Sunday, February 15, 2009

What's Your Beef? Evil American Cows, Or: Korean Randomness of the Week Part Two

It's strange that I've lived here for six months and I am only just starting to get to know my neighbourhood. I think it's because A) work keeps me pretty busy, and B) my apartment building is on the main thoroughfare and it just didn't occur to me to go off the beaten path and discover what might be around.

Since I've gotten back from Christmas, though, I've done a bit of rambling, some of it by myself, some with others, and I've realized that I actually live in a pretty cool little bourgh. The area in behind Homeplus is crammed with little restaurants, shops, coffeehouses, and bars -- there's even a gelato place.

So this morning I took the opportunity to amble around and see if I could find any material for today's installment of my randomness series. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to find anything since my neighbourhood is probably one of the most Westernized places I've ever encountered in Korea. However, I ran across two gems!

Miguk mad cows
Beware the Beef!

1. This was posted in the window of the local health food store. In 2003, Korean officials banned American beef due to concerns about mad cow disease. So far as I know, no Koreans ever got sick from eating tainted meat, but when the government reversed the decision last year, Koreans were furious, inciting violent protests in Seoul and a backlash of anti-American sentiment. Restaurants posted signs to let customers know the origin of their beef (the school cafeteria still does this) and Koreans hissed and spat at the mere mention of American beef.

Media attention given to the issue was short on facts and long on hostility. To me it seemed to be more about Korean nationalism than it was about any legitimate health concern. In my experience, Korean nationalism is often based on blatantly xenophobic attitudes towards Korea's competitors, an opinion confirmed in this article:

"South Korea has built the world's 13th largest economy largely through exports. Still, in a country that has been invaded by bigger neighbors throughout its history, people harbor a deep suspicion about big powers, even allies like the United States.

Koreans in their 40s remember a childhood song handed down from their fathers and grandfathers: "Don't be cheated by the Soviets. Don't trust the Americans. Or the Japanese will rise again." Koreans still chafe at the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into the Communist North and the pro-U.S. South after liberating it from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II."

One of my coworkers once remarked, "I don't understand how Korea can have such an inferiority complex and a superiority complex at the same time," with which I agree wholeheartedly. On the one hand, Koreans are very enamoured with all things American, but on the other, there is a lot of resentment towards the States for a variety of reasons, such as the steady encroachment of American culture on the traditional Korean way of life, or the ubiquitous nature of the English language globally. The American beef issue is an outlet for Koreans to express this resentment.

American beef is back on Korean supermarket shelves, and according to my coworkers, is about two thirds of the price of its domestic and Australian competitors. Being vegetarian, I had sort of forgotten about it until I saw this sign. Apparently it will be a hot topic for some time.

While we're on the subject of food, that brings me to my next picture: squid!

It's Squid for Supper Tonight!

In Korea, it is extremely common for restaurants to advertise their fare by displaying a smiling, happy cartoon version of the type of animal that you will consume inside. I have seen countless grinning pigs and winking cows during my two years here. I like this squid because he looks like he's under pressure, as if he's saying, "I'll keep this smile on my face even though you're about to come in here and eat me!" He's resisting. Fight on, Squid.

My other favourite thing about this sign: unlike North America, where a business usually needs to be at least twenty or thirty years old before it can legitimately merit such a display of age, Korean business have no compunction about proudly displaying that they have been operating "since 2008" or "since 2007." What amuses me most about these signs is that businesses come and go overnight, so rapidly that it's actually pretty hard to find a business that's been in operation "since 2006".

Does that mean that there aren't businesses that have been in operation for many years? There certainly are...but strangely enough, in those cases, the owner usually tells you directly instead of putting it on a sign.

Well, I think that's it for this week's installment. Next week, I will have to put it on hold because I am spending a week vacationing in THAILAND! Pictures of Thai waterfalls, food, and elephants are forthcoming.


Joni said...

Also forthcoming - an update on Laura's favourite Thai restaurant "in the whole wide world" ;)

I like your commentary on the squid. Maybe he's sweating because he's halfway in the boiling water? Or hovering directly above it.

I remember the street that we stayed on in Seoul, and how in the course of 10 days some of the shops changed hands 2 or 3 times.

Mike said...

Looks more like octopus than squid, to me.