The Same Same Questions
I've been in Korea for five and half years now. That's right. I'm pushing six years on this overcrowded little peninsula, though it seems more like two. At this point I've become quite comfortable with the place. I have a grip on the language, I know all the crazy food, and I think I have a good understanding of a culture that is, at times, difficult for Westerners to wrap their heads around.
Despite this, I still get the same asinine questions from perfectly bright Korean people who know that I'm not fresh off the boat. It really amazes me.
For example, I was teaching an adult class last week and we were talking about Korean food, as we often do (I'm a big fan). They were quizzing me a bit on my knowledge of Korean cuisine, and I was describing my favorite dishes, such as nakji bokkum (small octopus friend in chili paste), goding-eo jorim (mackeral steamed in chili paste), and dwaeju guk bap (pork rice soup). After about ten minutes it became quite clear to them that not only do I appreciate Korean food, but that I actually know a great deal about it. Just then, one of the smartest students in the class - a dentist who speaks great English - looked at me in that earnest Korean way and asked:
"But... Do you know how to use chopsticks?"
I almost slapped her.
A similiar thing happened in another adult class last year. I often drink green tea while teaching. They have complementary bags of it in the office of the adult class building, which I like to take advantage of. So one day I walked into the classroom, sat down, and took a sip of my green tea.
"Uhng!!???!!" One of my students uttered this Korean sound of shock and disbelief. It's gutteral and really sounds like: "What the fuck am I seeing?"
"What?" I enquired.
"You... you... You can drink the green tea?"
"Sure," I said, taking another sip.
"But, but... but... I thought the foreigners could not drink the green tea."
"What do you mean?" I saw her forehead bunching up and her eyes working overtime, as if she was trying to solve an impossible calculus question.
I continued, "Many foreigners drink green tea."
"Really? It is not too bitter? I thought all the foreigners drink the coffee."
She looked at me with utter confusion, as if her synapses were sorting out something beyond her realm of comprehension, something alien. For a moment I thought I saw smoke coming out of her ears.
Six years. It's almost been six years and I still get:
"Have you ever tried kimchi?"
"Can you eat the spicy food? The Korean food is too spicy for most foreigners."
"Do you know that Korea has four distinct seasons."
"Do you know pajeon? It's Korean pizza."
"Wow! You can READ KOREAN???????????????"
Man oh man. I just don't get it.
Neither do they.