Every time I drop food on my shirt, I make the same joke. “After 28 years of practice, I still don’t know how to eat.” And as I stare at this persimmon in my hand, I am at a loss of what to do.
Mid-way through my morning in the tiny rural village school I’m at, I walk into the teacher’s room and sit behind my cubicle with my back facing the window. As my hands burrow into my wool jacket the sun rests on my shoulders, but it’s not enough to warm me up this morning. The secretary and the Vice Principal let out slight giggles as they see how cold I am – a feeling they don’t share with me.
The door opens and a student walks in, a 3rd grader who just started learning English this year. She’s holding a small paper coffee cup, ubiquitous little things you can see perched on every other flat surface throughout Korea. She’s holding it out in front of her as she’s balancing a bright saggy persimmon in it. She hands it to me, and speaks a little Korean because she thinks I know it better than I actually do. And then as I tell her back, “먹어요? (eat?)” She excitedly nods her head with a stifled ‘ehm-huh’ through her smile and then turns and runs out the door. I turn to the secretary next to me to try and divine instruction from her on how to eat this. Which, granted, amounts to just puzzled staring in which I hope that she’ll understand despite my lack of actually asking. I don’t do more than that because I’m embarrassed to ask. It is just a persimmon – nothing has been done to it. Five minutes ago it was on a tree, and then it was put in a cup, and now it’s here. And I don’t know how to eat it.
The next natural step is just to eat it. But I didn’t get that far. Not that I didn’t want to, and not that I’m afraid to try new things – I did, and I do. It’s just a weird little problem I found coming to Korea. This is a problem I would never have foreseen coming to Korea. I joked about it, but I didn’t think I actually didn’t know how to eat food.
It’s not that I cannot put something in my mouth. But what we tend to overlook is how food isn’t immediately intimately understood by just looking or handling it, or even eating it. Food is something that, like anything, must be experienced, and meditated over, and contemplated. But food holds a place in our consciousness as being a very obvious and straightforward thing. In some ways yes, but mostly no.
The way we experience foreign food usually is as tourists or people who are introduced by a friend or out of curiosity. But all these experiences are limited; they’re framed as limited and special experiences that you won’t do regularly. The whole point is to experience something new. What’s helped by it is that it’s usually a social experience, which allows people to safely approach food in which you are helped by the people around you who may know the food better than you, so it becomes all a harmless and very educational experience.
When that is stripped away, the limitedness, the adventure, and the social aspects it, it’s hard to approach new things that you’re totally dictating. It’s hard to do new things. In Korea, however, that is quite difficult to avoid.
I don’t like Burger King very much. But I eat it more frequently than I ever have wanted to in my entire life. I eat it because I know it. I know how the bread feels. I know exactly how much it will fill me up. I know any part of the food won’t burn me and how to manage its temperature. I know how much resistance each and every piece of a Burger King burger will give me as I eat it. I know how much in all these qualities it can deviate and how to compensate how I eat it. I don’t have to think whatsoever as I eat at Burger King.
In restaurants in Korea, I haven’t gained that ability. When I think of going elsewhere, I have to think about it. I don’t have an innate sense of what these foods will do for me; for flavor, for experience, for how much it will fill me up. I don’t have an exact memory for all the flavors in any given dish in Korea. I can approximate it. I can give you a general description of how my favorite yukhoe Bibimbap that I eat every week tastes. And when I am hungry and tired my mind can’t do the stomach math to argue for dinner plans. At least when I’m alone, and it’s not a social experience that can be shared with another person. Which is almost every night, because I eat out every night, but I go alone because I live in rural Korea.
The secretary just smiles back at me and tells me to enjoy, as I have in my hand a rare treat that only comes in a narrow window once a year. I smile back at her and say thank you. My cheeks raise and stiffen over my stiff earnest smile and raise the persimmon as if I’m giving a toast. With that cue, she turns back to her computer as I shyly put it on my desk and push it back slowly to be just out of sight of the secretary’s view.
I plan on eating it. At least this is what I want to do, but want to on that level of desire that seems separate from your actual felt desires. That level of desire where you always play out your best intentions, and truly wish you would do something, in this, eat a persimmon. But I don’t. I put it off until my bus comes. And when my bus comes I leave, but without the persimmon in my mouth or stomach.