Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Assessment, Part 1

Well, here we are, a solid month into my fourth semester teaching English to high school students in Seoul, South Korea. I am tempted to say, "What a long, strange trip it's been" ... but it hasn't, really.

For all the business of being in a different country, a foreign culture, eating strange food, etc., I just haven't had that much difficulty in adapting. Of course, being set in my ways after 20-odd years of living in the same ZIP code in semi-rural Georgia, that was my biggest fear. Being away from the countryside, the scenic stretches of trees and green grass, and prowling a concrete jungle crowded with foreigners, was my second biggest fear.

But the fact is that Seoul is a perfectly modern city with an excellent infrastructure, public transportation that's hard to beat, a plethora of great areas to socialize with your friends, awareness of green space, loads of things to do on a weekend ... in short, a quality of life (at least for the middle class) that rivals any society I know of. It is safe, orderly, and fun.

Have there been difficulties? Of course. Mainly I am frustrated by my lack of Korean language, but at this point that's largely my own fault--I could speak much better than I do, had I really buckled down to it. Hangeul was simple enough to pick up, but it's no panacea--ask three people how to say something, you'll get three different answers.

One of my earliest encounters with this was "I'm hungry." Young Mr Lee: pae ga go peyo; Mr Hwang: pae go peyo; my cellphone dictionary: pae go pun. You see there, the extra syllable, the different ending? Yeah, that kind of thing constantly hampers my attempts at Korean.

Every time I order the bulgogi dolsot bap in the E-Mart food court, the order lady has no idea what I'm saying. What you do is, you look at this glass case that has models of the food offerings from the different stalls in the food court, and tell this central cashier what you want, by its number. I say, sa ship chil, literally, 4-10-7, aka 47. I know I'm saying it correctly, but they always look at me like I've asked for Green Martian Casserole.

Lately, I've been following that up with bulgogi dolsot, chuseyo, and it seems to work a little better. Don't know why; but language is one of the biggest difficulties, as I was saying.

Still, it's obvious I can get myself well-fed and liquored up, and make my way back home with the limited command I have, or else I wouldn't still be here.

And the food--this too was something I worried about back in July and August of 2008, as I made my plans, because eating well is important to me. Turns out, there's very little in the Korean cookbook that I dislike, and a great deal that I adore. But before you talk about the food itself, there is the manner of its presentation.

Many Korean restaurants have kitchens populated mainly by what we'd call back home "prep cooks" who chop and dice and portion--in other words, prepare the food for cooking. This raw, prepared food is then brought to your table, and you (or sometimes a server/chef) cook it yourself on a grill or hot plate right there at your table.

Your meal will always come with panchan, side dishes inevitably including kimchi, a spiced up green like spinach or mugwort, maybe some bean sprouts, or pickled quails eggs, egg custard, baby blue crabs, tofu, fried tofu, zuchini slices, and on and on.

A lot of Korean food is spicy, most commonly with a red pepper paste called gochu jang, and it usually contains some meat--pork predominates, or maybe chicken. Beef is expensive, and is usually sliced paper-thin. Even a medium steak is rare here.

If you have a sensitive stomach or are vegetarian, I think life here would be challenging--though it could be done. But growing up in Thailand and Zim, I have a cast-iron tum, myself.

Fish is very popular, as you might expect, Korea being surrounded on three sides by the ocean, but it is almost never served filleted, and removing bones with chopsticks is fiddly and time-consuming. Koreans love squid and octopus and all manner of sea creatures--mostly boiled, so it's too much like eating a rubber band to suit me. They also have something called odeng, which rival blogger Andy describes as "fish SPAM", seasoned, mechanically-separated fish flesh, pressed and desiccated. It's not my favorite. That's okay though, there's still plenty to eat.

Next time: Part 2

1 comment:

Mo said...

I'm heading over to Korea (maybe on a permanent basis, who knows, I'll have to see how it goes), this summer to teach English. I don't like much seafood, so that'll be one difficulty with the food for me. I'll have to get used to spicy food as well. Should be a grand adventure though! I'm looking forward to it.