Dr. Rodney T. Hard
KOREAN CUSTOMS AND HOSPITALITY
By: Dr. Rodney T. Hard
Growing up in far-away Korea as a missionary’s son exposed me to many interesting customs. The Koreans were very hospitable people and we were treated with great deference wherever we went.
You greeted people by bowing to each other. As Western dress and Western greetings started to take hold, it could get awkward and confusing, as seen in the picture to the right.
My father was very hospitable toward strangers also. He would meet a foreign traveler or a GI on a weekend pass and would bring them home for dinner and conversation. Many life-long friends and acquaintances were made that way.
The picture of my brother Sterling and a soldier my father brought home also shows how different a Korean dinner table was from ours in America. The main staple was a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup. All the little dishes in the middle were called “Bonchan”. These were spicy, pickled communal side dishes that everyone shared. You ate your rice and then reached over with your chopsticks and picked up a piece of Kimchee and put it into your bowl or directly into your mouth.
The Kimchee was the main Bonchan dish and there were usually several kinds on the table. The lady in the picture is making Kimchee with cabbage, hot red peppers, garlic, salt, and other spices. She is stuffing it into an earthenware jar to seal up and bury underground for many months until it ferments a little and has a nice “bite” to it.
I was the guest of honor at a dinner one time while in the military in Korea and I was offered the eyeballs of the broiled fish on the table because of my status. I could not refuse so I thanked them and ate them with a satisfied grin. Well, I actually just swallowed them like pills.
Even with a big feast before you, in a self-deprecating way, the host would usually start the meal by saying something like, “There is almost nothing here to eat but please eat a lot.” It was polite to burp after a meal because this was telling the host that you enjoyed the food. When the host would offer you food or a drink the polite thing to do was to refuse. They would ask you again and you would politely refuse again. Then they would ask you the third time and it was OK to accept.
The same thing went for after a meal at a restaurant with friends or acquaintances. The three time rule was taken to the extreme and you may argue over "who gets to pay for the meal" for five or ten minutes. Someone had to finally give in and let the other one pay. If you gave in too soon or gave in too many times at outings, you could get a reputation for being a stingy cheapskate even if you argued hard and long.
I remember the first meal we had in America when I came back to the fifth grade on Dad’s furlough. We were picked up at the dock and taken to the home of a preacher. A bunch of church members and families were there to greet us. I thought it was strange that many did not get up from watching television to greet us. They were too engrossed in the show. Greeting the missionaries coming back from overseas was why they were there, but the TV seemed to take precedent. I guess I was too used to Korean hospitality and being the center of attention.
The American food was awesome and I ate heartily. They had wonderful chocolate cake for dessert. The hostess passed the cake out for seconds and I eagerly awaited my turn to be asked if I wanted seconds. When the hostess asked me if I wanted another piece, I politely said, “No, thank you.” She moved on to the next person without asking again. “No!” I thought to myself. “You are supposed to ask me three times and then I will say “Yes”. That is when it struck home that American customs were not the same as Korean customs. Oh, and the custom of burping after a meal?
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