Sometimes we only really discover the true nature of a place when we spend a long time apart from it, and such was the case with Korea. After a comfortable separation of eighteen days I think I’ve finally put my finger on the whole matter. I can summarize this country. I’ve figured it out. I was talking with my beautiful Korean girlfriend and slobbering over an array of delicious Korean food, complaining, in between bites and slurps, about Korea, when I suddenly discovered this truth, about why I love (really love) the intense experience of gorging myself with Korean food but am pitched into a foul mood the moment I glimpse the usual canyons of high-rises and find myself face-to-face with yet another ugly old man whose shameless, glaring eyes regard me as nothing except a horrible savage. The truth is this:
The food is really different, and really Korean. It is truly spectacular. At first its flavors may be so rich that they make a foreign initiate cry out in terror, but soon enough he is packing as much rice and fish into a roll of salty rubbery seaweed as possible, smacking his lips and plucking wads of red, dripping kimchi up from the little banchan plate, and in general stuffing himself at every meal as if he has just been rescued from a desert island. Almost unbearably spicy and almost unbearably briny, Korean food at its best likewise reflects Korean culture at its best and, seemingly, at its most pure.
As for the rest of the country, Korea is an ugly imitation of the West and is quickly losing the few cultural idiosyncrasies it still possesses. The food is the greatest of those idiosyncrasies, and though it is in danger of being watered down for western palettes it is still quite strong enough to make grown men cry. I simply wish the place were more like its cuisine. That is the truth I discovered. I wish the buildings were Korean. The bridges, trains, clothes, streets, cars, everything. Today I can walk from my apartment to my workplace without seeing a single object that is native to Korea—and how depressing is that! The homogenization must end! Korea’s food is lovely! Why can’t the country be lovely, too?!