Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Travelogue #38: Mad American Cows (And Why I Miss Cookie Cake)

<---Travelogue #37: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 2
--->Travelogue #39: Live from World Cup Stadium: Korea v. Jordan!

"I hate America," spat Percy, a baseball-capped teenager sitting in the middle row of my TOEFL class. Sixteen Korean students packed the room, along with one American teacher - me. We were talking about the fear of mad cow disease amid the recent announcement of imports of U.S. beef to South Korea, and though it was the last period of the night and I was counting down the minutes, Percy's outburst stirred my attention.

What was I supposed to say?

I opted not to address the America-hate, but rather the whole mad cow thing. Koreans, specifically younger ones, are spreading waves of disinformation about "killer" American cows, exacerbating a small-scale concern into a candlelight-vigil frenzy.

"Guys, stop worrying about it," I said, "I ate American meat all the time and I'm not dead."

Percy shook his head no, and so did the other students. Even as I pointed out how scientists rejected their alarmism, they didn't buy it. To them I was hopelessly biased source. We were on opposite sides of the aisle, and there would be no conversions. They were the students, I was the teacher; they were the Koreans, and I was the American. The look on their faces was a simple but impenetrable one: it said you wouldn't understand.

A supervisor entered the room to pass out administrative schedules, and the students jabbered to him in Korean, mingling laughter with their words. The supervisor turned to face me and so did the students.

I had no idea what they were saying, and that's one of the reasons why I'm feeling a little bit homesick.

A co-worker of mine once told me that homesickness hits you at the three-month mark in your stay in Korea: the novelty fades, the routine sets, and you start to miss your family or Chili's Chicken Crispers in an uncomfortable way. I've been here for seven months, and aside from a short spell in the end of December, I've embraced Korea as one of my homes, if not my home-home. But lately, I've been feeling symptoms of the H-sickness. At a Vietnamese pho restaurant, I spooned and chopsticked my way into a bowl of pho, only to see the waiter lay a fork in front of me,a big slap in the face to my chopsticks know-how. Of course the man was just trying to be helpful, but I took it as an insult and a reminder: you're not from here, and we know it.

Additionally, there's my tennis partners, a battalion of sassy middle-aged ajumas who serve-and-volley with an ease that makes me envious. In December, I wrote with wide-eyed, unironic glee of our early weeks on the court: "A grunt after a bad shot means the same thing whether you're a thirtysomething woman from Bundang, Korea or a twentysomething man from Omaha, Nebraska...We weren't quite singing "we are the world," but we were bonding over rackets and balls. " Since then, those sentiments have lost a bit of their luster; with more sets of tennis, I feel no closer to these women. It's not like I need to be their best buddies, but I still wish I wouldn't feel so resoundingly like a foreigner, particularly when I arrive late and am forced to wait in the clubhouse, listening to banter I don't understand and nibbling on snacks I don't always like.

Don't get me wrong. I will never sniff at the hospitality of the tennis ladies (one of them gave me a racket, just because.) But I'm hesitant to return, even if it is with just the intention to smack a few balls around.

I am a foreigner. That's not news, but re-examining the word renews its bite. Foreigner. Its definition is not just of a person in a non-native land, but of, "an outsider; someone who is excluded from or is not a member of a group." This exclusion is not purposeful but it is inevitable, for once in a while you'll find hurtles you think you hopped but haven't: a fork in a pho restaurant or a mad cow in a TOEFL class.

And so, I find myself a little bit homesick. I repeat the "little bit," because I don't want to slip into hyperbole. I do like it here. I like it a lot. I've revealed that much on this blog many times. But hey, I miss my sister and the way she laughs so hard at a fart joke she cries. And even though my parents just visited, I still miss how my dad eats barrels of pumpkin seeds with a crumpled fort of newspapers at his feet and the noise of The O'Reilly Factor in his ears. I miss spending lazy afternoons with my mom watching lazy movies on cable that are perfect for 3-5pm on a rainy day. I miss chips and salsa and southwestern eggrolls at Chili's with my high school friends. I miss the Kroger chocolate chip cookie cake with the red-white-and-blue frosting that you can lick off your fingers.

Did I mention that I miss Chili's?

Finally, I miss our beautifully mad American cows.

Happy Memorial Day.



Michael said...

Hey bud. Sorry you're feelin' a little h-sick. Maybe you should try to take some proactive steps to further integrate yourself. You said "This exclusion is not purposeful but it is inevitable," but I'm not sure that is necessarily true.

I know learning Korean isn't the same as learning Spanish, but perhaps taking more intense language lessons will leave you feeling less isolated.

Perhaps you'll always look like an outsider, but if you make some progress in areas like language, you'll actually be able to break into those socio-cultural circles that currently leave you feeling out of the loop.

Plus, what better place to learn Korean? Knowing that language could be a real asset for you in the future!

Ploch said...

I'd echo Michael's sentiments, if I didn't know that they sound trite (no offense to you, fellow commenter). Learning the language is always the key, but you'll never stop feeling like a foreigner, Alex. You know how well I speak German, but that "you're not one of us" feeling still crops up all the time: A mis-rolled "r" is a perfect excuse to speak in English.

Just be thankful that Hillary's every word isn't reprinted in Korean. I have to pay more attention to the election than I ever would in America, just so I can explain why she hasn't given up yet...

Adam said...

Yes, there's always going to be a sense of being a foreigner - especially in a country where being white automatically makes you stick out physically like a sore thumb. Having the language barrier as an extra layer of division between you and most of the people around you can only make things worse. Pealing off that one layer is not going to fix everything, even by a long shot. But it gives you a chance to "integrate" yourself in a way that nothing else possibly could, and to operate in the culture (at least on some level) as an actual participant, not as someone whom others have to go out of their way to speak to in a foreign language. It sounds like Alex is talking about being homesick for home, but also for being understood as and acting as a normal guy, not as "an/the American." I think that learning a little more Korean might help that, because I know learning some Hindi helped me in India.

That might sound trite, but it's better than giving no advice at all.

Anonymous said...

It is true that many Korean teenagers are misinformed about the whole 'mad cow' thing, but it is also true that some of American cows have BSE. I'm pretty sure that you have heard this before, US is going to export meat from cows that are older than 30 months old. An ordinary American family like yours, consumes meat from cows that are younger than 20 months old, which is a lot safer from the danger of CJD. Also the differences between chromosomes of Caucasians and Asians proved that 95% of Koreans have a chance to catch BSE if they consume prion(which can be found in the 'mad cow meat'). It is scary enough for those kids as they know that only a small amount of prion can turn them into a dying vegetable.

Alex Pollack said...

Dear Anonymous,

I assume you watched or heard of the MBC newsmagazine "PD Diary," the main source that trumpeted the mad cow fears and promoted the statistics you mention in your post. Well, the problem is that the MBC report cited research from Kim Yong-sun, professor of medicine at Hallyn University, and Kim himself stated that MBC has twisted his research and "that it was premature to draw any conclusion."

Please Google "Scientists Refute Mad Cow Disease Myths."

In short, the evidence you cite, though bullhorned by protesters, doesn't hold much water in the real world.

In fairness though, I'd like to see where you read about the U.S. exporting 30 month old cows that Americans won't even eat. I have heard this rumor, but can't find any real grounding for it...

Anonymous said...

I don't watch PD Diary at all, but according to Kim Yong Sun's research, Koreans have more chance of getting vCJD. When Kim mentioned "premature to draw any conclusion.", he meant that it is not one-hundred percent sure yet. Almost every vCJD patients found in US and GB had the same type of genes that the 95% of Koreans have. Of course it does not mean that 95% of Koreans will get killed in next ten years by eating mad cows but it is 'possible' for them to get vCJD.

My opinion is that only one percent of risk is high enough, becuase we are not talking about a tummyache, but a desease that kills your brain slowly.

Here's a link of website which you might want to have a look. Sorry that I couldn't find any websites written in English. Hope there's someone to help you with this.


Anonymous said...

“Almost every vCJD patients found in US and GB had the same type of genes that the 95% of Koreans have”
where do you get your statistics? there were three cases of vcjd so far in the US – two were from the uk and one was from Saudi Arabia. if anything (according to your ohmynews learned statistics) shouldn’t you see more Korean-American victims? after all there are more than 1.5 million of us in the US.

light and salt said...

About mad cow disease, caucasians have 38% risk in getting mad cow disease (CJD, vCJD whatever the name is) while Koreans have 95% of getting it, and this differences come with DNA differences, related to something called MM.., which I don't know the name for sure. So your comment (you are eating american beef all your life and you are still alive) is telling people, who is smart enough to know the truth, that you are such an ignorant person. Who knows if you are unluckily belong to that 38% caucasian group, and your mom will cry in front of your dead body in few years, of course I hope that shouldn't happen to you, or me or all mankind. That's why Koreans are against eating animal product fed american cow. You should be in others shoe if you want to understand them, not just put your own opoinion, and do not comment stupid comment. Korans are great nation but not that stupid anymore. I am sorry to hear your H-sickness, but hay, that's your choice, and if you know, there are thousands people in USA, who haven't visited their mother countries in years. And don't understand Korean language is not something you are proud of. Have you try to learn Korean language, Hangul, which is one of the world best language systems according to the scholars who study language in world wide? Wake up dude!!