Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Korea 15: History, Food, Drink

When I told people I was going to Korea, several seemed puzzled.  Why would you want to go to there?

I’d signed up on a bit of a lark because a friend, Lou Landry, said it was a great deal and he’s had a great time last year. (I later concluded Lou isn’t capable of having a bad time so how credible was he?) Boise State trades free room and board in Korea during this summer school for free tuition for Koreans in Boise.  I could travel on miles so cost was going to be low. 

Yet I had the same question for myself, why Korea, besides the bargain?  I almost didn't go.
 There were reasons Korea is 36th in tourism worldwide. But China is impossibly big and my interest in Japan was confined to Kyoto. So Korea might be an Asian country I could understand a little in a short time.

Short History

From reading Landry’s textbook from last year I got the impression Korea had been something of a pawn and a pathway between China and Japan throughout its life, not much of a sovereign country.  This is quite wrong.  Korea has had roughly the same border—the Yalu River—for 1350 years.  It was invaded and occupied briefly on several occasions but was largely at peace compared to the nearly constant warfare in Europe during the same time.  Korea had three long, distinct eras of relative stability under different ruling systems which did not end until the Japanese colonized them in 1910.

A major reason is that Korea made its peace with China, the dominant power for much of this time.  Korea knew its place and accommodated the greater power through forms of respect and fealty without losing its independence. 

Korea’s culture is unique but very much influenced by China, as is Japan.  Buddhism came from India to China and then to Korea in the 4th Century and Japan in the 7th.   The same pattern of rulers adopting the religion and constructing temples obtained in all three countries.  Buddhism was followed by Confusianism, another link with China and both remain influential today. 

The Chinese poured across the Yalu during the Korean War but this is not representative of the long relationship between the two countries. 

When I decided not to be a history major at Notre Dame one reason was that I would be required to take such things as Asian or Indian history.  Why would I want to do that?  I probably didn’t know Churchill’s quip that history is just one damn thing after another but that was probably how I thought of it.  At least once you got beyond American and European shores.

In Korea I have picked up an inkling of how ignorant I have been about matters Asian.  Is there any reason Asia shouldn’t be ascendant now?  We judge countries on our recent memory of them.  We think India is just a big poor country but it has had a culturally rich and prosperous past for thousands of years.  China was the country in the world until an emperor decided to burn all the ships and hunker down.  Even then, its cultural influence was widespread.

Korea extreme poverty for about half of the last century was influenced by Japanese occupation and India was impoverished by the British.  That's not the sweep of history. 

The Land

South Korea is non-stop green this time of year.  Seventy percent of it is mountainous and it is really dense with vegetation.  I can’t imagine moving through it with an army or a backpack.  I’ve been almost from coast to coast and will go from south to north before I’m done and the land has been easy on the eye the whole way.  It must be quite a different picture come winter, although it does not snow much in the south. 

This is eastern Busan on the way to the airport.  It looks like water between here and the white buildings, right?  No, those are greenhouses. See the little triangles above the car roof?  Those are greenhouses, among thousands.  Another example of what is turning out to be the major discovery from this trip, how Koreans remain close to their food.

Busan, the #2 city and major port on the southern coast, seems more attractive than Osaka, another port in similar terrain, when I end the day, because Busan has built upwards and preserved its adjacent forests and greenhouse agriculture.  It’s pretty striking from the air. 

On Saturday, July 27, 400,000 were enjoying its beaches.

The high rises have been purchased largely by Koreans but also by Japanese and other east Asians as a hedge and a retreat against something happening in their own country.  Busan began as a port trading with Japan centuries ago.
 At the bottom of the picture are farms and greenhouses, then the bay, then high rises mixed with forest.  We've seen this before, haven't we?

Korean Food

Koreans do not eat meals in courses.  Instead, everything is brought at once, main dishes plus 3, 6, 9 or 12 side dishes, all with historical significance (the ruler had 12 side dishes). 

These side dishes arrive shortly after you sit down.

 Cafeteria food at my university was pretty good until near the end, the food better than the institutional atmosphere.  Soup at every meal that was quite tasty. At the end, I was eating lunch in the law school with the teachers for about $3.75:  a big bowl of great soup, a main meat course, rice with a light mixture of beans, two vegetables and vast mounds of lettuce, beet leaves, sesame leaves and Napa cabbage.  Desert is never offered and water is the beverage offered, sometimes a special tea. 

I ate a lot on this trip and yet lost some weight and it could be traced to no desert and water at meals.

 Restaurants are everywhere and inexpensive.  On the other hand, groceries seemed expensive in the store.  That doesn’t make sense.  Someone in Japan gave a possible explanation:  in Japan the restaurants buy food from China.  Joenju, where I was, grows the best vegetables in South Korea with a lot of variety.  The lettuce and salads are so fresh they have to come straight out of the field.  Lettuce may be misted in some U. S. stores but in Korea it’s like a rain forest.


The other reason Koreans seem to eat out a lot is that the food they are accustomed to is very labor-intensive and that amount of time is less available.

Fast food has invaded Korea and there has been a big change in recent years with KFC, Baskin and Robbins, McDonalds, lots of pizza, etc.  French pastry places.  Koreans are still exceptionally thin.   I saw one Korean who was overweight.  And that includes a lot of naked guys in the jim
jil bans.  The collective Body Mass Index of Korea must be under 20.  (Or at least so I thought until I got to Seoul.  For whatever reason, people in Seoul looked taller and heavier, which still slim by U. S. standards.) 


The beer is almost all lagers, in a little better variety than in India but not by much.  Variety is found in rice wines and all manner of teas, spritzers, fruit drinks, fruit and nut-flavored alcohol, etc.  Lots of wine available and the typical hard liquor. 

Drinking is becoming a serious problem for college students and many professional people.  We are familiar with the Japanese culture of the salaryman who must drink with the company crowd.  Same thing in Korea, apparently.  Students work so hard getting into college they feel entitled to turn into serious drinkers once there.

As a result, Seoul is the world leader in liver replacement and liver-related medicine.  People come from all over Asia.  They’ve had a lot of Koreans to practice on.  I will write a separate story about medical tourism, particularly for cosmetic surgery, when the blog gets to Seoul.


Seoul is the go-to place in Asia for plastic surgery, Thailand being second. It is an acceptable part of the culture within Korea.  My professor only tells his 16 year old daughter to wait, not that she can’t do it. 

An editorial in an English-language magazine on campus complains about Korea students’ obsession with appearance.  It can be quite noticeable, girls preening into their cell phones, guys their hair. Guys smoke, very few women do, that I could see. 

Korea, a Christian nation?

The Korean census reports that 25 percent say they are Buddhist, 23 percent Christian, three percent Confucian, Shamanistic or other small religions, and 46 say they have no religion.  The most serious religion-goers are Protestants who are active and forward in public affairs. 

I attended mass at a neighborhood church on Sunday.  The cross has been moved almost out of sight to be replaced by a Korean depiction of mother and child.  After mass, a movie screen descends behind the altar and we see a video about life in the parish projected from a computer.  The sound track is by the Beatles.  "If you dream alone, it's a dream."




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