I love the food in Korea. All the Korean foods I like in America are universally better here (like, I had this incredible naeng-myun at a random place in the countryside, the best I’ve had in years at a nameless place), and they have all these delicious things you can’t get in the states (like, for lunch today I had a Cordon Bleu Chicken Katsu. Delicious).
That said, because I can’t speak the language well, getting food in Korea by myself is by far the most stressful part of being here for me. Everything else, I can get by. I can manage the subway (and now the bus!) by myself fine. Other places, also OK. But restaurants induce incredible anxiety.
I mean, I have problems ordering Korean food even in America. I remember one time in college, my drawgroup went to Korea Palace. I got there first, I think with Charlie and Irwin (both Chinese). I remember thinking beforehand how I need to limit how much Korean I speak to minimize the mistakes, preferably speaking none, but when the waitress asked in Korean how many more people are coming, I panicked, and responded in Korean with “two more”. There are 2 methods of counts in Korea, one that refers to people, and one that refers to everything else, and I used the wrong one, so I basically said “2 things more”. She tried to hide it, but laughed out loud. My Korean is so poor that 3 syllables is all it takes to get even nice people to laugh at it. Usually though, at Korean restaurants, when I speak Korean they just respond in English, as we both realize that their (usually broken) English is superior to my Korean. One time at a place in Cerritos, the waitress responded to my Korean with a 5 minute sermon on how I need to speak it better. So yeah, there are some scars there. And this is in America.
In Korea, there are difficulties in every part of the process. Like ordering. Sometimes there’s no English and I’m not totally sure what the menu items mean. Sometimes there is English and it’s gibberish. Other times, the item is a Korean transliteration of a foreign phrase. I’ve written about this before, but for the life of me, I can’t pronounce these the Korean way. Like, you can get a “chicken burger set” at Burger King. But in Korean, it’s pronounced more like “chee-keen buh-guh seh-tuh”. I just can’t do it. Not sure why. My officemates weren’t around today so I had lunch alone and had to get said Cordon Bleu item myself. Very difficult. But worth stumbling around for, since it’s delicious.
After ordering, I’d say 2 out of 3 times, the cashier responds with something I can’t understand at all. One time, I eventually realized that she was asking whether I want my sandwich warmed up. But usually, I have no clue and just respond yes, hoping it’s something about getting the receipt or if it’s for takeout. I did that this morning, and the cashier gave me an odd look. Possibly she hadn’t asked a question. I have no clue. I can’t understand.
Then there’s the etiquette. I have no idea what it is. I vaguely recall a friend saying it’s weird to eat alone in Korea. Is that true? So what do I do on days like today when I’m alone? I’m not even totally sure how to order for takeout. I checked out a bunch of restaurants today to see if anyone was eating alone. It was unclear. There were a handful of people sitting by themselves, but it wasn’t obvious whether they were truly alone or waiting for someone. One time, I ordered takeout jjajjangmyun for the family, then wasn’t sure where to wait. I just kind of stood around, but the help kept looking at me funny. So I sat down, and a waitress kind of physically hinted that I shouldn’t be taking up a seat. So where do you wait for a takeout order? I don’t know. Other things too, like how you know when your order is ready, what to do with your tray when you’re done, where to get napkins, it’s all kind of mysterious. And stressful.
I used to resolve that I was going to learn Korean, because I’m impressed at how capable Jieun is here. (Actually, I told Dave this, but I was also really impressed by his Chinese skills. It’s not that he’s fluent. But he knows enough, both reading and conversing, that if you dropped him anywhere in China, he could get around. And being able to get around by yourself in a foreign country is, to me, an amazing skill.) She pulls out these Korean phrases that to me, seem almost creative. But the truth is, I never will. There’s not just enough incentive to. I never have to speak it at home. And if I don’t have to, I won’t, because there are other, better uses of my time. Oh well.