Fatty Pork Rinders And The Bizarre

Until now America has been the standard I used to judge other nations and cultures—this place is normal, and everywhere else is at least slightly bizarre. The fact that I’ve lived for three years in a country that most people on Earth, except for that country’s elderly citizens, would consider bizarre, has now made everything on Earth alien to me. Why, for instance, does the nice waitress at this very decent restaurant have to keep bothering us about whether our meals are okay?—when in Korea you can just press a button on the table to call one of them over if you need something. And what’s the deal with tipping? Don’t you guys know the service is just as good if the culture everyone has been born into knows nothing about these newfangled western ways?

My wife was sharpening her knives before we came here, and she’s been gleefully pointing out everything she can find that’s wrong about America since our arrival, paying particular attention to the same things that I bitched about back when we were in the Daehan Mingook. All the foreigners I know in that country can’t stand the way old people act as if they own the place, and while here that may not be so true, the bellies we’ve seen prowling about these phlegm- and pornographic sticker-free sidewalks are a different sort of boorishness and obstreperousness, a different kind of fuck you, an advertisement of the fact that these people do not take responsibility for one of the few things in their lives that they probably have some control over—the size of their stomachs, and the amount of money all of them are going to be costing their fellow taxpayers when their endless heart bypass surgeries are finally funded by the rest of the nation.

I know it’s not going to make me any friends in this country to complain about the obesity epidemic, and I also know that it’s a lot easier to stay thin in Korea for a host of reasons. The food is healthier if you can stay away from the meat barbecues, the western food is so expensive and so terrible that you don’t want to go anywhere near it, and the country is so small and so crowded that you spend most of your time walking around from place to place (in buses or subways or on the bare highways), rather than driving, in America, where the country is so incredibly spread out that you can’t get anywhere without sitting down in a car for at least twenty minutes.

America is also much more comfortable. I mean, the chairs and couches are actually pleasant to sit in, where in Korea people squat if they want to rest their legs, or just pile up on their hardwood floors after working a typical twelve hour day, or fight you to the death for a coveted spot on one of the subway benches (or very obviously refuse to sit next to you if you happen to stink of foreign corruption). The science of ergonomics has yet to reach the land where no one sits down. It’s so uncomfortable there that it’s often better just to stand, which is what I usually did when I had to take the subway. But in America everyone’s sitting all the time, and if I’m not careful I’ll start to drowse the moment I sink into one of the many unbelievably pleasant couches my parents have managed to stuff into their little house.

It seems I’ve become more Korean than I first realized. The carpets bother me more—the clutteredness of American homes, the way an object will vanish into the morass of junk the moment you drop it. The dogs need to be kept outside, things need to be recycled and composted, and wouldn’t these beautiful forests be put to better use if they were cut down and replaced with ball-bearing factories staffed with Burmese migrant laborers? I want to wail on the horn whenever a car gets in my way, and yesterday I struggled to keep it together as I waited a couple of minutes in line for some incredibly good doughnuts at a nearby restaurant that would not be considered nearby in Korea, where most of the stuff you need is within ten minutes’ walking distance, rather than an hour’s driving distance.

But I think the most frustrating thing about America is the political intransigence of the dying Republican Party. This bizarre philosophy, that government is the problem—something that is only true when the government is not of, by, and for, the people—cuts its wounds deeper into this country every year. It would be nice, for instance, if I could hop on a high-speed train to get down to New York City in a few hours—and wouldn’t it be amazing if the entire country were connected by bullet trains in the same way as Korea or Europe—but instead I have to drive for nine hours, and go through the hassle of parking and navigating, because government is the problem. It would be nice if my entire family weren’t afraid of getting hurt or getting sick, and that we had access to the same socialized medicine that every other wealthy nation has, but that’s not going to be true for another few years at least, because government is the problem.

This leads me to my next point: Americans are more political than Koreans. They talk more. They can have arguments, and even completely different political opinions, without suing or imprisoning one another. Even the oldest generations have gone through universities, while only the current generation has managed to find the time to get educated in Korea. People are full of questions (though the opening but polite barrage is almost always the same), and can talk about anything with you forever, even if you are both perfect strangers, while Koreans, for whatever reason, don’t seem to ask you that much. The culture discourages questioning, the language barrier certainly makes people reticent, and sometimes non-Americans think they have “our country”, our very own nara, figured out just from watching the news and a few blockbusters, while I think in reality America is so diverse that it’s impossible and even wrong to generalize—except when it comes to health care and fat people.

Someone told me a long time ago that it’s difficult to drive around this place, to explore its numerous beautiful little towns, its perfect forests and mountains and rivers, its cities that have more character and culture in a single block than all of the rising megalopolises in Asia put together, the general friendliness of the people (the way several of them have already apologized for minor mistakes, and smiled warmly, where I wouldn’t get the time of day in Korea for the same insignificant issues), the endless banquets of incredible food, the unlocked doors, the feeling of peacefulness that pervades the land—it’s difficult to be here, and to enjoy it, and to reconcile that enjoyment with the wars this country wages around the Earth, the shameless corruption of most of the government (yesterday I believe the future President of the United States, His Everyday Guy Romneyficence Willard Mittington The Umpteenth, was openly dining with the Koch brothers, America’s most notorious robber barons), the slow but sure annihilation of the natural world to provide a little comfort.

Gotta go now, more later!

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11 thoughts on “Fatty Pork Rinders And The Bizarre

  1. Jennifer says:

    I gotta say, Ian, that while I find most of what you say most of the time to be quite insightful, I think you’re a bit naive when you talk about overweight people and praise Koreans for not being overweight. I’ve heard you talk about Korean women “taking better care of themselves” in the past, too, which also struck me as inaccurate, though at the time I didn’t find it worthwhile to comment on. Here’s the key thing I think you’re missing: genetics. It’s a real component of why Americans and Westerners generally tend to be fatter than Koreans. I have a friend in the States, for example, who eats nothing but healthy food and exercises 3-4 times a week for the recommended amount of time. Yet she’s always been overweight, someone you might frown at if you saw her at the mall. But she’s healthy and active. I know fat vegans who eat much better than I do and have farms that they work on during the weekends. I know bike-commuters with guts. Genetics. I wish you’d cut your fellow citizens a bit of slack. I’m not a “fat pride” type and I do think that there are obese people who don’t take good care of themselves. But there are also plenty of thin people who don’t take care of themselves, including the majority of Koreans I’ve witnessed eating on a regular basis. My co-workers were all gorgeous, thin Korean women. They also ate and drank like crap and never exercised. They’d regularly eat McDonald’s for lunch, cookies and chips and sugary teas for snacks and then eat barbecue and soju for dinner. But they were thin. Genetics. This idea that all Koreans are eating healthily is plain rubbish. They just have more forgiving DNA and smaller frames. Anyway, I just want to put in a good word for the overweight people of America, some of whom are not overweight through any neglect on their part. And, at any rate, let he who is without donuts cast the first stone.

  2. hiddenconnections says:

    I gotta say, Jennifer, that while I find most of what you say most of the time to be quite insightful, I think you’re a bit naive when you talk about overweight people and make excuses for Americans who are overweight. My wife made similar arguments about how Korean women couldn’t take showers after giving birth, saying that because the genetics are different, a Korean woman’s bones will break under the spray of a showerhead. She turned out to be mistaken. Genetics. If two different people can produce fertile offspring together, the genetic differences are relatively insignificant, seeing as how they belong to the same species. If you put a fat American in Korea, that fat American will probably lose weight, while if you put a thin Korean in America, that thin Korean will probably gain weight. I’m observing the latter right now with my skinny wife, who also gained plenty of weight while she was living in Australia, and I’ve observed the former with several American acquaintances who are or were living in Korea. People have different bodytypes, but obesity is a personal choice.

  3. Craig says:

    You guys watch the movie “Prometheus” recently? I am going somewhere with this – trust me. Anyway, there is a tiny creature in the movie that is trapped in a room with no nourishment whatsoever. Later in the movie, the creature is released and it is HUGE. Many people who saw the movie complained about how unreal this is – basic physics really, you can’t make something from nothing.

    So, I am always confused when hearing this argument concerning fat people – that they can’t help it. Yet, how can your body generate fat if you are eating healthy and exercising? Surely the body cannot generate fat from nothing. I am no doctor and clearly I am not educated concerning this topic, so I am genuinely seeking an answer.

  4. Craig says:

    Also, I was in the UK for 2 weeks this February, and I believe I gained about 10 pounds. Coming back to Korea, I lost it, naturally.
    It was a big eye opener for me. I have been living in Korea for 2.5 years now, and I have to agree that saying Koreans are thinner because of “genetics” is a cop out. The west is fatter because of a sedentary life style combined with the state of western food culture. Korean food is delicious, diverse, and healthy. Western food is not at all diverse or healthy. Furthermore, it is not at all balanced.

  5. hiddenconnections says:

    I noticed the same thing about Prometheus, Craig—one of numerous issues that movie had. My mom read this post last night and yelled at me as soon as she finished because she’s had this thyroid disorder for a few years and is, if you ask her, completely innocent of any wrongdoing, though living with a chef and a lifetime habit of smoking, drinking, and sitting probably wasn’t working in her favor.

    I thought of deleting this blog post because I know that it may have offended a lot of people, but one of my friends told me yesterday that according to some statistics he found, South Korea is the thinnest wealthy nation on Earth, while America is the fattest, and so to move from one to the other means that the difference is on your mind all the time. I recognize that not everyone is to blame, that there are different body types and conditions that people have, that curvy people are sometimes so gorgeous I don’t even know what to do with myself, that the stick-figurism of fashion models and typical young South Koreans is not exactly ideal, but at the same time there is an obesity epidemic in America and an urgent need for numerous people to change their lifestyles, to eat more fruits and vegetables (and less of everything else) and to spend at least an hour a day (but really as much time as possible) walking around.

    As for me, here in America I’ve been stuffing my fat face with as much food as I can get my hands on, and probably only not ballooning into a pork rinder—the phrase comes from one of my students, writing about Sejong the Great—because I have to hold and walk around with a twenty pound baby for most of the day. My wife is fiendishly thin, and probably for the same reasons, although she eats about a fourth as much as I do.

    I’ve been noticing my clothes getting tighter, and saying to myself that I’ll have to exercise more once I get back to Korea, but I know that just by going there I’ll return to my relative trimness within a month or two. I walk and stand around so much in that place that my legs are usually aching by the end of the day.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I wrote this big whole long reply but then I found this in your favorite newspaper: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/08/health/08fat.html?pagewanted=all

    Read that, but then, aside from who is right or wrong about the issue – the reason I bothered to respond at all is that I found the judgmental attitude off-putting. Knowing as I do, that you grew up, like me, unpopular, I found it surprising. Because my early experience of being judged based on my appearance (in my case I was “too thin” and “too tall”) caused me to never ever want to do that to another person or group of people. I’m surprised that you don’t feel the same.

    • Jennifer says:

      A quote from the article: The researchers concluded that 70 percent of the variation in peoples’ weights may be accounted for by inheritance, a figure that means that weight is more strongly inherited than nearly any other condition, including mental illness, breast cancer or heart disease.

      • hiddenconnections says:

        Damn, that is pretty damning. I remember reading this a long time ago. If it’s true, and fatness is inherited, the only question that remains is—why are there so many fat people in America? Why is there this seeming trend, that when you take thin people and put them in America, they get fat, and then if you move them almost anywhere else, they get thin again?

  7. Jennifer says:

    Without some kind of actual study, I’m not convinced that it is a trend. I’ve lost weight in Korea, but I think it’s more to do with stress and not having access to enough healthy vegan food. I eat less because there’s less for me to eat. But I also exercise much less than I did in America, where I had safe sidewalks to walk on, safe streets to ride bikes on, and smoke-free clubs that played good music to dance to. I’m less healthy than I was in the States, at any rate, and in much worse shape. I try to change this often, but it’s much harder to motivate myself to “exercise” than it was to motivate myself to “bike to work” or “bike to school.” And maybe I’m an anomaly, but really, there’s no way to know. A lot of foreigners also come to Korea and start drinking like fish, a very unhealthy and weight-gain-causing aspect of Korean culture which I know you do not participate in, but which the vast majority of young people (Korean and foreign) do participate in. I don’t think this culture is inherently healthier. I just don’t see it. I also don’t think “thinness” is synonymous with “health” or “willpower.” I was born naturally thinner than most and I have usually eaten like crap and rarely had anything like a regular exercise regime. If weight was based solely on willpower and virtue I’d be fat as a house. Because I realize this, and because I’ve experienced scorn for aspects of my appearance in the past, I am bothered by people judging others for their weight. It doesn’t hurt, either, that two of my best friends in life were both overweight and I had to watch them get mocked for their weight, when we had essentially the same eating and exercise habits, or, if anything, theirs were better than mine. Anyway, I hope you’ll reconsider some of these ideas. Weight seems to be the last acceptable way for people to discriminate against each other, and if these studies bear out it would seem that it makes about as much sense as judging someone based on their height.

  8. hiddenconnections says:

    I’m not sure if I said it was a healthier culture (most of my college students appeared to eat nothing but ramen, rice, seaweed, and kimchi), but it’s definitely a thinner one. I was talking about this with my dad yesterday, telling him that the New York Times had this article tracing fatness to genetics, and he was like, then how come nobody was fat fifty years ago? The genes seem to be there, but they are definitely not the only factor involved.

    • Jennifer says:

      People tend to have more weight these days because food is more widely available. Many people in the past were underfed. Now even relatively poor people can afford enough food to thrive or even overeat. However, it’s also not true that “nobody was fat fifty years ago.” People were fat 100 years ago, let alone 50. Just not as many, because more people were struggling to eat enough. William Howard Taft comes to mind as a nice famous fat person. Winston Churchill. Alfred Hitchcock. Marlon Brando. Orson Welles. The latter two are perhaps not 50 years in the past, but you get my drift. Also the article is not saying that genetics is the only factor, merely pointing out that there is a range which most people’s bodies will stay in, no matter what kind of diet they go on, and that range is largely determined by genetics. 50 years ago, perhaps, people as a whole tended to stay at the lower end of their range, due to less abundant food options and less inclusion of high fructose corn syrup in absolutely everything. But that doesn’t mean that people whose range tends to be weightier should be vilified. At any rate, no matter why another individual is fat, I don’t think it’s useful to judge that person. We are all human and all have struggles and we can’t know what it’s like to live in another person’s shoes.

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