Monday, December 14, 2009

Korean eating habits.

Rule number one: Shut your mouth.

Rule number two: Eat.

Rule number three: Enjoy your food. It's insanely good.


Typical eating habits in America include a lively conversation, witty remarks, and Matthew breaking all the ladies' hearts an overall pleasant dining experience. Everything follows a prescribed rule and your actions are subtly noticed. Do you reach for the bill immediately? Do you order appetizers? Do you make a mess of yourself? Do you know the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork? Are you polite to the server? Do you talk on your cellphone at the table? Do you tip at least 20%? Do you chew with your mouth open? Do you finish the whole meal?

By and large, I find American and Korean table manners to be quite similar. All of the above questions generally have the same obvious answer as in Korea (other than tipping). However, three things have stuck out to me when dining with Korean friends. These aren't hard and fast rules, but they differ considerably from I've come to expect at an American table.

Rule #1 - Talk is cheap.
Talking during a meal is by no means considered rude, but it's not necessary. Traditional families of old Korea ate in near silence in order to fully appreciate the food, the ambiance, the experience. It was a time for nourishment - not for socialization. This tradition has watered down considerably but is still alive and well among most Koreans. I also find that my male Korean friends tend to be more reserved and talk less during a meal when compared with female Korean friends. However, one can still expect to eat somewhat more quietly than in America. If you find yourself eating with a friend or coworker and find the atmosphere a little thick due to lack of conversation, know that it might just be you. He or she might not be nervous; rather, the lack of conversation may not be due to the language barrier - it might just be because it's time to eat. So don't freak out and feel that you must initiate conversation. Think of it as simply enjoying each other's presence. So next time when the atmosphere goes a little quiet, try a little slice of silence. It's yummy.
Warm Glass of Shut The Hell Up

Rule #2 - No, I'M paying for the meal.
We've heard before (actually, twice before) that "going Dutch" is not especially common in Korea. However, one must look deeper into the context because sometimes it can be common. For instance, if a group of similarly-aged university students share a particularly expensive meal, all might agree to share the bill. No one wants the other friend to bear the burden of paying for the entire meal - especially if this meal is not a common one. It's understood that in a normal situation, the oldest would foot the bill, but since everyone shares a common social level (i.e. university sophomores) then insisting to pay the bill might actually make your friends uncomfortable. All of a sudden, when you whipped out your card in good will, the mood changes from equal-leveled brothers to what's-this-guy's-problem? faster than a prairie fire with a tail wind. Sure, if it were all 떡볶이 then nevermind, we can just say "thanks bro" and be done with it. That's a cheapie meal. But, if you pay for an expensive meal when the bill is quite higher than usual, and the present company aren't exactly business executives, then your friends might feel indebted to you. They know that they cannot repay the favor comfortably. Even if they pick up the tab at the coffee shop later, it still doesn't even put a dent in the bill you just swallowed. So, even if you are feeling generous, and you're the oldest, restrain yourself and take hints from the mood. If they genuinely resist your treat, play it safe and allow them the chance to save face and go Dutch.

Otherwise, in a normal situation, if you're older, go ahead and pay away. A mental tab is made. He's got your back next meal.

Rule #3 - Do not blow your nose. Ever.
Tearing a page from the book of Common Sense, one must strive to be polite whilst dining. However, prescribed notions of politeness might differ from country to country. In Korea, moderate slurping of the broth of a soup isn't exactly rude. It's not super common but not rude. For that matter, loud slurping of 비빔국수 noodles is considered a normal eating sound. Blowing sounds made from the cooling of hot 라면 noodles and boisterous 캬~ sounds made from consumption of alcohol are all quite common at a Korean table.

But. Don't you even think for a second that you can blow your nose. Just don't. What? No, no one cares that the soup is spicy and it's making your nose run. No, no one cares that you're eating 죽 because you're sick in the first place. No, under no circumstances may you use a cotton-ply tissue in order to remove excessive fluids from your nasal cavity. Forget about it. It's not going to happen. If you feel the need to cure your nostrils of an especially bad case of rhinorrhea, then by all means, excuse yourself, go to the restroom, and perform your dirty deed there. However, if you're feeling brave and feel confident in your cat-like reflexes, bring a small tissue with you to the table, turn your head in shame, and wipe your nose discretely when needed, paying close attention not to employ sounds of nasal evacuation. Then, quickly discard the soiled cloth amongst your person without notice. But be warned, stuffing a used tissue in one's purse or pocket in lieu of a trashcan may be acceptable in the States, but don't let anyone catch you doing that kind of noise here. This is my house, son.
Evil Tissue