“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.
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.