The Kimchi Process
If you haven’t tried kimchi (김치) in your life, you should. After thousands of years of making and eating kimchi, it is now a staple in any Korean household. However, to make such a delicacy, the process is long, complex, and, to some people, even a little stinky. The recipe can vary, but typically cabbage, Korean red pepper flakes called gochugaru (고추가루), and other ingredients are packed into a mason jar, sealed, and placed out direct sunlight. After 24 hours, the jar is opened to release the “smelly” gasses and then resealed and stored in the fridge for up to 1 month. After describing the process, this delicacy may not sound appetizing to you, but Koreans and foreigners alike love to eat kimchi. Food often emulates aspects of a people’s culture and kimchi is no exception.
Bottling Emotions and Avoiding Confrontation
When compared to other cultures, Koreans typically avoid confrontation and are emotionally unexpressive. Like kimchi, emotions are considered best if bottled up and stored for extended amounts of time. When emotions are shared, Koreans typically express emotions more subtly and disagreements more softly. Other cultures may consider this behavior to be unorthodox or in kimchi-terms “a strong smell,” but for Koreans that’s how they like it.
History and Diversity Marinating into High-Context Communication
Kimchi also serves as a metaphor for how Koreans use high-context communication in their conversations. Low-context communication is often expressed more directly, with more detail, and less emphasis on body language, while high-context communication uses more indirect communication, implied meaning, and greater emphasis on body language. High-context cultures such as Korea develop as a result of years of shared history and isolation from foreigners. Low-context cultures such as the United States typically have little shared history and are comprised mostly of immigrants. Similar to how kimchi typically has the same ingredients and marinates over large amounts of time, Koreans have developed over two thousand years of history with the same people.
Finely Aged Kimchi and Respecting Elders
Like a finely aged wine, Koreans believe that the longer kimchi ferments, the better it is for your health and the more valuable it is. In Korea, age is king. The older you are, the more respected you are. When speaking to Koreans, one of the first things they will ask you is your age. Some cultures consider asking about age to be taboo or even offensive, but this is not the intent. Koreans ask this so they know how they should speak to you because the Korean language is made up of different levels of speech formality. Age or level of formality determines how to conjugate the verb, which is always at the end of a sentence. The three most common conjugations are high-form, middle-form, and low-form. As you would expect, high-form is reserved for the most formal of situations or when addressing someone much older. Middle-form can be used when talking to strangers or people older than you in situations that don’t necessitate high-form. Low-form, also known as pan-mar (반말) or literally “half-word,” is used when speaking to close friends or family your same age or younger. In short, both kimchi and the Korean language illustrate how much Koreans value filial piety.
If you want to understand Koreans better, you should try kimchi. It’s deliciously representative of how Koreans express emotion, speak with higher context, and respect elders. Like eating kimchi, understanding how Koreans communicate may take some getting used to, but you’ll appreciate a new culture in a diversity of ingredients that make up your favorite pot of stew.