Wednesday, March 7, 2012


There are some days when I like to think that I am immune to culture shock. I would consider myself as an open-minded person, one who likes to assume the best of everyone and see the kimchi pot as half full. I believe that I first left my “home culture” when I left the Rocky Mountains for Sweet Home Alabama and have picked up a quiver of skills to embrace cultural differences since then. But, every once in a while, I get knocked off of my high horse and land face first into a muddy puddle of culture shock. Icky, slimy, tantrum-throwing culture shock.

I found myself in such a puddle the other evening as I was playing Suzy Housewife in the kitchen. I was attempting to get dinner ready for the girls during the time of day that happily tends to coincide with their fussiest and neediest spell. I then had the sudden desire to bake some cookies because, well, I wanted to eat some cookies. With a baby on one hip, I reached into the cupboard to pull out the necessary ingredients. My next move was to go to the fridge to find the required two sticks of butter. Enter the crash of falling off of the culture-shock-proof high horse. How could butter cause such a disturbance, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

Perhaps it is because our Western palates have grown accustomed to the flavor enhancement provided by butter, but America makes butter very easy to use. It is packaged in easily used sticks labeled with measurements to correctly divide the butter should the recipe call for a fraction of that stick. What’s more, these paper-wrapped sticks slide effortlessly out allowing home cooks to go on about their baking without a care in the world. Not so in Korea. Butter is packaged in giant blocks of what I have approximated to be about four sticks. This requires me to take a very large knife and slice the brick into fourths to achieve the rough measurement essential to whatever recipe I am using. While this is annoying, it isn’t what pushed me over the edge into my culture shock mud bath.

The tipping point came with the wrapper. Even the word makes me grimace with bitterness in the memory of this barrier between me and my cookies. As I mentioned, I am used to butter sliding out of its sleeve smoothly, easily, like butter, right? Not so much here. I am convinced that there are evil little anti-butter using elves who sneak into grocery stores at night randomly cementing sections of the paper to the butter itself. This requires Suzy Homemaker to tear the wrapper off in tiny shreds that have been adhered to the crevices of the butter brick. Not only that, but the wrapper has two layers, the aluminum layer and the transparent paper layer. Therefore, at the point when you believe that you have triumphed over the cementing elves, you find that they have, in fact, bested you with an extra layer of paper to be scratched off in even smaller shreds than the aluminum.

So, here I am. Sweet potatoes waiting to be smashed, chicken begging to be flipped in the pan, hungry baby on the hip letting me know about her increasing impatience, tattered scraps of a butter wrapper strewn all over the counter, and me wielding a ridiculously large knife ready to quarter the cursed block of butter. Not exactly the embodiment of the Suzy Homemaker I had envisioned. I had one of those out-of-body moments of clarity as I imagined someone walking in and seeing me all disheveled holding a baby in one hand and a butcher knife in the other as the chicken finally set the fire alarm off (This probably would have happened if we hadn’t disabled the fire alarm long ago…). I decided to put the knife down.

And so, I came face-to-face with the ugly beast herself: culture shock. Why can’t Koreans package butter like America? Because this isn’t America. Deal with it. And put the knife down.