Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Day

As most of you probably know, Thanksgiving is coming up in one day (for me) or two days (in America). Try explaining to Koreans that Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday so there's no real day of the year they can mark on their calendars. Also, in America we have the Easter four: Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. I don't even know how those are decided. Not to mention our Monday holidays which very few people actually celebrate. What ever happened to normal holidays like Christmas, which is December 25th every year. Or, better yet, holidays like the 4th of July and Cinco de Mayo, which tell you the day in their very names! Anyway, confusing as it may be, it's Thanksgiving time and I didn't realize it until I saw it on my Facebook news feed. I don't know how I remembered any holidays, especially birthdays, before Facebook.

Anyway.... since my parents divorced about ten years ago, my family holidays have been a muddled mess of calendar days regardless of the confusing nature of day-of-the-week-based holidays. So, I don't really consider the day itself as important as the people and the activities that go along with it. So, if I have five Christmases on five different days like I did once two or three years ago, that's totally fine with me. Plus, for me, Thanksgiving has never been a huge deal, so not celebrating it is also fine with me. It's just... strange not to have everyone else around me celebrating it. It's strange to have the urge to draw an elaborate hand turkey and show it off to... all the people who have no idea what it means. For me, tryptophan, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin or rhubarb pie after a long day of watching older family members cook and playing with cousins and/or my brother makes my mouth water and my heart pang. Remember when dressing up like a pilgrim was a drag and dressing up like an Indian made you a cool kid for the day? Remember when hand turkeys were sacred expressions of individuality rather than cute, silly things? Growing older, remember when you first got to drink wine or champagne at dinner for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's Eve? Even though most of us hated it, we pretended to like it because it was oh-so-forbidden. I spent one Thanksgiving with my best friend's family in high school, and there were so many people there and so much delicious food. She and I set the table and helped out with a couple other things, and I felt so useful and needed and like I was part of something special- something that only happens once a year. Last year, my roommate and I invited my mother and brother, and some of my English students (international students studying at our university) to our apartment and hosted a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. I want to do that type of thing here, but I don't really know how to cook the food in the tiny gas-fire oven with approximate temperature in Celsius, and I wouldn't know where to buy it in the first place. Plus, I'm sure most is expensive. Maybe next year or the year after that I'll try.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, have a happy Thanksgiving, all you Americans. I really miss it. Not celebrating Easter or Independence Day was okay, but now I'm really missing the food holiday. Whether you realize it or not, food is one of the most important aspects of culture. Every (excuse the possibly inaccurate generalization) society in the world has rituals surrounding the consumption of food, including table manners, distribution of responsibility, and even restaurant manners are different. For instance, in Korea, one must call the waiter or push a call button for service. In America, waiters come to the table periodically and it's embarrassing to call one. Also, most importantly, what we like to eat is largely culture-based. In Korea, more than half of the food contains red pepper (the spicy one, not bell pepper) powder, paste, and/or peppers themselves. Most Koreans don't feel like they are eating if they don't have kimchi and rice, and prefer to have more choices of side dishes as well. In America, side dishes are included on the same plate as the main dish, because the utensil you eat with must not touch food other people might eat. There are separate serving utensils. Your food is all together on one plate, but it is seen as barbarian to mix it together. In Korea, you usually only need chopsticks and spoons, and everyone has a small dish on which to combine ingredients (like lettuce, pork, and kimchi) or to let food cool, or to avoid spilling soup on the table. So, your spoon or chopsticks make a line from the shared dish in the middle of the table to your dish (or just above it) to your mouth. Every type of food is served on a different dish. Therefore, if you are served a dish consisting of separate parts, you mix them all together before eating so it's all one dish. For instance, bibimbap, one of the most popular Korean foods in the world. It's basically rice, some vegetables, beef, and a fried egg stacked in a bowl. You add red pepper paste and mix it together before eating with a spoon. If you use chopsticks to pick out each piece separately, you are quite strange indeed. Another point about food is that culture also determines (mostly) what we are willing to eat. Yes, most of us like kung pao chicken and fortune cookies, but have you ever tasted real Chinese food? Some menu items include bugs or parts of animals Americans never thought of as edible. Even here in Korea, dog meat was traditionally eaten, and is still available. Many younger people refuse to eat it on moral principle, and others only eat it on special occasions on which dog meat is the required traditional food. But, if you think about it, how is eating a dog any different from eating a pig? Pigs are smart, clean, and make great, family friendly pets. The reason pigs that live outside roll in the mud is that they don't sweat, so they use the mud to act as sweat, allowing their body heat to escape by transferring to the evaporating water. They don't have tusks like elephants do to splash water on themselves. Anyway, dogs weren't usually pets in Korea before Western influence incited their popularity. I intend to try dog meat because I'm curious, just like I've tried almost every other food offered to me here. It's not a moral thing, it's just food. And no, Koreans aren't going to eat your dog, just like you wouldn't eat your neighbor's pet pig, chicken, cow, deer, fish, etc.. That's just xenophobic thinking.

It's interesting that an American with a Hyundai car and an LG cell phone and a Samsung TV could think that a Korean would eat their dog. Before I moved here, people asked me if there were cars in Korea, or if I was going to North or South Korea, or what language people speak in Korea. Funny to think that a few years ago, I didn't know anything about Korea either. What an oddly inspirational country!

A few years ago, I would be eagerly awaiting a week of Thanksgiving leftovers. I wonder what I'll have for dinner tomorrow.... I wonder if I can even buy turkey for a reasonable price here.....


  1. Happy Thanksgiving, Kristin!
    I will be thinking about you when I sit down to eat, especially the pie pumpkin pie.

  2. I totally understand that weird feeling. When I was in Germany I remember I was eating pasta and watching tv during Thanksgiving. It was weird not to be with my family and eating Thanksgiving food. Just part of being in another another culture.

    Happy Thanksgiving none the less! Can't wait till New Years!