The Creative Cafe
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The Creative Cafe

Culture Clash

Walking to the beat of her own drum was how Kinsey was known best, but now that she was in Korea, she desperately wanted to fit in. Being short was a good start, she could blend in, yet the challenge was going to be how not to make a fool of herself. The first test would come at dinner later tonight at her girlfriend’s parent’s house. Holly, her soulmate, was the daughter of a Korean dignitary, whom Kinsey met while serving in the US Army.

Arriving at the turtle farm some six months ago, Kinsey knew that this would be a culture clash of epic proportion. The cold climate, awful smells, and the peculiar sounds the Koreans made when speaking, were just a few of the changes she was going to have to grow accustomed to. She was in for a hell of a 13 month tour. Meeting Holly was what made this more bearable, she, having taken her under her wing, had showed her the beauty of a country and a people that were kind, funny, imaginative and hard-working, which made her visit here, not only tolerable, but enjoyable as well.

They met one night while Kinsey was partying at the Rainbow club, showing off her dance moves with her fellow soldiers. While at the bar ordering a drink, she’d seen Holly eating a snack of dried fish. “What is that” she asked, and Holly replied, “Jeepo, want to try a bite?” Tentatively Kinsey grasped a piece, eyeballing Holly with a distrustful look. “It smells awful” she said, simultaneously popping it in her mouth. As soon as the salty, fishy taste hit her tongue, she wanted to spit it right back out, but bravely chewed and swallowed the disgusting bite. Giggling, Holly said “See, not so bad, right?” After taking her shot of tequila, Kinsey reluctantly agreed, and a bond was formed between the two of them. “What else you got?” The pair drank, snacked and chatted the night away, Kinsey having forgot the company she was previously hanging with.

Every minute she was off duty was spent with Holly. Taking in the sites, tasting the local flavors and shopping in the villages of Seoul. She grew to love the country she feared, and her friendship with Holly blossomed into something more, she couldn’t explain it, yet she followed her heart and decided the relationship was worth expanding. She never gave a second thought to what anyone else might think of her, so strong was her connection to this beautiful soul. It was purely platonic, let everyone think what they will, she thought. Soon, however, Holly wanted to introduce Kinsey to her parents, they were curious of this person she was spending all of her time with. Once the dinner plans were made, the nervousness began.

Back on base, Kinsey started to question her fellow soldiers that were practiced in the art of eating with chopsticks. “I don’t even have a clue how to hold the darn things” she complained to Trevor, her best bud at the clinic where she worked as a medic. “Just do it like this” he showed her, while holding the lower stick on his thumb, and between his ring and middle finger. The second stick was held like a pencil and used his thumb and index fingers at the tips as he expertly picked up a piece of chicken from his bowl. Trying the maneuver herself, Kinsey clumsily held the chopsticks and just as she went to grasp the food, they crossed over each other and fell back in her bowl. “Ugh” she said and moved to pick up her fork instead. “No, don’t give up so easy” Trevor admonished. Placing the chopsticks back in her hand he told her, “It just takes practice, lot’s of practice.” Kinsey didn’t think there was enough time in the day for all of that, yet she vowed to keep trying.

Before her transfer to Korea, her friends back at Ft Hood had told her that this tour of duty was the Army’s best kept secret, teaching her some of the language and testing her knowledge before she left. So far she’d had plenty of chances to prove her skill in the bars and markets, buying merchandise and ordering drinks like she grew up speaking Korean, but the only secret she’d discovered was how resentful the people seemed to be of the Army’s presence there-even though they were there to protect them. Holly had never treated her that way, though, and Kinsey was at the same time confused but grateful. For that reason, she really wanted to make a good impression on her parents.

Before she knew it, the evening of the dinner was upon her and she and Holly had spent hours dressing up and working on proper etiquette. Little did Holly know Kinsey had not yet mastered the chopsticks, even after days and nights practicing until she’d given up in frustration. She figured she might get by just winging it, if all else failed, she could use a spoon, right? She had no idea the faux pas she was about to commit, starting with the moment they entered the palace-like home. In her haste to “meet the parents” she stepped across the threshold without first removing her shoes-that earned her a stern look from the housekeeper. Backing up, she removed her shoes and then proceeded into the house.

Spacious and beautiful, tastefully decorated, she let her eyes roam all over the rooms as they were lead from the foyer into a comfortable living room. Nervously, Kinsey looked at Holly and asked what she thought dinner would consist of. “Oh, probably some kimchi, some kind of soup, some pul-kogi maybe, I’m not sure…Mother did not clue me in.” And rice, Kinsey thought to herself. How in the heck was she going to get through this? First off, she hated kimchi, couldn’t stand the smell of it, how would she disguise her distaste she wondered. As she was pondering all of this, Holly’s parents entered the room, and introductions were made. After they were seated at the table Kinsey’s fears were justified when she realized Holly’s parents were the prim and proper type. The table was set with all of the silverware in its place, crystal goblets beside each bowl and a linen tablecloth adorned the table.

Holly’s father started the conversation by asking Kinsey where the two met, and she toyed with the idea of lying about it, not knowing if he would be offended that they met in a bar. Holly broke the ice, however, saying “Father, I told you we met in that cute boutique next to the market.” The next thing Kinsey knew, everyone was talking at once, Holly’s mother wanting to know all the details about their shopping trip, her father asking about what Kinsey did for the service and all the while, food was being ladeled into bowls and she thought she might just get through the dinner unscathed. Looking around the table, she noticed everyone had picked up their chopsticks, so tentatively, she did the same. She noticed that the grip ends were ornately decorated, this was a very fancy home indeed. She grasped the chopsticks in the manner she had been practicing, reached into her bowl and pinched up a few noodles. As she was bringing them to her lips, she looked up and noticed all eyes were on her. Unbelievably, she succeeded in reaching her mouth with the food, and in her excitement, laid the chopsticks next to her bowl, to the left of the spoon.

Beaming, she looked at Holly who was watching her mother, and looking over in her mother’s direction, she saw with horror that the woman looked ready to faint. Her father was frowning and Kinsey could not for the life of her figure out what she’d done wrong. Quickly, Holly moved the chopsticks to the right of her spoon, whispering the reason to Kinsey while doing so. How was she supposed to know that in Korean etiquette, it is only during funeral preparation that the chopsticks go where she’d put them. Mortified, she apologized and pushed back her chair, getting ready for a hasty retreat. Holly stopped her and said “It’s alright, simple mistake. Try it with the spoon.” Kinsey picked up the spoon in her left hand and the chopsticks in her right and managed another bite. Everyone relaxed then, and the conversation resumed.

Though Kinsey had made a mistake, Holly’s patience and understanding had helped her through, and the dinner was enjoyed with no further incident. Kinsey managed to impress Holly’s parents by showing them how much she cared for Holly when speaking to her in her native tongue. Luckily, learning the language came more easily for her than the rules of etiquette, and the icing on the cake was, kimchi had not been on the menu.




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Kim Smyth

Kim Smyth

Freelance writer/blogger, editor-creator of Words on a Page blog- Interests are creative writing, alternative medicine, and music.

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