You don’t like kimchi? You’re not really Korean.

Katianna Hong cooking soup.

As I wrote recently in this blog, for those from mixed ethnic backgrounds, one avenue to reclaim what feels like a lost heritage from one of the parents is to learn that parent’s language. The feeling that one does not fit into a personally linked ethnic group has sometimes been labeled racial imposter syndrome. It’s the sense that some individuals may have that their lives are in a sense inauthentic because they don’t conform to key aspects of the ethnic heritage with which they identify.

A current piece in the New York Times describes a different way to connect with that less dominant side of ones family cultural heritage, namely through food. The article, “Food Is Identity. For Korean Chefs Who Were Adopted, It’s Complicated”, explores how adoptees in the US from Korea (a large group) have learned to cook Korean food, with some becoming professional chefs. The situation is described as “complicated” for several reasons. The cooks have grown up in non-Korean environments and often have had little exposure to Korean cuisine until later in life. They tend not to cook straight traditional Korean dishes, but rather integrate Korean cooking techniques and ingredients into many dishes they prepare. One woman in the article, Katianna Hong, is described as “a Korean woman adopted and raised by a German Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother.” She makes matzo ball soup, a traditional Jewish food, in an unconventional way:

Instead of the mirepoix of carrots, celery and onions her grandmother called for, Mrs. Hong opts for what she calls “Korean mirepoix” — potatoes and hobak, a sweet Korean squash — cooked slowly in chicken fat until translucent. She dribbles a spoonful of the mixture around a hulking matzo ball surrounded by swollen sujebi, the hand-torn Korean noodles, all floating in a bowl of chicken broth as creamy and cloudy as the ox bone soup Seolleongtang.

The article describes the soup as “a tribute to her adoptive family’s background and her own heritage”. While for the adoptees, the experience of cooking Korean may bring personal fulfillment, the chefs may face backlash from other Korean Americans that their cooking isn’t Korean enough. Here again, the situation is complicated. Kim Park Nelson, an associate professor of ethnic studies at Winona State University, herself a Korean adoptee is quoted in the article on the complexity involved:

The most common example I hear, and what I have experienced, is being asked if I like kimchi. I do, but not all adoptees are crazy about kimchi. There is almost a nationalistic connection between kimchi and Korea.  It’s like a test question: Are you actually Korean?

Adoptees learn to cook Korean from different sources, but often from social media such as YouTube. The experience of starting to make Korean food can prove to be emotional: “For a Korean adoptee, eating Korean food can be a reminder of the loss, grief and disconnection they’ve experienced. Cooking may intensify those feelings.” It may be scray to assert ones identity as “Korean” if one has not grown up eating Korean food:

Feelings of self-doubt — the impostor syndrome — can turn into fears of cultural appropriation. Many adoptee chefs say they feel like outsiders looking in, wondering not only if they have permission to cook the cuisine of their heritage, but also if what they’re doing could taint it.

As one Korean adoptee chef stated in the piece: “In some ways, Korean food becomes a marker of what you aren’t.”

Binge Eating Stars

Rachel Ahn, a Korean binge eater [NPR]

Rachel Ahn, a Korean binge eater [NPR]

I have written before about “slow TV”, exemplified by Norwegian television, with shows on stacking firewood and watching slow-moving ships. Another country with interesting video productions is South Korea. Well-known are the video productions of contests of online gaming, which have a substantial viewership outside the country. Recently NPR had a story on the popularity of eating shows, or mukbang. It profiles one of the better known binge eaters, Rachel Ahn, who goes by “Aebong-ee”. Every weeknight, she gathers a huge amount of food — noodles, dumplings, seafood — in front of her and starts to eat and broadcast. Her fans expect not just a large volume of food to be devoured at a sitting, but also to have it done in a particular way:

The demands on Ahn and other mukbang stars like her are high — she can’t just eat, she must eat ferociously. As she devours noodles, loud slurping is a must. Audiences offer feedback on a live stream, asking how spicy the noodles are, suggesting she move dumplings closer to the camera or do a dance in excitement. The stream continues for three hours every night.

The most successful binge eaters can make a lot of money and become quite famous. It may be that such shows offer a way for Koreans living alone to have a kind of companionship, even if it’s virtual. According to Ahn, most of her fans are women, many of whom are on a diet; she speculates that the eating shows are popular as a way for those women to eat vicariously. A professor of Asian Studies at UC-Irvine, Kyung Kim, has a different explanation:

Eating is something one activity that is strongly identified as being natural, and spontaneous…You think about K-pop or K-drama [and] they’re very artificial, they’re all about makeup and plastic surgeries. And a lot of people find this — mukbang — to be the exact opposite of all the things right now Korean popular culture really stands for.

Of course, describing the huge volumes of food consumed in the eating shows as “natural” might seem a stretch. I’d be curious if the binge eaters ever include a strangely popular food in Korea, Spam, the U.S. processed pork product from the 1930’s, which is particularly used to make a spicy soup known as budae jjigae, or army stew.

Fewer things better


Kim Ki-hoon, the Korean English teacher making millions a year

Are we trying too hard to educate our children?  Yes, we’re trying to do too many things and most are not helping. That’s in part the conclusion of Amanda Ripley who wrote a book on education throughout the world entitled, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way., whose work was profiled today on NPR.  As is often the case when comparing educational systems, schools in Korea and Finland draw much of the attention, given the higher scores school children there achieve on standardized tests. As I’ve written in a previous post, the schools in Finland are a riddle for American educators who go to visit and learn – how can they do so well without all the solutions being advocated in the U.S. : school choice (more private and charter schools), rewards for the best teachers and schools, high-stakes testing to identify success and failure. Instead, Finland focuses on turning out excellent teachers, paying them well, offering a lot of local support, and encouraging the best college students to go into teaching:  a few important things done well.

South Korea is quite different, with a heavy emphasis by all stakeholders on children focusing on high achievement, even if that means long hours after school and on weekends in private tutoring sessions.  Earlier this month there was a profile in the Wall Street Journal of an English teacher in South Korea who makes millions of dollars a year through his subscription video service and after-school tutoring sessions.  The Korean educational system could hardly serve as a model for the U.S., but American foreign language teachers would be happy to see that kind of pay. In the end, we all know it comes down to the quality and commitment of teachers – the trick is to figure out how we become more successful in filling our schools with dedicated and competent teachers and in ensuring they receive reasonable pay, support, and respect.

Do Koreans make bad pilots?

asiana2In the wake of the Asiana Airlines crash at the San Francisco International Airport, there has been puzzlement over how the accident happened, particularly as there were four pilots on board, one or more of whom surely would have pointed out that the plane was coming in way too slowly for a safe landing.  The main pilot was not experienced with the Boeing 777 but the other pilots were.  This has raised questions about how the pilots interacted with one another and led to speculation that there must have been some communication failure that contributed to the crash.  Because the pilots were all Korean, several commentators (including a piece in the National Geographic Daily News) have brought up the analysis by Malcolm Gladwell of Korean pilots in his 2008 book, Outliers.  Gladwell also talked about Korean pilots in a CNN interview (video embedded below).  Gladwell points to the poor safety record of Korean airlines in the 1990’s, which he relates to the Korean respect for authority and hierarchy.  In a culture like Korea, with a large power distance, it is less likely that a subordinate (such as a co-pilot) will point out possible errors or problems, as that would be disrespectful.

There is no doubt that respect for superiors and elders is a traditional aspect of Korean life, still in evidence today.  I recently spent time at a Seoul National University and was struck by the deferential attitude of the Korean students, which was markedly different from my experiences with Chinese students in Shanghai and Beijing.  However, does this mean that all Koreans in all contexts will behave in a way consistent with this trait of their national culture?  Are there no other forces at work that can affect individual behavior? In fact, we all have identities that are complex combinations of influences that come from a variety of sources, including individual experiences, family life, social media, group membership.  In the case of pilots, it would seem to me that the work environment and the extensive training involved would necessarily influence cockpit behavior in significant ways.

In the CNN interview, Gladwell mentions that respect for authority is built into the Korean language, with its rich use of politeness forms, and that having the pilots speak English (which Gladwell characterizes as a “non-hierarchical” language) has led to a behavioral change.  That’s an interesting socio-linguistic theory but I’m not sold on its validity.

Wrong Handshake

bill_gates_south_korean_hand_shake_thg_130423_vblogBill Gates visited South Korea last week and not surprisingly met with a number of high-ranking members of the government, including new South Korean President Park Geun-hye.  But all that was reported out of Gates’ visit in the media in Korea and the USA was Gates’ faux-pas in shaking hands with the President.  He kept his left hand in his coat pocket, which was perceived as rude.  He should have (as did Larry Page from Google later in the week) clasped the President’s hand with both of his as a sign of respect.  According to the Korea Herald, “The topic [of the handshake] was so frequently discussed online that as of Tuesday morning, Bill Gates became one of the most searched keywords on Naver, the most visited web portal in South Korea.” Greeting gestures and etiquette can be tricky in unfamiliar cultures.  The White House and the State Department have experts in that area who provide guidance, but apparently Bill Gates did not have access to that information.

It probably would come as little surprise to Americans that it would be Bill Gates involved in this social gaffe.  After all, he is likely perceived as a member of a particular group:  geeks.  This is a group seen as socially inept, politically ignorant, and, on occasion, inappropriately arrogant.  The latter characteristic, in fact, is what many perceived Gates as exhibiting when he appeared before Congress when Microsoft was being investigated for its monopoly stronghold on computer operating systems; Gates was dismissive of the Congressmen’s concerns and lectured them as if they were schoolchildren.  Of course, these days, the geeks have their gotten their revenge and are laughing all the way to the bank.

Korean Rapper

tabloInteresting story today on NPR about Tablo (Dan Lee) a popular Korean rapper. Intriguing from a cross-cultural perspective.  Part of his rise to popularity in Korea was tied to the fact that he had two university degrees from Stanford – hardly an auspicious background for a U.S. rapper. Highlights the very high role education plays in Korean society.