Here’s what I know about Korean things:
- I had a friend from Korea in elementary school named Gina Kim. Once in middle school we had a study party at her house and I remember eating pork dumplings her mom made for us.
- My friend Haley has been to Korea on vacation and a few of the international students who live in Trowbridge are from Korea. They talk about the food sometimes.
- I know there’s a difference between North and South Korea and I recognize Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.
These three friendly facts seem to be the extent of Korean food, culture, and politics knowledge. I’m not proud of this. I generally consider myself a cultured person. Still, when I try to recall Korean facts, my mind goes blank but for Mrs. Kim’s dumplings and I am embarrassed by my lack of Korean awareness.
The truth is, besides Mrs. Kim’s pork dumplings, I haven’t ever eaten Korean food before. I don’t think there are any Korean restaurants in Holland, Mich., my small, very Dutch hometown. If there are Korean restaurants in Holland, I haven’t been to them. I’ve eaten Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and a little bit of Vietnamese foods, but I’m afraid this list marks the end of my Asian food repertory.
I’m perhaps even more embarrassed to write that as I visualize the meal I might have at Lee’s Garden for dinner tonight, all I can see are the golds and reds and dragons, menus with pictures of white rice and the tofu dishes of Asian restaurants past. Lee’s Garden may or may not be decorated this way. I don’t know how the dishes will taste or what the restaurant will look like on the inside, but I’m troubled by the schema by which I’m forming assumptions about this restaurant. I feel like an example in Jennie Germann Molz’s essay, “Tasting an Imagined Thailand.”
On the Lee’s Garden Bibimbop website, text at the bottom of the page reads, “Come in & sign up for FREE Korean language classes. The owners are the teachers.” I wonder if this advertisement is a plea for the authenticity of this Korean restaurant. Are non-Korean customers meant to think that because the owners of Lee’s Garden speak Korean and teach language classes, they must be real Koreans? Should these customers feel like they’re eating an “authentic” Korean meal because the restaurant owners speak Korean well enough to teach it?
I’m worried that when I go to Lee’s Garden tomorrow, I will only be able to look at my experience through an ethnographer’s lens. Will the bits of theory I took from “Tasting an Imagined Thailand” taint my eating experience? Will tomorrow be more about cultural differences and my own insecurities than about the food?
I don’t think my first complete Korean meal needs to be blanketed with anthropological analysis and self-reflection. I know it’s important to recognize the problematic strings attached to ethnic “authenticity.” In fact, I think this new level of awareness will help me focus on the food I’m eating. It won’t hinder my consumption by making me insecure about my reactions to the food.
I’ve acknowledged my assumptions about tomorrow night’s meal and I know recognize that it’s a little bit silly to expect to be surrounded by dragons and tofu. Instead, I’ve decided to focus on how yummy the beef bibimbop and mandoo dumplings look in the pictures on the Lee’s Garden website.
Like the recreational tourists described in Moltz’s essay, I’ve decided to prioritize my own enjoyment in the Lee’s Garden experience. According to Cohen, quoted in Moltz, “Recreational tourists ‘seek in the Other mainly enjoyable restoration and recuperation, and hence tend to approach the cultural products encountered on their trip with a playful attitude of make believe, and therefore will entertain much broader criteria of authenticity’” (Moltz 69).
I don’t know if this approach to my first Korean food experience will work and I’m not sure if I can choose the type of culinary tourist I want to be tonight, but I hope that by embracing the experience with a playful attitude and hopes of relaxation, tonight’s dinner at Lee’s Garden will end with an appreciation for a food I’ve never experienced and know nothing about.