The Great Restaurant Language Dilemma

The moment we are first noticed upon entering an establishment, there is anxiety. Tension begins to fill the air, and the hand-wringing commences. When we enter to sit down at a restaurant, or walk through a store, the waiters usually assemble in a quickly thrown-together caucus to discuss the dilemma now facing them: one of us might have to speak English to finish our job tonight. They weigh out the pros and cons, and in the vast majority of establishments (though certainly not all), it is simply less embarrassing and risky to struggle valiantly and painfully through every interaction with non-Korean-speaking customers than it is to try to bar them form the business with pitchforks and raised voices.

And so, an argument begins.

Who studied English the most, or the most recently? Who has been to any country where you have to speak it? Who is the most daring, the least shakeable, the least likely to run back to the kitchen drenched in tears, flop-sweat, and whatever toxic emissions foreigners surely seep through their alien hides? In rapid succession, candidates are nominated, and struck out of contention, and nominated once more.

When one sacrificial lamb is finally elected, they begin to waft over to our table as though facing the gallows. Their palms are sweaty. Their brows are furrowed. This had not been in the job description. If they had known they might have to speak English, they would have just started working in a stockroom. Or shovelling manure somewhere, or began working with dangerous animals. Taken a job on a mountain top, or in a rural village, or just somewhere, anywhere, where the travesty that is coming to befall them would not have occurred.

They heave a sigh once before us, and simply pick up the bill, hoping we will start the interaction. In their eyes is the desperate plea of an animal, of someone being led to the slaughter — make this quick.

Because I am ultimately a cruel and capricious fiend, I have, more than a few times, allowed people to swing in the wind for a few moments of harried, desperate, strangled English. Once, a waiter came to tell us that the kitchen would soon be closed, but when we began asking a clarifying question, he recoiled viscerally. Soon, a waitress came to shield him, to stand in front of him, to barricade him from us and our brutal linguistic assaults upon his very spirit.

When waiters or service people do start an interaction, it is almost invariably with a long, disheartened apology about the quality of English we are about to receive. But they will do this for us. Because it is their duty. And because they will probably get yelled at if they don’t.


The moment when I first reveal enough Korean to get us through the interaction is one of fairly intense confusion.

While having dinner recently with a friend, we searched for the bing-bong (the table doorbell) to summon one of the waiters, and when we discovered none, I yelled out the customary “Over here!” in Korean. A waitress perked, and began to scan the restaurant, looking for who might be calling out to her. “That certainly sounded like Korean,” her expression read. Consternation swam across her features. She could find no source, and was prepared to just believe it a ghost, a bit of wind, until she noticed me waving and blinking rapidly at her. “Him?” She shook her head and began walking towards us. “Oh well, a lucky coincidence that I hallucinated just when he was trying to get my attention.”

When I, or someone else at the table, finally take pity upon this long-suffering and, to be fair, legitimately straining face, I begin speaking in Korean. After a few pained, brutal sentences through English, each one seemingly rending another internal organ from their torsos, I inform them they can continue the interaction in Korean. Or I just begin rattling off the things that we want.

The look is at first one of genuine bewilderment. “Oh, of course. I suffered an aneurysm from that much English in one sitting, and purgatory is a world of illusions.” I can’t be speaking Korean, that would just be nonsense.

But then I keep going, and I’m saying all the food or help that I need. And they remember their job, and that as much as they want to interrogate me as to how I have engaged in such sorcery, they don’t want to ask me to repeat just in case it’s a one-time distortion in the fabric of the universe.

And last is an overabundant praise of my Korean. Usually it’s overkill, as my Korean still largely sucks. But I know just enough of it to get the job done. They are not praising my Korean, really. They are thanking me for saving them from the fate they had dreaded.

Seconds later, they return to the caucus. They tell them what they have seen. “You’re full of it,” their faces say, and they glance at me or whoever I’m with, and shake their heads. You just don’t want to have to answer them the next time they call for a waiter. The person is looked upon with suspicion, with rolled eyes. They might as well claim Bigfoot is sitting in the restaurant.

11 thoughts on “The Great Restaurant Language Dilemma

  1. When my husband and I go out to a restaurant I can see the look of terror on the waiter’s face as he looks at me, then the look of relief once he glances at my husband. I can see he’s thinking “Ah, thankfully a Korean. I won’t have to speak English.” But my husband is cruel. And a prankster. He’ll order in English. He says he just wants to check out “if the high school English lessons have improved since I was in school”. The waiter pales. He swallows hard and I can see the lump of his adam’s apple as it gets stuck. Suddenly his mouth is dry and he doesn’t know what to do about this unthinkable situation. “You’re scaring him” I say. “Just speak Korean and save him from having a stroke”. My husband relents and changes languages.

    Another funny incident we experienced recently: we were biking in Chungcheon and had stopped on a corner, waiting for a light. We were just standing with our bikes, chatting, when a car pulled up beside us. The darkly tinted passenger window slid down and a woman looked at me. She caught us in mid-sentence and heard me speaking English, so turned to my husband, and when she heard him speaking English she turned to the driver, said something, and the window rolled up and the car drove away. Apparently she thought my husband must be a foreigner, even though he’s quite obviously Korean. Since then I’ve called him “my crazy waygookin”.

    • I’ve had instances where I’ve held down an interaction in Korean, and a waiter has turned to my Asian (non-Korean nor Korean-speaking) friend, and tried to continue it away from me, as though dealing with my speaking was causing them serious cognitive dissonance. When my friends stare at them blankly and tell them they don’t speak it, there is usually a minute or two when they just don’t even know what to do.

      I’ve had Korean friends do the same thing to some poor waiters, just claiming to be foreigners when they want to torture someone. They’re worse than me!

  2. Oh my, the part about toxic emissions seeping through their alien hides had me laughing for real. What a funny post. I love how you captured the experience so well that I could picture it in my mind. Brilliant!

  3. I tried pretending once I was just Canadian when i was in Italy, but somehow they knew i could speak Italian. I asked him how he knew i wasn’t Canadian and he said to me “hahaha you don’t look out of place enough.”

    • Hah, I have friends who have the opposite problem here. They look just Korean enough that they’ll get absolutely attacked with lightning-speed Korean, despite them basically running in the other direction.

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