Saturday, July 18, 2009

Taste



Above: A Buddhist vegetarian meal in Seoul.

I'm not sure if I've ever blogged about this issue, but after yesterday's lunch, I feel compelled to do so. Read on, or don't - it's entirely up to you.

Being in Korea, where it would seem that most people are not vegetarian, you can sometimes see some strange shit on your plate. It is true that dog, as in "Fido" is a delicacy here, though it is extremely rare and attitudes about that are slowly shifting. That is perhaps a subject for another time, but I can't let its mention pass without a couple of comments to put things in perspective. It seems like a good place to begin...

1) Should dogs be consumed as food (and I already mentioned that it is rare), they are often slowly beaten or set on fire before death. Why? Because it is believed that the increased adrenal function caused by that level of panic and fear infuses the meat with more hormone making the eventual stuff that ends up on your plate, a real "pick-me-up" for men. Yes, that's right, dog meat is believed to increase male stamina.

2) While the idea that people torturing dogs before eating them is repugnant to most people outside of Korea, China, Vietnam, and other places where this occurs, it is repugnant to a great many Koreans as well. The western idea of dog as man's best friend has translated well here of late, though something certainly has been lost in the translation. "Accessory dogs" (dogs of the Paris Hilton variety) are common here, and with good reason - most people in Korea are apartment dwellers, and due to space concerns, smaller dogs are really the only humane option. Too bad that the greater majority of these little beasts become subject to the fashion trends of Korea as well. It is not at all uncommon to see dogs wearing knee-high boots, tutus, and ribbons to match their dyed-pink hair.

3) Which leads me to my next point - honesty. It's interesting to note that the notion of "not eating dog" as opposed to eating other animals common to Western cuisine, such as cows, chickens, and pigs, is a relatively new thing. I'm not going out on a limb in suggesting that the "taming" of these animals, the welcoming them into their homes as pets, sets those breeds apart. It's the way it is for us back home too, right? Essentially, what ends-up on your plate is muscle, vein, fat and all the other things that exist in a formerly living creature, but it's somehow more off-putting for us to consider the reality of a chowing-down on a cute little buddy who really just wants to curl up at our feet.

4) Generally speaking though, Koreans are simply more honest about their meat-eating than most Westerners are. While back home, pictures of meat on a menu or restaurant ad or sign show the fully-cooked and garnished result, here, you more often see the still-bloody pieces of corpse still waiting to be browned by flame. I was once in a taxi, stopped at a red light, when a meat truck pulled-up beside me. On its side was a truck-length mural/banner of a suckling pig on a spit, appearing to be about half-way cooked. Perhaps it's just the translation, but maybe it's more than that: while back home, we prefer to Christen our food with its meat name, forsaking the animal name we also gave it, Koreans do NOT pretend to make meat something it is not. They don't pretty it up - here, the blood is almost a selling feature - and why not? That's the reality. It may seem easier to say that I'm going to eat "beef" as opposed to I'm going to eat a "cow" - chicken, I suppose being the rare exception. I wonder how many people would actually mow-down on "bull testicles" if they weren't called "Prairie Oysters." Here, it has been explained to me that it's comparatively cheaper to "eat a pig", while it's much more expensive to "eat a cow." I've never really thought of it in those terms before. Somehow, this seems at least a little more honest. So, it is with curiosity that I read about protests against the selling of dog meat in Seoul. Save the dogs because they are cute, they love their owners, and we can dress them in frilly lace. It seems incongruous with its surroundings to say the least.

5) Which brings me to our Western opinion of such things. Yes, in my hometown, "The Heart of the New West", our confederate bumper sticker exists in the form of an "I love Alberta Beef" slogan. I know it's to support a centuries-old system upon which our city was largely founded, but then again, Atlanta survived the end of slavery, didn't it? Strange comparison? To some, but to me it's apt in that at its core, it's an argument about choices we make - choices made by those in a position of privilege. Forget for a minute if you can about humans versus animals and the moral weight of what suffering means to you, me or whatever go you believe in, and just consider what you truly believe is necessary... NECESSARY. If you can explore that concept far enough, I believe that we can eventually all arrive at, if not the same place, then at least at places that are shouting distance from each other.

In Canada, we feel oddly safe judging something like the torturing to death of dogs for food. But you don't have to look too far to see how our high horse really has no legs to stand on. If fact, all you need to do is look here. If you clicked on the link and didn't bother watching the video, perhaps you're not quite ready to engage in this conversation. I would suspect that most Westerners are not.

But this entry is already getting to be too long, so let me approach an ending this way...

I have never outwardly condemned someone for eating meat, be it dog, spider, cow, or horse. I have, however, been not only questioned, but also ridiculed for my choice to avoid eating meat. I use the word "avoid" because my convictions are not as strong as I would like them to be. Living in a foreign country such as Korea, avoiding seafood, and remaining healthy is a challenge as others can attest to.

While I do not condemn my friends, co-workers, and others for their choices, it's at times near impossible for me to avoid feeling judgmental, and for them for feel judgmental towards me in return. On a nearly daily basis at work, I am asked why I'm not partaking of the pork cutlets at the school cafeteria. By now, I should think that everyone knows that I don't eat meat, but if I need to remind them, they simply stare in disbelief. NOT eating meat is such a foreign concept to most people here. In the end, it's what you've known.

Though through this long and rambling post, I may have managed to eek out a few reasons as to why I strive to be a complete vegetarian, it's difficult for me to properly explain in a complete and tangible way why I make this choice. I can best do it through anecdote, so here goes...

From Wikipedia:

"Octopuses are highly intelligent, likely more so than any other order of invertebrates. The exact extent of their intelligence and learning capability is much debated among biologists, but maze and problem-solving experiments have shown that they do have both short and long-term memory. Their short lifespans limit the amount they can ultimately learn. There has been much speculation to the effect that almost all octopus behaviors are independently learned rather than instinct-based, although this remains largely unproven. They learn almost no behaviors from their parents, with whom young octopuses have very little contact.

An octopus has a highly complex nervous system, only part of which is localized in its brain. Two-thirds of an octopus's neurons are found in the nerve cords of its arms, which have a remarkable amount of autonomy. Octopus arms show a wide variety of complex reflex actions arising on at least three different levels of the nervous system. Some octopuses, such as the Mimic Octopus, will move their arms in ways that emulate the movements of other sea creatures.

In laboratory experiments, octopuses can be readily trained to distinguish between different shapes and patterns. They have been reported to practice observational learning, although the validity of these findings is widely contested on a number of grounds. Octopuses have also been observed in what some have described as play: repeatedly releasing bottles or toys into a circular current in their aquariums and then catching them. Octopuses often break out of their aquariums and sometimes into others in search of food. They have even boarded fishing boats and opened holds to eat crabs.

In some countries, octopuses are on the list of experimental animals on which surgery may not be performed without anesthesia. In the UK, cephalopods such as octopuses are regarded as honorary vertebrates under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and other cruelty to animals legislation, extending to them protections not normally afforded to invertebrates."

Eating "live octopus" is a famous delicacy here in Korea as well. It is generally prepared by having the animal's head hooked or viced, it's legs stretched out and them chopped into 1-2 inch pieces. The still-moving pieces of arm are put on a plate the the effect is like a still-boiling plate of pasta. "Brave" diners then take a piece in their chopsticks, dip it in a sauce, and chew the hell out of the squirming piece of animal so that it doesn't grab a-hold of their throat on the way down. I would imagine that most first-timers giggle about how unique the experience is for them.

Yesterday, ending a couple of days away with my co-teachers, we stopped a famous seafood restaurant for lunch. Small octopus were taken from the aquarium and placed into a pot of boiling oil in the middle of our tables. They all clung to the hand of the waitress before they were peeled-away and dropped into the pot. Their bodies instantly bloated and turned red, though they squirmed in the pot for a good minute before eventually slowing to a stop. My co-workers held them down with a ladle so that they wouldn't escape.

Before I make a final comment, lest anyone thinks that my comment on this is a broad strike condemnation of Koreans, let me balance this by saying that I love my co-workers, and find many of them to be among the kindest and most welcoming people I've come across. As kind as welcoming as my Canadian friends who prepared a lobster dinner on Prince Edward Island a few years back, lowering live lobsters into a pot of boiling water.

The only protest I could offer-up yesterday was "Why?" As in why is it necessary to kill the animal in this way? The honest response was "This way, the meat is more tender." I suppose an Albertan veal farmer would answer the same way if asked why he raises his weakened young cows in a small crate. Remember that cows are revered and deemed sacred in India. What does that say about us?

As I write this, I realize it may seem to anyone who doesn't really know me well, that I am outwardly argumentative about not eating meat. The truth is, I'm not. Here especially, I place the importance of my relationship with my co-workers, mutual cultural respect and all that jazz, above that of my own meat-eating convictions. Right or wrong, that's the choice I make. I never confront, I only respond when asked. It's interesting to me when people get confrontational about it. I find it curious that someone can find my choice to NOT eat meat such an offensive thing. As though they, themselves were personally affronted by my choice. People are fascinating animals.

But anyway, the meat is more tender, the dog meat makes me think I have a stronger penis, and blah, blah, blah... Even if one out of two is correct, the simplest argument I can make is this: is it necessary? And if the answer is, "No, but it's my right as a human being." My response would be to say that human beings haven't impressed me much in the last little while and that I'm not sure what rights involving the destruction of other living things we should really be claiming. If you quote the "good word" and tell me that "God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth," then I will again paraphrase Bill Maher and say that you may believe that your God may have given you dominion over the earth, but I'm pretty sure he didn't say "taketh the earth, and beateth the shit out of it."

If it's all relative, I'll remain comfortable in my decision to not boil an animal alive so that I may enjoy it's more tender meat. Maybe I'm just not that much of a connoisseur of fine cuisine, but I don't think I'm missing out on much. Ultimately, I lack the pride necessary to assume my humanity gives me the right to do what amounts to torturing for the sake of taste.

I forget who originally said it, but it's worth repeating here: "A victory over a defenseless animal is an empty one." But try telling that to the heroes who light dogs on fire because they feel it gives them a bigger penis. No, sir... that's what driving a Ferrari is for.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Korean on Canada Day



I'm trying really hard to remember what I did last Canada Day, and for the life of me, I can't recall. I remember that it was spent in Korea, and it was towards the end of my first year, and I think I wore my Team Canada Yzerman jersey, but that kind of goes without saying.

To me, Canada Day isn't that big a deal - it's a day off to wander around Princes Island in Calgary if the weather is nice, and it's a day I suppose to fee lucky. I suppose I've always had good Canada Days, probably because I have more than a few friends who are more patriotic than me, and I just let them rub-off on me for a day. I also appreciate how Canada Day back home often feels more like "World Showcase Day" - every culture in Canada bringing-out their home country's colours - be they from Brazil, The Ukraine, or China. It's nice to see more than one flag being flown and embraced.

This year, I decided to make a little something of Canada Day - though circumstances being what they were, there wasn't much to be done. Fortunately in some regards, but unfortunate in others, my students were all writing final exams today. This meant no Canada Day lesson for anyone, but I decided to wear my jersey, drape the flag around my shoulders, and rush around the halls with my flag flapping like Superman's cape behind me.

I would stop-off into classrooms between exams to sing the anthem after explaining that it was "Canada's Birthday". The kids, to their credit, even through the fog and haze of day two of exams, were pretty stoked about it. They all cheered and said a hearty "congratulations" throughout the day when they saw me.

With exams underway, I just hung my flag outside the English Only classroom and went back to preparing for lessons next week. Afterward, some of my English co-teachers decided that it was time to visit a pottery museum... I know... a difficult segue way, but there it is. It seems that every now and then groups of teachers decide that it's time for an excursion of some kind and today was of the pottery museum kind. Though I had and still have a lot of work to take care of, being a sucker for kimchi, I decided that taking a pottery museum break was the right thing to do... what better way to Celebrate Canada Day than to explore a Korean pottery museum...


It was cool - I saw pottery and lots of it. I saw pottery for storing food, pottery for holding lamps, pottery for squeezing the pus out of wounds, pottery for carrying the earthly embodiment of god of, and - right next to that - pottery for carrying human excrement... at least that's what the sign said. All in all - an intriguing day. Not something I would have chosen to do on my own perhaps, but I was touched to see my teachers go out of their way to take me to see something that they felt was culturally worthwhile. As long as it doesn't involve eating dog meat, I'm all about it. Speaking of vegetarianism, since I'm into awkward segue ways today, I saw a restaurant called "Donkey Chicken" today. I don't want to know what that means. It may not be easy to be a vegetarian in Korea, but there are times when you're glad you are one.


My day continued with a trip to Gangnam this evening for my first Korean lesson. Yes, you read that right, I have finally bitten the bullet and paid for lessons. I'll be heading to Gangnam every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for two hours. It's good to have my friend Lexi in the class with me - a study partner and company for the subway ride home. It's pricey - 280,000 won per month - but in my estimation it'll be worth it. Going to the lessons and paying for them is the only way actually learning the language is going to happen. I've been here long enough to know that if you don't schedule time to learn and see it through, it isn't going to happen. Day 1 was a tad easy, but soon the real structure begins. I'm both excited and nervous about learning a new language at my age. At the very least, it's a project - my brain has been craving just this sort of thing and being here, I can't think of a more practical pursuit.

So, happy Canada Day to all of you back home. Enjoy your freedoms, be proud, but more importantly, enjoy your good fortune, because that's probably more accurate. I capped my day off with a pint of Big Rock Traditional Ale served to me in the heart of Seoul. I consider myself fortunate too.

In other news, My school-wide Hogwarts' House contest came to a close this past week. Though Ravenclaw put up one hell of a fight, in the end, Slytherin's lead was just too large to be overtaken. Here's the the snake people having their day in the sun.