This past summer I graduated from college, married the best girl in the world (she is so patient and will turn me into a human being eventually), and moved to Korea to teach English. I hardly feel qualified to write an article on Korean culture after such a short time. The thing is, though, I’ve found that leaving the Midwest and living in another culture even for a short time has made more aware of things I like and dislike about my American culture (similar to the way marriage makes you almost immediately aware of how great and how obnoxious you are). To be clear, Korea’s living standards are very much on par with America. The differences and similarities emerge in how both cultures leisure.
Josef Pieper argues in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture that much of modern culture only sees leisure as a means to enabling more work. Rejecting this spiritually impoverished position, Pieper proposes a return to the idea of leisure as the community’s highest calling: an action of letting go of the material cares of the world to commune with each other and God simply because it is good to do so. Apart from philosophy and the spiritual communion of the church (Korea, like America, is full of churches), there are many ways humans enter into leisure.
Sharing a meal is one of the most basic but important ways we enter into leisure. I’ve never been a breakfast person, so you’d think I’d be at home in Korea where no one seems to bother with the “most important meal of the day.” But this is the strange thing: I miss breakfast. Not eating breakfast, but the knowledge that a portion of Americans on any given day wakes up early enough to begin their day breaking bread together. What the Koreans lack in breakfast culture, though, they more than make up for with their dinner culture. When Koreans go out for dinner they don’t order their own personal dish and they don’t blow through a meal in forty-five minutes. They share one main course and a bunch of side dishes and take a couple of hours eating, drinking, and talking. In a way, I think they do dinner at the restaurant better than a lot of Americans do Thanksgiving feasts in their own homes.
Of course, you can’t talk about the leisure of meals without saying something about alcohol. Koreans primarily drink two things: beer and soju. Despite America’s pietistic implementation of prohibition in 1920, we still do booze better. How I miss tasty American beers (and I’m not talking about Budweiser, which is what Korean beer tastes like). Now, you might be wondering what soju is. It’s the closest thing to Korea’s national drink. Basically, it’s 40 proof vodka— weak stuff. They drink it at almost every meal and it’s not uncommon to see businessmen stumbling out of dinner, swaying back and forth arm in arm trying to stay upright (the stuff may be weak, but they drink a lot of it). While it isn’t terrible, soju still begs the question posed by Walker Percy “Jesus, is this it?” The American stuff is better.
Speaking of alcohol, few things go better with a beer than a nice smoke. I’m of the opinion (and it’s just an opinion) that campfires, bars, and study-breaks are better with plumes of tobacco. In a way smoking is more leisurely than a good dinner because it isn’t a physical necessity. We smoke because we enjoy it and that’s enough. And Koreans get this better than Americans, who have progressively ostracized the dirty habit. In Korea, everyone smokes cigarettes. Admittedly, cigarettes aren’t as fine as pipe tobacco or a good cigar, but it is still tobacco. Soon, though, I imagine Koreans will get with the modern program and start sacrificing bits of their souls to save their bodies.
Finally, a quick word should be said about fireworks. One of my favorite holidays is the Fourth of July. I love it because on that day my family and I not only plays games and eats good food, but we also shoot off a hundred bucks worth of fireworks. I will miss it this upcoming year. The thing is, though, Koreans shoot off fireworks every weekend at the beaches. The surreal beauty of looking over South Dakota’s cornfields and seeing hundreds of fireworks going off in the humid dusk of the Midwest once a year can only be matched by sitting at the bar every weekend looking out over a seaside flaming with roman candles. Why do we shoot them off? I don’t know, probably for the same reason we enjoy a good dinner, a beer, and a smoke.
It’s a cliché to say that sometimes you have to travel to the other side of the world to find out how much you love your homeland, but it’s true. Then again, while differences emerge, continuities exist. We’re all human after all; we all pursue these mysterious simple joys. But, really, I do miss home and Korea will never be a substitute.
Adam Petersen teaches in the city of Sokcho in the province of Gangwon, Korea.
Image via Big Stock Photo.