Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Restaurants (My Kingdom for a Bing-Bong)


Bask

Time for Korean food by the bucket.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

A Korean restaurant in Korea is a beautiful, efficient kind of place. You enter, sit at your table, and order essentially within the first moments. The menus are not terribly voluminous, and the assumption is that if you entered this restaurant in the first place, you knew what you were coming for. (Many restaurants specialize in exactly one kind of dish, so you say how many of the foods you want and in what, if any, variations.) The waiters disappear, and rush back with your steaming bowl or your rack of raw ingredients and leave you to it. They will not check on you, they will not make small talk, they will not feign interest, and they will not interact with you unless they you summon them by the convenient doorbell on your table (bing-bong!). They give you food and then leave you alone, and at the end of the meal you take the bill, which was already at your table, and pay elsewhere and never ever think of leaving them a tip. The people operating the restaurant are unobtrusive, practically invisible, more spectral visions of humans, ghosts carrying trays that exist only in your peripheral vision.

Which is to say that a Korean restaurant in Korea is my idea of paradise.

When I first arrived, of course, the process was a little jarring. I was used to highly attentive wait staff, indentured young people who hovered off in the middle distance constantly watching though only interrupting precisely when needed. My cup would never go empty, because someone in a dress shirt and an embarrassing nametag would rush to my aid the moment we passed a critical beverage threshold. My food would arrive hot, and exactly synchronously with the food of my companions, and it would come with a side of blowsy smalltalk. I could be wished happy birthday, or talk about my work, or about the weather, or about television. Something innocuous and comforting and sweet, and the waiter could coolly lull me into the belief that they cared, and I in turn would give them money for nursing the illusion that the world was not a scary, desolate place full of people who hated every stranger they saw. I knew this restaurant tango, had grown with it, had seen it as the way of the world.

So to be in Korea, where the waiters will never look you in the eye and will only come if you summon them by scream or electronic buzzer, seemed impersonal and terrifying. What a cold, robotic world! No one pretends to like me or pays attention to how much drink I have drunk!

The acclimation, however, was swift. Korean waiters respond to a shout or a buzz with practiced speed and efficiency. The middle-man is often cut out, and food preparation is left to my own hands. Interruptions only arise if a waiter or restaurateur feels they can improve the deliciousness of my meal for me, either through dips or assembling the constituent ingredients to one harmonious, perfected whole. The table is littered with so many dishes I don’t even know what to do with all of them, and it becomes my fiefdom, my own precious Tetris territory of bowls and chopsticks and eternally replenished side-dishes.

The most space-aged restaurants have specialty bing-bongs on their tables, adorned with specialized buttons detailing the nature of your needs. Press this button for more beer, this one for soju, this one for more meat. Press three for more ambrosia. Press 10 for a side of unicorn shavings. Press six for the table to convert into a time machine that takes you on a magical journey to old prospector times. Press 9 for an alternate dimension where everyone is actually a frog and the sky is made of ice cream. Press the central button to call an operator for any other inquiries. Minimize human interaction, maximize rate of gorging, and enjoy your glorious futuristic magic table.

I fell in love with the system. Whatever semblance of hope I derived from the training-mandated waiter smalltalk in Canada, I could probably squeeze from my eating companions. Whatever marvels experienced from an efficient kitchen could easily be replaced in my heart by a central grill and the power to wield my own tongs. And I didn’t have to tip anyone.

But now I am back in the homeland, and every excursion to a restaurant is fraught with anxiety and terror. I feel, in some ways, like I am speaking with earphones in: always too loud or too quiet, unaware of how I come off, incapable of speaking like a human being. I am Pinocchio just recently transformed into a real boy, and I still haven’t worked out all of the quirks. I am a robot, and have not yet been taught this human emotion called love, nor with it the ability not to freak out in a restaurant. It feels like all my capabilities for normal, socialized restaurant interactions have completely withered.

First udon

In Japan, you just order by vending machine, and everything turns out okay.

Why are the waiters all talking and smiling at me? Are they making fun of me, or planning to steal my wallet? Am I allowed to summon them in some capacity, or is it deemed rude? A “hello?” A polite wave? Gentle eye contact? Signal fire? Will they think me boorish and impatient for not waiting until they finish up with table six, will they deem my needs sufficient or treat me with disdain for the rest of the meal?

Why does this menu have so many things in it? We’re not in a grocery store. I already made the decision to enter the restaurant, and everything else should be taken care of for me. And are those prices in won? Hong Kong dollars, perhaps? Because if they’re in local currency, then we are being gouged, and maybe we should probably make a run for it.

The greatest struggle comes when I go to a Korean restaurant in Canada, a strange borderland, the interstitial grab-bag of restaurant culture effluvia that I cannot begin to decipher. Can I summon a waiter? Should I order in Korean or English? Exactly how pretentious am I allowed to be while consuming this food, judging its flavour and authenticity with permanently upturned nose? And tips–I’m paying at the cash register, and there is no tip jar. Or there is a tip jar, but the value of currency currently inside of it is pitiful. Or I paid at my table, but the waiter did what a Korean waiter would do, so do I tip them like a Korean or a Canadian waiter? My hands begin to tremble as I clutch loose quarters and loonies in my greedy fist. Sweat is pooling in every crevice I have. If I mangle this, I will either look like a cheapskate or an over-generous rube. If I mangle any other part of the restaurant action, I seem like maybe I was raised by wolves–wolves that didn’t go out to restaurants very often. If I do the wrong thing with the waiters, if I do things in the wrong restaurant order, if I mishandle the various equipment on the table—–

I think maybe I’ll just start eating at home.

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157 thoughts on “Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Restaurants (My Kingdom for a Bing-Bong)

  1. It’s like you’re reading my mind. I moved back from Thailand about 8 months ago and I relate to so much of what you said. I think moving back is more of a culture shock than moving to Asia. I miss my beautiful Land of Smiles on a daily basis!

    • It’s definitely a weird aspect of the expat experience. Everyone knows how strange it must be over there, they can forget about how strange it can be over here.

      You have reason to move Thailand. That place is awesome. Any plans to go back?

      • It truly is. I find the Western world much stranger now, which is really surreal.

        I really, really, really miss Thailand. I’m not sure what my future holds. Ultimately, I just want to travel and I feel so at home in Bangkok. I left because I really was unhappy teaching but now I’m happy with a job and missing Bangkok. So difficult!

  2. I remember the first couple times I went back to the US the ordering of my drink before the main meal tripped me up. Having the person hover threw me off my game too!

  3. I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum:) Service in the Middle East is so personalised, kind, overflowing with genuine interest (to the extent that some might call this highly personal chit-chat technique an insufferable interrogation- not me:) that it has spoilt me forever for the efficient, quick, crammed tables of Europe.

  4. Great post … it made me smile remembering how difficult it was for me to go back to the US after 2.5 years in Germany. So many of my sentences would begin with ‘ When I was stationed in Germany … ‘ I had a boyfriend during that time who would tell me not to talk so much about living and traveling in Europe. He said it made me sound pretentious, but for me it was my only frame of adult reference as I’d joined the US Army and moved to Germany when I was eighteen.

    Living in the UK for the last five years has presented a few nervous situations for me when it comes to ordering in pubs and tipping. Don’t even get me started on puddings (desserts) especially how difficult it is not to giggle, even at my age when ordering spotted dick.

    • Yeah, I worry a lot about coming off as a snob… people hear those sentence starters and just sigh. But for us, it’s just a way of explaining where we’re coming from, and why everything strikes us as so damn weird.

      The day someone gets too old to giggle at “spotted dick” is the day they are too old to go on living.

  5. I know exactly mean. The shock in returning home does wear off, but it is not at all nice.

    I miss Indian restaurants, where you are left alone generally for as long as you want(depending on the type of restaurant), no one rushes you out or asks if you’d like anything else or even if you’d like the bill, and they notice everything so that you never have to ask for anything at all.

    • My experience with restaurants in India were hit or miss, but definitely more hits. The people definitely knew their distance, and knew when to chime in with a hint of more naan or more drinks. They had pretty impeccable gorge-pacing.

  6. It is good to simply have a graceful server who presents the dishes on the table and leaves. It’s the food that is the highlight. Not all the chatter and smiling from the servers.

    As for voluminous menus: clearly Korean restaurants are not like Chinese restaurants. Welcome back to Canada. Hope you find a Toronto Korean restaurant that fits the bill for memories.

    • Haha, truth. The first day I arrived in China while travelling, my friends took me out for dinner. The English version of the menu had 20 pages, which didn’t even compare to the Chinese version of the menu which was printed in something like size 9 font. I was stunned the kitchen had that much food in it.

      • Maybe lots of food. Or just change the spices or change the cooking technique. Steaming a meat is an entirely different dish when it’s stir fried.

  7. I lived in Seoul with my wife for a year. I feel your Reverse Culture Shock pain.

    I remember the moment when, across the kitchen table in Korea, I passed my wife something to taste with chopsticks, and she took it with her chopsticks, all without thinking about it until after we realized what we had done.

    Now I’m the guy who won’t let up about the local Korean grocery stores, buys rice by the 15 lb bag, and owns a full set of Korean serving bowls.

    Welcome home!

  8. I love the Korean style of restaurant! I want that in America. The small talk is so awkward for me! Sometimes I get into it, but mostly I just want to say “Listen, I am going to tip you, let me eat my food in peace!” I want a door bell at my table. Though, I love having a big menu, I need options.

  9. I spent four years of high school in South Korea. A new Korean restaurant opened up nearby not long ago, which was incredibly cool. I found myself inexplicably paranoid after the excitement wore off though. It finally occurred to me, the service was warm and not the least bit surly. Something just didn’t seem right.

    • Oh, really?! Was it in an international school or a mainstream high school? I have a number of questions percolating.

      And yes, that surliness is part of the charm. My friend took some coworkers to Koreatown in Toronto, and they were all terrified of one restaurant because the ajeosshi in the kitchen was a little too stern. I laughed and laughed.

      • My father was an Army chaplain. I went to school on the army post but had a few good friends who lived off-post. I went out a lot with Korean friends of my parents, but also with my same-age friends (one of whom was half Korean). There was this great place in Myongdong that had, like, three things on the menu and they were all amazing.

        I felt like a lot of the people we met in Korea could be kind of abrupt at first, but then super warm when you actually got to know them. In some ways I suppose it’s the opposite of being two-faced. Thanks for helping me remember all of this.

        • The very last day I spent in Korea, I got stuck in traffic in a cab. The driver just started shooting the shit with me, and at some point also mentioned how he found that other Koreans tended to be very cold when you first meet them, but could warm up later (this was especially true for Incheon, which is kind of colloquially known as meantown).

  10. YES. I’m a Canadian in Japan and the only thing I don’t like better about the restaurant procedures here is the smoking… Last summer I went “home” for a few weeks and, in a restaurant, the waitress asked me how my food was before I even tried it, so I passive-aggressively responded, “well, it smells good.” That being said the other side of this is the lack of compensation when things go wrong – for example, recently a server spilled her tray of drinks all over my husband. We got fresh drinks and an apology, and she lent him a towel, but no discount or anything else, whereas in Canada his meal would likely have been free. Still, I’ll take this system any day over paying someone extra to pretend to like me.

    • Yeah, in Korea at least everything is sort of left up to you, so the assumption is that if something goes awry, it’s probably your fault anyway.

      Smoking in the restaurants is big in Japan too, huh? It only recently started to get banned in Korea after I left.

  11. I live in Japan, which has a similar system to what you described, and I have really bad culture shock about the attentive waitstaff/ drink refills/ tipping/oh god the waiter is staring into my eyes when I go back to the US. You aren’t alone! :)

      • In Kanazawa (central-north). I was always afraid of the ticket machines because I didn’t know a lot of food vocab at first. One of my favorite cafes has a system where you put tiny balls of yarn in a basket for each food item you want. That’s my favorite!

          • Good call! And Japan has the plastic food sample, too. I should have mentioned that this cafe places a sign and a bowl of the dish (salad, quiche, etc.–it’s vegetarian) out for the customer to see. Anyway, great chatting about food and I look forward to more of the blog.

            • Ahh, good old plastic food sample. There was a food court about twenty minutes from my old apartment, and nearly every stall had an array of plastic versions of the dishes so you could get an idea. (Although, given how out-of-the-way this foodcourt was, the only people who were going in almost certainly had a pretty good idea of the food anyway!)

  12. This reminds me of my first tipping experience in Korea. My wife & I ate at an Italian restaurant in Daejeon and we left a tip. The waiter actually chased after us from the restaurant to give us back the money! It still feels a little odd not leaving a tip, being Canadian ourselves, but we’re dealing with it. We got a support group :D

    • Exact same experience here. We had left our money on the table (tip included), and the waiter chased us outside, thinking we hadn’t paid. We headed back in to clear it up, and the poor guy was floored that we kept trying to give him more than the necessary money.

  13. We don’t know how we change until we do the reverse. It’s all about adding knowledge to our learning, is it? And that will help us how to get along with people from different cultures ^ – ^

  14. I know exactly what you mean! I moved home from Hong Kong about six months ago, and it’s pretty much the same thing!!! I was shocked by how friendly people were when I first arrived… especially waiters. Great post.

      • Haha. I was teaching at a private school out in Clear Water Bay. Prior to that I was a teacher at government-run English camps in Taipei, Taiwan for two years. I loved it and really want to go back. I’ve actually been thinking about teaching in Korea, too. Visited once and loved it! You don’t want to go back there?

        • I’d love to go back, but I want to work at an international school, not just teaching English. (However, I only have so much experience on my resume, so English teaching might be in my future for a little longer.)

  15. My friends experience this every time they return home from long term work overseas; they say the tattoos are too many, or it is too cold, or people swear too much :-) But I guess it is indeed reverse culture shock. Great post

  16. Isn’t that’s all expats do? :) We cannot ever shut up about the place where we lived the last time. And it is expected and “normal” to talk about your own (home) country. But what if you spent the last 5 years somewhere else than home? Then somehow people think that you are bragging or considering yourself better than them, especially if you talk to your own people.

    A great blog. I have never been to Korea, so I enjoyed reading it. The only advice that i can give you is not to have any expectations based on your home country experiences when living abroad and you will be fine ;)

    • It’s a weird balance you have to strike. You want to be able to discuss your experiences, to outline your frame of reference, but it can come off as kind of arrogant to other people, even when for us its just an explanation.

      Go to Korea! Do it do it do it.

  17. Ha! I absolutely relate to this post. It can be really frustrating sometimes especially when you accustom yourself to one method and then you find you have to move back and have to readjust all over again. I grew up in Asian countries all my life, although I have lived overseas in Australia before, but when I moved to the UK that was another completely different system! I always dreaded the end of meals because I didn’t want to look like an idiot when it came to deciding how to pay. Haha great post! Thanks for sharing :)

  18. This is a great idea for the post – looking forward to more on the subject. None of us want to feel like we are being boring when all we want to do is share our experiences. I`d love to go to Korea by the way. I love Korean food – and a lot of other Asian foods – but would love to actually go to Korea for the true experience.

  19. Repatriation is always harder than adjusting to being an ex-pat. When you come “home” again, you’ve adapted foreign ways and tastes and now you don’t fit in there. My home country is Canada and I live in NY — hardly as exotic — but the more I go back I realize how American I have become and how uncomfortable it makes some Canadians feel.

    • I think moving to somewhere close, but still different, is still an interesting one, and illuminates the minor differences (and major ones) in culture a little more starkly. It’s easy, sometimes, for North America to just seem like one blob of culture, until you live in multiple different parts of it.

  20. Your post was so entertaining and made me a bit hungry:D
    As a person who has never been out of the country, I have never really experienced culture shock. It is nice to read someone’s point of view on the dining customs of other countries. Thank you for the post!

  21. I don’t know about anyone else but I feel schizophrenic more or less always. When I go home (US of A) I’m confused by the silence and the size of the sidewalks, and when I’m in Italy I’m confused by the lack of personal space. Moving away from home creates a permanent dent in ones mind. Or maybe that’s the alcohol.

    • 70/30.

      The sidewalks back home are, indeed, like oceans. The first summer when I came back for a wedding I was practically walking on top of one of my friends, because I had grown so used to sidewalks being tiny.

      • Exactly. Actually, from living in Italy for so long I’ve lost some of my “American bubble” nature. I’ll sit or talk really close to my friends faces when I go home to visit and I won’t realize it until I notice they’re doing a backbend to get away from me. Basically, I’ve become super creepy.

  22. I know what you mean! At Chinese restaurants, I never know if I should tip either because well, we don’t really tip in Asia, but then we’re in Canada. So what’s the deal?

  23. Haha, I never know what’s culturally appropriate in regards to tipping in some culturally diverse restaurants here in America, much less going to another country and eating at a separate cultures restaurant there. I would probably panic too, and throw money at them saying “here just take it all!” While some poor server looked at me like “WTH is wrong with her!?!”

  24. i definitely know how you feel. It’s been nearly 4 years since I left Japan, where I lived for just a year, but I still talk about my time over there and nitpick every Japanese restaurant I eat at.

  25. Oh wow I’m glad I’m reading this. I was beginning to think I was an actual snob for a second. I’ve never lived in Asia but I lived in Australia for about 3 years and now all my sentences begin with “When I was in Australia”. I’ve been back for 2 years already and still can’t shake it off. It’s hard to readapt :S

  26. Haha! This is such a great read. I totally laughed out loud at “unicorn shavings” LOL!

    This reminds me of a time I was at a McDonald’s in the Philippines. I had just finished my food and got up to throw away the trash in my tray. One of my friends (who was a local) followed and nudged me. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Throwing my garbage away, why?” I was confused. Apparently, it’s rude to do that as it is an insult to the work ethic of the bus people, whose only responsibility is to clear tables. And well…I didn’t know that! Because in ‘Merica, it’s rude to leave your garbage out.

    I was so taken back and didn’t know what to say. I brought my tray back and apologized to the bus person. That was interesting.

    • That’s an interesting one, I hadn’t heard of that (I missed the Philippines the previous time I was in Asia and curse myself for it!). You can do a lot of research on a culture so you don’t come off as a boorish oaf, but there’s always some things that don’t come up on the travel wiki.

  27. Very funny to read of your adventures. I totally agree, Korean style would work for me as well, instead of hearing the story of every dish (mostly the longer the story, the smaller the dish) in many restaurants here in the Netherlands: “you are having a disc of duck on a bed of asparagus”. Have you thught about beginning your own Korean style restaurant in Canada? People might need to get used to the absence of “caring” waiters, but I bet the no tip policy will make them see the light :)

    • Only a single disc of duck?

      Part of the thing is that the restaurant culture wherever you go is pretty embedded: if I tried to open up a restaurant here with Korean-style service, people would revolt. (And the people who do manage are usually Koreans running Korean restaurants in Korea-town, the only place people will deign to not be small-talked.)

  28. Reverse culture shock is the worse! Every tiny little thing is different, and none of your friends understand. When I returned home after teaching in Thailand, I remember my first frustration was getting a taxi in San Francisco. In SEA, one has to practically fend off the cab drivers, and in S.F. they were passing me by! Unfortunately, I left again before I was able to experience a Thai or other Asia restaurant, but the tipping in a regular restaurant was a hard readjustment. Congrats on FP!

  29. I absolutely loved this story :) I’m a Foreign Service Brat who grew up all over the world. Now I’m living in Jasper, Alberta, suffering from a bit of reverse culture shock, myself. My mouth waters for REAL FOOD! Where’s that damn bing bong…I could use one at my dining table…

  30. I know what you mean. Although, it was the reverse situation for me. I returned to Singapore after 10 years in Canada (Canadian citizen now). Having only worked in Canada, I had to adjust to the local way of working…and got in trouble because I was way too vocal. LOL fun times but now I’m in Frankfurt which is also another story.

  31. Lol, I’ve only been to Korea by way of the “dramadies” I watch but this makes me want to go! Love your writing style…you’re totally a friend in my head, now!

  32. Well written and funny! I’ve been in Thailand just long enough to ease into the Thai brand of customer service, and already thinking about how weird it will be to go home to Vancouver. No doorbells on the table here though, what a trip.

    • Thai customer service was pretty nice, indeed.

      I’ve only ever been through the Van airport, never Van itself. If the people are as nice as the airport, it probably can’t be too far off in terms of service.

      • Such a fancy-pants airport. I think “polite but distant” is the Vancouver way (generally,) a smile, but no conversation. This suits me fine, since I usually tool around town in a bit of an ipod bubble anyway, but it does frustrate travelers who expected that “friendly Canadian” thing that gets pushed so hard. You get that in the small towns though :) I find the same thing here, Bangkok was very smooth but not personal, and the South islands were so casual friendly!

  33. I think there is a distinct difference between the East and West when it comes to dining out. While it’s not exactly the same in different Asian countries, they are all variations on a theme. We have a particular Cantonese restaurant here in Auckland, New Zealand that garners many haters because of their brisk, efficient service. Fine diners find it far too brutal. Personally, I love it. The food is very good, cheap, delicious and it’s fast. Fast food fast. I don’t go out to be asked how I’m feeling. I go to eat.

  34. I am finding that no matter where you go as an expat there are so many shared experiences. As American expats living in Scotland it has taken us 5 months to figure out the restaurant routine. We were used to the meaningless chat, constant checking up, and tipping. We have even waited courteously for our bill to come for 30 minutes. To ask for it is rude right? No, they kept walking by just looking at us until we realized they expect us to ask for the bill. One baby step at a time I guess. I love your perspective of going back to what you grew up with. I often wonder how we will handle it when the time comes.

    • Ahh, I’ve also waited in restaurants for a long time in different countries, hoping that I haven’t messed up the protocol, just waiting for whatever is supposed to happen next.

      Don’t go back! Stay abroad as long as you possibly can.

  35. We in Canada are open to trying foreign foods so at least you are trying to approach it in the right way by being open about the experience. Good for you.

  36. I understand how you feel…after being neglected for three years by servers in China, I find it alarming to be hailed constantly as “ma’am” here in the UAE and frequently asked if “everything is ok.”

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