Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sneaky Forms of Culture Shock

At a certain point, I began to think I was immune to culture shock. In my four years of teaching English, I'd logged in at least one-fourth of that time in bus-hours and had walked over countless kilometers of Bangkok. Elephants, chickens and water buffalo sharing the sidewalk with me, whole dead ducks lolling their limp heads over the side of a basket, a rat on a skewer for sale at a morning food stall in my neighborhood, people having their ears cleaned by the side of the street...these were no longer things that stopped me in mid-stride. 

And yet...when I went to eat sushi the other day and the set I ordered came with a small bowl of kimchee, I looked at it and almost burst into tears. I had until last October lived in a neighborhood that had once been Seattle's Nihonmachi and still has quite a few residents of Japanese descent and some really fine sushi bars. My sons and I would go to them as often as we could afford, and it was hard enough to look at my maguro sahimi in Bangkok and eat it without them-rather the way other people might choke up at the thought of eating their Thanksgiving turkey dinner alone. But to have it served with kimchee was not just wrong from a gustatory standpoint, it was a major political/cultural faux pas as well and I was unsettled by it.

"Maybe I'm missing something here," I told myself and when I'd eaten my sashimi and my miso soup I took a tentative taste of the kimchee as "dessert." Now like most people who live on the U.S. west coast, kimchee is something I've become familiar with. A friend whose wife was Korean would buy an ample supply at an annual  church fair and would always give me a couple of jars when she found out I liked it. If I ever develop an ulcer, I will attribute it to those gifts of kimchee, which was so pungent that the man I lived with pleaded with me to eat it only when he wasn't home. The tiny morsel I put in my mouth now was not the fiery, sour explosion of demented vegetables that I remembered. It was sweet and vaguely hot and mildly flavored and as I swallowed it quickly, my throat closed and I began to cough.

There are sushi bars near the Japanese community on Sukhumvit and a few days ago, I went to one with a friend, since I've discovered that I have to eat this in company and never again alone. The set I ordered came with some Japanese pickles and was blissfully devoid of kimchee.  My tastebuds were mollified and I began to plan a trip to a Korean shopping center down the street where I could have a meal where kimchee is part of the general scheme of things.

On that same day, I passed a beauty salon in a shopping mall that announced its services included Botox and Sliming---and yes I stopped and yes I gaped and yes I longed for a camera. And yes I realized that as long as I live in Thailand and as long as my native tongue is the world's lingua franca and as long as sugar and chili are put in every dish that enters Thai borders, yes I will continue to reel from bouts of culture shock.


Tokyo Ern said...

I still don't think you'll be served kimchee with your sushi in Tokyo. That still cracks me up. We take you nice traditional Japanese restaurant our friend runs and owns - more incentive to come to Tokyo (or did I use that phrase before?)

janet said...

I will definitely come sometime this year--for world beer, kimchee-less sushi, and the pleasure of seeing you and meeting Mrs. Hoyt!