Wednesday, September 12, 2012

On when you can't say what you want to say because you don't know how.

My host mother loves everything organic. 유기농 (yuginong, organic) is probably the most common word in the 냉장고 (refrigerator): organic milk, organic grape soda, organic eggs, organic fruits and vegetables (and thus organic pickled vegetables and kimchi). The organic popsicles are... not great, but the cups of organic yogurt are the best I've ever had, which is surprising given that I am in Korea. We eat organic white rice (1), and there are some boxes of organic breakfast cereal for the resident American.

I also prefer to have chemical-free food, so I'm glad that my host parents think this family's healthful diet is worth the extra cost and effort. (Most of her shopping is done online at the website of an organic grocery store that delivers everything to your door.) I've never been able to convince my parents to think more carefully about where our food comes from before we buy it, but here I don't have to worry about that at all.
유기농 프레쉬 요거트: Organic fresh yogurt! It's even better than Chobani!
The minor problem, I guess, is that my host parents do worry about it. The obsession with organic food, for both of them, stems from a major mistrust of anything even remotely unnatural that goes in food. Because my host parents are both busy, busy teachers, we eat out fairly often -- at least twice a week -- and once a week, we will order take-out. Yet for as much as they consume restaurant food, they seem to severely condemn it for the high amounts of MSG, and that is what I want to discuss here.

Tonight, my host father ordered fried rice from the local Chinese restaurant. It was delicious, especially when mixed with 짜장, that magical black bean sauce that makes jjajangmyeon so irresistible. He asked me, "맛 어때요?" (How's it taste?) My unhesitant reply, "맛있어요!" (Delicious!)

My host mother smiled, but with that smile came a warning. "Dining out (외식) food is good," she said in Korean, "but it has a lot of MSG". The translation for MSG that they came up with was "glutamine natrium" ... which makes sense, in a way, but I reassured them that I know what MSG is. "Too much MSG is bad for your health," she continued.

I sighed inside. Here we go again. I ventured a different opinion: "But... MSG is the same as salt." Of course, this isn't technically true, but it's the most that I could say in my limited Korean. The response was enthusiastic -- No, it's not at all the same! Salt is natural, but MSG is a chemical, made in a factory, so it's bad. You shouldn't eat too much, you might get MSG syndrome. Your host father gets MSG syndrome; it makes him sleepy. Do you eat out often? No? Yeah, so, point proven. Et cetera.

You know, soon after arriving at my homestay I decided that I would never argue with my homestay parents. It's not the same as when I was in France, because I can hold my own in a debate in French. But here, I just don't have the words to present my real point of view. And when I try, I end up sounding stupid. So in response to my host parents, I just said that in the U.S., most scientists say that MSG syndrome is not true, and that while my own father says he has it, I never have (2). And I left it at that.

A 2005 article in The Guardian that I found online provides some really important and interesting perspective on the MSG debate, which is huge in the United States, especially in response to the American obesity problem. My simple take on it is this: MSG is harmful only inasmuch as salt is harmful. Glutamic acid occurs in foods naturally, is produced by your body naturally, can be manufactured industrially but is chemically the same amino acid, and poses a health hazard only if you ingest loads of it. Like, Super Size Me-style fast food binges. And even then, I'm more likely to believe that it's the trans fats and dozens of other chemicals at work to make you fat, depressed, sick, and crazy. That, and the lack of exercise. Americans.

MSG: Is it everywhere? Yes. Is it poisoning Americans, Koreans, or anyone else on the planet? Um... no.

So anyway, I don't believe that eating Chinese take-out in Korea will smite me with MSG overload. More importantly, I will remember not to broach the subject again or try to argue my point of view with my host parents, because it's not worth the effort. Some things are just culturally ingrained. It's like fan death, which continues to be a silly little big controversy in Korea today. This morning, even, I asked my students how many of them believed that fan death was real, and the class split almost evenly in two. (It was a lesson partially based in testing the validity of urban legends.) For proponents of both opinions, the only evidence given was anecdotal. But, for them in English, like for me in Korean, perhaps the more scientific or academic understanding we do have is obstructed by the language barrier.

Every part of me, especially the Swattie part, wants to engage in a stimulating debate about things like this, but honestly, there are more important things that require my attention than proving someone else wrong. Cultural ambassadorship, and all that. And at any cost, I must avoid Korea Derangement Syndrome, otherwise known as Blind American Superiority Complex, or Being A Douchebag.

I fully expect these small cultural... differences to begin to add up over time. So, I'm reminding myself now not to make much of them. Listen, learn, and then brush everything off that is unimportant. Just keep swimming. To teach Understanding is one of my goals as a teacher, and in order to do that I must model it myself.

- - -
(1) Hm... really? I was under the impression that white rice was bleached and artificially enhanced to account for its very whiteness. Wouldn't the most natural and organic rice be brown? Maybe it's just organic because the rice fields themselves were chemical-free.
(2) Once, I ate at a Chinese banquet-style restaurant in Boston, and I did feel a headache and weird numbness afterward. I attribute it to some random mild food allergy, because I have eaten tons of Chinese food in my life and have never felt those symptoms at any other time.

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