There are a number of horrifyingly sad things about non-Western cultures, but surely the worst is the disdain of breakfast, or, in Korean, “morning food”. The idea, that Koreans either eat the same food for every meal (“soup and rice”, not unlike “tortillas and beans, señor”), or don’t have the time to eat any breakfast at all, pushed a friend and I into the most tearful tristesse, to think that there were actually people in this wealthy country who have no knowledge of the bounties of cereal, the lusciousness of banana pancakes sopping wet with honey, strawberry jam spread over warm toast, and orange juice, even halfway decent coffee—such a denial seems monastic, even inhuman, but indeed there are millions of people walking the earth this very moment with the capability to purchase but not enjoy a good breakfast. Westernization is only surface-deep so long as people are not fantasizing about putting fresh strawberries on their cereal in the morning.
I’m almost tempted to start a breakfast awareness society here. Kim Eun-ok, also known as the indomitable Angelica Kim, has informed me that Koreans don’t think food is food unless it includes bap—rice (but it also just means food)—and I suspect this opinion is a holdover from those recent times, still well within living memory of the older population here, when food of any kind was incredibly scarce. The almost universal shortness of the previous generation, and the not uncommon back-broken statures of some of the oldest women, is a testament to the famine of those times, when I think even a mouthful of cold rice was considered a considerable feast. Multiple Koreans have told me that they tried cereal but didn’t like it because “it wasn’t enough!”—i.e., it didn’t have bap, because bap means rice, and food, at the same time.
But strangely enough, Koreans view the eating of just plain rice, all alone, all by itself, as an incredible peculiarity, perhaps akin to spooning mouthfuls of salt down your gullet—once or twice at least a whole conversation has stopped with the Koreans present staring in whispering anthropological awe as I did the unthinkable and ate rice without first using my spoon to flavor it with soup. “You can’t eat just bap!” my wife has told me more than once.
Both of us have concluded together that these beliefs, largely the result of a few decades of mass starvation, are now wreaking havoc with all the grand potentialities of breakfast. Koreans say it’s not food unless it has rice: so they have to get up early and cook a huge meal before they head off for their eighteen hour work or school days, which naturally precludes them from getting up early enough to cook a full meal in the first place. “Don’t say bad thing about Korea!” my wife exclaims. “Don’t tell the truth! Just say Korea is beautiful! Korean food is wonderful! Say that!”
The vicious cycle wounds bellies and minds both: no wonder there’s no creativity here: how can you expect a man to come up with new ideas if he can’t focus on anything except how hungry he is? In a sense, thanks to their prejudices, people are still starving, still imprisoned inside a Japanese colony, unable to free their minds from the shackles of hunger—because only a mind free of hunger can wander, and discover new things.