A Korean Education

Dinner on this table is alive and well – for a moment anyway.

Along with my colleagues, I am celebrating the start of a new school year with a dinner at one of Banyawol’s finest restaurants. Seated in my socks at a low table on a warm floor, I tuck into a serving of Nakji Jeongol – a Korean seafood stew. As a live octopus is dropped into each heated pot in the centre of our tables, I’m not sure if it’s the chilli or boiling water that will kill them. Our octopus’ desperate attempt to escape the wok is foiled by an attentive Maths teacher with a trusty ladle. She lets out a momentary gasp and giggle before sealing the creature’s fate and thrusting him back into the dinner pot.

This is a Wikimedia image, as I unfortunately didn’t have my camera on board.

Nakji Jeongol includes squid, prawns, various shellfish and vegetables stewed in gochujang (red pepper paste) and is served Korean style – with a myriad of side dishes.

While some Koreans enjoy eating octopus and squid live, I am relieved that we are all keen to wait until the octopus is dead and cooked before serving. I ladle up a portion of the stew and find I have unwittingly given myself the head of the octopus. Since Koreans don’t use knives, I am particularly boggled as to how I am going to eat it. The waitress rescues me by slicing it into pieces with a pair of scissors, and my bowl fills with black ink. I am relieved to find that the head is delicious – far tastier than the rubbery tentacles in any case.

The sound of metal chopsticks clinking against seashells is interspersed with conversations around education. Tae-yang tells me that Koreans place a large emphasis on education, since it is one of the ways in which one can move into a higher social class. “How do South Africans feel about education?” she asks. I give her the short answer. South Africans know that investing in education is an important means to address the social inequality bred in our political history. Yet our educational system is flawed, under-funded and under-staffed. I tell her that things are changing slowly. “Not fast enough”, I add.

I change the subject. I always feel uncomfortable describing South Africa negatively, not because I am blind to the problems in my country, but because afro-pessimism has little value. South Africans will agree that our patriotism includes a healthy dose of cynicism. We know that transformation begins with an acknowledgment of our social and political faults. But this critical appreciation of our home is not always easy to explain to foreigners abroad.

Being a representative of my country in this small neighbourhood, which is homogenous in both race and language, I want to give Koreans a sense of the diverse social atmosphere in South Africa. Tonight, that includes an explanation of our school system, including the influence of Bantu Education.

Suddenly, it’s not just the octopus that’s hard to swallow.

Creative Commons License
The Culture Muncher by Deva Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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9 responses to “A Korean Education

  1. Thank-you for that. With regard to our fair nation, I agree that afro-pessimism does no good at all and I am glad that you can speak of our country’s deficiencies. I am not so uncomfortable with discussing them with the foreigners that I meet. I actually open with the negative when talking about SA. This is because no problem can be solved if we do not admit and discuss the problem. This has also led to me being recently labelled as “anti-south africa” by a young lady who believes herself to be pro-SA because she doesn’t tell people about the bad and obviously thinks that speaking so openly about these matters automatically makes you an enemy of the state, as if dissent has become disloyalty. Although I’m not sure that young lady has ever thought critically about anything beyond what pair of shoes to wear with what dress (maybe I’m being a bit harsh and petty?).

    Anyway, this was a pleasant read 🙂

  2. Your post stirred a great deal in me. It instantly took me back over twenty years, in a swirl of Deja Vu, to an experience most young white South African travellers of my generation went through. Leaving our country, we travelled, mostly to Europe or America. Sometimes evading conscription, sometimes looking for the truth, sometimes just learning. One of the seldom mentioned sins of apartheid’s effect on white youth, was that the blinkers applied to our consciousness, through our state-owned media, were multilayered. Not just about hiding the truth of what was being done to the black population around us and in rural slums. There were filters upon filters of propaganda and untruth. Anything East of maybe Athens, was barbaric “gook” country, and “Thank God the yanks were kicking arse over there”. Anything north of us in Africa, was barbaric, communist and godless, held back by our own Boerewors curtain. Hollywood showed us Rambo and James Bond….all the good guys were white. So the portal to the world was Europe, land of our fathers, or America.

    It was a rude awakening, being vilified as monsters by your international peers and embraced by people like neo-nazis and rednecks, as a brother. We’d never met a black person who looked you in the eye, or spoke to you as an equal, without fear in their eyes. The awakening to what was being done in our own country, by our own people, was surgery without anaesthetic. Yet somehow, we remained proud of who we were and went home and became part of the change and the “New SA” We manage to hold on to scraps that we could be proud of…like being the best at rugby and South African ex-pats having a reputation as hard workers. It’s imperative to retain some personal patriotism, or you become a vagrant, drifting around the world, bemoaning your fate, and floating in the spindrift of life.

    So your feeling, when describing our country’s problems, as being slightly like going to the doctor with dirty underwear, makes me proud of how far we’ve come in the last generation. You don’t have to travel with the word RAPIST tatooed on your forehead. Thanks for making me see the giant strides this country has taken, which I often ignore in favour of pessimism. There’s a great deal wrong with this country, rightly making you feel uneasy, but thank God you don’t have to travel the world as an ambassador of an evil empire.

    Is our dilemma unique? Is this the burden of being a South African, or a white South African? To have to explain the reasons for our problems to foreigners. Do Americans who travel become ashamed of their neo-imperialistic view of the world? Do Germans become selfconscious of the deep seated pain that still lingers in others, generations after the nazis are gone? Are we too sensitive and self critical? Or is this something we have, that makes us uniquely forward thinking in demanding better of our leaders and ourselves. Having once been ashamed, we now want to live in the greatest country on earth….

  3. Very well written, Deva! I enjoyed the insight into aspects of Korean culture mingled with the social commentary about South Africa. Keep writing 🙂

  4. Very well-written, Deva. I like that it’s short and to the point, but both provides an insight into Korean culture and social commentary about South Africa. I can’t decide whether I’d like to see more colour/description, or whether I like the fact that it’s a snap shot of an interesting moment. I’m more partial to writing longer form things, but I know that has its own flaws.

    I’ll keep reading and put you on my blog roll. You’ve reminded me that I need to keep writing!

  5. @Matt: Your comment that “no problem can be solved if we do not admit and discuss the problem” seems to be typically South African to me, which is what I described as “a healthy dose of cynicism”. While it may seem logical or intuitive to us, it is not a pervasive cultural trait. To get more specific, in my experience it is not a Korean trait. I agree with you, dissent is not equal to disloyalty. This idea is not too complex for dinner-time discussion, but I (perhaps naively) thought that I was incapable of explaining it using as little English words as possible, since I was talking with non-English speakers.

  6. @Brad, the frankness about SA’s socio-political problems that Matthew speaks of above is exactly what you refer to when you use the metaphor of “dirty underwear”. I have often used a similar metaphor when referring to race-relations globally, saying that, unlike Australia for example, we have all our dirty washing on the line for the world to discuss and interrogate. I feel that this is a more appropriate, however uncomfortable, position to be in after only 18 years of democracy.

    To answer some of your rhetorical questions, I do feel that South Africans occupy a unique position when abroad. People feel it’s their right to ask us difficult and often accusatory political questions. Personally, I welcome these, as they open up a dialogue that may otherwise not have emerged in this (South Korean) context. While I cannot speak on their behalf, I don’t think that Australians, Germans or Americans are interrogated in quite the same way when traveling. While I have met people from Australia and America who are critical of their country’s politics, I have seldom witnessed them getting the third degree. In fact, I have only seen this happen in South Africa! We obviously like to give each other kak.

    So yes, I do believe that our dilemma is unique and yes, I agree that that makes us “uniquely forward thinking in demanding better of our leaders and ourselves”.

    The see-saw I occupy here swings wildly between cynicism and pride, and settles somewhere in the middle where I shout: “Only I can tjune my mother kak!”

  7. @Mish, thanks for the feedback – I think the “snapshot” is what I am working with now with regards to structure, so I’m glad that’s what is coming across!

  8. This is a very cool piece Deva. I could imagine the atmosphere surrounding a conversation like the one you were faced with. Most of the time (in my experience) questions like Tae-yang’s come attached to an air of “small talk”, and as such it is difficult to navigate between interesting tid-bits about where you come from and real conversation with something important to add. I could completely foresee myself also wanting to find a middle ground: “Yes everyone in SA understands that education is important”, and “if only the attention given to education was equal to it’s importance”. Keep on writing!

  9. Pingback: Korea’s Animal Casualties | The Culture Muncher·

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