Early in my tenure here, I tried my best to finish my rice as it is considered mandatory to do so for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack. Being the sole, never mind self-appointed, cultural ambassador to overseas class, I do my best to maintain international harmony. But sometime in February, and somewhere between the puffy belly and the post-lunch carb comas, someone dropped the kernel that broke the waegook's back.
Actually, I remember the incident vividly. I'd figured, since I had tried a variety of strictly Korean foods -- dog, live octopus, eel and rotten fish (which is just as terrible as it sounds), I thought I had procured enough leverage to introduce the Koreans to something from the West. I was sorely mistaken.
Korea has many "Western" products. Perhaps, more accurately, Korea has many products it has severely bastardized from the West. Relying on smell, touch and taste to deduce what it is exactly you are sampling, will leave you shaking your head. The bread here is sugared beyond belief. Coffee, or "copy" as pronounced proudly by the locals, is about a 2 ounce shot of chocolate milk (think 4 parts sugar, 1 part bean). Calling Korean beer "piss" would be quite the compliment. I had a store brand pasta sauce by the name of "Tesco." Had I been blind-folded and asked to guess what the product was I would have guessed dog shit long before I chose the right answer of spaghetti sauce. Yes folks, it was that bad. Some of these products are recognizable by name only.
On one of my many days off, I brought in some of my fresh, hand-crafted olive bread to share with my fellow teachers. "They probably won't like it," I told myself. (Being born a Hohn, close cousin of the fictitious and family name equivalent "Munson," I've become used to rejection and ostracization and have used various forms of self-talk to ease potentially crushing blows to my esteem. This isn't pertinent to "this story" but moreso to my "life's story".) Fresh out of the oven, I brought the bread to school with some of my home-made hummus. Mr. Kim, along with two of his 50 year old lapdogs, tried the bread but then didn't go back for seconds, thirds, or fifteenths as everyone else I have introduced it to. I didn't think too much off it until Monk, another teacher at the school, came in, looked at my bread and said something to Mr. Kim in Korean. Mr. Kim translated to me that he said, "that stuff will make you weak."
That stuff will make you weak? THAT STUFF WILL MAKE ME WEAK?!?! Really?! Last time I checked, white rice wasn't the Mt. Everest of nutritional composition. In fact, it is so nutritionally devoid that it is illegal to sell white rice in the United States without vitamin B1 and B3 fortification. Take this, however, with a grain of salt as I've heard it's now illegal to take a dump in the US with your wiener tucked between your legs on Tuesdays. Just what I heard. The irony about white rice is that it's refined to remove the germ, husk and bran. This process essentially removes all nutritional components. For many years, white rice was considered the rich man's food because the refined product was fiscally inaccessible to the common man. In addition, like raccoons and eagles, it turns out that humans like shiny things. White rice is then polished givin it its glorious luster at the expense of life saving nutrition. Brown rice, however, was for the credence. It's interesting that this bass ackwards engineering wasn't recognized by the people, however ill-informed. To be fair, experts say General Motors has been guilty of this crippled engineering for decades.
Without fail, and seemingly without hesitation, every week a fellow teacher will ask me through translation why I'm not eating my white rice at lunch. Because it's generally Yuna that gets asked this question, I feel a small obligation to spice it up a bit with a creative answer. The first couple were my more canned diplomatic responses and the latter few - snide retorts:
"I'm not hungry because I had too much delicious kimchee."
"It makes me sleepy after lunch."
"I prefer brown rice."
"I like bread much more."
"White rice is only calories. There aren't any nutrients, only calories."
"I look good with my shirt off. I intend to keep it that way."
I'm not sure anyone sees the humor in the last two, nor should they as it, the previous two statements, are indeed the truth. But, at least at this point, I really don't care. As much as Koreans think Americans are all fat (most are), I do see a fair share of dark-haired people running around with little pot bellies.
Now for the clincher. A couple of months past, after the "bread will make you weak" comment, Monk walked by me at the cafeteria, stopped and began talking to me in Korean in a visibly agitated state. I didn't necessarily need translation at this point to understand where he was going but I wanted to know exactly what he said. "What did Monk say?" I asked Hyun Mi. "He said eat your rice!" she replied. I looked at him and then went back to my lunch tray picking at the vegetables and meat, completely ignoring the heaping portion of untouched white rice. Monk walked away in a huff.
Call it 'East vs West' propaganda. Call it 'cultural pride.' I find the whole thing interesting because I've never really had to justify what I eat or what I don't eat (save for maybe when you were four years old and you were told to eat your cauliflower "just because." Though the satire of the situation is your parents didn't much care for cauliflower either. It just happened to be that they were stoned out of their skulls for most days out of the week and cauliflower quelled their munchie urge without breaking the piggy bank). Don't get me wrong. I've got absolutely nothing against the shiny little death kernel. In fact, for a majority of my life I've been horrifically ambivalent and apparently startlingly myopic about the issue until recently spurned to make an an action by initiating inaction. Truth be told, I still won't be attending any "anti white-rice" rallies fanatically waving about a sign that emphatically exclaims "death to rice" all the while looking to exterminate the life of a rice practitioner who is looking to cleave husks from hulls. "Just doing my job!" says the little man in the little white surgical coat. Quite simply, there are bigger fish to fry and the "White v Brown" one ain't one of them.
I don't much care for McDonald's either but I'm not going to back-seat quarterback someone as they jam a Big Mac down their throat. As I type this, I realize that my sister, mother and I are all guilty of shaming my father while he commits the aforementioned act. I suppose the only thing we are guilty of is caring. My father is convinced that he will die wrastlin' a bear much like the way Tristain did at the end of the movie "Legends of the Fall." We imagine a much different scenario in which we discover him two steps outside of his Ford 250, crippled face down from a heart attack in a lukewarm pile of "two all beef patties, special sauce, letuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun". While alarming, vile and generally repulsive, the act isn't mine to govern. Here is an interesting find that may best sum up the situation altogether. While doing research to write this blog, two of the first four entries I tried to look at when I searched "white rice beriberi" (disease caused by diets based nearly exclusively on white rice consumption) were blocked by the Korean Public school's Internet filter. Coincidence?