"Other-izing"-- And Why Kimchi is not Spicy and Koreans are Not Freaks

Having lived in Korea for more than six years, I've suffered my share of irritations--but not so much from Korean people. Rather, it is some of the expats and the so-called "Korea experts" that piss me off.

Take this egregious example of sloppy journalism:

For most Westerners, however, salsa remains an unacquired taste. It can offend not only with its taste but also with its odor, which can linger on a person for hours. And for those unused to its fire and fury, even a small dish of salsa can appear less as a delicacy than as a kind of incendiary device. To a Western palate, with all the other options out there, salsa won’t rank very high,” Mr. Chinn said. (in this NYT article)
Oh, and if the above paragraph strikes you as unbelievably weird, the original article said "kimchi" not "salsa." Either way,  it is a preposterous and idiotic piece of journalistic poopoo not fit to be printed in the New York Times.

First, I contest the very existence of a so-called unified "Western palate." Even my father, famous for his finicky eating habits, gladly consumes Indian, Chinese, and Mexican foods. Is the Western palate limited only to white bread and cold cereal? Even the very suggestion of the word "Westerners" does for me what every good matador does for his bull.  Does the word "Westerners" mean everyone living in the Americas and Europe and Australia and New Zealand and so on? If so, it must include millions of people of African and Hispanic ethnicity. Or does the word "Westerners" just mean white people?

Second, I contest the fact that most Westerners, whoever they are, don't like kimchi.  Certainly, people who have never had the opportunity to try it at all can't be said to like it or not. Those who have tried it generally like it. For crying out loud, my diminutive Italian grandma likes kimchi. When I was in the US, I managed to procure some kimchi from my Korean friends from time to time and it always made me a very popular person.

Third, most kimchi is no more spicy than a bottle of Pace Picanta medium. The most spicy kimchi I have ever had barely even ranks as a 3 on a spiciness scale of 1-10.*  For people who can't even eat black pepper, kimchi may prove a challenge. For those who like extreme spiciness, however, kimchi will just not deliver. To call kimchi an "incendiary device" is tantamount to calling ice cream a "cryogenic tool."

Forth, the scent of kimchi is no more sticky than the scent of Indian curry or even the scent of real espresso coffee. Eating raw onions on a hamburger or sandwich produces far more stinky results than a side of kimchi. Kimchi is not fresh per se; it's fermented. The taste it leaves on ones tongue is not the odious scent of raw onions or raw garlic, but a subtle aftertaste more akin to Sriracha.

So why I am so rankled by this? There are two options but we'll discount the first one.**  The second option is that the propensity of certain white men to exaggerate the foreignness of Asians is so odious that I have finally gone bonkers.

The impeccable Bruce Cumings is a white man with a brain. Certain other white men, however, are individuals of less than admirable intellectual prowess. I've met a number of them who boast greatly of their knowledge of Korea and Korean things, yet speak Korean at barely an elementary level--if even that. Their boundless insights seems to consists of subtly or not so subtly belittling or degrading Korean things. The worst of them are outright racist. The best of them succeed by "other-izing" the object of their statement

For lack of a better word, "other-izing" is the process of exaggerating and caricaturizing the foreign qualities of an object in order to delegitimize it. In less formal language, it's known at bull shitting.  By exaggerating the foreign quality of the object, they relieve themselves of the responsibility to understand it.  The premise that "These people--they just don't conform to our rules. They don't think like we do" is always followed by the conclusion "We don't need to treat them by our rules of fairness."

Recently, I had dinner with an individual who kept denigrating Korea people for their so-called lack of sophistication. He mentioned a particular geographical location in Asia and claimed that he was sure that if he asked any Korean person they would have no idea where it is. Because, you know, Korean people are just so ignorant. So, I asked him sweetly if he knew the name in Korean. He didn't. I did know, of course (or why would I be writing about this?) and I informed him that when I had visited that place, the guide had told me that the majority of visitors there were Korean.  Hard to believe that those ignorant Koreans were able to swarm to a place that they had supposedly never heard of.

Having traveled to several places on this earth that might be considered exotic (Egypt, Israel, China, Philippines), I believe that no place is beyond the reach of rational analysis. People and cultures can be understood, if one makes the effort to do so. And in the end, there is no "other."

Now, pass me the kimchi.

*Granted, this statement is coming from a person that used to chop up fresh habanero peppers and eat them in hot sauce, smiling through my tears.

**The first option is that I am easily rankled by nearly everything I read and exist in a state of constant outrage over something. Of course, that's not true.


  1. Love this! And, totally agree. White people, sigh...

  2. This reminds me of the opposite conversation we had a while back, about Korean tendency to "other-ize" white people by calling us all "큰 코 외국인" and always being shocked that we like 매운 한국 음식. (I've never thought Korean food was the least bit spicy in our sense of the word spicy.)

    Lack of experience or understanding of another culture leads to silly characterizations and generalizations... and any culture is just as likely as another to produce no-nothing bobble-heads who enjoy hearing themselves talk. Like you, I'm always dismayed when crap like this ends up in a major news outlet because it does nothing more than solidify false stereotypes.

    BTW: I also thought the writer's "selection" of the menu items (pork cheek and blood sausage) served by the ajuma who refused to cut back on kimchi to her customers was intentionally meant to further dramatize the article and make Asians seem "weird".

  3. Well said Hannah. I did not like kimchi when I first tasted but later on, I always look forward having some whenever there is an opportunity.

  4. Anne, I'm sighing with you!

    bigrun10K--Yes, Korean people have an awful tendency to this. I remember ranting and raving to one class about how, as a Mexican American, I hate being asked if I can eat spicy food. Sometime later, we all went out for spicy food and I could see they were all just dying to say something but managed to suppress their 'Oh 매운거 잘 먹네" ,comments.

    Tonight I had 낙지볶음 with a Korean friend. I ordered mine extra hot and he ordered his medium. He said last time he ate with me he was sick afterwards. No one can out-spice me.

    Agree that the selection of menu items was meant to further dramatize the article. I didn't like that either.

  5. Abella, I don't know you liked it. I think your wife likes it too. You guys might enjoy the white kimchi. I quite like it. Miss you all!

  6. Hannah - Thanks for a good read. When I lived in Japan I was often frustrated by expats who acted as if they were far superior to the local culture and also by Japanese people who acted as though NO American could EVER appreciate their culture fully! Neither is true!
    I must admit that I do NOT like kimchi, although I have eaten it many times. However, I don't like ANY spicy food, so it really isn't much of a surprise! :)
    I did enjoy a great dish of bulgogi when I was in Korea! And, as in any other country, I met Koreans who drove me crazy and Koreans who went out of their way to make my trip memorable and special and whom I will always remember with fondness! :)

  7. Teresa, Thanks. I thought this post was a little shrill, but I am a little shrill in real life from time to time.

    What you say is so true--both expats who think they are so superior and locals who think they are so inscrutable are annoying.

    Hope you are having a very Merry Christmas season:-)

  8. @teresa and @hannah - that being said, I would argue that there is an element of truth to the "inscrutability" of the locals. The outsider will always be a muddy stream who can't forget all of the cultural water that has run under the bridge, even as they began accepting a new current from their adopted culture. Though of course the "river" of any culture is more varied than most admit. "Muddy water" also explains why "you can never go home".

  9. @Josh Hmmm. Yes, basically you are right, but it is never impossible to progress in understanding "the other"--whether it be another culture inside one's own country or outside it.
    I--in many heated and exciting conversations--have been very pissed off when "the locals" say, "Well, you are a foreigner so you can't understand." I generally retort "You are an idiot so you can't explain!" Yes, that sounds horribly rude but we are talking about my close friends and I after a few glasses. Besides, I am the personage in a hot pink coat and hot pink shoes (seriously, I am). No matter how rudely I rant and rave people tend to look at me with amusement and pity.

    Then, with all the painful precision of a person who has spent years exegeting ancient languages,I make them explain what they think, or I explain to them what I think that they think. Yes, maybe I can't fully understand, but that doesn't absolve them of the responsibility of explaining clearly.

    I generally don't meet any other expats--not even one a month. If they went around claiming that they understood the culture perfectly, I'd be annoyed too.

    So, my point is this: Yes, we can't fully understand "the other" but that doesn't give either side an excuse to be lazy. When people use the "you are a foreigner" excuse to shut me out, I tend to go into full attack mode.