Friday, July 17, 2009

Cultural norms are never normal

My time in Korea has been everything but average. “Unique” could not describe my time here as I look out at all the people glimmering under the bright neon stars. At first, Korea was just like Koreatown in Los Angeles, but the more time I spend with the students here and the more time I go out to different bars (for research purposes, of course), I get a greater picture of Korea, and I realize how different this small land is from the rest of the world. People speak of western influences here and the impact of fast food chains and western apparel are quite apparent to even foreign eyes. Still, there remains a sense of Korean tradition and behavior that supercedes any outside intrusion. Hermit Kingdom is definitely not a misnomer for this country.

Take a look at the food. Though PETA would have a heyday with dog soup and many people would cringe at eating a live octopus delicately wrapped around two chopsticks and dipped in red bean paste, Koreans find both dishes to be not only delicacies but food that empowers them, especially among men. Dog meat is supposed to provide virility and increase a man’s libido. A live octopus is said to soften the skin and better one’s complexion. (I’ll put up pictures of Juleon and me eating them later.) What is inedible in one country becomes a fanta-bulous dish in another.

Even our housing situation is a bit odd as Juleon and I have been given two rooms that are akin to prison cells. Yet, despite the small size, students rent out these “goshiwons” to study for exams months at a time. We obviously had the penthouse version as we have our own bathroom/shower stall. We even have our own window! The amenities are endless, but limited, without a doubt, by the size of each room.



Now, I’d like to share with you a sad truth that I learned today about bears in Korea. During my visit to China in 2007, I learned that the bile from bear gall bladders were expensive medications used as remedies for various ailments in Asia. In Korea, a teaspoon of the stuff is mixed in with a shot of soju and taken in the morning or the evening. Because of its coveted nature, many Koreans have farmed bears and have been killing them as cubs to extract the gall bladder. They don’t wait for them to mature as cubs have the same amount of bile as adult bears. Currently, there is a movement to put a stop to this heinous crime. Maybe if there was bear soup on someone’s menu, it would be an acceptable act of violence. Maybe not.

Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day…..or never.

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