All Aboard the Korean Chopstick Struggle Bus

I’ve always believed a tourist should look up dining etiquette for the country they’re visiting so as to not offend and disturb the locals (more than they already are). As you read in my previous post, The (wo)Man With(out) a Plan, I didn’t practice what I preach this time. Maybe I was lazy: I’ve been to Japan, so I know the basics of chopstick etiquette and therefore (I thought I knew) general etiquette when eating in Asia. Not quite the case. Korea has very different dining etiquette. I learned about this in detail when we covered a chapter in class about Korean table manners. But what we learned in class didn’t always match up to what was done in at home with my host family. Like slurping. Supposedly, you’re not supposed to slurp, but nearly everyone I’ve eaten noodles with in Korea slurps. Loudly. So what rules must be kept and which ones can be fudged?

The first thing Westerners will probably notice (and cringe at) is the fact that Koreans eat from the same dishes in the middle of the table. For a germaphobe like me, this was an absolute nightmare. I don’t want someone’s mouth germs swimming in my kimchi jjigae. Ew.  When I first came here, I rushed to put food on a little side plate for myself, but I stopped that after a while. Eating from the same dishes is just something you’ll have to get used to; you’ll feel more like part of the group if you do. I haven’t gotten sick yet, so I guess it’s okay.

Use the spoon for soup/stew and rice; use chopsticks for everything else (banchan, meat, etc). I’ve seen people eat rice with chopsticks, so I wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule, especially when eating at home. I think it depends on what you’re eating. If you don’t have soup at the table, you probably won’t need the spoon, so instead of constantly switching between the spoon and chopsticks, it’s easier to just eat the rice with chopsticks. Don’t use a used spoon for side dishes, by the way. And don’t put rice on the spoon first and then put that in the soup. Do it the other way around.

Since age is crazy important in Korea, you show respect for the oldest person at the table by letting them eat first. Don’t start eating until they do, and try to keep pace so that you don’t finish eating before them; getting up from the table before your elders is rude. This rule applies when you’re eating out with a group, like at 회식. At my house, at least, my host cousin (who’s 19) will start eating before my host parents and leaves when she feels like it. I can’t say for sure when/where you must follow this rule, it’s probably better to take cues from the people you’re eating with.

The rice bowl goes on the left and the soup bowl goes on the right. This is one rule I thought only applied in a formal setting or at a restaurant, but it also applies at home. Once I was eating with my soup on the left and rice on the right, and my host mother reached all the way across the table to switch them for me; I didn’t think it mattered, but it does. Everyone else had their dishes placed the same way. When I talked to my host family about it, it seems that placing the dishes this was is just more natural, so you can get the soup in your spoon first and then the rice. I wonder what you’re supposed to do if you’re left-handed…?

Reaching over people’s plates to reach the food is okay in Korea. (This kills me on the inside). On several websites, it says you’re supposed to ask people to pass you things, but I’ve never seen Korean people do it. They just reach right over. Sometimes my host mother will rearrange the dishes on the table so it’s easier for me to get a specific banchan, but this is because she thinks I’m bad at using chopsticks. And let’s be honest, I was bad at using chopsticks. Korean ones, that is.

If you’ve seen Korean dramas (or are Korean), you probably already know that Koreans eat with long metal chopsticks and spoons. These chopsticks are different from the ones I’m used to using in America or Japan, which are shorter, thicker and wooden or plastic. Since Korean chopsticks are made of metal, they’re slippery and heavier, which completely throws off my chopstick game. My host family constantly reminded me, “Oh, right, you’re a foreigner. You don’t know how to use chopsticks,” and gave me a fork, but in my head I screamed, “NO. I can use chopsticks. Yours are just weird!” Luckily, I have the hang of it now, so they’re not trying to give me a fork at every meal, but I can’t help wondering why, of all the countries that use chopsticks, Korea is the only place where people use metal ones.

So I asked around. The most popular answers were:

  • Metal chopsticks are more sanitary, as they can easily be washed and reused again, unlike wooden ones where food particles and germs can sink into the grain.
  • There’s a lot of grilling involved in Korean cuisine, and you eat straight off the grill in most cases, so of course you want to use a material like metal that won’t catch fire.
  • Online I read that way back when, royalty used pure silver chopsticks because the silver would change colors if the food had been poisoned. Eventually commoners wanting to imitate royalty began using metal chopsticks.
  • Using these kinds of chopsticks make you smarter and more dexterous?? According to this article on Slate.com titled The Seoul of Clones:

The Chopstick Theory of Scientific Supremacy goes like this: Koreans eat with narrow, metal chopsticks. Nabbing grains of rice with slippery, steel sticks requires a surgeon’s dexterity. That’s why Koreans have mastered extraordinarily precise “micromanipulation” of eggs and embryos required for stem-cell and cloning research. Westerners with their clunky forks—and even other Asians with their thick, grippy wooden chopsticks—can’t hope to compete with the dexterous Koreans.

When it comes to the length of the chopsticks, I have my own theories. Since people share dishes, it’s only natural that the chopsticks are longer so people can reach food in the middle of the table. It’s also a huge faux pas to hold the rice bowl or soup bowl in your hand as you eat, both in a public and private setting. I found this interesting because it’s perfectly fine in both China and Japan. Moreover, it seems to be bad manners to bring your face too close to any food dish. When I asked my host mother about why this is not okay in Korea, she said “Eating like that is fine in Japan, isn’t it? But that’s the way dogs eat.” Woah now. Did she just insinuate that Japanese people eat like dogs? I can’t say whether she meant it that way or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did, considering the prevalence of anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea. But I’m not touching that topic with a 39 1/2 foot pole. Er, chopstick.

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