Monday, July 30, 2007


Culture Clashes in the Kitchen

The Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute provides a church deaconess to clean teachers’ apartments at all of its nearly 40 locations in Korea. For an additional sum of money, she will also cook for teachers two or three times a week in many of the smaller schools.

At my first institute in Suncheon, the deaconess was a quiet lady nicknamed “Marsha,” who couldn’t speak English well but was beloved by all teachers and church members for her generosity and smiling demeanor. While I worked in the mid-morning, prepping my lessons plans and grading papers, she came in, washed the clothes, cleaned the dishes and mopped the floor, often without my realizing that she’d even been there.

I’ve since come to believe that she was part of an ancient custodial guild that perfected the art of stealthful sanitation under the cover of darkness long before the white man conquered the Western Hemisphere.

When I transferred to Chuncheon, pleasant memories of Marsha compelled me to enlist the services of their deaconess to both contain the out of control maleness of my housekeeping tendencies, while preparing food for me occasionally.

However, what I got at this apartment was not the silent avatar of clean clothes and empty trash bins I had expected. Some Korean men might even say that what I got wasn’t even a woman. Some would say that she actually belonged to Korea’s third gender, the ajuma.

The word ajuma is usually translated into “aunt,” but is often applied to all Korean women of middle age who have gotten married, had children and — is there any way to put this delicately? — lost many of the appealing characteristics of womanhood.

No young woman wants to be called ajuma because of this, and also because of certain manners they show in social settings. Because of the long-standing tradition of showing respect to elders, ajuma get a pass in many situations. In subway stations, they will push younger people out of the way when boarding a train, rather than walk around them or say the Korean equivalent of “Excuse me.” Such tendencies are the norm here, but much harder for the non-Korean, especially the Western male in his 20s, to accept.

The deaconess in Chuncheon had no foreinger-friendly nickname. She was simply “the deaconess,” and she could not say single complete sentence in English. Whereas Marsha’s deeds and amiability translated into any language, her Chuncheon-based counterpart sought to overcome this and any other communication barrier with sheer volume. There were many afternoons where I, were it not for the impressive vocal cord strength she exhibited in cell phone conversations, would’ve been trapped in a hopelessly refreshing nap.

On most days in which she was in my apartment, I would enter through the front door around 9:30 or 10 a.m. and she would rotate her head away from whatever maintenance task she was undertaking and shout in my general direction.

“Robot-uh!” she would say. “When eat-uh?”

I would often instruct her to wait, because, having taught for a couple of hours, I wanted to exercise, sleep or just generally avoid human contact for a short time.

“Eleven-thirty eat-uh? Twelve eat-uh?”

I would shrug and say okay, usually hoping that she’d leave me alone until then. At 11:30, she would the door to my bedroom, regardless of the state of my dress (“It’s okay!” she’d say. “I have a son!”) and announce “Lunchytime! Now eat-uh!”

I would pray silently that she’d made curry, or at least something other than one of her concoctions consisting of little more than ketchup and rice. Usually, it was something in between: a utilization of vegetables, bread and/or rice that, while not repulsive, felt more like labor than cuisine.

Over time, I developed a technique for pacing my biting and chewing in such a way that would allow me the appearance of food intake, but would buy me time until she left my apartment. Then, I could put what she made in the refrigerator and have a peanut butter sandwich.

Several months and more than $100 worth of food passed before I realized something known by many historians and but not many officials currently serving in the U.S. Department of Defense: clashes between cultures leave few winners. I asked her not to cook for me anymore, and just to clean up around the place. She was disappointed, but our relationship took a turn for the better from then on.

“Hello, Robot-uh!” she would say while cleaning.

“Hi,” I’d respond. I’d then add something, like, “You know, one of the nice things about having a cell phone is that you don’t have to yell so loud that your daughter can hear you from across town.”

She never comprehended when I said such things. Then again, even if we’d spoken the same language, I doubt we’d have ever really understood one other.

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