cross-cultural

Work Hard, Play Hard, Sleep Hard

As an American expat in Korea, some things, like eating piles of meat from a grill, are pretty easy to get used to. Other things, like sitting on the eatingonfloorfloor for the hour it takes to eat it, are quite a bit harder. My American education prepared me for a lot of things, but spending scads of time on the floor was not one of them.

Some of this difficulty is perhaps cultural, but some is certainly my own. I’ve been culturally flexible for many years, but physically I remain as stiff as I’ve always been. In college, I took a flexibility test that required me to sit in front of a sliding scale and push the knob as far as I could to get a measurement of my flexibility. I couldn’t touch the knob. Even as a slim, athletic kid, sitting “Indian style” was never hosp-misc-flexibility2-0903comfortable and the Lotus position would have required me to have two broken legs. Yoga for me is out of the question. Apparently I was born to plank.

Traditionally, Koreans did most things close to the floor, perhaps as a consequence of one of the great hallmarks of Korean civilization: the ondol floor-heating system, which has been in use for at least 3,000 years. For millennia, the floor was the warmest part of any Korean home, so daily life seems to have naturally gravitated toward the warmth.

Though there are exceptions, the average Korean today appears equally at home on the floor as were his remote ancestors, even though Western-style furniture is ubiquitous and ondol is no longer a common feature of Korean homes. Koreans still sit on the floor, eat on the floor, play on the floor, and sleep on the floor. On weekends, my wife and millions of other Koreans migrate to the saunas, lay their heads on a small wooden block, and bask in the simple and ancient pleasure of lying on a warm floor. After an hour or two of this, my wife is floor lounging in saunaready to take on the world. I’m ready for a chiropractor.

Our kids are OK on the floor too. They use the sofa a lot, but I’m just as likely to find them plunked down on the tiles in front of the tv, sprawled out with their laptops and iPads, or crashed out with only a blanket.

Our youngest daughter has an exceptional talent for sleeping on the floor. Ever since she was small, I’ve found her crashed in various parts of the house: in the middle of rooms, wedged under furniture, blocking IMG_0802doorways, etc. For years I’ve been documenting her remarkable sleeping habits in a photo album which is large and still growing.

How does my lack of floor-living skills affect our family? Not much. Occasionally we’ll pass on the odd restaurant that has no chairs, which today seem to be fewer and fewer anyway. Our home is furnished with chairs and a sofa, and my wife and I sleep on a bed – a bed with a mattress, I should say, not one of those luxury stone beds, which is basically an expensive piece of floor on legs. Recently I’ve learned to appreciate the flexibility of the coffee table, which is just high enough to use with a chair and just low enough to accommodate floor-sitters. Who’d have thought that the humble coffee table could have become an important setting for cultural compromise? And don’t get me started on the coffee.

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“Korean Age”: Old Before My Time

This is my latest over at Sweet Pickles and Corn: Life on the other side of the International Age Line. Wait, what? Just read it.

SWEET PICKLES & CORN

By John Bocskay


People say age is just a number. Koreans say it’s just a slightly larger number.
A s an international traveler, you get used to the idea of various countries using different measures to refer to the same thing. The same size-four dress in Australia will translate into a size-five in svelte Japan. That which we call a size-eight trainer in London will smell as sweet in L.A. – OK, maybe not – though it will be labeled a size-ten (and will be called a sneaker) . A “small” soda in the States is what Koreans call “large”, and what Americans call large, Koreans call a bucket. I big-gulp-kid-carousel have no trouble wrapping my head around these things, but even so, I found it exceedingly weird to board a Korean Air flight in New York as a 27-year-old and disembark thirteen hours later in Seoul at age twenty-nine. I…

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Innovation or Aberration? – Unpeeling the Costco Onion Salad

My latest piece over at Sweet Pickles an Corn: on the odd practice of eating condiment onions as a side dish, and the odder habit of freaking out about it.

SWEET PICKLES & CORN

By John Bocskay

Any American or Canadian who has been to a Costco in Korea has witnessed what Koreans do with the onions. In the U.S. you turn the crank on the dispenser and catch the tumbling onions on the hot dog, the whole hot dog, and nothing but the hot dog, but that’s not how the Koreans roll. Most of them pile the onions on a dish or a patch of foil, dump globs of ketchup and mustard over them, mix it all into a lumpy orangey mash, and tuck straight into it with fork and spoon as an improvised side dish to their pizza, clam chowder, or Caesar salad.

Expat critics react with a mix of condescension, bemusement, derision, and disgust. Didn’t Koreans get salad_downloadthe memo? Onions are supposed to go on the hot dogs! And look how many onions they’re piling on! Have they no shame?

Among the many unfair and…

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