Korean culture

Tea for One

Eating lunch alone or having a quiet beer at home on the couch doesn’t strike most Westerners as out of the ordinary; but in South Korea, a country whose culture is more oriented toward group affiliation, something as simple as having a sandwich at your desk could mark you as anti-social or an object of pity: the dreaded wangtta, or social outcast, doomed to a life of solitary meals and other lonely pursuits.

This stigma on eating and drinking alone however is rapidly changing, as a few recent articles note (here and here). In the past year or so, restaurants have embraced solo diners, and a new word, honbap (a compound derived from the words for “alone” (honja) and “rice” (bap)), has thus entered the Korean lexicon. Likewise, drinking alone no longer marks you as a bum or an alcoholic, but merely a practitioner of honsul (“alone” plus “alcohol” (sul)), which has a decidedly more sympathetic ring.

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Cheer up, Bill. It’s cool.

As many observers have pointed out, the changes in dining habits are driven in part by the rise in single households, which now account for over one-quarter of Korean households – a significant social shift that has been playing out over the past few years as property values rise while economic uncertainty and changing personal priorities impels more young people to delay or forgo marriage.

The rise in solo living arrangements may also be having other interesting effects on consumption trends. This recent article traces a recent rise in the number of convenience stores to the same single-living trend, noting that many people who live alone simply find it easier to procure most of their daily needs at a CU Mart than at a larger store, which tend to deal in larger quantities and sizes.

On a personal level, I have noticed a steep drop in the looks of pity I used to receive from Korean students and friends whenever I was sighted sipping a coffee or scarfing down a sandwich by myself. Now it appears that I was just a man ahead of his time. Who knew?

Aaaaand it’s off!

Quick update for long-neglected followers of this blog: I submitted the manuscript of Culture Shock! Korea last week, a couple of weeks ahead of my deadline, so it looks like we’re on target to meet the April/May publication target date. Watch this space for details.

The process was a lot of work but was quite enjoyable, partly because it required me to do a lot of reading and other research, and to look afresh at a country I’ve been living in for about 18 years now. As with all such projects, a lot of the stuff you end up digging up can’t find a place in the finished work, but is interesting enough to share in some other way; while some of the stuff that makes it in can only get a brief mention, when it sometimes merits a longer discussion. I hope to be bringing some of that here in the coming weeks and months.

For now, time to catch up on some discretionary reading, naps, and Civilization VI.

 

I’m Baa-aack…

How many times has the owner of a neglected blog said that before? More importantly, how many times has the owner of a neglected blog not said that before?  At any rate, I’ve decided to fire up the old blog for a few reasons.

First, a word on what I’ve been up to. Now that the ink is dry, I can say that I’ve recently been contracted to write the new edition of Culture Shock! Korea, a culture guide to my 51S2PF3V45L._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_adopted home geared toward people who are going to be living, working, or studying here (as opposed to just passing through). In other words, I’m writing the book I wish I had in my own hands 17 years ago when I moved here.

Toward that, I’ve been busy boning up on everything from rental agreements, K-Pop, the Choseon Dynasty, and what not to say at business meetings, among many, many other things – some necessarily interesting, and some interestingly necessary – as well as hammering out the first, very messy drafts of what I hope will be a useful, readable book on how to get along in Korea.

Now, the reasons I’m firing up the blog again:

I need an occasional break from rental agreements, K-Pop, the Choseon Dynasty, and what not to say at business meetings. The work and the reading has been fun, and it’s taught me a lot,  while also obliging me to look at the familiar afresh. But I need an occasional short break, and five out of five doctors agree that blogging is better for you than smoking.

Also, as a writer, the blog helps me exercise good writing habits, like forcing me to get stuff out on time, not getting too hung up on perfection, and just jogging the muscles that we use in the creation of text. This of course is in lieu of actually jogging around the block, which is no fun at all.

Another reason is that I’m reading a lot of stuff, and a lot of it is stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit with what I’m doing in the book, but is nonetheless interesting ,and I’d like to share it. That’s just the kind of guy I am.

I also want to try to tap into that other great potential of blogging which is as a sounding board and avenue for thoughtful feedback. Criticism, comments, rants, and praise are all welcome, as all of it, good, bad, and perhaps even ugly, helps the process of refining a piece of writing and getting a sense of what makes readers tick. I invite you – the sensitive, thoughtful, and clearly tasteful regular reader of this blog – to share your thoughts. And thank you!

More to come, just after I wade through today’s to do list, which includes finishing the draft of the chapter in which I condense 5,000 years of history into 5,000 words. That’s one word per year, but trust me, most of those years were not especially noteworthy and will be skipped.

Have a good day, and welcome (back?) to Outside Looking In!

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Some place in Korea, at a time when nothing important happened.

Work Hard, Play Hard, Sleep Hard

As an American expat in Korea, some things, like eating piles of meat from a grill, are pretty easy to get used to. Other things, like sitting on the eatingonfloorfloor for the hour it takes to eat it, are quite a bit harder. My American education prepared me for a lot of things, but spending scads of time on the floor was not one of them.

Some of this difficulty is perhaps cultural, but some is certainly my own. I’ve been culturally flexible for many years, but physically I remain as stiff as I’ve always been. In college, I took a flexibility test that required me to sit in front of a sliding scale and push the knob as far as I could to get a measurement of my flexibility. I couldn’t touch the knob. Even as a slim, athletic kid, sitting “Indian style” was never hosp-misc-flexibility2-0903comfortable and the Lotus position would have required me to have two broken legs. Yoga for me is out of the question. Apparently I was born to plank.

Traditionally, Koreans did most things close to the floor, perhaps as a consequence of one of the great hallmarks of Korean civilization: the ondol floor-heating system, which has been in use for at least 3,000 years. For millennia, the floor was the warmest part of any Korean home, so daily life seems to have naturally gravitated toward the warmth.

Though there are exceptions, the average Korean today appears equally at home on the floor as were his remote ancestors, even though Western-style furniture is ubiquitous and ondol is no longer a common feature of Korean homes. Koreans still sit on the floor, eat on the floor, play on the floor, and sleep on the floor. On weekends, my wife and millions of other Koreans migrate to the saunas, lay their heads on a small wooden block, and bask in the simple and ancient pleasure of lying on a warm floor. After an hour or two of this, my wife is floor lounging in saunaready to take on the world. I’m ready for a chiropractor.

Our kids are OK on the floor too. They use the sofa a lot, but I’m just as likely to find them plunked down on the tiles in front of the tv, sprawled out with their laptops and iPads, or crashed out with only a blanket.

Our youngest daughter has an exceptional talent for sleeping on the floor. Ever since she was small, I’ve found her crashed in various parts of the house: in the middle of rooms, wedged under furniture, blocking IMG_0802doorways, etc. For years I’ve been documenting her remarkable sleeping habits in a photo album which is large and still growing.

How does my lack of floor-living skills affect our family? Not much. Occasionally we’ll pass on the odd restaurant that has no chairs, which today seem to be fewer and fewer anyway. Our home is furnished with chairs and a sofa, and my wife and I sleep on a bed – a bed with a mattress, I should say, not one of those luxury stone beds, which is basically an expensive piece of floor on legs. Recently I’ve learned to appreciate the flexibility of the coffee table, which is just high enough to use with a chair and just low enough to accommodate floor-sitters. Who’d have thought that the humble coffee table could have become an important setting for cultural compromise? And don’t get me started on the coffee.

Korea Through the Eyes of Foreigners (through the Eyes of Koreans)

My latest over at Sweet Pickles and Corn: Sometimes the things that foreigners like about Korea are the simplest (OK, except maybe for ddeok).

Korea Through the Eyes of Foreigners (through the Eyes of Koreans).

via Korea Through the Eyes of Foreigners (through the Eyes of Koreans).

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“Korean Age”: Old Before My Time

This is my latest over at Sweet Pickles and Corn: Life on the other side of the International Age Line. Wait, what? Just read it.

SWEET PICKLES & CORN

By John Bocskay


People say age is just a number. Koreans say it’s just a slightly larger number.
A s an international traveler, you get used to the idea of various countries using different measures to refer to the same thing. The same size-four dress in Australia will translate into a size-five in svelte Japan. That which we call a size-eight trainer in London will smell as sweet in L.A. – OK, maybe not – though it will be labeled a size-ten (and will be called a sneaker) . A “small” soda in the States is what Koreans call “large”, and what Americans call large, Koreans call a bucket. I big-gulp-kid-carousel have no trouble wrapping my head around these things, but even so, I found it exceedingly weird to board a Korean Air flight in New York as a 27-year-old and disembark thirteen hours later in Seoul at age twenty-nine. I…

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Innovation or Aberration? – Unpeeling the Costco Onion Salad

My latest piece over at Sweet Pickles an Corn: on the odd practice of eating condiment onions as a side dish, and the odder habit of freaking out about it.

SWEET PICKLES & CORN

By John Bocskay

Any American or Canadian who has been to a Costco in Korea has witnessed what Koreans do with the onions. In the U.S. you turn the crank on the dispenser and catch the tumbling onions on the hot dog, the whole hot dog, and nothing but the hot dog, but that’s not how the Koreans roll. Most of them pile the onions on a dish or a patch of foil, dump globs of ketchup and mustard over them, mix it all into a lumpy orangey mash, and tuck straight into it with fork and spoon as an improvised side dish to their pizza, clam chowder, or Caesar salad.

Expat critics react with a mix of condescension, bemusement, derision, and disgust. Didn’t Koreans get salad_downloadthe memo? Onions are supposed to go on the hot dogs! And look how many onions they’re piling on! Have they no shame?

Among the many unfair and…

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