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.
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).
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.