It’s been nine months since I left home. I’ve been China, Vietnam, Laos, the US and now I’m exploring Europe, moving countries every week. Sometimes people asked me ‘Do you miss home?’ and ‘Do you miss Korean food?’. Well, I don’t really. I’ve been unhappy about the cultural and social situations in the country for a long time, so I don’t really miss ‘home’. I miss the food sometimes; having well-prepared breakfast, hot soup and rice; I miss them. I resolve the feeling by cooking Korean-style food time to time, when I have a kitchen.
However, there are certain things that made me think ‘you are such a Korean’. Even though I’m not happy with a lot of things happening in the country, I like how people are living and the life values they respect. As I’m around, I thought few things that I have to have when I settle in. Here, I’m sharing my super Korean identity. Maybe you’ll understand better of Koreans now.
We didn’t have the air-conditioning system, or air-con like how we call it, while I was growing up. My parents have it now, but it works only few times in a year when my nephews are visiting. I never lived with the air-con either.
How we survived the summer? You might ask.
The fan. That’s how.
Still, I like the fan better than the air-con. I can survive the hottest summer day with a working fan in the room. Actually, I prefer to use a fan than an air-con. It just doesn’t feel natural with the air-con. Well, anyway, I can’t stand the stillness of the air. Even in winter, I’d rather be freezing with an open window than warm and stuff air. I got to make the air moving. That’s why I like a big window so much. When the weather starts getting hot, my mom brings three or four fans out from the garage. Each of us gets one if we are in the house, and one for the kitchen. Open window, fast moving the fan, my dog’s floppy ears in front of the fan, and lying on the cold wooden floor, is very summery for me. I’ve noticed it’s not common to have a fan in the house. The closest thing I’ve seen is a ceiling fan. But I can’t help but think that thing might fall on me. The fan is so close to Koreans life, we even have the famous urban legend: fan death. True or not, although I believe it’s false but you can’t really change what people think for what they believed for 40 years, the fan is that important. I had few moments that I wanted to buy a fan myself and donate to the places where I was staying. I need my fan, I need my moving air. When I have a home, one of the first things to buy is a fan.
I’m interchangeable. I don’t complain about the cultural differences or the situation that I can’t change. I’m not a super Asian freak that always has to use a set of chopsticks no matter what I eat. I cook wherever I go and I eat anything I can but I’m sorry, I can’t give up my spoon. Food is a sacred thing in Korea, even though economically people are doing quite all right now. Hence, the table etiquette is quite complicated and very important in the culture. There are many rules, but one of the basic is that spoon is for rice and soup, and chopsticks are for others. The act, eating rice with chopsticks, looks like you’re chasing your luck away. It’s a cultural impression. Also, the rice bowl has to be cleaned without not even single rice, so that’s where spoon comes handy. Even though I’m traveling non-stop moving one country to another, eating various cuisine, it didn’t change the fact that table manner was one of the first things I remember. I just need a spoon.
We call it ‘hyunggwangdeung’, literally means fluorescent light. You’ll see the bright-long-white light bulb on the ceiling, no matter what part of the country you’re going. I remember when I realized not everyone is using the white light bulb, and the light is not even on the ceiling. It was shocking to me. I like big windows because I like to be in a bright house, and if I can light up my house without electricity, that’s the best. When the sun goes down, I need to light up the place and that’s where ceiling light comes in.
I’ve noticed a lot of places in western places use the yellow-colored light bulb, or a bright reading light, maybe night stand. It’s just a matter of what you’re used to, and my eyes are trained to act well under the ‘white’ light. It is just natural to me.
I’ll install hyunggwangdeung in every room in my house.
We Koreans, along with many Asian countries, don’t wear shoes inside of the house. We leave shoes at the door and wear nothing but socks. The biggest part of the cleaning the house, and my least favorite part is mopping the floor – without a mop. We, usually my mom, kneel down on the floor and mop the entire house with a wet towel. Just like the western houses need to be vacuumed, the Korean houses need to be mopped with a wet towel. We sit, we eat, we read, and we sleep on the floor. It is changing to a western style with a bed and everything, but still, floor is an important part of Korean’s life. We have a basket of wet towels on the corner of the living room, ready to be used anytime anyone needs. I can’t stand walking on the dirty floor. It is really an unpleasant feeling to step on debris in the house. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not the cleanest person in the world. Though, keeping the floor clean is one of my priorities in the house. I keep my shoes off most of the times when I’m visiting someone else’s house unless they strongly suggested keeping it on.
Not to mention, the best thing about Korean culture is the heated floor, ondol. The houses were designed efficiently to heat the floor with the heat from the kitchen. When you are using the stove to cook, the energy goes to the floor to heat. It was a quite scientific and energy efficient design. The floor was scorching hot in the winter; literally, you can’t even put your hand on the room floor. It was that hot. And I miss that.
I liked winter because it felt cozy in winter, sitting on the heated floor, reading comic books and drinking hot tea… it was really nice. The worst winter weather I’ve ever experienced was in Yangshou, Guangxi Province, China. The temperature wasn’t that cold, not even 0 degC, but they didn’t have any heating measure in the room. Not even hot water to shower. It was terrible. The heated floor is the best thing about Korea.