Cultural Differences

It’s funny. I often think that the whole world is so globalized that people in developed, industrialized countries are all the same. But now that I’m in Korea, I’ve realized that there are a ton of differences.  Most of them have to do with food, obviously, since food is so central to everyone in the world.

People eating quickly:  This has mostly been an issue  at lunch time.  The schools provide lunch for everyone at school,  For the past week I’ve gone to the cafeteria with one teacher or a few teachers.  There’s only a few options for lunch, so I just take everything that looks edible.  The food has mostly been good.  However, all of the teachers eat really really fast!  There’s not much talking, so this is doable.  I’m not sure if they’re not talking much because they normally don’t or because I’m there and they feel awkward having a whole conversation in Korean around me,  but whatever it is, they finish eating in like 10 minutes.  I’m struggling to keep up.  The past few days they’ve finished eating a couple minutes before me and then they just sat waiting patiently (or maybe impatiently) while I finished, so I felt pretty awkward.   I’m determined to eat fast enough so that they don’t have to wait for me.  On Friday I finally finished at about the same time!  Yes!  It’s going to be a challenge since I’m so used to leisurely lunches with lots of conversation.  But because most of the teachers don’t speak English well enough to have a real conversation, I’ll probably be stuck with gulping down my food every lunch.

The Rice: I knew people in Asian ate a lot of rice, but I didn’t realize HOW much rice.  From what I’ve noticed, there’s rice served at every single meal.  There’s no end to the rice.  On top of that, there’s also the amount of rice that’s eaten.  A few days ago at lunch I was asked “Why did you not get any rice?” by another teacher (in English, of course).  I, in fact, HAD gotten some rice, and had placed the rice in my soup.  But apparently I didn’t get ENOUGH rice to make it a real Korean meal, so the teacher got up and brought me back a huge heaping bowl of rice.  I tried to eat it, but (see the post above) I couldn’t finish all of it.  Clearly rice is a much bigger part of the meal, and of daily life, than I thought.  It’s no wonder that the word for rice and the word for meal are the same in Korean.

The bowing: You know you’re in a foreign country when people bow instead of wave to say hello.  I haven’t figured out all the rules about bowing yet, but from what I’ve noticed, most people do a slight bend of the neck and head when greeting each other.  According to our workshops during orientation, you should do a 90 degree bow to a person of high authority when first greeting them (like the principal and vice principal), and then a slight bow to them for the rest of the day.  The students all bow to the teachers and even me, though they don’t bow to each other, which means that it’s more of a sign of respect than just a wave.

Not drinking water with the meal: I noticed this back at Jungwon University, when the Korean students would get a glass of water after their meal and stand at the water station to drink it.  Apparently this isn’t just a kid phenomenon, but a Korean custom as well.  According to my host mother, Koreans don’t drink water with the meal because they think that its bad for digestion.  I shrugged and said “maybe!” because I really have no idea.  I can’t imagine not drinking water or some sort of liquid with my meal.  It’s a huge part of American culture, so I had assumed that drinking with the meal was a common practice all over the world.   It probably looks really weird in the school cafeteria when I get two full glasses of water and drink them with my meal.   I’d love to be able to fit in, but not drinking while eating will just never happen.  The question remains: Do Koreans get a parched feeling when eating food but ignore it, or are they used to not drinking with the meal so it doesn’t bother them?


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