Thursday, November 20, 2008

Korea Kimchi and Kulture

Writing earlier about the way that crossing cultures is best symbolized by the receiving and eating of different food, I remembered some interesting episodes when my colleague and I were helping our College in Australia to enter a formal partnership with a seminary in Korea.

It was a great experience and we learned much. There were two special things that linger in the memory.

Relationship First
We visited Korea to begin talking about the partnership but the first four of our five days were spent mainly at meal tables eating kimchi and other delicious food. Our hosts set the pace and the agenda but we must have eaten a dozen meals and met all sorts of groups before there was any talk about what the partnership would entail. For Koreans, as for many cultures, the time-consuming work of building a relationship is fundamental to doing business.

Sounds of Chopsticks
On a later visit to Korea the commencement of our partnership was signed and celebrated in a worship service following which the senior staff and members of the board gathered with us for lunch in an upper room.

We sat around a huge oval table while students served cardboard boxes of food to our places. After grace I tried to strike up a conversation with one or two people nearby until it dawned on me that in the company of 30-40 people I was the only one talking.

All I could hear was the sound of chopsticks clattering and the occasional burp from somebody expressing their pleasure. I found it weird, a bit like my first experience of a silent retreat.

Enjoying the Kimchi Moment
I talked to someone about this later and they explained that in Korean (Confucian) culture there is a commitment to enjoying the present task, delighting in the experience of eating and not letting anything else become a distraction. As mentioned earlier, the eating of food is preparatory to doing business but the western idea of a working lunch or a business breakfast is anathema to the Korean mentality.

Food for thought. Got any more reflections to share on food and culture?

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Kimchi. You will enjoy plates of this national food if you visit Korea.