Desert Mouth


Temple water. The only time Koreans willingly enjoy water.

As someone with a great deal of free time, I am prone to reflect on my surroundings. In Korea, I find I constantly make notes in my brain, becoming a particularly bored and unambitious anthropologist, not seeking any new people out, but recording my dull observations internally for later reflection (and blogging) . I note how the Korean people are concerned with their world image, how they are intensely curious about what foreigners think about their food, how they dress, how they eat, how they act. Most of this I shelve away because it’s been well-catalogued all over the internet. But holy hell, you guys, Koreans seem like some of the most chronically underhydrated people I’ve ever met.

At a typical Korean school lunch, one does not enjoy a beverage with the meal (unless you’re a principal or VP, and the ones at my school receive tiny aluminum chalices filled with a mysterious, yellow, viscous syrup every lunch). No matter what is being eaten, no matter how spicy, or dry, or absurd tasting, one simply packs away the food without any drink on the side. When you are finally set loose to slake your thirsts, most of the teachers forego water entirely, passing by the water fountain and the children that suckle at it like it is immature or unclean. The kids, when they do go for water, take little more than a shot-glass worth and slug it back in one quick, efficient gulp, as though being around too much water for too long will cause them to drown. I stand at the fountain chugging cup after cup, holding my ground through multiple rotations of fourth graders, before leaving.

I am also one of the only people at school with a thermos. I drag it with me everywhere, a bulky, hulking capsule of blue plastic, emblazoned with University of Toronto insignia, so that water is never far from my hands. No one else does this, and they seem bemused as to what I am carrying. Weaponry? Ceremonial honky paraphernalia? A vessel with which to hold cheese, which my co-teacher told me Canadians eat with every meal, like kimchi? When the other staff do have a drink, it is in tiny, delicate paper cups, in quantities suggesting that water is being rationed, and that my own H2O gluttony is bourgeois and unbecoming.

You can pry it from my cold, dead hands.

At dinners, I have never seen a Korean pour themselves more than a single cup of water the entire meal, while I must appear to be dying of thirst by comparison. Whenever we summon a waiter to bring us a new bottle of water, they look at us askew, as though wondering what we did to the last one. Did we pour it upon the ground, or wash our hands with it? Did we perform some sort of aquatic witchcraft? How did our cups empty themselves?

That said, Koreans do get some liquid, usually in the form of soup. There are soups and stews and broths for every occasion, but as many of them are filled with seafood, large hunks of meat with bones, or sear-your-tongue spices, none seem particularly quenching. Usually the soup also comes with a side of enormously sticky white rice, a base to the acid which seems to cancel the process out and leave one exactly as dry as before. They rarely seem to pair wines or beers with foods, and given the flavour of the more popular brands of said boozes in Korea, there isn’t exactly many that blend harmoniously with their unique tastes (in sum: Cass and Hite taste like refried asshole).

Cass or Hite. As though that's choice.

When they do pair alcohol with food, it is almost invariably soju or makgeolli. I can get behind the comparatively gentle makgeolli, but soju does not go well with anything. Wines and beers and be subtle, comforting; a soothing balm or a brisk, invigorating quencher. Beers and wines are old friends offering warm, platonic hugs and genial pleasantries at the table.. Soju mugs your face. Soju assaults your tongue at gun-point in a back alley and forces itself upon you, its flavour curling upon your tongue and pummeling its way down into your digestive system. Soju does not go well with any food because it does not go well with anything, except for human suffering. (I drink it out of necessity, and because Koreans enjoy the living shit out of it. Also, while alone it tastes obscene and highly industrial, mixed with anything else its taste almost entirely disappears).

Soju brings me to the next thing, as they tend to favour a harsh, drying alcohol, which can leave you with a mind-shattering hang-over. And the next day, Koreans shy away from water. When one of my co-teachers walked in the morning after an apparently rough 회식, he treated my recommendation of water with confusion and distaste. When I finally got him to drink some, it was in a tiny, dainty paper cup. The Korean hang-over cure of choice is, of course, a spicy soup.

At the same time, Koreans also do not sweat. Most I know don’t bother with deodorant, and aside from a few of my friends with handkerchiefs come the warm season, Koreans as a whole seem to conserve water inside of themselves impressively. But where the hell does it come from if they don’t drink anything in the first place? I wonder if they are a race of camel-people, or if the Fremen eventually moved from Arakis but kept the same water behaviours. I imagine that they don’t urinate, rather they possess a port from which to eject tiny stones of solid urea from their bodies.

By contrast, other foreigners and I must seem like water-logged sea-mammals or Mievilleian vodyanoi, constantly sopping ourselves with fluids to maintain our fragile vital signs. We appear beached whales, our lives a constant re-enactment of those scenes from Free Willy in the flatbed truck where they have to hose the orca down lest he perish. That we, by comparison, seek out the sun so that we might bask must seem as equally paradoxical to them, a hubristic and suicidal tendency of a people so drastically unhydrated they can barely go five minutes without drinking something.

Another contextless NYE photo. It's of a fluid! So it's relevant!

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21 thoughts on “Desert Mouth

  1. I’m always carrying a water bottle at school. I can’t imagine standing in front of students 5 or 6 hours a day and not having water readily available. The teachers at my school drink a cup of hot/cold water mixed after they finish eating, but not all of them and not all the time. I do, however, see almost all the Korean men at my gym drinking water, be it from the little paper cups provided or in a regular water bottle. Not the women, just the men. But the women do dainty exercise and they don’t sweat so they don’t really need water I guess. Otherwise I see lots of Koreans carrying around take out coffee or tea or sugary drinks but not very often do I see them drink much water. One thing I’ve noticed is that almost all Koreans are into those ridiculous and disgusting “health” drinks that they think are the answer for everything, you know the ones, with the screw off tops? My co-teachers are always sucking on one of those when they come to class hung over.

    • It’s not even the standing and jumping around in class that does it anymore, it’s that I’m basically straining my voice for hours at a time. I’ve never had to enunciate so carefully and loudly before.

      I’m not really into gyms (obviously), and thus this would be prime observational material for me. Are the people there particularly sweaty? A buddy of mine goes, and he’s excited when he sees a sweaty Korean, because he doesn’t feel like the dampest, sweatiest creature in the room (although he says many still remain curiously dry through-out the exercise process).

      Health drinks, hmm? You mean like the little bottles of orange vitamin C fluid? I’ve been given a lot of those, but they always look (and smell) vaguely chemical and thus I do not touch them.

      • I use a microphone in class, which helps immensely. Most of the women teachers I work with use microphones, but not the male teachers.

        Yes, those are the health drinks I’m talking about. One of my co-teachers is always swigging the red ginseng stuff. He is notorious for coming to school hung over. I’ve tried the vitamin c drink and it tastes like Love Hearts candy. I don’t know if it helps ward off colds or anything but I drink it every now and then when I feel overly tired. Maybe it just has a lot of sugar in it because it seems to perk me right up.

        As far as the gym and sweating is concerned, I run and lift weights and get quite sweaty and often I’m a lot sweatier than many of the men I’ve seen there (I’m a woman). I do remember one particular Korean man who had been riding the exercise bike next to mine at full tilt for about half an hour and there was an honest-to-goodness pool of sweat on the floor under the bike. I do see some of the more serious runners working up quite a sweat but many of them wear towels or those Headsweats bandanas on their heads when they’re running and those tend to soak up a lot of the sweat.

        I’ve dated a few Korean men and even in the hottest weather they tend to perspire but they don’t produce the same odours as we westerners; they tend to have a very mild but not truly offensive smell when I’ve been up close in a sweaty situation. I’ve yet to come across a Korean person who had bad b.o. They might smell like mothballs or garlic or halitosis, but I can’t honestly say I’ve met any who needed deoderant. Sometimes I find myself worrying that they think I’m stinky but a few of the men I’ve dated have been fascinated with my underarms and the smell of my deoderant. It’s quite amusing given the right circumstances.

        • Ahh, a mic would be nice. Children have an easier time hearing deeper voice frequencies, hence why the males probably don’t. My school just doesn’t have them, and hence I have to jack up the volume personally.

          Mine aren’t too into the red energy drinks (one just game in today absolutely wrecked, and drank only Gatorade). They’re actually more common in the bars in my area as a substitute for Red Bull in drinks that use it.

          It’s interesting, especially since, from what I remember, my Korean friends back home used deoderant, and at least acted like they needed it. It also explains the rarity and expensiveness of the product here, and why I have my own personal stash from Canada lodging in the bottom of one of my suitcases.

  2. Having spent a great deal of time outdoors over the past 30-40 years, I have learned a lot about hydration – especially on the winter camping trips where you must drink lots of water with the fear of getting up in the middle of the night at 40 below to pee – but I digress. It seems to me that their (Korean’s) soup might be the answer if it contains a lot of salt which might assist the body to retain the fluids. On the other hand, you might be right about the evolution of Koreans to be able to do throughout their lives – as we did in our late teens and early twenties – to consume liquid and never need to void it from their bodies; sort of a built in filtering system. Something to ponder over a Canadian beer or a Scotch – neat of course.

  3. It is very refreshing (ha) to find someone else who is as passionate about staying hydrated as I am. I, too, got stange looks in Germany when I asked for tap water. But I gave them equally strange looks back when they handed me my “glass” and “pitcher” of water–the “glass” being the size of a shot-glass and the “pitcher” being the size of an average water glass that I would use here in the states.
    Am digging yo stupid-ugly-fabulous blog,
    Leilani

    • Hah! I like the implication that you literally could not be taking more than a few shots, they just gave you the extra should you decide to get totally water-drunk.

      The summers in Korea are quite hot, the winters featuring a realiance on space heaters which dry me out, and my job is literally jabbering on all day. If I didn’t drink water every five minutes, I think I would become both incapable of speech and generally kind of a dick. hydration is the way to go!

      Also, thanks!

  4. It’s all quite curious isn’t? I’ve been referring to them as camel people since I arrived and also have linked the condition of many bathrooms to the fact that they don’t ever pee because they don’t drink water. Ever.
    Also, Erin and I were pondering the origins of the “one shot” as Koreans sometimes demand you drink your soju. Where did the English come from? We have hypothesized that perhaps during the war when Koreans were sharing their lovely tasty soju with the Americans, the Americans felt the same way you and I do about soju and were like “Enough sipping this shit guys, ONE SHOT”. Anyways. I’m behind on your blog but happy to be catching up! 🙂

    • Oh, one-shot. I also wonder where it came from… some of the Koreans I know expand it to other drinks, and thus I have been suckered into chugging down entire glasses full of hite competitively, much to the distaste of my poor stomach. Sometimes they’re just happy to use some English: I met some girls at Halloween who had bought a bottle of Jack Daniels, and the only glasses they had on the table were shot glasses. They gave me some, and assured me, “One shot!” I looked a little confused, wondering how else one would approach the beverage in that sort of a glass.

      That said, I cannot conceive of sipping soju. Sipping suggests savouring. One does not savour the feeling of your mouth being sliced open by flavour knives.

      I’m not gonna lie, your guys’ blog helps me whittle away the desk-warming hours, so I’m well caught-up over there.

  5. I love your comment about the waiters. I can just picture the look on their face. “Did they hide it in their bags?”

    I wonder what you would think if you visited Japan. I’m studying there right now and there are vending machines on every corner. Water in the vending machines is not always a likely bet, but the Japanese like their tasty drinks. My school is out in the boonies: it’s a 45 minute walk to the nearest train station. And on the walk you pass three sets of vending machines (they always come in pairs).

    • They seem primed to check me for a separate water bottle, as though I must be siphoning it off somewhere.

      Hmm, Korea is big on the vending machines, but usually in the subways and inside some public buildings. They also love the little sweet drinks, but also enjoy a lot of “health” beverages (usually acid-orange Vitamin C drinks). All the same, I rarely see anyone approach them in the subways (eating and drinking on the subways or out in public is considered a little weird here). When Koreans do buy a drink, it’s usually from the coffee vending machine, and again it’s the tiny cup which they slug back and toss before getting on the train.

  6. I teach in Russia, and it’s a similar water situation. Whenever we eat meals together, there are bottles of water on the table. The Russians will casually sip from it (if they drink anything at all). After every meal, we sit around and drink hot tea. I’m convinced that that’s almost all of their liquid intake for the day. When I go to someone’s house they offer me tea (which I drink) then look at me quizzically when I ask for a few glasses of water. Their soups are very low on the spicy scale (and thus seem more refreshing than the ones you mentioned), but soup and hot tea does not seem like a thirst quenching, satisfying diet.

  7. This made me laugh hard enough to hear my neighbours grumble through the paper thin walls of my apartment. I, like you, am a ‘foreign’ teacher from Canada. And this blog in particular cracked me up immensely. I get it, and it makes me feel a little more sane to hear someone else spell it out. Right now, I’m in China working as an oral English teacher at Tianjin Polytechnic University.

    People here aren’t too big on water, but they’re not camel people by any means. Half of them carry 600ml bottles of coke (or fanta of all things) with them wherever they go, and the others do the same with salad shakers full of tea. What really made me laugh was the description of local liquors. I’ve tried both soju and the liquor with the rice in it (my high-school sweet-heart was Korean) and I believe your descriptions are spot on. Soju is like a mild form of Baijiu, which is a Chinese favourite. at 50-60% alcohol by volume (at least what I’ve encountered) it also makes you question if you’re drinking industrial strength machinery cleanser. Oddly enough Baijiu and/or beer are the only things the men will drink with dinner. It’s soup, booze, or nothing. Machismo around booze is rampant too. It’s like the grown men here are all striving to be the ‘toughest’ guys at a fifteen-year-old’s house party. Thankfully, the soup here is much blander than it’s Korean equivalent. But, if you’re having dinner with a group of people, it’s expected that you’ll be drinking some sort of liquor. Restaurants even offer little 150ml bottles of the paint curling, gut wrenching fluid if you don’t like to drink socially.

    By the way, I respect your choice to teach children. In my spare time, I tutor a nine-year-old and frankly, I doubt that my sanity would have held out long enough to write this post.

    best of luck,

    -Mitch

    ps. Shameless link to my own blog:
    http://thisismitch.wordpress.com

    • Always nice to hear from other teachers on this side of the planet.

      Baijiu sounds like it a paint-thinner substitute, or like ipecac syrup for leisure. People here, both men and women (though typically only younger women) are similarly macho about booze. People generally take in an obscene amount of soju, and usually raw, even when the bar has other options. Like I say, the flavour utterly disappears, and thus you can get strawberry, pineapple, green apple blends going and you have perfectly serviceable, if dainty, alcoholic beverages. But Koreans go for untainted soju. They also have, as mentioned up-thread, a tendency to goad others into “One-shot!”

      I think everyone has a set age-range of young people they can work with. Around kids, I am at ease, and I know exactly how to talk them into line. Give me a room full of anyone over 12 and I would probably gnaw my own hand off to get away.

  8. You’re right on with this one. The first thing I noticed when I first ate at my Korean in-laws’ house is that there were no glasses on the dinner table! Before I sat down (and every subsequent time after that) I got myself a glass of water and put it next to my plate. Now my wife does the same.

  9. Wel, I know this is an old post but if you guys want to know, A lot of Koreans believe that drinking water during meals dilutes the acidity of your stomach acid, and thus not allowing the food to digest properly in your stomach. Not many people actually know this reasoning but since their parents raise them like this they do so anyways. Also, since Starchy rice kind of bloats up once it’s in your stomach + with all the spicy foods water will just not let you eat that much and will make you have a “water belly” -aka being full just because you drank a lot of water from spicy, hot food.
    I’m Korean but I have a long frenulum-aka tongue-tied so my mouth is small, plus I cannot eat spicy food very well so I always drink a lot of water with my meals despite my father’s concern. haha

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