Tuesday, May 13, 2014

a cultural/discursive miracle

I did a bit of restaurant reconnaissance today: having heard about two on-campus cafeterias that featured Italian food (or perhaps I should say "Italian" food) on their menus, I went looking for them. Both proved easy to find; I'd walked past them on several occasions during some of my earlier campus walkabouts. One was a humble canteen that, at the hour I showed up, looked to be closed. It turned out not to be, though; one of the ajummas told me I could eat lunch, but that the menu was nothing but gukbap (soup and rice) with a side of ggakkdugi (spicy cubed radish) for the humble price of W2000. I shrugged, sat down, and ate that simple meal, which tasted an awful lot like yukgae-jang, one of my favorite winter soups. I mentioned this impression to a different ajumma, who nodded vigorously and said that the staff had evoked yukae-jang deliberately. As I was leaving, I asked about the cafeteria's business hours and was told that dinner would be from about 5PM to 8PM; the staff would be serving a variety of food, including, yes, the fabled Italian dishes. I may go back tonight, after I've taught my Korean class, to grab some dinner there.*

The second cafeteria was right where I suspected it was; like the first cafeteria, I had passed by this one several times while on different walks. A sculpture of a giant spider guarded one corner of the building; the interior was dim, offering an ambiance that was more restaurant and less cafeteria. I asked the cashier about business hours and about the menu, which featured plenty of Western food. I saw a "cream pasta" dish that looked vaguely reminiscent of carbonara; with some trepidation, I asked whether the dish contained onions (Koreans love piling onions onto Italian food, for some reason). The lady called a male kitchen worker over, and he said that, yes, the pasta had onions in it, but that the staff could make the dish without onions as well. That was reassuring. I thanked the cashier and told her that I couldn't order anything that very instant because I had just eaten, but that I'd be back later.

I was delighted, and found it nearly miraculous, that I had spoken in Korean with three or four different kitchen ajummas this afternoon, and not a single one of them complimented my Korean during our interchanges. You have no idea how happy that made me. You see, Koreans normally do the polite thing and compliment unfamiliar foreigners on their Korean skills, even if those supposed "skills" amount to utterances no more complex than, "Uh... hello." I suspect this is because Koreans have low expectations when it comes to foreigners: instead of assuming (the way many assimilationist Americans do about English) that foreigners in Korea should speak Korean, Koreans feel obliged to speak in English and generally assume that foreigners can't handle Korean. It fits the "Hermit Kingdom" psychological profile: speaking a language means taking a big step inside of a culture, and Koreans are just fine with foreigners' keeping their distance. If not learning a language keeps a foreigner outside the inner circle, culturally speaking, that's all well and good.

Hats off, then, to the intrepid ladies I met today. Like my local barber, these good people took my ability to speak Korean as a mere matter of course and simply interacted with me without engaging in condescending flattery of my admittedly middling linguistic skills. Based on my encounters with many different kinds of Korean folks in Korea, from taxi drivers to restaurant ajummas, I'd say such an attitude is rare, but welcome.

*This is the same canteen that serves free dinners to faculty. I'd heard a lot about the place, but had never visited before, and found it a bit of a bother to have to sign up online for the free dinner as opposed to just walking in.



  1. I know what you mean, but I find that people complimenting me on my Korean are in the minority these days. And the people who do mention are usually those with which I have had repeated interactions, and their comments come in less patronizing forms, such as "How long have you been in Korea?" "Did you learn Korean here?" etc.

    Bottom line: I think the times, they are a-changing.

  2. I still get the "You speak Korean so well!" when I trundle out the odd half-forgotten phrase when I try to impress a Korean! I always quite like it that they can understand anything I say after 18 years away from Korea!



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