-by Matt Leedham
Less than 24 hours after being in Seoul, South Korea, I find myself with my wife, her sister and husband, and my in-laws walking down a narrow street near Myeong Dong. Scooters and mopeds with modified cargo bins on the back zip through the crowded alley, alight with various signs that are blinking, digitally scrolling, inflated, or moving. My Abunim (father-in-law) spots a restaurant to his liking and we scurry in, sitting 6 to a table that in America might comfortable seat 2 or 3.
The order is placed. The restaurant has maybe 15 tables and they were all packed, steam rising from the hot pots on each one that were cooking over an open flame. Empty soju bottles littered each table, and the din was more like that of a stock exchange trading floor than a restaurant.
I’m looking toward the back of the restaurant and I see waitresses using a net to dip deep into a 20+ gallon tank to scoop up 2lb-ish octopuses. This piqued my interest as to what I was about to eat. I have eaten plenty of cooked octopus and squid in Japanese, Korean, and American restaurants. But what I saw next alarmed me.
There was some commotion to my left. I turned to see a man and a woman seated a small table. He was in a suit and tie and she was dressed fashionably. They were calmly seeking the assistance of a waitress. When the waitress noticed what they needed, she bolted for the back of the restaurant and grabbed some tongs.
There was a live octopus that had successfully maneuvered out of their boiling pot of noodles, onto the table, and was clearly thinking about rappelling down the wooden leg of the table.
It was shocking for sure, but also entertaining as we all seemed to get a good chuckle.
Then our super hot serving platter of noodles arrived.
The waitress was holding a plate with a live octopus in it. She grabbed the octopus with some tongs, and shoved in the noodle dish on our table. She covered it with the contents of the dish so it was buried. I thought, “Okay, okay. This isn’t so bad…I can’t even see it.”
Then the octopus realized it was in a super hot pile of noodles and started trying to get out. Its tentacles moved all over the place, its head popped out of the top, and it was clearly straining. The struggle slowed as it cooked and eventually, it was done. The waitress used scissors to cut the octopus up into bite-size pieces and left us to enjoy our dish.
I’m a very open-minded person and love to travel, so I forced out the internal thought, “That was…um…different.” And then I ate.
This experience got me thinking. What judgments do I have around food, diet, culture, style, etc. I looked around. The restaurant is packed. People have sought out this restaurant for its fresh seafood, and are enjoying their meal. Why was my response immediately to be shocked?
For starters, it was unique to me. I’ve never eaten a dish like this, nor have I even seen something like this on TV. Second, I’ve been conditioned for 33 years to eat a certain way and have developed countless expectations about what is normal and what is not.
Sure, eating a pizza is normal for me, but there wasn’t a pizza joint for miles (and if there were it would have things like bulgogi meat and corn on it). Eating fresh seafood is absolutely normal for Koreans who live on peninsula and have depended on seafood for millennia.
What foods do we eat in America that might be considered a little weird? My family always enjoyed lobster as a treat, or when celebrating a special occasion. Occasionally, my mom would even bring home live lobster, with their claws banded, to cook at home. Is there anything strange about that?
Let’s see. First of all, lobsters are bottom-feeding, scavenging spiders of the sea. It’s actually kind of gross when you think about it. And when cooking them at home, you boil a pot of water, and drop them in head first (to limit the suffering…haha!). Then we wear silly bibs to protect our clothing, crack them open with primitive tools, eat with our hands, and create a sloppy mess within a 5-foot radius.
Still sound appealing? Try ordering a shellfish platter at the Capital Grille while hosting a group of high-ranking Muslim Turks and watch their expression (this actually happened to Jaime and I a few years ago). They’ll be repulsed and offended.
We have created layers and layers of judgments about what is normal over the years. All of our experiences have developed very significant definitions about what we “like” and “don’t like.”
But what if we release those judgments for a minute? What if we can convince ourselves that things aren’t better or worse, they’re just different. For something to be better or worse means that we have judged and labeled it as such. That kind of thinking can be very limiting.
My 3-week journey introduced me to food, places and people that were unique. With limited beliefs, my trip would have been long and exhausting. With an open mind of non-judgment, every day was a breathtaking adventure of new and wonderful experiences.
In what ways are your judgments and limited beliefs holding you back from experiencing life with wonderment and joy? Think about it.
NOTE: I could have written pages and pages about other unique experiences that challenged my thoughts around what is normal and not normal, such as sleeping on the floor, bumping into people in crowded areas, or running red lights. I also could have also used countless examples of other “weird” things we do in America, such as drink 32 ounces of soda at a time, or go “dutch” (i.e. split checks) on dates or with friends, or call our elders by their first name. These are all things that Koreans find alarming, strange, or unique in America. Keep an open mind and at least acknowledge that these judgments exist!