Seaweed for Breakfast

seaweedI’d been looking forward to my trip to Seoul with a mixture of pleasure and apprehension.  My pleasure was in anticipation of a pleasant meeting with the hospitable Korean people; my apprehension due to difficulties I anticipated working through a translator for two weeks of lectures for a distance learning graduate program.  I was naturally concerned materials I’d taken so long to prepare would reach students in the way I wanted to present them

Some students were flying in from other countries for this course.  These students had a good grasp of English and I brightened at the thought.  They and their teacher would learn a lot from exposure to this vibrant society and culture in the weeks ahead.

The non-Koreans first adjustment was to climate.  Nights were still extremely cold and water in taps near freezing point.  Unfortunately the hot water system in our assigned quarters at the university had decided to quit on our arrival.  No one seemed to be able to get it started again.  It was an act of dedicated courage to take an early morning shower, and loud singing from expatriate students was their way of compensating for the pain their bodies experienced during early morning bathing exercise.  Our stoic Korean hosts could not understand why we found the temperature unpleasant.

An event which stands out in my mind during that assignment was meal time.  We’d let it be known we’d prefer to be treated like our Korean student contingent, and that no doubt explained cold showers and generous servings of Korean food for each meal.  This was not my first visit to Korea and I’d mastered the intricacies of the short stainless steel flat tipped chop sticks by the time of this visit.  I‘d even learned to appreciate Korean cuisine.  Most foreign students were equally venturesome and looked like they were enjoying their meal experiences immensely.

But Lee was an exception in this happy gathering.  Those stainless steel chop sticks seemed to defy his efforts and he held them like scissors ready for the cloth.  Inevitably we’d have seaweed broth as one of our breakfast dishes.  For two days Lee did his best to fit in, but in the process spread his breakfast liberally over clothes and table to the amusement of the other foreign students.  The Koreans were too polite to laugh and pointedly turned away so they’d not cause their guest loss of face.

On the second day Lee retreated to his room and managed for the rest of our stay there with our Korean host’s attempt at western food supplied to his room by anxious Korean women.  The mental defeat he’d suffered affected his attitude and studies.  The rest of us were relieved we’d not suffered Lee’s fate.

And that set me to thinking.  While we foreigners had passed the test in adjusting to cold water showers in the middle of a Korean winter, and unfamiliar foods, what kind of cultural mistakes had we made in other ways that would have left a bad impression in the minds of our Korean hosts?  Had we done enough background studies of their culture in advance to try and avoid that?

And taking it a step further, what kind of impression do we make in the communities we live in?  Are we sensitive to the cultural mores that drive our own society, and do we have a respect and tolerance for those who for some reason or another just can’t get it right?

I take my hat off to the Koreans who turned away rather than embarrass Lee when he messed up and broke all the rules of eating etiquette at our breakfast meet.  Maybe there’s a lesson in that I could take on board.

© Copyright Ian Grice 2014 All rights reserved

NB: the above image belongs to



19 thoughts on “Seaweed for Breakfast

  1. Yes, a good extrapolation of the experience. Although turning away and pretending not to notice vs warmly noticing and seeking to reassure people is a cultural difference on that one – but the similarity being the lack of ridicule. We don’t have to travel to start acting on that lesson.


    1. Northern Asians and their diaspora in the South and beyond are very conscious of “face” and will go out of their way to preserve their own, and a guest’s face. The reassurance which is part of the seminar gurus mantra in the West is not on in that society. The concept of East and West is rather colonial isn’t it? As far as China is concerned America is the East. lol. Cheers!


  2. Sensitivity of all types including cultural sensitivity is these days a gift rather than a given. It’s a sad fact and one I am pleased to hear you address.

    I’ll be back to look around your site again, in the meantime I stopped in to say thank you for reading my article on Holistic Wayfarers WordPress site.


    1. I always enjoy blogs written from the heart so yours was worth the read. Welcome to my site. I don’t have a great deal of time for blogging these days but enjoy the interaction when I do get to read articles like yours.


  3. I think you were really overly gracious in wanting to please the Koreans so, Ian. I’m sure they understood. I take it you like Korean food? You know I’m a straight-shooter. Feel free to say so otherwise.


    1. I like all the North Asia foods. We don’t have a Korean restaurant where we live but we do have Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Indian restaurants. I like kim chi and bim bim bop the best but the dried seaweed with rice is great too. I prefer long chop sticks to the short stainless steel ones favoured by Koreans.


  4. Hello Ian, I love the new look of your blog. I also enjoyed this thought provoking post and the comments and stories others have posted. I have travelled on business, but mainly in English speaking countries, it makes one think though. We seem to be so much more aware nowadays…maybe a hidden benefit of polital correctness! Great post Ian. 🙂


  5. Reading this brought me back to the time I arrived in Germany, I felt so lost and alone. I had a lot to learn and had no idea how to begin. Then luck came my way through meeting a German lady married to an American that spoke English. With her help I was able to learn about some of the culture there and enough of the language to get by. Hopefully I did not embarrass anyone or do any harm. I think living near an Army base with a lot of Americans around made it easier for my stay there too. I would be totally lost and not have any idea what to do in any other country. I did visit Switzerland and France but only to site see with others familiar with those countries. I don’t think I would be able to live in all the places you and your family did and do well. I commend you sweet Ian my friend! Hugs


    1. Well I have to confess that travelling alone in language areas where I had no idea about what was going on but had to get business done anyway was quite stressful and often I didn’t have anyone who understood more than a few words of English if any at all. It was all about sign language then. Germany is a beautiful country isn’t it, but then other countries of Europe are beautiful too. My wife who is Hungarian but fled to Germany ahead of the Russian advance in the 1940s was so happy to revisit places of her childhood memories and it was a great thing to have her there to interpret for me.


      1. Yes, Germany is a beautiful country. I thought Switzerland was beautiful too. I saw a bit of Greenland, but it was all icy there so I did not get off the plane. I mostly only saw the airport so I really don’t know what that country looks like. I loved it in Germany once I got settled in and learned a bit of the language. My trip back home was bitter sweet.


  6. Hi Ian: I enjoyed this piece along with your provocative questions. I expect that we all have anecdotes about cultural gaffs. My most poignant is about toilets. In the late 70s we designed a number of projects in Saudi Arabia We were told to make the toilets ‘western’ making sure that no one had to pee facing Mecca; but after the first were built we received complaints that the toilet seats were breaking. It turned out that for the second action the Saudis still favored a squatting position and so were climbing up to squat on the toilets thereby breaking the seats. With this custom Eric would have never had a problem with the cold UK seats although he might have broken them!
    Empathy with other’s feelings and cultures is a fine art starting with human an ability to put oneself into the other’s shoes. The book ‘Toggle’ by Wyon Stansfeld (available on Amazon) is an excellent study into empathy – it is an compelling well-told story.
    Cheerio, Jane


    1. Thanks for the tip Jane. I appreciate that. Your note on the toilets reminded me of a trip I took to Bandung, Indonesia to inspect a large hospital there. We were out on the estate and sought to take advantage of the block of toilets there. My companion was a rotund jolly person and we often joked as we travelled around. It was my turn to use the service immediately following his visit and after coming out I took him aside and demanded he do something about his weight. For once he was taken by surprise and looked at me uncertainly. I told him I knew from what he’d told me he always squatted on a public western toilet in Asia because he was unsure whether it would by hygienic to do otherwise. I told him in this case his weight had been too much for the toilet and it had been pushed down to ground level! It took him a while to catch on but when he did we all had a good laugh.


  7. Well written Ian. In my profession I have had to visit other cultures and I can truly relate to the experience of cold showers, as well as food differences! However, I would not trade those experiences, which taught me so much about cultural differences. Excellent reminiscing about studying of culture before entering it. When we served on Norfolk Island 22 years ago for three years, we learned so much. In 2009 when I returned for another two year term what we had learned in our first assignment was soooo helpful and even then we learned more! thanks for an excellent article.


    1. Yes we often feel when travelling that everything should operate as we feel the norm to be in our home culture, but that’s not the case and terrible insults have occurred as a result. We need to study a host culture well in advance of a tour or intended relocation and be prepared to observe carefully and respectfully in order to lessen the chance of an insult and subsequent rejection.


  8. I recall my first visit to England – ended up in Cheltenham on a cold wintry night. It was a small B&B and I hurried down the carpeted corridor to the toilet. I sat down and jumped right up! It was my first trip during winter to anywhere. After that shock, I always used a towel to line the toilet seat. LOL!

    You are right – how many gaffes are we all guilty of in strange cultural settings.

    After I joined the company, my new UK boss accompanied me to Jakarta on a biz meeting. The Indonesians were extremely polite, as they always are. When we stepped out after about an hour, my boss was gushing. He was convinced that we would land that contract.

    When I enlightened him that they actually turned us down – my boss was shocked. For one whole hour he had missed all the hints – and this from a man who had spent one decade visiting Asia (and) Indonesia on sales.


    1. I know what you mean. Politeness is not necessarily agreement. I should tell you a funny story about my first trip to Sri Lanka. I was to care for an administrative job while the one I was temporarily replacing went for an extended vacation. He lived in one of those expansive bungalows the idle rich enjoy. My first trip to the rest room puzzled me. Next to the necessary toilet bowl was another lower bowl with a central pipe that looked like the fountain in a pond on a small scale. My curiosity was aroused! It required close inspection. I bent down and activated the water knob and received a blast in the face. My education was then complete. I’d figured out its usefulness. lol


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