A big part of what makes travel worth every penny spent is the things you learn about culture, learn about yourself. Of course, you have to come with an inquiring mind. It is easy to let the brain coast, I know, but when you are moving around in a different culture you have to keep telling yourself to observe, notice, look for the "weirdness." I started doing this here in Korea, making a list of things that are somewhat odd. Here's my initial list:
- Koreans seem to prefer white or silver cars. Since I've begun this observation, I have found that it is hard to find other colors, except black. Every parking lot, it is the same story. I have no explanation, but maybe the second observation gives a hint.
- You can bump into people and no one minds. I'm told there is no word for "excuse me". People like to be close. It's a good thing, because in a dense population, things get tight, like riding subways. Thankfully, it seems most everyone practices great personal hygiene. Community is important, which may explain a tendency to have the same color of car. No one minds a certain sameness, rather than an individualism that wants to announce I am different, even better than you.
- Lots of women wear high heels. I don't know why, because they seem to be the most uncomfortable shoes ever invented. They also like wearing stripes (which given the fact most are slender, stripes work). Stripes may not work so well in other cultures I am more familiar with. Slenderness has something to do with the next observation...
- Korean food is just plain weird. Many of the dishes are fermented cabbage, radishes, peppers. Most seafood dishes are raw, and seaweed is really big over here, as well as cold noodles served with pieces of ice for dessert. The claim is that this is all good for the bowel (which makes sense since the body would want to quickly exit this strange mix). But I have discovered the key to enjoying the food. I order extra rice and mix everything together and, for reasons I cannot explain, it actually tastes good.
- People seem to be very forceful with their pronunciations!!!! When you listen to Korean, it can seem that they are very intense, even highly agitated with one another. You think they are saying "You better listen to me, because I will otherwise force this Kim chi down your throat!!! (but they may be actually saying something quite bland like "I really liked the Kim chi" or "I miss the Dewey Decimal System" or "I hope tomorrow is less humid" (because if it doesn't change, I will become intense!). I again have no explanation, but they seem to love percussion instruments, and there might be a relationship here.
- Coffee shops are ubiquitous. Everywhere you look there is Starbucks, Coffee Bean, Coffee Bene, etc. Koreans love their coffee. Another thing here, there are more Dunkin Donuts per square mile than any place on earth. But again, a certain weirdness is at work. The donuts have flavors like soy, sweet potato, green tea, seaweed, etc. My chai tea was soy milk with 12 grains mixed in with tapioca bubbles and rice pudding (I'm not kidding!). This is a health nut's paradise, if you don't mind the taste.
- Bananas come in cellophane wrap. Not sure why the added protection, but the presentation at the table is impressive.
- Korean pastors are treated with great deference and respect. I am thinking about coming here more often.
- Chopsticks are... (I have a word in mind here, but I better not use it). Who invented these things? I may as well be eating with sewing needles. At least I could spear the food. This becomes problematic when you are traveling with two Korean pastors, eating community style, and who generally are very hungry. Mercifully, an occasional waiter brings me a fork. Otherwise, meals are more like eating samplers at Costco.
- Finally, "nye" (pronounced "neh") means yes. Are they messing with me?
I'm sure the list will grow. This is not to say Koreans are anymore unusual than any other culture. We are all strange, especially Americans. There is a reason Portland has a popular bumper sticker, Keep Portland Weird. In truth, Korea is actually one of the more civil, safe, gracious places I have ever been to. The people are wonderful, but the food...