Enjoying Korean and Australian Cultural Differences

  • onNovember 14, 2014
  • Vol.14 Winter 2011
  • byKim Ki-taek

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Australia, twin literary events were held in each country in May and late August 2011. I'm familiar with Australia because I often enjoy its beef and cheese, but Australian literature was totally foreign to me. I therefore greatly anticipated the literary event held Down Under. I was part of a delegation of South Korean poets including Hwang Tong-gyu, Bak Ra-yeon, and Park Hyung- Jun who took part in the August event, which for all of us was our first visit to Australia.

Earlier in May, two poetry readings were held at Seoul Art Space Yeonhui in the Shinchon district in Seoul. The first poetry reading was an informal occasion held at the request of Australian poets interested in meeting their Korean counterparts. As this was an unscheduled event, there were almost no attendees from the reading public, thereby enabling poets from the two countries to recite poems and comfortably chat with one another. It was also a good opportunity for Korean poets to learn about Australian poetry. From Australia, the poets Barry Hill, Terry Jaenche, and Ivy Alvarez were in attendance along with David Prater, managing editor of the Cordite Poetry Review webzine, and University of Melbourne Professor Nicholas Lowe. Representing Korea were Yi Kyunglim, Shim Bo-seon, Kim Un, myself, and others. The poetic styles of all three Australian poets were quite different, giving us the opportunity to enjoy a range of Australian poetry in one sitting. Barry Hill recited a lyrical poem redolent of the Eastern contemplative tradition with its religious and philosophical depth. Terry Jaenche's free-form poetry was at once sentimental and avant-garde, while the work of Ivy Alvarez was concerned with events from everyday life, posing poignant questions about humankind and existence in a humorous but lyrical way.

The second poetry reading held in Korea was attended by the general public on a spring evening, with musical and video performances accompanying poetry readings in a festive atmosphere. In addition to reciting verse, the Australian poets in attendance shared their photos of new cultural experiences acquired in Korea. They also distributed poems and pictures printed on business card stock to all those present. Their freshness, wit, and humor were a great hit with the crowd. The hip-hop artists Swings and Garion energetically recited their rap interpretations of our poems, followed by the singer Sorri's rendition of Korean poetry combined with sweet melodies. Of course poets must also eat, so the highlight of the evening was the post-event dinner consisting of makgeolli (raw rice wine) and jajangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce). During the relaxed meal everyone enjoyed pleasant conversation.

A few months later, we attended the Melbourne Writers Festival which was actually held in both Sydney and Melbourne from August 25th to September 4th. We participated in a variety of activities including poetry readings, radio interviews, meetings with poets from other countries, discussions, and literary lectures. The most memorable events, however, were the poetry readings held before the Australian reading public in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively. Members of the public were divided into small groups while poets visited each to recite poems and f ield questions. We had lively and amicable discussions thanks to close oneon- one interaction with the audience.

I recited four of my poems which have been translated into English, including “Cow” and “Eating a Live Octopus.” “Cow” is one of my most wellknown works, but this was my first time presenting it to a foreign audience. I had misgivings because I assumed that readers must share the Korean sentiment toward cows in order to appreciate the poem. Since ancient times, Korean farmers have relied on cows to plow fields, and cows were treated like part of the family living within the fenced-in confines of the same yard. In addition, Korean cows are slow, gentle, and obedient, earning them human affection and compassion. In other countries, however, cattle are raised on large ranches with vast fields. Non-Korean cows are also more aggressive. I thought Australians might be amenable to “Cow,” however, as Australia raises scores of cattle on vast pastures, exports large quantities of beef to Korea, and has a special place in its heart for cattle. I also wanted to see how Australians would react to this poem. Before reciting, I explained to the audience the cultural differences between the perception of cows between our two countries. Surprisingly, many Australians actually related to the sentiments expressed in “Cow.”

“Eating a Live Octopus” is a poem about a food culture that most non-Koreans are unfamiliar with. Although Australians also enjoy eating octopus, they only consume it fully-cooked. After a preliminary explanation of Koreans' culinary enjoyment of live octopus, however, my poetry reading was met with an unexpectedly overwhelming response. I think that hearing about Korea's exotic culinary practices stimulated the imaginations of many Australians, resulting in lots of laughter, even expressions of disgust, and many questions from the audience. Because we were able to come face-to-face with the reading public in an intimate setting, cultural difference became a source of interest, bringing poets and readers closer together rather than keeping them apart.

I will never forget the autumn evening I spent in the small, quiet seaside village of Queenscliff, where poet Barry Hill resides. The exquisite food, conversation, laughter, and poetry readings against the backdrop of the moon, sounds of the ocean, and the chirping of insects made me feel out of this world-in a word, it was poetry.


by Kim Ki-taek


Author's Profile

Kim Ki-taek is a poet, translator, and professor. He has published six poetry collections, one essay collection, and numerous children’s books; he has also translated many children’s books, including Hans in Luck. He has won the Kim Su-Young Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Isu Literary Award, and Midang Literary Award. His books Storm in the Needle Hole and Gum have been published in Japan and Mexico, respectively.