Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Q & A: Meeting Taboos, Babies, Food

I feel like I should try to get an advice column, it's so much fun answering questions. Heehee. More from formspring:

What is the biggest NO NO you could do when meeting new people in Korea?

Essentially the same "no no"s you would find with human interactions everywhere--don't throw things, yell, frighten, shock, or embarrass them. If you trespass on Korean culture a bit, I find that Koreans are very forgiving of foreigners, especially if you've been in the country a short time. More forgiving than most expats I've met are of Koreans violating Western sensibilities (in Korea!!!), which is rather shocking since Westerners are supposedly more "open-minded."

One thing that Koreans do take rather personally (in my opinion) is the refusal of food. If someone offers you something to eat, you are being very rude not to take it, even if you're full or don't like it. Take it. Eat a bite. It probably won't kill you. (Although I draw the line at meat, dried squid, ojingo, and the roasted silkworm larvae, bondaeggi).

If you'll be here awhile, ask a lot of questions about how you "should" do things your first few months to learn the normative cultural interactions. Ask a variety of people. Imitate people of your same age and gender as much as you can. Try not to be confrontational until you've learned how to bring up differences of opinion in an appropriate way. And please don't be racist and judge all Koreans on the basis of the behavior of a few unsavory characters. I sure wouldn't want to be judged as an American based on Paris Hilton.

For teaching in schools, Jason of Kimchi Icecream had a great post about some of the more subtle interactions at the office/in the classroom for those new to Korea: Cultural Taboos and Native English Teachers in South Korean Public Schools.

Are you and your husband trying for kids? If so, what is it like having a baby in Korea?

Not at the moment. Moving to another country in two months with no jobs makes life too unstable for starting a family. My friend Gwen recently had her first baby here in Korea, though. She assures me that having a baby in Korea is pretty swell. Although take the attention and interference from ajummas that you got on a daily basis as a foreigner here and quadruple it if you walk around with a half-Korean baby.

There are a LOT of cultural ideals built up around birth and children in any culture, but remember that Korea is a land with a very low birthrate, despite the near-worship of motherhood and children, so they have more baggage than most countries. Also remember that within roughly three generations (by Western counting, meaning a 20-year generation difference, not the 10-year difference Koreans often use to refer to "generations") went from being like a third-world country to a fully developed one. Most 30-somethings here were born at home, not in hospitals. Many 50 and 60-somethings had siblings that died within the first few years of their lives. Koreans are not skeptical about gynecologists at all because they have LIVED what a big difference having medical access for births makes.

What foods do you miss the most living in Korea?

After being here for three years, not that much, really. I've adapted to what's available. I've learned to make (using some substitutions) most things I craved like hummus (though I would kill for some pita bread...yum!), burritos, and Indian-style curries. It can be hard to locate some ingredients and lacking an oven limits my cooking pretty substantially, but otherwise I don't feel the least bit deprived these days.

When I first got here, I found it hard to buy only seasonally available fruit (I can be kind of picky about fruit, but I've gotten better), to pay that much for real cheese and wine (only available at Costco... though now sometimes showing up at HomePlus and Emart), and having such a limited selection of pre-made sauces like salsa and spaghetti sauce. Also there is no diet coke, only coke zero and coke light and neither are really all that good.

Still... would kill for a really good traditional Mexican style restaurant in Daegu and will dance in the aisles with glee of Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's at the availability of quality whole grain products.

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