I hate leaving food on the table. From where I got the habit, I have no idea, but I always clean whatever dish is in front of me. Eating with Koreans for the past four months in traditional family style has often led to my continued picking at a shared dish while my compatriot sits watching in bloated discomfort. Only my recent conscious effort to cut back and start a demanding exercise program has stemmed the weight gain. This past weekend though, my diet went out the window somewhere along the highway between Seoul and Jeonju.
Jeonju is an ancient city about 150km south of Seoul. Taking a free foreigner shuttle on Saturday, my Thai expat friend and I found ourselves in the thick of the culture. Meeting our host at the museum where our bus dropped us off, we made the short walk to the iconic hanok village, a showcase of traditional Korean housing with the modern addition of shops and restaurants. While many tourists are content spending their day here learning about Joseon history and dining on anachronistic fare, my fellow backpacker and I were determined to uncover the real Jeonju. I think we found the depths of the real Korea as well.
As we would quickly learn, our host distinguishes himself from what he knows to be the average Korean. After working for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary for seven years, he received a generous severance package amidst a round of layoffs a few months ago. With extra resources and time, he has been in no rush to launch a new career. In fact, his first impulse was to take a month and half to travel Europe, making extended stops to see Couchsurfing friends from Stockholm to Barcelona. Much like many of us travelers, he finally capitalized on an opportunity to realize a dream he had envisioned for years. The experience redefined his goals, and now he and his fiancee are planning an extended travel when she can escape her job, potentially settling in Spain to open a guest house.
Despite the noble adventurousness of his goals, there are issues of practicality to wrestle with. For one thing, he doesn’t speak Spanish, his English is good but far from perfect, and he has never worked in business management. These are not blocks for him, though. They are but challenges to be overcome. He is studying Spanish on his own, he practices English frequently with couchsurfers like us, and he reads extensively on business and economics. In addition to his studies, he has become a veritable chef, and he is an avid amateur photographer.
Our host, admittedly, is nothing like most of the Korean men of his age you may encounter. As an English teacher and a couchsurfer, I have been exposed to a microcosm of Korean culture. These communities are quite separate from the standard. The Korean social structure is extremely rigid, and people are expected to meet certain “social alarms” throughout their lives. Like deadlines in a lifetime project, these social alarms tell Koreans that they shall graduate college, secure a good job, find a spouse, start a family, reach career milestones, and own a home by certain acceptable checkpoints. Missing these social alarms is cause for loss of respect and trustworthiness. Because of this, many Koreans trudge along the same path to accepted ideals of success.
There is a causal chain here that I would like to flesh out more fully in the future, but here are a few quick data points I learned from my host. The chain may begin with these rigid ideals of socially acceptable forms of success (a stable corporate job, a small family, and status symbols like a nice car and designer fashion items), but it penetrates deep. The best way to begin this life is to get a degree from the highly respected SKY universities (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei), the Ivy League of South Korea. To have an alma mater such as these on a resume is a golden ticket to large corporations like Samsung, Hyundai, and POSCO. Though a college degree is not a guarantee of a good job here, it is the surest (and often the only) way.
Here we link to primary education. College admissions are much different in Korea than in the western world. Like Americans take the SAT and ACT, all college hopefuls in Korea must take the CSAT (College Scholastic Aptitude Test). However, a low SAT/ACT score is not the end of the road to many respectable colleges and universities. Good grades, an exceptional essay, and a myriad of extracurricular activities may bolster an application. While these things are necessary in Korea, they are not sufficient. Without the requisite CSAT score, the rest of an application is just another layer in the recycling bin. While the CSAT tests many useful subjects (math, science, social studies, and language among them), anyone who has taken an SAT prep course knows that studying for the test works. In Korea, it has gotten to the point of replacing much of the rest of the education. For those aspiring to the SKY universities, they will need the highest CSAT scores, and simply attending public school is far from sufficient. Before kids are even old enough for first grade, hopeful parents push them into private preschools. The pattern continues until the CSAT at the end of high school, and the load steadily increases until students are regularly staring at a book for more than 12 hours a day. This is where we return to hobbies.
If you ask a Korean about their hobbies, you will often get responses such as watching dramas, playing computer games, and chatting with friends. What many westerners would consider hobbies – sports, music, art, continuing education, etc. – are simply too time-intensive for Koreans. While many students participate in sports and music, these activities have become part of the daily grind, not pleasurable activities to be continued in one’s leisure time. All available time should be committed to study or work. What little time they can sneak away gets used for anything that doesn’t require cognitive strain.
As we traversed Jeonju last weekend in search for food, we quickly realized that eating was the best thing around. Granted, the food in Jeonju is exceptional, but in our search for the local experience, we started to notice that this was the norm. In the hanok village, we had choco-pies and fried squid. At lunch, we ate a massive bowl of bibimbap complemented by cinnamon makgeoli and an array of side dishes. For an after-lunch desert, we shared a giant bowl of frozen fruit, shaved ice, and ice cream. Within a couple hours, we were back out, gorging ourselves on plate after plate of food as we sipped a copper kettle full of more makgeoli. Finding a popular market, we indulged in some sweet street food snacks. Too early to call it a night, we wandered to a Jeonju-style bar where we munched on dried fish and squid jerky over a few beers. I’m sure I consumed more calories that day than I had in the past five.
We had asked if the people of Jeonju had any other leisure activities. We were met with a bit of a sarcastic laugh. The running joke, coined by our cynical host, became, “I’m Korean. My hobby is eating.”
(How Koreans stay so thin is a mystery I will have to address later.)