Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An Example of the Korean Social Structure During a Fourth of July Barbecue

This was the second time that I have been abroad for the Fourth of July, the first time was four years ago when I was in Greece. My family has never really had a tradition when it comes to Independence Day; usually I just go with the flow and end up watching the sky catch on fire from a random hill in the east bay. So I am not one to get particularly homesick over missing the Fourth. But since we were in a foreign country we were all feeling about as patriotic as a group of Political Science enthusiasts could feel, so we figured we should do something special to celebrate. Professor McCuan decided to take us to a restaurant that he had gone to the week prior with the president and the dean of Jeju National University.   Professor McCuan also invited Ko and insisted that he had to join us for dinner because it was the Fourth of July. Ko had no idea of the significance of the date and was probably wondering why the insane American professor kept raving about a random day in July. Unfortunately Ko could not attend the dinner because is infant daughter had developed a fever, we were sad that he could not attend but of course understood.
We took a pair of taxis down to the restaurant, as we drove into Jeju City it was apparent that we were not going to the main downtown area. Rather we were in a less dense and obviously more traditional area of the city filled with Korean restaurants and traditional Korean bars.  There area was clear of the usual droves of high school students that convene around downtown.

Like the area around it the restaurant itself was also quiet and traditional. It was decorated with traditional Korean calligraphy which hung above the clean wooden floors. In the corner was entrance to the kitchen which framed by photos of the cuts of raw meat that the restaurant had to offer. When you don’t speak the local language menus with photos on them are your best friend. The owner with her popeye-like forearms sat down at our table, since we had made reservations the side dishes were already set up for us and the coals were already heating up the barbeque on the table in front of us. To the right of our table there was a long dining room filled with Korean businessmen but hidden from view by opaque screens.
Again we ate barbequed pork but this time we switched up the second course to include mouthwateringly savory beef. After each bite I was engulfed in carnivorous ecstasy, sending me into a Dionysian-like intoxication driven by my palate being overwhelmed with the taste of the supple flesh of young bovine. Okay I am exaggerating, slightly. Saying the food was delicious over and over again is dull. During the meal I began to noticed something; the owner was giving 85% of her attention to one side of the table, the side table that happened to be all male.  She waited on us hand and foot; getting us forks, replenishing our drinks, replacing side dishes and helping us build our lettuce wraps. Erica and Holly received decent service but anywhere near the same amount of service we received. Our hostess actually took beef from Holly and Erica’s barbeque and gave it to us, I felt bad for this beef thievery by proxy.

When we finished up our meal the hostess thanked us in order of our hierarchical seniority, first Professor McCuan then Ethan then me and then a brief nod to Holly and Erica. It was an interesting cultural experience, it was the first time that I really noticed the hierarchy that I had read about prior to visiting Korea.  I think that it is more relaxed in the youth culture or perhaps just not as obvious to foreigners. I think in America we still have a similar hierarchy which is much more passively “enforced” than the Koreans. This is a completely anecdotal account though so I don’t really want to make sweeping generalizations about the culture of Korea based on a single dining experience. I do think it will be interesting for me to compare the role of women in Korea and Sweden. They seem to be polar opposites, Korean culture encourages gender roles whereas Sweden actively tries to destroy any accidental socialization of gender stereo types and has gone as far as creating a gender neutral pronoun for a person. Maybe after a year in Sweden I will be ready to make sweeping generalizations about gender based solely on observations. 

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