thought their sharing was more of a welcoming thing, so I reciprocated and brought in some cakes and breads too once in a while. But after a few weeks, it did not subside and it wasn’t just baked goods. It became ramen, dumplings, rice, and basically anything my coworkers had cooked in their kitchen. They would lay it out on the table and offer it up. Before long, I too was offering up my kitchen ensembles. Both hits and misses. I guess I have assimilated because it now it feels very strange to hoard my lunch-filled Tupperware container. Work lunches are now like a cultural exchange where we have every type of food from French pastries, to kimchi, to sundae (blood sausage), to mac n’ cheese! And we happily gobble up whatever tickles our taste buds.
The students’ parents also love to share and bring in lots of goodies for us for no reason. I bumped into a mum on the bus last week who handed me this unidentifiable white block under saran wrap. She literally rummaged through her groceries to find something to give me that I had never tasted before. We all gobbled that up too!
Lesson 4: Give just to give.
Experiences like this have made my stay in Korea very pleasant. After all, seeing and experiencing new ways of life is half the fun of traveling to a new place. So, not that I was greedy before (well only with my honey bread), but Korea certainly has a very unique food culture that goes beyond just eating, but includes sharing.