Friday, November 21, 2014

Proving that we can eat spicy food

From journal entry since revised:

4 September 2014 – Went down to dinner and ended up going to a new Chinese restaurant in town. I ate jjajangbap and R ordered jjamppong noodles. Both dishes tasted good!
R ordered the spicy version of the jjamppong because she didn’t want the owner to think that she, a foreign woman, couldn’t handle spicy food. She wanted to prove herself and to not further the Korean assumption that foreigners can’t/won’t/don’t eat spicy foods. Second, she didn’t want to set a precedent for future visits where she’d always get the less-spicy version of the dish.

This changed prompted a conversation about Korean perceptions of foreigners for a bit before we moved on to talking about how the school day went for each of us. The conversation about spiciness and precedence stayed with me, which is why I’m recording it here. The owner of the restaurant seemed to assume that R wanted the less spicy version and, judging from her brusque manner, wanted us to make up our minds faster than we did. When we actually had to tell her twice that, yes, we wanted the spicy jjamppong because she talked over us when we ordered the first time. We’d ordered and she’d said some rapid-fire Korean back at us. We caught enough words to know that she was telling us the dish was spicy and she’d make the less spicy one for us. But that wasn’t the food we’d come for.

Spicy food is a sticking point for both of us, for while we do eat it, we don’t care to eat it all the time. And for my part, I always wonder about this, because whenever spicy food is on the menu, I feel as though I’d better eat it, lest I get labeled with not being able to handle spicy foods. And possibility of being told, “Oh, but you don’t like spicy things, so we ordered you something else.” Lest any readers think I’m worrying too much or too irrationally, what I just described—the “one and done” assumption—can and does happen here. Many EPIK friends have related similar stories to me.

And I don’t want to sound worrisome or act like Koreans want to paint western foreigners into a corner. Goodness knows that the world has enough stereotypes and misconceptions about Koreans. No, the idea here is whether or not R and I, Western foreign teachers here, have to prove our culinary chops to Korean people, particularly with:
  • Using chopsticks
  • Eating spicy food
  • Eating kimchi (which is spicy, but even so…)
During the time here, I’ve alternated between two views:
  • There is no need to prove anything. I like what I like, and that’s that. As I like to tell the students, there are 300 million people in America from all different ethnic groups. There isn’t really a standard “American taste.” Not to digress, but I also hesitate to say, “Americans do…”
  • It’s best to go along with things and not make a fuss…especially in this small town. Or, for that matter, anywhere else. Being the noisy customer is not for me.
19 November 2014/extra notes:

I mentioned the “proving” bit above because that’s what we and others have experienced in our time here. Let me emphasize that this mostly small-town­ Korea…areas that haven’t had much contact with foreigners. And the old ideas about foreigners not eating spicy food or Korean food being too spicy tend to persist here because of that lack of contact. We get that.

But then, I can’t worry about whether or not ordering spicy chicken breaks down the idea that foreigners don’t eat spicy chicken. And I can’t worry about turning down a spicy thing…people will think what they want. I won’t be the only foreigner they meet. In sum, for those of you who think about whether or not you should prove yourself worthy of jjamppong, well, just eat it if you want to. 

What these two foods look like:

Jjajangbap [Black bean sauce/stew with rice. Picture:
Note: Bap means rice. I've had this dish with chopped vegetables in the rice. It's also come with a fried egg on top. Some restaurants do that. Also, jjajangmyeon means jjajang with noodles [myeon] instead of rice. 

Finally, this is the unofficial dish of "Black Day," which is a sort of Singles Day for Korea. Many single people from all over Korea eat jjajang on 14 April every year.

Jjamppong [Chinese/Korean spicy seafood noodle soup. Picture:]

Note: This dish took a long time to build a taste for.


Veruca Salt - "Don't Make Me Prove It"
"Words won't do/words won't do it"

Television - Prove It

"Just the facts"


  1. My own response to this is to teach my students not to say "Can you eat sushi?" and "You can use chopsticks very well" (which would be like an American telling them "You can use a fork very well"):

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Good link, too.
      Land of the Mourning Clam did a cartoon about this sort of thing too: