Don’t do this with chopsticks! Chopsticks in Korea.
One of the first things you may learn when travelling to Korea, Japan or China is that it’s inappropriate and offensive to stick chopsticks into your rice like that. Although it varies from country to country, it is always something symbolic in regards to rituals for the dead.
In Korea you see it in the Jesa ceremonies. There are different types of Jesa ceremonies for deceased family members and they can vary from region to region. The only time I’ve ever seen someone do this gesture respectfully is for Jesa ceremonies at Hugh’s parents’ house when his father leads a ceremony.
An action you will probably only ever see at a jesa sees the leader insert of a pair of chopsticks into the center of a bowl of rice. It is considered taboo to stick one’s chopsticks vertically into food in Korea unless at a jesa, as this gesture is reserved for food offered to the spirits of the dead.
From: Life after death – The beguiling world of the Korean jesa ceremony.
Unfortunately Hugh is sometimes not the most respectful person! He doesn’t do it on purpose but has the bad habit of being lazy with utensils (I’ve seen him eat meat with just tongs before!) and sometimes he just doesn’t think about it. Sometimes the person who is newer to a culture and has more recently learned these manners is the one paying more attention.
I’ve realised when editing videos later he has done it on camera as well much to the horror of some. Telling him that is grandfather is upset and watching him made he laugh but also to think about why there are traditions in Korea.
One a side note:
When Catholic missionaries first came to Korea they realised the importance of these ceremonies and didn’t make converts change which is why Catholicism grew more rapidly in Korea at first. Catholicism has many ceremonies and rituals and Korean culture was able to merge with these new beliefs. Unfortunately Protestants came in with cultural insensitivity and forced many to give up these important traditions. These days some Christians have adapted traditional ceremonies to meet half way between protestant beliefs and traditions but many still shun the days when these ceremonies are done, often leaving the country altogether. Catholicism in Korea is known to be more accepting of different faiths and work with other religions and religious leaders, while Korean protestants are some of the most aggressive Christians in the world and have been known to even vandalise Buddhist temples. Even the recent holiday of Buddha’s birthday there were protestant Christians picketing temples. It’s sad the damage that western beliefs can do.
Coming from a country that doesn’t have many traditions or ceremonies I appreciate seeing the traditions in Korea and being part of them. I hope the younger generation can realise the important and continue them on. Hugh will have to take over the Jesa ceremonies from his father eventually and will need to learn how to do them.
Then he will be allowed to stick the chopsticks in the rice!
More on how to hold a Jesa ceremony here.
Being naked in Korea?
Korea has a culture where people go to public baths and are very comfortable to be naked around other people (though usually the same sex). There also isn’t any shame in undressing and changing clothes in front of friends, whereas many Western cultures have issues with that and there is a lot more ingrained shame when it comes to bodies.
Hugh does tend to be quite the nudist (maybe more than others) and once the weather is warm enough he doesn’t see the point of wearing clothes at home. Currently he is always exercising naked too. I’m sorry neighbours. But after I started talking about this on the blog, and with friends who also married into Korean families, I’ve heard that many Koreans can be quite similar in stripping off in their own home, at least down to just underwear.
I think men possibly have more freedom than women in traditional homes. Traditionally the parents’ room is also the living room which means a lack of privacy. When we lived in the countryside I never walked in on my sister in law or mother in law changing but constantly saw Hugh and my father in law in just their underwear. As a westerner who is used to parents’ rooms to be very separate and very private it was quite confronting and a big cultural difference.
Another contrast is that in Australia showing cleavage is okay and men often exercise without a shirt in public which just isn’t seen in Korea. Every country has a different expectation of what is acceptable and how much of the body is shown and where it can be shown.
I definitely think ondol heating (underfloor heating) has something to do with it. As Hugh mentioned, when there is ondol heating anywhere can be your bed because Koreans don’t usually have problems with sleeping directly on the floor. When the floor is warm and comfortable it makes sense to strip down and be the most comfortable possible. Also many Korean homes don’t have sofas or that type of furniture so everything is done down on the floor. It can be very relaxing, but I find it hard to be motivated when laying on a heated floor!
Original comic can be found here.
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Is Hugh really respecting my culture or just enjoying getting revenge? We talk about the pinch and a punch comic in this video. In this comic I do the Australian culture thing of “a pinch and a punch for the first of the month” but Hugh knew the second part of it and made sure he did it to me. Now I need to be careful if I want to pinch and punch on first days of the month.
As we talk about in the video, Koreans seem to LOVE punishment! Their games tend to always have punishments and even when playing more western games in Australia with Koreans, they had to add and change the games to make sure people had punishments. For example, when we played ‘Marco Polo’ in the pool they added the punishment of brutally dunking and splashing the person who was in if they didn’t catch anyone. I remember protesting a lot saying that not every game needs punishment!
If you’ve played games with Koreans you have probably experienced or at least seen the intense flicking to the forehead or hands that happens as punishment. Watch out! Especially watch out for people like Hugh who have no mercy.
Do you have something like “a pinch and a punch” in your country? I have a feeling this comes from British culture? Also what types of punishments do people like to give when playing games in your country? Or maybe you don’t need punishments? Perhaps there are punishments that don’t actually involve physically hurting someone!
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Why do Koreans love mukbangs?
We talk about the popularity of mukbangs in Korea and how that plays out in real life. Often western journalists want to reduce the idea of mukbangs to a simple sentence when they write articles about them but in reality there are many cultural reasons why Koreans love them.
Western journalists also have this idea that all mukbangs are about eating SO much food. While some people do that, it’s not what mukbangs have to be. It’s literally just someone eating while being broadcast, usually through livestreaming. Someone can even just be drinking as the Korean word it derives from means both to eat or drink. Often articles will say that mukbangs are popular because more and more Koreans live alone and are eating alone so if they are watching someone eat they feel less alone.
It can be part of it for some people, but that type of explanation ignores the fact that Koreans just love to watch others eat. It’s not surprising when you look at South Korea’s history of rapidly becoming a developed country. Even within Hugh’s lifetime he remembers not that much food when he was young and there not being much meat. His parents only had meat a few times a year when they were young because it was so expensive back then. Food is something still very special and in living memory there were times where there was not that much food. If a mother is able to cook well for her children she wants to see them enjoy it and gets enjoyment herself from watching them eat.
Hugh has a story from his grandparents that when people had a dried fish, they wouldn’t eat it right away, but would hang it from the ceiling and look at it while just eating rice and imagine they were tasting fish instead of rice. These days there are copious amounts of food in Korea, and it’s very cheap. There are many TV shows that show close ups of people eating food and food sounds are accentuated for the camera. Often in western cooking shows the eating part is just a small section at the end of the show, but Korean shows will show a much longer time of people eating and enjoying the food. For me as a nonKorean I really don’t like the sounds of someone eating or seeing a closeup of their mouth as they eat, but it’s very common on TV here. Korea’s relationship with food now has been shaped by their hard times in the past.
So now with food so easily accessible people tend to be more worried about gaining weight. People on diets like to watch mukbangs because they get satisfaction watching someone else eat. This plays out in real life too. Many times I’ve been with a Korean friend and at a restaurant and cafe and they will buy me food and when I ask them what they are eating they will say, “Oh nothing, I’m on a diet. I just want to watch you eat.” That would be very strange in Australia! When Hugh is sick he wants me to do a personal mukbang for him. So because he can’t eat he will watch me eating closely and even tell me what food to eat so he can feel satisfaction from what I’m eating.
People who do mukbangs, and are very popular, don’t necessarily speak a lot while doing them. They will answer some questions but often people are just telling them “eat this thing now” or “eat these together”. It’s not necessarily about the social aspect as much but the enjoyment of watching someone else eat.
What about in your country? Do you like to watch people eat?
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I filmed a snapshot of my day video on Chuseok. We traveled back to the countryside for it. There was the ancestral rites memorial for deceased family members in the morning, then lots of food, relaxing and visits from family. I put on my hanbok to do a big bow to Hugh’s parents and we took the opportunity to take some photos in a field of flowers near the village.
We get a lot of messages where people need advice and we do out best to answer them. We decided it was time to make a video talking about how we make our marriage work and what things we do to make a happy life together. The video was actually over 30 mins long but of course cut down, so there was many more things we had to say!
We wrote down what we wanted to say, but I ended up doing more of the talking because Hugh isn’t as comfortable in English for a more scripted video BUT if you get him in person he will talk your ear off!
Our new video series! We’ll be making a Seoul Life video every week and we’ll talk about how we are adjusting to Seoul, show some footage we have filmed and answer some questions. In this video we talk about dirty apartments and ghosts, show you the Han river, answer some questions and show you the chaos of moving into an apartment and not having essential appliances yet.