Kimchi and Cheese
By Ann Isaac
Sounds of Korea
A Housewife’s Eye vew
Colors of Korea
Yesterday and Today
A Teacher – Ham Sok Hon
Do you have this Person in Your Life?
Our house is about half-way up quite a steep hill. If you follow the winding road up through the houses to the end there are a few rough stone steps which bring you right out on the top of the hill. The hill is wooded, covered in deciduous trees which follow the seasons. However, before the path disappears into the trees following the ridge of the hill, there is a small clearing with a shabby badminton net and a couple of wobbly chairs. It is a good place to kick a ball around with our children when we do not have the energy for a longer excursion.
Usually we go for a walk though the wood. We rarely meet another soul, it is quiet and the children run on ahead. Until they come to the bunker. The bunker, made of concrete, is a sort of little room set into the hillside with slits of windows. It is dark, dank and chilly, and our children, aged 8 and 6, find it scary, but not quite scary enough to resist going in, again and again. Dashing out almost as soon as they have gone in, it is nonetheless difficult to get them to proceed with the walk.
Eventually we persuade the children to carry on. There is a choice of paths, and our favorite is the one which leads to a little family graveyard. It consists of a grassy clearing with a burial mound, also grass covered, encircled on one side by a low semi-circular stone wall. It makes an excellent stopping place for a coffee from the flask and a snack, and for watching the squirrels. This may sound irreverent, but these little family graveyards blend so harmoniously into the countryside and are so natural and un-forbidding that it does not feel strange. In fact, Koreans visit their family graveyards at certain times of the year in order to tidy them up and pay their respects to their ancestors, and a family picnic at the grave site is part of the day out.
The bunkers are ubiquitous, although most are just trenches topped with sandbags. A walk in any hilly countryside (and most Korean countryside is hilly, if not mountainous) will usually take you past several bunkers. Maybe there are fewer as one goes south, away from North Korea. Certainly they are everywhere around Seoul. However, I have yet to see one manned, and many are in a state of disrepair. They are not totally confined to the hills. There is one on the corner of the road leading to the children’s elementary school, a sandbag wall built on three sides of a square just standing on the pavement. After a while, one ceases to notice it is there.
When I think of my children playing in a bunker on a Sunday afternoon walk, it reminds me how different things really are here, and how different their childhood experiences will be to those of children growing up in England.
Sounds of Korea
The deep clear boom of a temple bell the size of a man. The gentle tinkling of chimes in the wind. The musical chant of the monks that goes on and on, and yet like a stream is never boring. These sounds mingle with the sound of one’s boots on the path, rustling leaves and cheerfully gurgling brooks on a walk in the mountains. And sometimes the radio of a passing walker as they follow some sporting event.
Our garden gets an odd mixture of sounds. Halfway up the hillside, it is a home to many insects - massive brightly colored spiders that look highly poisonous but must be quite innocuous since no one seems the slightest bit concerned, the elegant preying mantis and the cicada. The gentle chirping of the cicadas in the evening is one of the most soothing noises I know. In spring we also have a continual chorus of cuckoos, which are quite rare in England nowadays.
Every afternoon, a truck crawls up and down the side roads blaring out a list of the fruits and vegetables on offer. We also get vans selling fresh fish, vans collecting unused electrical goods and motorbikes with a cage on the back collecting unwanted dogs, all announcing their presence via loudspeakers. Occasionally there is a village announcement at around via the village loud speaker system. Koreans seem to like loud speakers.
It is at night when the sounds of daily life have stopped that I notice the main road. The cicadas lose the battle in competing with the traffic on the road at the foot of the hill, especially screaming sirens from police cars and other emergency services. One can acclimatize to this to some extent, but then there are the occasions when military exercises take a long convoy of tanks rumbling past, and the ground seems to shake. The night time bugle call from the military barracks up the road is at the very respectable time of , but the reveille at six in the morning is not so welcome. I resorted to earplugs long ago.
The washing mashing machine plays a little tune when it has finished – Beethoven’s Fur Elise.
The sizzling of food served in hot stone pots or meat being cooked at the table – marvelous.
The sound of the continual torrential rain through the open windows in the monsoon season – so refreshing.
Do you know what exactly kimchi is? Or do you have even a vague idea what kimchi is? According to the papers here, kimchi is the up-and-coming international food. I believe it is indeed becoming popular in Japan and China, yet somehow I doubt that most English people have tried it.
Kimchi is THE national food of Korea. I deliberately place great emphasis on this fact, because we all have our own national foods, roast beef or fish and chips, for example, in England. But how many do we eat three times a day? Even the Italians stop short of eating pasta for breakfast. Kimchi can be roughly described as a spicy fermented cabbage pickle (garlic and chili pepper being the main seasonings), served as an accompaniment to every traditionally rice-based meal. Even now that breakfast cereals are readily available on the supermarket shelves, all older Koreans and even the majority of young families still eat rice for breakfast, school meals too consist of rice and accompaniments, so even youngsters are getting kimchi three times a day. It is also used in various recipes, such as kimchi soup.
As well as the basic spicy cabbage kimchi there are hundreds of variations, some according to region, some according to family, some extremely hot, some containing no chili at all, and as well as the most commonly used cabbage known as ‘Chinese leaf’ in the UK, various greens, the large Asian radish, radish leaves and various other vegetables can all be used.
I have tried to think what the English equivalent of kimchi might be. Is there anything we eat without fail three times a day, and without which a meal is simply lacking? I do not think so. However, apart from the difference in frequency of consumption, it strikes me that cheese bears many similarities. Of course, it is not an exclusively English food by any means. Still, it has a certain pungency and after taste. There are hundred’s of varieties, including many regional cheeses. Some cheeses, for example blue cheeses, are an acquired taste, especially for people from non-cheese cultures such as Koreans. It is versatile, and can form either the basis of a meal, be an accompaniment or be used in the cooking. The keen consumption of kimchi means that many Koreans go around smelling strongly of garlic, but I am reliably informed that, to a Korean, Westerners go around smelling of milk.
There is one great difference between kimchi and cheese. We do not feel guilty if we do not wear ourselves out making cheese at home. Kimchi making is traditionally done at home. In particular, in the late autumn, kimchi is made in bulk to last the winter. Cabbages are halved, salted and left, then rinsed. Other vegetables are finely chopped and mixed with the various seasonings. These are then spread between the leaves of the cabbages and then the whole lot packed into huge earthenware jars that are buried in the ground. It is back breaking work.
Kimchi making is, of course, a way of preserving vegetables over the winter dating from the days when produce grown in hot houses or imported from other countries was not available. Over the last few years special ‘kimchi fridges’ have become available so that kimchi can be preserved at the ideal temperature regardless of the weather and no longer has to be fetched in from outside. However, not everyone has the money or space. Recently, very good kimchi has become available in the supermarkets, and more and more women are buying kimchi instead of making it. I say ‘women’ as I have yet to see or hear of a man helping to make kimchi. However, many women still feel obliged to make it themselves, either to ensure quality of ingredients, or to be seen to be looking after their family properly, especially by their watchful mother-in-laws.
One event that is interesting for onlookers but hard work for participants is a community kimchi making session. Organized by local churches or voluntary groups, a band of women will spend a couple of days tackling mounds of cabbages higher than a person. I guess anyone can join in. I have seen on the news groups of kindergarten children going along to get a taste of the kimchi making tradition. The resulting kimchi is distributed to low income families or old people living alone.
Having a Korean mother-in-law, I have felt obliged to have a go at kimchi making myself. I have read recipe books, consulted the internet, and been shown the method first-hand by friends (and said mother-in-law). Although I say it myself, I am a reasonably good cook in other areas, but I just cannot turn out good kimchi. I think it is one of those things you have to learn at your mother’s knee. Luckily my mother-in-law makes great allowances for the fact that I am not Korean.
You know when winter has arrived in Korea because the presenters of the television weather forecast are all wrapped up in coats with furry hoods and scarves, even though they are presenting from the usual studio.
Koreans place massive unshakeable faith in the weather forecast despite the fact that as Korea is a long thin peninsular surrounded by sea the forecast is inevitably somewhat unreliable in its details – basically the same problem that England has as an island. Nonetheless, when my husband watches the early morning news he announces that it is raining and gets his umbrella out before even opening the curtains and looking outside. Presumably somewhere in Korea it is raining, but more often than not it is not raining in Seoul. Last winter heavy snow was announced for several days in a row, but not a flake fell anywhere. It became a standing joke at the time, but overall faith in the forecast remains intact.
The English have a reputation for talking about nothing but the weather, but it is nothing to the fuss made here. At the first rainfall of the monsoon season or the first fall of snow in the winter the entire news is taken up with this great event (presumably all crime and so on stops for the occasion world-wide). I could understand it if Korea never had heavy rain or if regular heavy snow was not usual during the winter. However, both are so normal that it seems to me that it really would be newsworthy if some year these natural events failed to take place.
The Korean winter is cold if measured by the thermometer. Regularly below zero, several spells of down to minus fifteen or so can be expected. Traditionally, the winter weather pattern is “three days cold, four days warm” and this really seemed to be the case a few years ago, but the pattern seems to be disappearing, presumably the effect of global warming. The winter is short compared to an English winter with only a few days of frost before December or after the end of February. Daylight time is considerably longer, and most of all it is nearly always sunny with a wonderful cloudless blue sky, and so to an English person the overall feeling of the Korean winter season is rather cheerful.
Christmas is rather a non-event. Christmas day its self is a national holiday so that Christians (around thirty-five per cent of the population) can go to Church. The shops are also decorated lavishly from ridiculously early as in the UK, and these days Father Christmas visits kindergartens and nurseries. However, there is no traditional Christmas food, no big family gatherings, no nativity plays at school, no boxing day, no Christmas cards (which does at least save a lot of hard work and a Christmas post blockage) and no exchange of presents apart from what one chooses to do in one’s own immediate family.
The lack of excitement at Christmas is made up for by the celebration of the New Year. Some families choose to celebrate January First, others the traditional Chinese New Year, which is set by the lunar calendar and usually falls some time in February. Many celebrate both! Both are national holidays, and both involve a mass exodus from Seoul to visit relatives (especially the husband’s parents) in other parts of Korea, totally jamming the roads both going and coming. The canny choose public transport over driving, but tickets have to be booked well in advance. Wisely people are beginning to stagger the celebrations and visit relatives the previous or subsequent weekend.
New Year is the time for the big family gathering, traditional foods and games. The main New Year food that is eaten throughout Korea is ‘rice-cake soup’. A beef broth based soup with sticky rice-cakes floating in it, plus other ingredients such as vegetables, seaweed and egg according to taste.
On New Year’s Day, the custom of ‘Saebae’, bowing to one’s seniors, takes place. Roughly speaking, everyone bows to their parents, grandparents and uncles and aunts. We are not talking about a nod of the head sort of bow, but a kneeling and then prostrating oneself on the ground sort of bow. This felt extremely uncomfortable, mentally I mean, the first time I did it, but after a while it becomes just a custom like setting the Christmas pudding alight. In return, the people doing the bowing receive pocket money from the people they bow to, so it goes down very well with the children. The children also like New Year’s day because this is when they become a year older in Korea. Even school years follow the old system when you are counted as one year old when you are born, and then become a year older each New Year. If you are born in November, for example, you will become two years old according to Korean age when you are only a few weeks old English age. Confusing to start with!
The most common New Year’s game is ‘Yut Nori’, a sort of ‘ludo’ where the first one to get the counters round the board to home is the winner. Instead of dice, four sticks, each with a flat side and a rounded side, are thrown in the air and the number of spaces you can move depends on how they fall.
One thing is very similar to English Christmas – one eats far too much and is still eating the leftovers days later!
According to the news a few days ago, we are taking our lives in our hands when we go to the cinema in Korea. The problem is with the emergency exits in case of fire. It is not simply a question of size and number (which currently enable you to get out in thirty minutes - although apparently one can die from smoke in ten), but unfortunately the regulations stipulating the requirements for emergency exits fail to also stipulate that a stairway is required the other side of the door. Therefore you may make it to the emergency exit only to fall to your death in the sheer drop the other side. Considering that many Korean cinemas are built over large department stores on around the tenth floor or higher, this is not an ideal situation.
Then there is the traffic on the roads, both vehicular and human. Let us start with the cars. I have heard it said that if you can drive in Korea you can drive anywhere. Apart from the sheer number of cars on the road, and the sheer number of potholes on all but motorways, what makes driving a challenge is that traffic signs and signals including traffic lights are seen as mere suggestions, so you are constantly having to guess what any car might do at any time and react accordingly. Not long ago, I saw a driving school car with “instruction in progress” doing a U-turn against the lights. Mind you, all things are comparative. My husband returned from a business trip to Cambodia a few days ago, and tells me that the traffic there makes Korean roads seem a model of order and decorum. Still, every outing in the car has the thrill (or stress) of an obstacle course. It is not surprising that the car accident rate here is high. What is surprising is that despite this people rarely wear seat belts even when they are fitted, and child safety seats are extremely rare.
The human traffic is even more of a challenge. It puzzles me what Koreans think pavements are for, as when there is a perfectly good pavement people are just as likely to be walking parallel to it along the road. They also mill about in the road chatting, and even when they have small children with them will dash across a main road dodging the traffic rather than use the pedestrian crossings provided. A few months ago, I was driving along a main road (three lanes each way) bordered by a wide pavement. Whizzing along the inside lane of the road was a wheelchair, the occupant clutching a pair of crutches. I felt I had some idea how he might have got into that situation….
It has been discussed in the British papers that perhaps we are overprotective of our children, and children can hardly play freely any more. I think they have a point, but one can go too far the other way. When my eldest child started elementary school (at age 5/6 here) a neighbor commented in all seriousness, “Well, you’ll be much freer now. You can go out and do what you like while Mathew looks after his younger sister.” Young children are often left alone here and no one thinks anything of it. However, a friend of my husband lost two small children in a fire when he and his wife went out leaving them alone. It is a sad fact, also reported on the news, that the childhood death rate from accidents in Korea is eight times that of the UK.
A Housewife’s Eye View
Korea, like a number of other Asian countries, has a ‘sitting-on-the-floor’ culture. It stems partly from the tradition of extended families and the need to use the lounge as a sleeping area at night. These days, families live in smaller units and most of the people we know have at least a sofa. Nonetheless, when friends or family gather, everyone sits on the floor. In the case of Japan, while men can sit at ease, it is not socially acceptable for women to do other than kneel, perhaps with their lower legs a little to the side on less formal occasions. In Korea, one usually sees women sitting comfortably (as comfortably as one can for long periods on a carpet-less floor, sometimes without even a cushion) with their legs crossed or stuck out in front of them. I commented on what a relief this was after Japan to a couple of visiting Korean female friends. “Ah, well, there’s a joke about that,” they laughed. “You may have noticed that young women often sit more formally. We say that in Korea, when it comes to the way we sit, there are three sexes – men, women and housewives!”
Most Korean households do not have an oven, just a gas range (often only two hobs) with a small grill underneath. At first it felt rather like camping. Even households that do have a full-size oven rarely use it, or in some cases never use it. The grill too, is very limited compared to the western concept. Very small, it often has only the one setting, suitable for cooking fish. The only other thing I have ever heard of being cooked under a grill is sweet potatoes. Of course, this reflects the Korean cuisine – or maybe the Korean cuisine has partly developed to be produced by the available apparatus! An everyday meal consists of rice, soup (the constant production of various soups is something I still have not cracked – luckily there are some very acceptable instant varieties around these days), the inevitable kimchi and a few other ‘side-dishes’. The meat, fish or vegetable side-dishes are usually prepared in advance, can be eaten at room temperature, if not out of the refrigerator, and appear at two or three consecutive meals. Therefore, by preparing largish quantities on a rotation basis, one can actually manage with the two gas rings better than one might imagine.
These days rice is normally cooked separately in an electric rice cooker, at least leaving the gas hobs available for other things. These rice cookers are excellent, and complete with timer can be set well in advance, even the previous day. I guess they must be obtainable in the UK, but people do not seem to think of it. It is firmly engraved on my list of household essentials.
I was lucky enough to make a Korean friend in the early days who was attending a Korean cookery school, and we started a recipe exchange, Korean for English, so I am able to take advantage of the cheaper local ingredients (such as tofu) much of the time. Still, we all missed English food and the purchase of a full-size oven after a couple of years ushered in an era of mixed Korean/western food which seems to suit everyone.
Washing machines. No complaints there. Western style side loaders are starting to become available, but the top loaders commonly used are high tech, not the old-fashioned things one might at first imagine. Of massive capacity and with a full range of options they are convenient and efficient. The best thing is one can pop in that extra pair of socks one just discovered under the kids’ beds even after it has started! There are a few things that take getting used to, though. Firstly, they are normally vividly colored, dark blue, brown, maroon etc – not the clean, bright white effect we are used to. Secondly, they are located either on the balcony (especially if one lives in an apartment) or otherwise in the bathroom. Particularly spacious accommodation may boast a utility room, but I have yet to see a washing machine in a kitchen. Another feature is that they are not plumbed in, but simply attach to an extra pair of taps provided for the purpose and drain by a hose down a purpose-built drain (so in a sense I guess one could say that plumbing is provided). Last but not least, the average machine does not heat the water, and for a hot wash one is dependent on what is in the taps. However, this is no problem for the Korean housewife, as she would not normally dream of doing a hot wash! The washing powders are all specially formulated to cope with cold water, and amazingly they really do work.
It is a very good idea not to be an animal in Korea. In a country where, for all the technological trappings, even human rights awareness and practice leaves considerable scope for improvement, it is hardly surprising that animal rights are barely thought of. All the same, I hear that there is an animal rights group that has forced action to be taken about all the homeless cats on the streets. Apparently the stray cats in Seoul are now to be rounded up, neutered, and then put back on the streets. I am not sure this quite solves the problem or is the kindest solution for the cats, but anyway, it is a big step that someone here is thinking of animal welfare.’
‘Pets’ in the sense of an animal being a member of the family is a very new concept in Korea. The majority of people in a traditional detached house with a yard or garden keep dogs, but they are kept outside on a chain (with some sort of kennel or at least box if they are lucky) and fed largely on household scraps, which in Korea means a diet rich in kimchi. Inevitably they are muddy, smelly and crawling with various wildlife – not exactly cuddly. Even among my own Korean relatives I have seen dogs being kicked for no good reason.
These days most people live in high rise apartments and certainly in some pets are not allowed. However, Koreans are very ‘flexible’ about rules and these days keeping a small dog, usually a ‘toy’ variety, is becoming more and more popular. The pampering of these apartment pets goes to the other extreme. Varieties such as poodles are not only sculpted into wonderful shapes but often have their ears and tails dyed, pink or yellow for example. Little jackets seem to be almost compulsory, even inside heated apartments, and I have even seen a dog wearing little boots outside. It will be nice when the owners acquire a social sense equal to their love and care of these pets so that the children’s playgrounds belonging to the apartments are not full of doggy offerings.
One kind of ‘pet’ rarely seen in the UK outside a farm is a couple of days old chick. These are sold in the street outside schools, especially when there is some special school event and the kids are likely to have some pocket money. At about fifty pence a time, they are very cute and a popular purchase. Of course, they should really be in incubators, and their lack of resilience combined with the rough treatment they get at the hands of the kids means they barely survive even a few days.
In our naivety, we succumbed to a couple of chicks on my son’s school sports day. We asked for two females, and after a brief look at them upside down, the vendor stuffed a couple into a plastic bag with a bit of chicken meal and took our money. My son’s best friend bought some chicks too, but they were dead by the next morning. Ours thrived.
It was the autumn, so we kept them in the house with their box swathed in blankets at night, researched on the internet and got them millet and chestnuts and so on to eat. They had a great time pottering around the house when we let them out for exercise. They were fearless and pick-up-able, and as I was the main food giver they followed me around as if I was the mother hen. After a few weeks we started letting them run around the garden for exercise when we were around. Alas, disaster struck and a cat carried off one of them in full view. The other continued to thrive and grow, and enjoyed sitting on our knees in front of the television. We built a chicken run (cat-proof) in the garden for daytime exercise and for living in from the spring. And then we noticed that our hen’s comb was growing alarmingly and her voice seemed to be developing a ‘cock-a-doodle-do’! Yes, we had a cockerel, not a hen.
By February, our bird was waking us at about By blacking out his run we could delay it until . It was too cold to suddenly put him out at nights, but even had that not been the case, we could hardly inflict him on the neighbors. According to the internet, cockerels do not just crow in the morning, but do it all day long. I can confirm that this is true. A solution had to be found, but even though I now had a proper oven, he was our pet and roast chicken was out of the question. I mentioned the problem to one or two friends, and one came up with an idea. Her son had attended a kindergarten in the countryside where they had kept various pets for the education and entertainment of the children. As our cockerel was such a tame bird and so used to children, perhaps they might like to have him? We approached the kindergarten and luckily they agreed. He has a nice big run and we can visit when we like. Last time we visited, we found he had been so noisy there too, that they had got him a couple of lady chickens to keep him occupied. It seems it worked – he has quieted down and as a bonus they are getting eggs regularly. I wonder if there will be chicks in the spring….
The other ‘pet’ which is available in any department store or pet shop is the Japanese rhinoceros beetle. There are other beetles too, but this is the most popular. All your accessories – beetle bedding, beetle logs, beetle jelly and beetle tanks etc. are readily available. We first got involved with beetles by accident and much against my better will and judgment. My daughter and her classmates were all given a beetle larva in a pot to bring home from kindergarten one day. In one sense, it was a good project. The kids all had a little book in which to record with drawings the progress of their larva through to pupa and beetle. The only problem was getting used to having a two and a half inch long fat maggot around. Of course, it lived in the pot – except for when it escaped. We soon took to taping down the lid.
It seems we are as good at rearing beetles as chicks, for our larva went through the due processes and became a beetle. We had been asked to send any full-grown beetles back to school, so it was with a massive sigh of relief that I sent it off back with my daughter. Imagine my horror when she came back home with not one beetle, but two – ours was a female and they had sent it back with a male! Well, being English I am too soft to just put them in the garden to be eaten by birds. Inevitably, we bought them a decent tank with the trappings, and were rewarded by ten eggs which duly tuned into larvae and off started the process again. We gave most of the larvae away, but kept three, and although one died, a year later (the Japanese rhinoceros beetle has a remarkably long life-cycle), again had a female and a male. That was last summer, and they produced thirty-six offspring. Again we have given most larvae away, but wonder if next summer we can beat our record. We have very much got used to life with beetles around.
‘Bballi bballi’ means ‘quick, quick!’ Koreans do everything and want everything done at breakneck speed, and this ｅxpression which one hears so much round and about is almost a national motto, not only used by foreigners to sum up the Korean character, but is freely and humorously used by Koreans about themselves.
One reason that everything has to be done ‘bballi bballi’ is that there is little idea of advance planning in Korea. Both business and social arrangements are very much last minute. My husband has been asked to arrange an international trip for several members of his organization to visit government organizations abroad including flights, visas, accommodation and the whole schedule of visits at less than a week’s notice. When his organization moved offices it was a mad panic on moving day to get the phones, internet and so on connected, as the person responsible had not thought to arrange this in advance. When I was attending Korean language school, the courses for the next month were not fixed until about three days before the end of the month, so I never knew whether there was a suitably timed class the next month until the last minute, and if there was, then it would be a mad rush to get into Seoul to register in person and arrange babysitting.
Social events are planned, or rather not planned, in much the same way. Many are arranged just that day, or if actually planned in advance are cancelled that day. Flexibility is a must. As visitors usually means offering a meal, I found this last minute entertaining one of the hardest things to come to terms with. Luckily Korean cuisine with its pre-prepared side-dishes lends itself to coping with these emergencies, and I have learnt that as long as there is rice in the house and some kimchi in the refrigerator one can manage without too much stress.
There is one massive advantage to living in a country with this ‘bballi bballi’ mentality. If your washing machine goes wrong or the internet does not work, it is totally inconceivable that should have to wait for a few days to get it sorted. If you ring the ‘after-service’ in the morning someone will be with you that day. If you phone in the afternoon, you may just have to wait until the next morning. Purchases are likewise delivered promptly, certainly within twenty four hours, if not the same day. When my gas oven was delivered with a shelf missing, someone was round with an extra shelf within a couple of hours.
Mary Ingle Wright (1923-1997) was quite a character. An English lady in her seventies, residing in Manchester in England, Ingle became an ‘English mother’ to my Korean husband while he was studying in the UK. She gave great support, both financial and moral, to a number of Korean students, and my husband spent every other weekend, including Christmas and other family occasions, with Ingle and her family.
Ingle was a pathologist. With a BA from Cambridge and a PhD from Sheffield University, she taught at Manchester Medical School. The reason Ingle felt she wanted to take care of Koreans she came across was because of her bond with Korea formed when she worked as a volunteer in the Friends’ Medical Service Unit in Korea from 1953 to 1955, immediately after the Korean War. The Korea Ingle knew then was one of devastation and poverty one can barely imagine. Based in Kunsan in the southwest of Korea, the service unit provided medical services and organized basic hygiene and sanitation for Korean refugees, mainly widows and orphans.
Ingle was motivated by a sense of ‘debt’ to society, since she could not ‘contribute’ during World War II due to her studies. When she returned to the UK from Korea, Ingle was criticized by her supervisor for ‘wasting time’ that she could have spent on research, but Ingle had no regrets. This sort of action was somewhat unusual for women at that time, and so one can form some idea of Ingle’s eccentricity and strength of character. Ingle believed in recycling, and although extremely well off, guests would be served very strong tea in empty pot noodle containers. Ingle called a spade a spade, to put in mildly, and was very free in her use of language, including swear words. For example, if someone dared to not eat what she had prepared, she would yell “B… H…, I’ll never cook for you again!” Since Ingle was short-sighted and there were not infrequently maggots in the peas, it took courage both to eat and to not eat. Of course, Ingle did not mean it, her bark was worse than her bite and her heart was of gold. When Ingle died in March 1997, she left most of her property to charity.
Ingle was modest about her work in Korea. When praised later in a Korean newspaper for her contribution in Korea, she said that actually establishing any facility in Korea had been easy, as there was simply nothing there to start with. Korea has changed unrecognizably from the tragic poverty-stricken land Ingle knew to a country which regularly ranks around eleventh or twelfth in the world economically. Nonetheless, Ingle’s pithy summarization of the Korean temperament is as true today as it was then. Koreans are “Crazy but charming.”
- Koreans affectionately refer to their country as “Land of the Morning Calm.” Wishful thinking maybe…?
- Privacy is not valued in the same way as in the UK. Soon after our move to Korea, some friends of my husband came to visit us in our new home. This was the first time I had met them. They not only looked all around our house, including the bedrooms, but went as far as looking inside the wardrobes! Moreover, it is quite common when standing at the supermarket cash out or in a bus queue for the lady behind (whom one has never set eyes on in one’s life before) to quietly tuck one’s slipped bra strap back under the edge of one’s top, or to pick off a stray hair or two from one’s jumper. I read before I came to Korea, that rather than ask the sex of one’s young child, a stranger is just as likely to have a quick look. Actually, I am happy to say I have not experienced this with my own children, but I can well imagine it.
- Koreans peel bananas starting at the other end.
- Korean time is rather ‘flexible’.
- ‘Family time’ or time for hobbies is sadly lacking. Fathers drink with colleagues after work or clients until the small hours. This is necessary, whether one likes it or not, for smooth working relationships. Not surprisingly, unless again socializing with colleagues, they just crash out at weekends. Children probably barely notice the absence of their fathers, since from middle school onwards they are also out until late at night at cram schools, and also crash out at the weekend unless attending yet more cram schools. Very sad. My husband insists on compromising in order to make family time, but he gets his leg pulled about it at work.
Colors of Korea
The multicolored fillings of rice and seaweed rolls known as kimbab.
The predominance of red (chili pepper) at any dining table.
The distinctive yellowy green shade of summer rice paddies.
Winter cities with grey concrete high rise apartments stark against a pure and cloudless azure sky of almost magical brilliance.
The bright blue, emerald green or orange tiled roves of the traditional homes dotting the countryside.
It is very difficult to find clothes for little girls in any color other than pink.
The predominance of white cars.
The bright, almost gaudy rich reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and deep blues of the traditional hanboks, the national costume worn on special occasions.
In the spring, the yellow of forsythia and the pink of azaleas, growing wild in abundance on the mountains.
In the autumn, the mingled reds, browns, oranges and gold covering the hillsides.
The grey/beige course sand which is the hallmark of almost every school ‘field’ or playground.
Dragonflies, in sparkly bright greens, blues and reds.
The penchant for bathroom tiles and kitchen appliances in dark colors such as navy or maroon.
Yesterday and Today
The present is inextricably linked to the past, and some understanding of the tragic situation of twentieth century Korea may help to explain the Korea of the twenty-first century.
During the earlier part of the last century, Korea was oppressed by colonization by Japan, which did its best to wipe out Korean national identity. All schooling was in Japanese, people who collaborated with the Japanese could do well for themselves, but those who did not were punished or had their land confiscated and many people could barely eat. There was unrest and the movement for independence came to a climax in 1919 in the ‘March 1st Independent Movement’. Approximately two million individuals of all occupations and social levels out of a total population of twenty million took part in this totally non-violent movement. In countrywide protests, the unarmed Koreans were brutally suppressed by Japanese forces and military police, and many atrocities such as beheading and crucifixion were committed. Approximately 7,500 Koreans died. That was the end of organized resistance in Korea. After 1919, any independence activities had to be conducted from abroad.
Conditions worsened during the Second World War. Provisions were low, and of course the Japanese got first pick. Koreans were forcibly recruited into the Japanese army, were used as forced labor in mines and munitions factories and one should not forget the ‘comfort women’ who were forced into prostitution. Many Koreans never returned, including those killed by the atomic bomb while working in Japan.
After the end of World War II and liberation from Japan – CHAOS. The Americans occupied the South of Korea, the Russians occupied the North. The line between them changed daily, and if one lived around Seoul which was in the middle, when asked which side one was on, one did not know what to answer in order to stay alive. Everyone was paranoid, especially about communism spreading to the South, and there were massacres of Koreans by both the Americans and the Koreans themselves. The level of poverty was worse than present day Somalia.
At the end of the Korean War (1950-53), many North Koreans (including my father-in-law) were trapped in South Korea and unable to ever see their families in North Korea again. Although in theory a democratic constitution had been in place since 1948, the war was followed by an autocratic regime and then a series of military dictatorships that either saw any suspected communist thought as a crime, or used this as an excuse to get rid of people who criticized their authority. Tortures, imprisonments, disappearances, forced confessions, false judgments, executions and ‘accidental’ deaths took place. Whole families were shunned and treated as outcasts because one family member was ‘suspected’ of anti-government thought.
Finally, due to the brave movements for true democracy, an elected president, Rho Tae Woo, took office in 1987. As he was a former military general, his term of office is considered a transitional period, with a proper democracy starting only in 1992 under Kim Young Sam. Regarding North Korea, technically speaking the position is one of ‘ceasefire’ and the National Security Law forbidding communist thought in South Korea is still in existence, though no longer rigorously enforced.
This explains a lot about the Korea of today. People have failed to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by a democratic government. For example, welfare is pitifully low, because people still associate any sort of socialism or sharing of wealth with ‘communism’. People still do things at breakneck speed because they or their parents never knew if they would live to see tomorrow. They eat at breakneck speed because for many years they did not know when they would get the next meal. There are even notices on the walls in my children’s elementary school dining hall exhorting them to ‘eat fast.’
A Teacher – Ham Sok Hon
The ‘teacher and disciple’ relationship, largely outmoded in the west, is still a concept in modern day Korea. My husband is one of the ‘disciples’ of Ham Sok Hon, and as such is influenced by Ham’s thought in all he does, and promotes Ham’s thought through lectures and writings.
Ham Sok Hon was a maverick ‘thinker’ in many areas. His liberal views on religion, thinking beyond the confines of the strict Korean protestant church to embrace aspects of all religions and to eventually become a Quaker is just one reason he is famous. To me, Ham Sok Hon is a representative of the many people who have suffered, been tortured, imprisoned or even killed in the fight for democracy in Korea.
Ham, born in North Korea in 1901, experienced all the various oppressive regimes outlined in the previous section. Anyone who spoke out against such regimes was in for trouble, yet Ham spoke up on behalf of the suppressed people through writings, lectures and participation in non-violent protests. In Ham’s case, as an intellectual recognized outside Korea, he managed to avoid execution. Nevertheless, his outspoken criticism landed him in prison a total of nine times.
A strong advocate for freedom from all types of repression, Ham always emphasized non-violent means and his commitment to nonviolence earned him the names of the ‘Conscience of Korea’ and ‘Korean Gandhi’. Ham was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace prize in 1979 and 1985.
Thanks to the efforts of Ham and many like him, the democratic constitution finally started to become a reality in Korea in 1987. I am glad that Ham, who died in 1989, lived to see it.
Do you have this person in your life?
This is one of many poems written by Ham Sok Hon when he was in prison. The translation is a joint effort by myself and my husband, Kim Sung-soo.
Before you leave for a long journey
Without any worry
Can you ask this person
To look after your family?
Even when you are cast out from the whole world
And are in deepest sorrow
Do you have someone
Who will welcome you warmly and freely?
In the dire moment when your vessel has sunk
Is there someone
Who will give you their life belt and say
“You must live before me"?
At the execution ground
Is there someone
Who will exclaim for you
"Let him live, even if you kill the rest of us"?
In the last moment of your life
When you think of this person
Can you leave this world smiling broadly
And feeling at peace?
Even if the entire world is against you
When you think of this person
Can you stand alone for what you believe?
Do you have this person in your life?
Ham, Sok Hon. Works 6, Hangil-sa, 1988
Korean food is colorful and flavorsome, and due to low-ish labor costs eating out can be cheap away from fashionable restaurants. But how safe is the food? Here is a sample of the food scares that have appeared on the news recently.
- dye in kimchi in order to use less chili or parasites in kimchi (in both cases, kimchi imported from China)
- coal powder used to color buckwheat noodles
- meat on the rib known as kalbi made artificially by sticking meat onto bones with glue
- lead put into fish to make it weigh heavier (again apparently fish imported from china)
While we are on the topic of health, a well-known phenomenon here is ‘new house syndrome’, where the chemicals in the cement, paint and so on used in the new apartments springing up almost overnight like mushrooms cause skin problems and breathing problems such as asthma. A recent variation on this theme is ‘new book syndrome’ causing similar problems due to the type of inks used.
A land of extremes
Korea is a land of ‘all or nothing’, of extremes, of emotion, of exaggeration.
- Winter is not the coldest in the world, but is extremely cold, summer is not the hottest in the world, but is extremely hot.
- Korea is a massively high energy consumer. Despite the traffic congestion, a far greater proportion of people have large cars than in the UK. In the winter Korean homes and public buildings are kept unbearably hot (25-30 degrees centigrade is common), while in the summer the air conditioning is such that it is positively cold. When I was studying Korean at language school, even though it was boiling outside I had to take a cardigan and socks to put on in the classroom.
- Technology is extremely advanced and home computer and cell-phone usage is one of the highest in the world.
-The cost of education (private cram schools, overseas study and so on in order to supplement the state education system) is incredibly high. one school uniform alone costs two or three hundred pounds because school principals get commission from the uniform suppliers.
- The literacy and numeracy rate is extremely high. In fact, illiteracy barely exists. But creativity? At age nine, my son has not yet once been asked to write a story at school. Everything is from a textbook – there is even a textbook for physical education….
- Korea’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world.
- Toilet paper usage – phenomenal! I thought at first it was just my husband’s family who wound reams of paper round their hand instead of folding a few squares into a pad. But from the whirring sounds as the rolls whiz round coming from all sides in a public toilet, this is obviously the norm.
- I have noticed that when we get about two centimeters of snow, Koreans describe this in a way that roughly translates as ‘an incredibly massive amount’. So how do they describe an incredibly massive amount of snow?
- When Koreans want to express ‘very…’, a common ｅxpression (so common one might here it several times a day) is “it is so…, I’ll die.” Not only is this used for difficult things such as “I’m so tired, I’ll die” or “It’s so cold, I’ll die,” but one is just as likely to hear “It’s so cute, I’ll die” or “It’s so delicious, I’ll die.”
I am sure Korean proverbs can be studied elsewhere, but here are a few that crop up again and again in my daily life here.
- The proverb I hear most frequently is “Don’t drink kimchi soup” – This is short for “Don’t drink kimchi soup when your host may have no idea of giving you rice cakes.” Kimchi soup (readily available in any Korean home) and sticky rice cakes are traditionally served together, but if you assume that you are going to get rice cakes just because you have kimchi soup, you could be disappointed. In other words “Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.”
- Another favorite is “When you save a man from drowning he wants you to rescue his coat as well.” This is similar to “add insult to injury.”
- A common proverb that is almost the same as the English proverb is “one arrow, two birds.”
- I love this one for when you cannot find something that is right under your nose – “It is dark beneath the candlestick.”
- Also common is “if you gather dust it will become a mountain” (“Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves”).
- Perhaps the one I like best is this for when one is very hungry. “You can’t appreciate even the Diamomd Mountain (of legendary beauty) on an empty stomach.”
The forsythia is lovely and the azaleas are spectacular. Nevertheless, I still miss something in the Korean spring. I miss the bulbs – the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and tulips that cheer up the end of winter and are a sign that spring is on the way. Spring seems to pop up suddenly in Korea by comparison, and seems relatively short.
It is a sad truth that the pleasant spring weather and scenery is increasingly marred by the yellow sand that blows across from China particularly (although not exclusively) in this season. The yellow dust hovers in the air, and a good view into the distance is rarely possible in the spring. Television warnings predict the worst days, advising people not to go out unless necessary or if going out cannot be avoided then to at least wear masks. Many people from suffer skin or chest problems as a result of the sand dust. It is not surprising. On a bad day you can write your name in it on the car or on a window. The Korean government has apparently provided funding to China for tree planting projects to try and prevent further spread of desert areas, but still the problem is worse each year.
There are a number of spring events that still make this season jolly. one is Buddha’s Birthday on May the eighth by the lunar calendar (so changing each year), occasioning a public holiday. Another public holiday is Children’s Day on May the fifth. Everyone makes an effort to do something especially nice with their children that day and the School/Parents Association usually hosts some interesting event such as a sports day or games day around this time.
May the eighth is not a national holiday, but is Parent’s Day. Children prepare at school a ‘thank you’ letter and paper carnations to present to their parents, and usually also come home with a list of things to do to help their parents. Top of the list, in my opinion, is “massage mummy’s shoulders.” General massage is much undervalued in the west and home massage in the family almost non existent as far as I know in the UK. Here the kids learn basic massage techniques at kindergarten and are encouraged to give shoulder massage to their parents often.
May the fifteenth is Teacher’s Day. Traditionally children take their teacher a gift or write a thank you letter. However, there have been problems with parents ‘bribing’ teachers with expensive gifts or money, and certainly locally the practice has almost stopped, while my daughter’s teacher told the children clearly that she would not accept any gifts.
Another kind of PET
An Annoying Thing
The constant effort of evangelizing Christians to convert you. If you are already a Christian and attend church, then that is not enough – you will not be saved unless you go to that particular church, it seems. There are many, many churches – even several on the same street - so there is no way you can please everyone.
Some while ago, an old friend of my husband’s called him, saying he needed to speak with him urgently. My husband, weary after the inevitable business socializing sessions, agreed to meet him on a precious free evening thinking his friend must have some major family or personal problem. When he got there, his friend started trying to ‘convert’ my husband (already a Christian and Quaker) to attend his own church, offering to pray for his soul which would evidently be lost if my husband did not ‘convert’.
Local churches catch the children as they come out of school, giving them drinks, snacks and sweets. One is plied with small packs of tissues or leaflets advertising various churches on the underground. And it is only yesterday that the mother of one of my son’s classmates arrived on the doorstep without prior warning asking if we attended church.
Jehovah’s Witnesses make a beeline for foreigners, as they think (rightly in most cases) that they will have some sort of basic background or knowledge of Christianity to start with. However, I have found that, in Korea at least, they do their evangelizing almost as a ‘job’ and are not overly pressing ‘out of hours’. I happened to need to wait with my children in a playground while my husband conducted some business in the neighborhood. There was a group of people, growing larger, until it reached around thirty individuals. As it was a Sunday morning it seemed likely to be a church group, and after exchanging hellos with a couple of people, I asked. My heart sank when they said they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, especially as I had shown interest first. However, they shared juice and sweet potatoes with us without another word on the topic of religion and I spent a very pleasant half an hour. Then they set off in small groups to start their ‘work’ of calling door to door.
More Annoying Things
- When you are waiting at a red traffic light and the person in the car behind you keeps beeping his horn madly.
- The mosquitoes.
- Butter packets. The foil-type paper wrapped around the butter does not come off cleanly. The edges are all embedded in the butter and have to be dug out, and the foil peeled off in shreds. It is a very greasy procedure.
- Crisp packets. Instead of pulling open cleanly at the top, there is a place to start to tear the packet vertically. It always tears very haphazardly and leaves a very rough large opening along most of the long side of the packet, resulting in a lot of crisps being lost on the floor.
- The little bit of sellotape on each end of every cardboard packet. You either have to tear the box, struggle with a pair of scissors that will not fit into the crack at the end of the box or fetch a craft knife.
- The ancient royal palaces and their grounds, many beautifully restored, are wonderful to wander around. Some have guided tours for those who want the history in detail, but just strolling here and there reading the signs is very pleasant. The look and feel is different in each season, and so one can go again and again.
The most famous is Kyeongbokkung, but they are all beautiful in their way. Many host special events now and again throughout the year. For example, we saw an exhibition of traditional court food at …Palace, and the day included a traditional comic play and a children’s puppet show. However, one of the most spectacular events is the regular changing of the guard at …. Palace, very formal and splendid with around twenty or so guards in their ancient costumes of bright yellow and blue.
An extension to this wonderful glimpse of Korea’s grand imperial past are the television period dramas which recreate the moving stories of many heroes of the time. Lavish productions with brilliant costumes and old-style language, much of the filming takes place in the original palaces.
- Korean people are incredibly many things, but this includes incredibly kind. People drop everything to help someone in need, from showing them the way to helping out when the car won’t start. From bringing round food if they know you are not well, to finding out someone who can unblock your toilet. Korea is not always an easy county to live in, but because of this enthusiastic kindness it is an easy country to love.
The word ‘Konglish’ itself is a good example of Konglish – some sort of mixture of Korean and English.
Konglish can be classified into a number of types. First there are the directly imported words where the word is basically the same, but the Korean pronunciation is so different from the English it is sometimes difficult to recognize. Examples of this type of Konglish are ‘Porkoo’ (fork) or Koppee (coffee). Of course we do just the same with foreign words imported into English. When we say ‘Taekwondo’ it sounds nothing like the Korean original!
Secondly, there are the words which are imported from English, but are not used in English in the same sense as in Korea. For example an ‘….’ is a spinster and a ‘hard’ is an ice lolly!
Then there are the spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and use of inappropriate words resulting from the fact Koreans fail to realize the necessity of proofreading by a native speaker. Some are simply silly. The sign for Lake Park, a new and truly splendid park which is the pride and joy of Ilsan New Town, was written as ‘Lake Prak’. We went there often, and after a while we could not stand it any longer and sent an email to the local mayor. Next time we went, the sign had been corrected.
A more unfortunate example was a T-shirt my husband was given which, though correctly spelt, referred to ‘children’s parts’ and he did not feel he could wear it in England. My mother-in-law, who knows no English, bought a T-shirt for my son that had a motto so obscene I cannot repeat it here. Suffice it to say we told a white lie, and saying that it was the wrong size went and changed it.
It is almost impossible to find a t-shirt or sweatshirt here without some sort of trendy or cute English motto or logo. Here are a few examples from our current wardrobe.
- Take it easy with casual feeling. Coquetry’s wish.
- Sparkling fruits, bebe story.
- Outdoor with B. 29 lifestyle jeans (this is on a non-denim cardigan)
- American motorcycle, great pop 1980, wildmotors
- Tom the cat, jerry the mouse, retro aviator
- Feel comfort life style, free spirit
In one sense welfare as in a government organized system is pitifully low.
Having a Baby
Babies are obviously produced the same way biologically as in England, but after that the similarity stops. Even this first biological step is tampered with, in that the desire to produce a male heir results in some families terminating pregnancies where a fetus is shown to be female. The practice is dying out, but still there is a male-weighted population. Because of this problem, it is illegal for doctors to disclose the sex of an unborn baby, but apparently it only takes a small bribe to get a pointed hint.
It costs at least a thousand pounds or so in hospital fees to have a baby, as the health service here is not a full service that covers all such costs. There are some moves in the government to try and provide assistance with childbirth costs to try and help redress the low birthrate problem.
There is an extremely high rate of caesarian sections here. Word has it that non only do doctors encourage caesarians in order to keep more regular hours and because it is more lucrative. However, in fairness to the doctors, I have heard that some young women are also keen to have caesarians a bit early to minimize stretching and make it easier to regain their figures. Have also heard that pain relief such as epidurals are not common here, and I wonder if this accounts for a willingness to opt for surgery.
All is not bleak! The one time in their lives that Korean women are pampered is when they have a baby. Even in the case of a straightforward birth a women may spend up to t week in hospital. Once out of hospital, under ordinary circumstances she will either go to her own parents’ home or have her mother come and stay, or be looked after by some other relative, and not be expected to do any sort of heavy work for at least six weeks and up to three months.
It is customary to give a new mother plenty of sea kelp soup. I suspects this practice has evolved because of the high iron content. I understand it is also considered important to keep a new mother very warm, piling the bed high with duvaits even in summer.
When a new baby is one hundred days old, there is a special party to celebrate dating from the days when reaching a hundred days was quite an achievement.
After a full year, there is an even bigger celebration. As well as special food, there is a ‘ceremony’ in which various items are put on a low table in front of the child. They all have a special significance – a silk thread for long life, a pen for being a good scholar, money symbolizing wealth. The family wait with baited breath to see which item the child will pick up first, so showing what the course of his/her life might be.
My own children were born in England, and so I have not experienced the system here first hand. However, the following
“Have you had breakfast?” “Have you had lunch?” and “Have you had dinner?” are common greetings, depending on the time of day. They are not only for visiting guests to whom you might offer a meal, but are a common greeting to friends or family on the telephone. I used to feel it was none of the other person’s business, but I now realize that it is a politeness dating back to the days when people could not eat three meals a day.