Dog Day Afternoon: Exoticism, Cuisine, and Culture

On a family trip, the ugliest Western cliché about Korean food makes an unexpected appearance

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Dog Day Afternoon: Exoticism, Cuisine, and Culture

For all my oddball cultural struggles while growing up as one of the only Asian-Americans in my neighborhood, I at least took pride in one thing: my peeps’ food. Yes kimchi was something of a dirty ethnic secret due to its fermented stinkiness and reputation as destroyer of fridges, but it was an umami bomb—spicy, savory, refreshing, the taste of home. And the barbecued meats made me an eternal carnivore: to this day nothing in my mind is better than freshly broiled sweet-salty kalbi ribs. It was the family weekend event to drive half an hour to the Korean restaurant in Silver Spring and waddle out overstuffed and smoky from the tabletop fumes.

As I grew into a semi-militant pride in my cultural heritage, I was quick to toot Korean food to my peers, to bring red-hot dishes to workplace potlucks and more. And to my excitement, people loved it. Soon foodie media also caught on thanks to Korean barbecue taco trucks and David Chang’s fusion dishes, and the ongoing rise of South Korea as an economic power.

But there were still moments of shame and awkwardness too, particularly around the secret that made kimchi seem harmless in comparison. The rumors about Koreans eating man’s best friend. Fido. Snoopy. Arf arf. Or mung mung as they say in Korean.

I would roll my eyes in anger when white people would joke about it in punchlines or post about it in trollish message board comments. When I lived in New York, and a local TV segment about an illegal dog farm run by Koreans was shown on the evening news, I wanted to write to the station in protest, furious at their cultural ignorance and perpetuation of false stereotypes. The segment was indeed horrifying, showing via hidden camera a middle-aged lady who could be my aunt taking large hedge-clippers and chopping off a frozen dog’s leg. They said you could secretly order bo shin tang, a.k.a. dog stew, at restaurants in Flushing by special request.

I thought, with 5,000 years of heritage including inventing the easiest alphabet in the world and gorgeous celadon pottery, this is all America focuses on about Korea? With years of invisibility on TV, movies, and books, the one time I see Koreans on the tube is about dog eating? I was livid.

It seemed like the ultimate in Western racism: to peer down their nose at this group of savages that would eat Lassie in a heartbeat. Never mind that Westerners eat some odd game as well, like fuzzy cute bunny rabbits, or woolly little lambs, or veal—suckling baby cows held in tiny pens. (None of which I eat.) Dogs were unforgivable. I agreed that of course it was disgusting, but I thought everyday Koreans don’t really eat them. I’d never seen it on a menu or anywhere. It was exaggerated lies.

I’d visited Korea a handful of times in my lifetime, usually every decade or so, and it would change exponentially each time. When I was a child, I remember Seoul being overcrowded, chaotic, with huge ugly concrete buildings, strong diesel fumes everywhere, disorganized and messy utilitarian marketplaces. The last time I went, in 2010, Seoul had become a futuristic city with hyperreal lighted signs, spotless subway trains and shopping boulevards and arcades, manicured public spaces. It was the first time I thought Seoul was moving past the U.S. in terms of modernity, and I even debated moving there to teach English if I didn’t like the new job I was starting soon.

Of course, a lot of this development was a glossy façade covering up some ongoing societal issues, like income inequality, a growing non-Korean immigrant population that was heavily discriminated against, absurd levels of plastic surgery, and a punishing education system leading to high youth suicide rates. I wasn’t one to overidealize any culture, even one I’d known closely. But I still carried an innate pride that Korea had come so far, so fast. It was miraculous and a testament to a driven, ambitious, inspired group of people.

And aside from the material progress, I still loved the down-to-earth aspects of Korean culture, with its familial clannishness, where everyone was your big aunt or little brother or older sister (those are the actual terms everyone uses to address each other in Korea), where my uncles would down tiny glasses of soju with lunch, and dinner, and breakfast, where every meal included a wide array of colorful banchan (side dishes) to feast on.

One day during my 2010 trip, my cousin said they had planned a trip to a very special “country restaurant” just north of Seoul, where it was still pastoral and not urbanized. Her husband’s school friend owned and ran the place, as well as a farm next to the restaurant, and it was going to be good for me to see “the real Korea.” I clapped my hands in excitement, “Sure!” I loved the idea of going to a unique culinary setting, imagining it to be Korean locavore eating, like the French Laundry of Seoul, even though I knew it would be “earthy” as well. I even dressed up for the occasion and wore fancy sandals. I was thinking like the clueless Zagat-reading urbanite I was, having just moved out of Manhattan after a decade.

We drove out of the crowded city into some much needed green scenery, with the rolling low mountains prevalent throughout Korea. I felt my blood pressure drop and smiled.

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Chung Sung-Jun /Getty

The restaurant was a pleasant large newish structure, with huge glass windows letting in views of the landscape, and lots of natural wood inside. My family sat on cushions around a long table on the floor, as is customary there. The adults sat on one end, and my younger cousins sat on my other side. Some banchan already came out, and we were snacking and chatting happily in this zenscape.

Then a waitress brought out a plate heaped with what looked like shredded dark meat, similar to pulled pork, and placed it in the middle of us adults. The other adults started to grab at it with their chopsticks.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Duck.” “Yes, duck.”

“Ooo, I love duck,” I said.

My cousin’s husband, who’d worked in England before and had above average English skills, gave me a funny look. “Really?”

“Yeah sure, I eat lots of weird things. I like duck.” Indeed I had eaten lots of cool gourmet things like jellyfish, foie gras, sea cucumber, uni.

“Oh, is that so?”

Then he whispered down to me. “Not duck. Dog.”

I had heard their accented English wrong. G and K are similar-sounding in Korean.

“Ohhhhhh,” I said.

Then I felt myself heave. I couldn’t help it. And the smell, I realized, was horrible. Like…dog food.

My cousin said, “What’s wrong? It’s okay; it’s supposed to give you vitality.” They all pecked away at the plate like it was wonderful. At least the kids weren’t eating it either. They weren’t even offered the plate. I wasn’t sure why; whether it was because this was considered an “adults-only” dish (which isn’t usually the case, I even see babies in Korea being given funky foods like seaweed and soybean paste and more sometimes), or because they knew the kids would be grossed out.

I just waved and shook my head. I asked them to move it away from me closer to the window.

“Don’t worry, they’re specially bred dogs, not the kind you use as pets,” my cousin desperately but naively tried to reassure me. I stared at her with my jaw open.

Already queasy, I hoped the rest of the meal would be the usual tasty suspects. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or disappointed that the dog didn’t smell delicious.

Then I saw the waitress set up some hot pots at our table, with flames turned on underneath. Broth and veggies began to boil tantalizingly inside. YES, I thought. I love me some hot pots. I happily chatted with my kid cousins about the recent World Cup and the adorable “mascot” of the games, Paul the Psychic Octopus, who had brilliantly forecasted eight out of eight matches.

The waitress left and then returned. My jaw dropped again. Slithering in her hands was a live octopus. A whole, living, writhing octopus, as big as or larger than Paul had been. In her other hands were a giant pair of scissors, with cheery yellow plastic fingerholes.

Before I could react further, she casually tossed the octopus into the boiling hot pot. And as quickly as its tendrils still flailed, she started snipping at it to pieces with her giant scissors. Jab jab jab.

I screamed.

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Flickr/ Chun Yip So

People stared at me for a moment but quickly got back to eating. I saw the bits of now cooked octopus rolling in the stew, looking like what I was used to, in other seafood dishes I’d had before.

My kid cousin jokingly stuck a cooked tentacle in his mouth and let it wiggle at me.

Starving, I wanted to faint, but as the stew was spooned into my bowl, I didn’t refuse it. I was used to eating octopus, after all. I just never watched the immediate process before. My mother later explained to me that it was some superstitious idea that cooking live food allowed its energy to more directly enter you, and gave you good health. Sort of like the movie Highlander. I was all for fresh seafood and loved sushi, but this was a bit much.

The meal ended, and we were supposed to visit the owner’s small farm next door for a quick visit. It was getting too hot outside, and I swatted at flies and various other critters as I walked to a makeshift outdoor pavilion beside the planted rows of greens. My dressy sandals were poorly suited to walking in farm dirt, and my cousin’s husband ended up having to practically carry me out when I got my heels stuck in a patch of what I hope was just mud. At least I saw no dogs held in pens there.

Under the breezy but sweltering pavilion tent, my cousin said my sister who had visited a year prior seemed to have more fun exploring the grounds and greenery. She said this is part of real Korean culture too, this countryside, this rural living. I fanned a piece of cardboard at my face and wished I was back in the city.

So what was I to make of this shocking experience? I had to admit I hated it; I was still an American, and that side of me, that sheltered posh Western-civ girl, was miserable here at this restaurant and farm. The cruelty to animals, both Pluto and Paul, offended my sensibilities. And I knew Koreans had a history of being less than kind to their pets; dogs’ average lifespans were much shorter in Korea than elsewhere, I had read once, because they are mainly kept outside and fed scraps.

But who was I to judge? I had been a proud lifelong meat-eater. I knew that all the animals I ate were brutally slaughtered and miserable, barring the occasional random high-priced free-range bird or pig. Yes dogs were known for their personalities and friendship, their human qualities, their being popular pets, but I’ve seen very smart pigs and chickens as well, and probably friendlier than cats quite frankly. And the brutality of the octopus’s death wasn’t all that worse than any critter’s death I ate (seen Fast Food Nation, anyone?) Yet I wasn’t ready to go vegetarian anytime soon either.

I’m sure that on some level kindness to animals, especially pets, can arise in societies where there are greater resources, the luxury to be kind to them. (You can see this in the foofy dog salons and Burberry outfits that toy dogs wear on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.) South Korea still had an underbelly of survivalism after years of Japanese occupation, war, and poverty that persisted in ravaging their sister to the north. Eat what you can to live. Who was I to judge that mindset either from my place of comfortable well-fed privilege?

Whenever I told non-Korean people about the story of this meal back home, their faces looked truly angry, disgusted. And I felt ashamed, that somehow I had betrayed my people, my roots; that these outsiders would rightly or wrongly judge Koreans as barbarians. When a white friend said that she was worried that some Koreans in her American neighborhood looked at her Labrador and talked to each other and she thought they were looking at it like food, I couldn’t even be offended. It did happen sometimes. It was the truth. There was so little in the popular narrative about Korean culture in American media as it was, and I even now feel that I might be giving too much credence to something minor but overblown in Western eyes about us. But I also was presented with this practice by my own family as an important cultural experience. It’s something I cannot ignore and leaves me confused.

My mother was upset at my cousins for taking me to this place; perhaps years of being in America had sharpened her bicultural sensitivity to this issue. So I’m not sure what to say about the Western cultural taboo against dog eating. It’s a weapon of superiority that Westerners often land on Asians (Chinese and Vietnamese have also been accused of dog eating and associated racial jokes and comments), as a way to imply they are less civilized, less evolved, more foreign. I love snuggling adorable dogs as much as the next person and would never hurt them myself. But different cultures draw different lines for civility sometimes; who are we to fully judge? American culture and history is full of its own savagery too, towards Native Americans, towards blacks, towards Mexicans, and those are actual human beings. And Europe, no comment except World War I and II. Even today, such tensions regarding civil treatment of people still boil over in modern America too, as in Baltimore, my hometown.

I also notice that on recent travel shows about Korea, trendy folks like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerman love to highlight the “weird foods,” where live wiggling octopi are chopped up and eaten still wiggling down your throat (and a similar famous scene occurred in the popular Korean movie Oldboy), where silkworms are munched on instead of mundane things like seaweed. There’s an underlying racism to exoticizing “bizarre eats” around the world, where one man’s chicken really ought to be another man’s guinea pig, but there can also be a genuine curiosity and wish for connection too (and for discovering something truly delicious). It’s hard to say.

For now, I say it’s best to keep an open mind, to acknowledge the flaws and complexities of each culture in our little planet. I guess part of getting to that level of mature intercultural understanding is to avoid judging too harshly, lest ye be judged as well, and to think about larger sociohistorical contexts, even if it involves something seemingly gruesome as Fido-munching. But I personally won’t ever eat bo shin tang. I’ll stick to kimchi.

Jean Kim is a physician and writer who currently works and lives in the DC Metro area. She blogs for Psychology Today and has been published in The Rumpus, The Daily Beast, Bethesda Magazine, and more. Her webpage is jeankimmd.blogspot.com and her Twitter account is @jeankimmd.

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