Foreigners and Food

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An article over at chosun.com today is asking the question that no one was wondering, is the performance of a foreign pitcher related to his ability to eat Korean food?

Here is a basic translation, followed by some of my own comments.

Is Foreign Pitchers’ performance related to their appetite for Korean food?

The importance of foreign pitchers in Korean Professional Baseball has continued to increase, and choosing the right one can make or break your season. Many of these pitchers come with Major League experience, so perhaps pitching in Korea wouldn’t be much of a challenge. But sometimes we see pitchers packing their bags and returning home after only a few months. Most of these failures are related to adapting to Korean culture.

The two most important parts of Korean culture are language and food. Currently, between the nine teams there are 19 foreign pitchers in the league. Each team has a special employee whose job is to act as a translator for the foreign players, as well as to assist them with daily life in Korea. These people tell us that issues related to food are just as important as translation.

The foreign pitcher who seems to enjoy Korean food the most is Anthony Lerew (31) of the KIA Tigers. After pitching for the Atlanta Braves in the MLB, Lerew joined KIA in 2012. Lerew is well renowned for being able to eat any and every Korean food. There isn’t anything that he hasn’t tried at least once. Last summer, on the advice of Sun Dong-Yeol (KIA Manager) he even tried bo-sin-tang (dog meat soup).

KIA’s deputy head of public relations, Heo Kwon, said that Lerew described bo-sin-tang this way. “The broth is good, the meat is tender, it’s a bit strange.” Heo also said “Lerew seems to have a lot of curiosity. He won’t refuse anything, and wants to try everything.” Lerew has even tried hong-eo (fermented skate), something that even many Koreans are fussy about. Lerew’s favorite Kroean foods are yuk-gae-jang (beef soup) and jol-myeon (spicy noodles).

Former Houston Astros pitcher and current KIA teammate, Henry Sosa (28), has earned the nickname “Fish Killer”. Sosa’s favorite food is fish, especially goolbi (corvina) and galchi (hairtail). Usually, for people who like fish, if they’re really hungry they might eat two or three, but Sosa regularly eats ten or more fish in one sitting. On April 10, Sosa threw 120 pitches in 7 2/3 innings in KIA’s win against Doosan. According to public relations deputy Heo, the next day at dinner Sosa ate 15 goolbi and 5 galchi. Some members of the team joke that his fastball is powered by fish, and they might be right.

Doosan’s Dustin Nippert (32) is currently in his third season in Korea, and is often considered Doosan’s ace on the mound. According to Doosan translator Nam Hyeon, Nippert has been studying Korean with the help of Doosan team translators. He is now able to read the scoreboard in the stadium as well as restaurant menus in Korean. He can even understand his coaches, up to a certain point.

“Nippert likes to dump his rice into his chigae (stew) bowl. He is even asked us where he could buy kimchi in the US after the season is over. He likes it that much. He especially likes Samgyeopsal and Galbi, eaten together with kimchi and garlic.”

His teammate, Garret Olson (29), is in his first season in Korea. Olson has a good appetite and does not shy away from Korean food. He enjoys jampong (spicy seafood noodle soup), naengmyeon (cold noodles), and mandu (dumplings).

LG’s Ben Jukich is in his third season in Korea, and has become very accustomed to Korean foods. He enjoys everything except squid, octopus, and beondaegi (silk worm). According to LG team translators, Jukich doesn’t have many problems with food, thanks to their help. However, Jukich has said in media interviews in the past, “Many Korean restaurants don’t have English menus, so there are some times where I will eat something and not even know what it is.”

His teammate Radhames Liz (30) enjoys galbi, like many of the foreign players do. Other than that he likes yuk-gae-jang (spicy beef soup), jjampong (spicy seafood noodle soup), jajangmyeon (black bean paste noodles). If he imagines the yuk-gae-jang to be cream soup he eats it well. He once said in an interview, “I like Korean food a lot, but my girlfriend hates it.”

The Lotte Giants have Chris Oxspring (36) and Shane Youman (34). Oxspring is from Australia. He is in his first season with the Giants, but he has played in Korea before, spending the 2007 season with the LG Twins. Since first arriving in Korea, Oxspring has never become accustomed to Korean food because of what he describes as a peculiar flavor. He likes galbi though.

Youman has played for the MLB Philadelphia Phillies in the past and is now in his second season with Lotte. He is from Louisiana in the American South, and he enjoys spicy foods. Jjim-dak (steamed chicken), dak-galbi (spicy chicken), jaeyook (spicy pork), budae chigae and kimchi chigae are his favorites. Among those, whenever he is feeling a little weak or tired he likes to eat jjim-dak for extra strength. In the case of kimchi chigae, he likes it with a lot of pork.

The Hanwha Eagles have Denny Bautista (33) and Dana Eveland (30). Bautista is from the Dominican Republic in the Carribean, and he is a notoriously picky eater. Even after three years in Korea he cannot eat spicy food at all. He also doesn’t eat vegetables, preferring only meat. His favorite food is pork mok-sal (neck meat). In an interview he described his taste in foods as follows.

“Pork neck is the best. Lee Yang-Ki and Karim Garcia introduced it to me. We ate it together and it was great. In Korea if I’m eating meat I always order mok-sal.”

After mok-sal, he also enjoys got-deung-shim, anchang-sal, and hang-jeong-sal (various cuts of meat). He won’t even look at samgyeopsal. He likes fried chicken, but under one condition. He will only eat it with a particular American sauce. He usually eats two servings of meat and one or two bowls of rice. Dana Eveland (30) is not as picky as his teammate. He enjoys kimchi, gochu-jang, and other Korean foods.

Nexen Heroes pitcher Brandon Knight (38) has played for the New York Yankees, New York Mets, and he has also played in Japan. He is now playing his third season for Nexen and his fifth season in Korea, after spending 2009-2010 with the Samsung Lions. He has been crazy about Korean food for a long time now. His favorite is beef galbi. He also likes doenjang chigae, yuk-hoe (raw beef), and cho-bap (sushi). His teammate Andy Van Hekken enjoys budae chigae with ramen noodles added.

SK Wyverns pitchers Jo-Jo Reyes and Chris Seddon are both new to Korea this year. Reyes (29) enjoys bulgogi, galbi, deung-shim, samgyeopsal, and other meat dishes. Seddon (30) likes barbecue and Mexican food. According to translator Kim Hyeon-Nam, “He doesn’t eat Korean food much. He usually just orders room service at the hotel.”

There are some foods that seem to cause an instinctual rejection from the foreign pitchers. The most common are squid and octopus. Doosan’s Garret Olson enjoys stir-fried squid, but he can’t stand dried squid. He says it’s because of the smell and the shape. Koreans enjoy eating octopus and squid dipped in cho-jang (red sauce), but for the foreign pitchers even the sight is enough to freak them out. At a professional basketball team dinner, when live octopus was served one of the foreign players used curse words and ran away from the table. In the English-speaking world, octopus are often depicted as evil in books, animation, etc.

 

If you've ever been to Korea before, even for just a few days, you can probably relate to this in some way. Koreans love to talk about food, and they are especially curious about what foreigners eat.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

  • The first paragraph says that players who don't adapt to Korean culture often leave after a few months. This is not the first time I've heard the media say something like this, but can anyone point to a case of this actually happening? I certainly can't. Players generally leave the league for one of two reasons. Either their team doesn't want them anymore (usually this means their on the field performance is not meeting expectations) or they leave for a better opportunity elsewhere (America, Japan, etc). I've never heard of a player packing his bags because he didn't like kimchi. And if this really were true, shouldn't Denny Bautista be gone by now? He openly admits to disliking Korean food, and he's now in his third year in the league. The truth is that adapting to Korean culture might make your life in Korea easier or more enjoyable, but by no means is it absolutely necessary. I'm not a baseball player, but I've seen many foreigners over the years living and working in Korea without adapting at all. They generally get along just fine.
  • Three years to learn how to read a restaurant menu isn't nearly as impressive as the article makes it out to be. But then again, I suppose there's not much reason to study when you have your own personal translator.
  • Speaking of which, I wonder how much those translators get paid. I'm guessing it's not very much, because on TV they always appear to be young college-age types. It's too bad, because watching baseball every day and occasionally helping a guy order food sounds like a great job.
  • Why didn't NC or Samsung players get a mention here?
  • The part at the end about the basketball player live octopus incident is extremely suspicious. It seems out of place in a baseball article, and why are there no names, dates, team names, etc mentioned? Why can't I find any other mention of such an incident online anywhere?