The scent of kimchi: an anthropologist‘s pathway to diversity

I vividly remember arriving at Incheon airport Seoul, South Korea in 2000, taking the subway to the basement flat where I was going to live during my six months’ stay. The permeating scent of kimchi (fermented cabbage) and garlic wafting through the subway carriages was sensorially distinct to what I was used to in Hamburg. What followed was a sequence of intercultural misunderstandings. Despite the fact that I had already completed one semester of extensive Korean culture and language classes I found myself lost when I arrived in Seoul. There was no cultural preparation for what was yet to come. Although my previous course of study was titled Korean Culture and Language, the focus was more based in the acquisition of Hangul (the Korean writing system), Korean vocabulary, and various Chinese characters. I was to continue one more semester abroad to study at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Ultimately, it was this disruptive experience that led me, in a maze-like fashion, to study (socio-cultural) anthropology – the study of humankind. Historically, anthropologists and interculturalists have turned to foreign settings as boundary markers, similar to windows where we observe the socio-cultural dynamics by which we tend to construct and maintain our own identities[1].

Intercultural misunderstandings have the ability to captivate our attention in a similar way to the matryoshka stocking doll in that one can either choose to inspect the various layers of ever decreasing dolls – one inside each other – or, without ever peeking inside, just keeping an eye on the outer doll. For anthropologist Gillian Tett, learning about different cultures and applying this anthropological perspective has much to offer in “defining our common humanity and celebrating diversity” (Tett 2021: 233). Invariably when intercultural misunderstandings occur, it is due to what lies beneath the surface of the cultural iceberg.  The goal of learning about cultures is to understand the drivers behind one another’s actions and behaviors and ultimately become interculturally competent. Culture, arguably, is like the matryoshka doll. We all have multiple layers, some of which are visible while other layers remain, at best, covert.

In addition, during this Seoul-searching-time, the age-based hierarchy that surrounded me also pervaded my daily life through language, not least the ways in which I was supposed to address elders and older people. Honorific terms, bowing and hand gestures[2] were all part of the Korean cultural way of greeting and talking to others while showing respect. Notably in Korea, kinship was based on the collectivistic notion of the extended family, as opposed to where I grew up within the individualistic societies of Germany and France[3] (at least within my family – of course other subcultures within France and Germany also define themselves through collectivism). In Seoul when going to a bar and ordering 맥주(beer) or other alcoholic beverages, it was quintessential to know one’s drinking partner’s age because if you were the junior you had to turn your head away from the table while drinking[4].This I found not so challenging. Once the night advanced it was not uncommon to end up at a 노래방, places to sing Korean-style karaoke.

The overarching patriarchal system rooted in Confucianism[5] was my greatest challenge. For 22-year-old me, patriarchy was hard to observe. I am not suggesting gender inequality is specific to South Korean culture. Nevertheless, among other incidents men- complete strangers- ordered me not to smoke on the street.  Away from the male judging gaze, the sign permitting smoking on the university women’s toilet reminded me that people, not least women, have the capacity to find creative ways to reengineer the power matrix. In those moments despite being socialized in Germany, with a French mother and a German father, I found myself becoming overtly French. Around the year 2000, the foreign population within South-Korea was relatively small. There were several other Asian populations and mostly US-Americans due to US military bases throughout the country. Often many people would stare at and interrogate the tall, hairy, donning, eternal shades, not- one- of- us- women.
미국 사람입니까? “Are you an American?” 
아니요, 프랑스 사람입니다. “No, I am French.”  
They were the space invaders, and I was their alien. Some people came so close, invading my personal bubble, ever quick to touch my arm hair which startled me each time. Also, I remember women walking behind men or carrying the grocery bags, while men carried themselves. These defined gender roles were also translated into gender-segregated places, such as Jimjilbang (찜질방), a Korean bathhouse and prestigious educational systems, such as the Ewha Womans University in Seoul. 

This semester-long, self-discovery led me to pursue a degree in anthropology to learn more about cultures, their patterns of behavior, values, beliefs, and different worldviews. Through the immediate study of anthropology post Korea, I learned how to use and apply the tools necessary to unravel these intercultural misunderstandings. In addition, I was able to critically question my identity and my status, examining my positionality and privileges that up to then I had taken for granted.  I now truly believe that anthropology’s holistic approach to cultural diversity by including aspects of intersectionality[6] can enlighten the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion.[7] In this manner, people and their various cultures are not compartmentalized but understood within a specific context similar to the four layers of diversity by Gardenswartz and Rowe[8]. Furthermore, as Rohini Anand elaborates in her book, in order for diversity implementation to be successful and lead to sustainable change, companies have to adapt it to the local context, informed by the culture, history, language and law of the particular country  (2021).

Being the Other and not part of the majority society prepared me to continue my work with underserved communities. Not only Indigenous communities in Canada and the USA but also to underserved communities within my own society at home. Now, with so many years of being an anthropologist, of studying, living, and working in different countries, I know that in my early twenties this culture-shock was timely. Due to my Korean studies abroad program, I can relate to stories of friends and colleagues that feel like outsiders or are not part of the majority culture, even though they hold the national passport and are part of the German multicultural society. They daily remind me that we have a long way to go to fully implement and live inclusion.[9] Consequently, inclusion also means recognizing-accepting our differences and the willingness to leave one’s comfort zone or to borrow from Tupoka Ogette “exit Happyland” (2017).

As anthropologists, we are observers not merely to other cultures, but importantly also our own.  Today, I am a skilled pattern finder. I compare and connect the dots like sewing different squares together to determine a quilted pattern. I have discovered, learned, and written a great deal about different cultures, languages, education, and intercultural competence. This comparative experience has provided me with a unique insight and understanding of target groups.

Going forward, I recognize that my DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)[10] self-awareness began during my time in Seoul. This time lent me a magnifying glass which I somewhat reluctantly fell into, at first. New cultures can be unexpected places yet simultaneously magical because they enable us to critically evaluate ourselves in relation to the “Other”[11].  A prerequisite for people to feel they belong is a supportive community. With my background in anthropology, I believe my role as an inclusion and diversity officer[12] is to contribute to the creation of inclusive and diverse workplaces where people feel they belong and are given the opportunities they need to thrive. 

“Nothing about us, without us”[13] should guide me in this endeavor, never forgetting that the target group (in this case people with disabilities) are the true experts. Through the power of participant observation and listening, interviews and storytelling, the major techniques used by anthropologists[14], people’s personal stories can unravel. When people’s stories and experiences matter, inclusion will follow. Unfortunately, there are still too few companies that will hire people with disabilities. Prejudice is one of the reasons why people with disabilities are out of employment. According to the German Federal Statistical Office only 57 % of people with disabilities were integrated into the job market as of May 2021, compared to 82% of people who don’t have a disability. Even though there is the General Equal Treatment Act[15] which prohibits discrimination on account of disability in Germany, people with disabilities are confronted with various forms of discriminations. Even if people with disabilities have finished an apprenticeship or studies, their unemployment rate is much higher than people without disability. My job as an inclusion and diversity officer is about demonstrating that disability is merely a different human experience.[16] My role is to facilitate this dialogue and raise more awareness, to be “on tap and not on top”. I was already reminded of this years ago, when an Indigenous elder from the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in Wisconsin, using what is often referred to as “Indian humor”, questioned my position as an anthropologist asking if I would “walk
peacock” once I had
 finished my PhD. This interaction reminds me to this day to, above all, stay humble. 

As a result to anthropology’s aim to have a holistic view of cultures and to approach others on an equal footing, we can learn from other cultures by ever aiming to initiate a vital change of perspective, looking for similarities and differences, hence cultural patterns. Doing so should never solely be about holding up a diversity quota but essentially about including underserved communities that have been on the margins for far too long.[17] It is quintessential to include the voices of marginalized people and adjusting to their personal and professional needs. Self-determination as a quality of life should be our collective goal. In the end, it always circles back to culture (and hence anthropology). We must unlearn and question the “norms” into which we all have been socialized in, unlearn work[18], so that we can bricolage a (new work) culture and agile organization where everyone is a recognized and respected leader and is given the space to belong and increase job-fit, exemplified by job-crafting[19]. Ultimately, by being authentic and genuine companies can gain trustworthiness and credibility for others to see, creating meaningful purpose. My quest is to initiate this process towards transformational change which will thrive on diversity, resilience, belonging and inclusion and will add to the growth of companies on the economic, social and human level. 

Hermeking holds a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from Indiana University in Bloomington, USA and an M.A. in social anthropology and ethnology from l‘École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. She has done extensive research with Indigenous communities both in Canada and the USA, in addition to research in Germany to analyze the local DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and cultural landscape by evalutaiong data through an anthropological perspective. She is currently working as an inclusion and diversity officer at Fortschritt and intercutural trainer (owner of nhtrainings).


[1] I highly recommend the book by my IU professor Anya Peterson Royce called EthnicIdentity:StrategiesofDiversity, beside the classic by Frederic Barth EthnicGroupsandBoundaries.

[2] Paying or pouring a glass of alcoholic beverage required to use both hands, one hand would pour the drink or hand the money, while the other hand would touch the elbow.

[3] At least this was the case within my family – of course other subcultures within France and Germany also define themselves though collectivism.

[4] The drinking etiquette had several other components, such as, who poured the first glass, how to clink your glass, etc.

[5] “In the Korean Confucian tradition, social position and age have important implications for maintaining social hierarchies, and women were particularly disadvantaged through interpretations of these relationships, expected always to be subordinate to men: fathers, husbands and sons (see Cawley 2018)”. For more information on Korean Confucianism, also referred to as Yuhak in Korean, look at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[6] Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the concept of intersectionality in 1989.

[7] Intersectionality has always to be part of DEI work, otherwise it leaves people behind.

[8] Gardenswartz and Rowe. The four layers of diversity.

[9] I also believe that inclusion is a two-way street. Everyone must come together and create a new melange.

[10] Also have a look at the website of the Charta der Vielfalt for a comprehensive explanation of diversity and best practice examples of German companies,

[11] Also have a look at my article about the connection between anthropology and diversity, equity and inclusion.

[12] I am now working as an inclusion and diversity officer at FortSchritt gGmH. FortSchritt e.V. was established in 1994 by parents of children with disabilities. Among other services, FortSchritt offers conductive education for individuals who had a stroke, patients with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Parkinson, or have a neurological and mobility impairment. It is a holistic approach of learning, informed by Hungarian professor András Pető  (1893-1967). For more information, please refer to the website of the András Pető faculty at the Semmelweis University, retrieved May 27, 2023.

[13] Nothing about Us Without Us. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Disability., retrieved May 27th, 2023.

[14] These anthropological methods are also referred to as ethnography.

[15] German abbreviation: AGG

[16] Also have a look at the difference between the medical and the social model of disability. The social model argues that people are disabled by barriers within the society they live and not by their impairment. In this line of thought it is the system that excludes people with disabilities.

[17] German employers have the obligation to employ people with disabilities once the company reaches twenty employees and more. If they do not comply, they have to pay a fine.

[18] Also have a look at Lena Marbach’s article about “unlearn work”, part of the book unlearn patriarchy (see bibliography).

[19] Tims et al describe job-crafitng in following terms: “Based on the job demands-resources model, we hypothesized that employee job crafting would have an impact on work engagement, job satisfaction, and burnout through changes in job demands and job resources” (2013).


Anand, Rohini. Leading Global Diversity, Equitiy and inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2021.

Barth, Frederik. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Middleton: Waveland Publisher, 1998 [1969].

Cawley, Kevin N. Reinforced Hetero-Normativity: Gender Constructs in Chosŏn (朝鮮) Korea.  Irish Journal of Asian Studies, 4: 39–52, 2018, retrieved May 21st, 2023.

Charta der Vielfalt,, retrieved June 8th, 2023.

Gardenswartz and Rowe. The four layers of diversity., retrieved May 21st, 2023.

German Federal Statistic Office, Menschen mit Behinderung auf dem Arbeitsmarkt.,oder%20suchten%20nach%20einer%20T%C3%A4tigkeit., retrieved May 29th, 2023.

Grenshaw, Kimberle. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics., retrieved May 29th, 2023.

Hermeking, Noémie. What has anthropology got to do with diversity, equity and inclusion., retrieved May 21st, 2023.

Jaspers et al. Unlearn Patriarchy. Ullstein Buchverlag, 2022.

Korean Confucianism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy., retrieved May 21st, 2023.

Ogette, Tupoka, Exit Racsim. Unrast Verlag, 2017.

Pető Faculty, retrieved May 27th, 2023.

Peterson. Ethnic
University, 1982. 

Sustainable Development Goals: The gender snapshot 2022., retrieved May 21st, 2023.

Tett, Gillian. Anthro-Vision. How Anthropology can explain business and life. Penguin Books, 2021.

Tims M, Bakker AB, Derks D. The impact of job crafting on job demands, job resources, and well-being. J Occup Health Psychol. doi: 10.1037/a0032141. Epub 2013 Mar 18. PMID: 23506549, 2013 Apr;18(2):230-40.

Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search