Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ask a Korean! News: Acclimation of a North Korean

An unusally light-hearted, yet nonetheless insightful, piece from Joo Seong-Ha:

Evidence that I am Becoming a Korean

When I was in China after having escaped North Korea, I heard news on the radio that said, "South Korea produces 4.5 million tons of food waste every year." My jaw dropped -- 4.5 million tons! I, as someone who was in China after having witnessed people starving to death, could not understand the South Koreans who threw food away.

When you think about it, 4.5 million tons of food would feed the entire North Korea. One side starves to death and the other side throws food away -- what incongruence, I thought then.

That must have shocked me a great deal, because I never left any food behind for about three years since I came to Korea. No matter how full I was, I would scrape to the bottom of any serving that the restaurants gave. If I could not finish it, I felt like I was committing a crime to the North Korean brethren who were clutching their hungry stomach.

Having lived that way, my stomach ended up growing by 5 inches since I first came to South Korea. The first pairs of pants that I bought after arriving Korea no longer fit me. I also have several suits that I can no longer wear because they are too small.

Gradually, I began to think that it was only to my damage that I finished all the food -- my cheap conscience was hastening my death, since the lipid accumulated in my stomach would shorten my lifespan. According to the Secret of Life, Aging, Disease and Death [TK: a popular Korean health documentary], having intestinal fat was just like stuffing poison in the body. Also, there was a study in the U.S. that immigrants from poorer countries who become obese in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from cancer than native-born Americans who are obese.

So no, this wasn't it. I still have a lot to do, I have to see the reunification, and so on and so forth... So at any rate, I should never contract obesity. Now, after coming to Korea seven years ago, I leave food behind without any sense of guilt. I decisively do not eat any more after I am full.

And there was that time when I got my first job after coming to Korea.

My boss, Mr. Kim, was laughing at an entertainment program with celebrities. I could not understand that for the life of me. I could not understand why he would watch such trashy program that had no educational value, where celebrities showed up as if to parade how stupid they were. I would have read another page of a book for that time.

Humor has a cultural background and code. I don't know if South Koreans would laugh at North Korean mini-series (probably not, since they would not understand it,) but at first I could not understand why they even had the programs like Wootchatsa [TK: name of a program like SNL] or Gag Concert [TK: same]. Even when I tried to laugh, I could not understand when I was supposed to laugh, and it was no fun.

So I asked. "Why do you watch and waste time with that program? Seems like it has no educational value and just turns people into idiots."

The answer flew back. "What do you need 'educational value' for? You just laugh at the moment and forget about it." At that point, I had to re-evaluate him. "Wow -- all that education and wisdom are useless. I thought he was a capable guy, but that's all he has for intellectul capacity? What a disappointment."

Seven years since, I now watch Gag Concert, and laugh and chuckle. I do not schedule my day for it, but I would flip the channels and gape at Two Days One Night [TK: another show name].

Of course I don't go out of my way to watch any entertainment program, but I got to a point of watching it if they happen to be on. There is no telling how I would be in the future.

And another thing. I could not help but drink coffee in Korea in order to meet people. At first when someone took me to Starbucks or Coffee Bean to buy me coffee, I thought "Why would anyone drink this?"

Even after I began to drink coffee, the best coffee for me was the 200 won [=20 cents] vending machine coffee. It seemed strange that people would pay 5000 won [=5 dollars] for coffee that was far worse than the vending machine coffee.

Seven years since, I now have turned into someone who enjoys the aroma of a latte. Now I know that the 5000 won coffee is definitely worth more than the 200 won coffee. Of course, I still cannot bring myself to pay for the coffee. I do not yet understand why what is essentially a cup of water costs as much as a meal. But I do appreciate it when someone buys me an expensive cup of coffee.

The last one. When I first came, the politicians under investigation always said, "I am truly innocent." Seeing that, I thought, "Why would a National Assemblyman, a representative of the people, sell his reputation for some tens of million won [=tens of thousands dollars]? There has to be something wrong."

On top of that, they always say "I swear upon my honor that this is the truth." When I see that, I thought: "Right -- this has to be a frame job, since that politician is willing to bet his honor that he must have built all his life. A National Assemblyman's honor cannot be had for that cheap."

I have been in South Korea for seven years. Now when I see a politician who says "That is not true at all," I say: "Come on -- how do you deny such an obvious thing? Tsk tsk."

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  1. That's a very interesting article. I do often wonder if there is a better way of not wasting all those side dishes.

    And yes, Korean television is inescapable. At first it seems really stupid, but then I found myself oddly hooked to 무한도전, and always tune in to see what kind of silly challenge is happening this week.

  2. As a Korean American who has spent a good 6 years in Korea during his formative years (middle school, part of high school), I think 웃찾사 and 개그콘서트 are trash. In fact, I think most Korean soap operas are also completely worthless. Although I would have to agree with bza and say 무한도전 is quite amazing.

    I also hate the fact that Starbucks is more a high society (or people who try to be high society but really aren't) cultural phenomenon in Korea rather than a place that makes decent coffee. I bet they could mix trace amounts of dog shit in their coffee in the Seoul branches and people would still drink it just to carry around the cup.

  3. I also hate the fact that Starbucks is more a high society (or people who try to be high society but really aren't) cultural phenomenon in Korea rather than a place that makes decent coffee.

    Isn't that true everywhere, relatively speaking? In the West, many poor people go to Starbucks, but they tend to be university students trying to seem sophisticated or poor people who can't help but spend money and want to seem rich.

    A cup of coffee everywhere in Korea is very expensive. I just don't understand how everything in Korea is so cheap, except for a cup of coffee.

  4. Starbucks is high society? It is just an upper-middle of the road coffee shop. I visit Starbucks everyday when I am in Taiwan. Starbucks has great desserts.

  5. I am laughing so hard on what Eugene said. In my travels to Japan and Taiwan, I think the young natives want to be part of the American culture. So they embrace anything from America. I think the people in the Asian countries embrace Starbucks and all American restaurants because it makes them feel being like an American, not high society.

    I think the Starbucks concept came from one of Audrey Heppner old movies. In one of her movies she was part of a beatnik group that drank coffee at a coffee bar in Paris. The beatniks only wore black and talk like they are smart.

    1. Even though this comment comes ~5 yrs after, I just had to reply.. Thomas, have you not read about Korean nationalistic pride (especially as it has been so eloquently described in The Korean's blog)?? Why would a Korean in his right mind want to "feel" American, when today, in the eyes of most Koreans, America is one of Korea's fiercest rivals in the race of nations ???? The logic behind increased coffee consumption in Korea has been discussed in this and various other posts throughout the blog, which would go something like this: better quality coffee > more people buy coffee.. simple as that. It is true that in the US coffee quality is not all that great (when you compare it w/ other countries like Costa Rica, Ethiopia, etc). This fact leads to more people in the US to buy from Starbucks since their coffee is at least passable. Starbucks is international and they have shops in other not-so-good coffee places (i.e. KOrea!!) . It makes sense that the pattern in the US would be repeated in Korea.
      Also, who is this Audrey Heppner you speak of??? Or, do you mean the lovely BELGIAN actress Audrey Hepburn? R.I.P.


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