Food Faux Pas in South Korea: Part 2

I was told that these were "fishcakes." Whatever they were, they were pretty good. (Charlie Crespo)

I was told that these were “fishcakes.” Whatever they were, they were pretty good. (Charlie Crespo)

This is the second and final part of an earlier article detailing a previous cultural embarrassment committed by my friend Sean and yours truly. Before reading this article, you should probably read about the initial faux pas that created an international incident, which you can find here. OK, there wasn’t really an international incident. But you will laugh and it will set the scene for this article.

After our initial struggle trying to decide what to eat in which order, Sean and I started to get the hang of things. Granted, we ate a lot of street food while in South Korea and that’s pretty hard to mess up. As we walked about exploring, we stumbled across stands selling everything from the harmless waffle ice cream sandwich to the more challenging fish cake, though I didn’t know that’s what it was when I originally purchased it.

Sean trying to take it all in. (Charlie Crespo)

Sean trying to take it all in. (Charlie Crespo)

The guessing game you play with street food while in Asia is something you get used to after a bit. While we were in Shanghai, Sean was able to, at the very least, give me an idea of what I was eating from whatever dubious cart we happened to be in front of, either because he had eaten it already or because he could communicate with the owner in somewhat-broken Mandarin. When I was without him in Shanghai, I was left to sheepishly point at things, hoping for the best.

When we moved on to Seoul and Tokyo, his guesses became as good as mine. Though it can be a bit unnerving at first, eating mystery meals from sketchy carts or stalls was one of the most exciting parts (at least for me) about traveling in Asia. Sure, some of it was hard to stomach and some of it made me pretty sick — especially in China — but, for the most part, the food is good and the novel tastes and textures make for an unique experience.

Anyway, a few days after our mishaps with Korean barbeque we decided to give it another shot. One reason: It was simply delicious and we just wanted to eat it as much as possible before we left Seoul. The other and more important reason: We felt like we needed to redeem ourselves for our previous indiscretions.

As we walked through a part of the city that contained a large outdoor market, we spotted a barbeque restaurant much like the one from the first night. Strangely, it was located right by an Outback Steakhouse, which I had yet to come across in Asia. Although American fast food chains like Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and KFC had been everywhere, I had yet to see the type of casual, sit-down restaurant like Chili’s or Friday’s that litter American shopping plazas. But here was an Outback, beckoning us with its Bloomin Onion siren song. It wasn’t a hard decision to pass up though because Outback sucks we were on a mission.

Oh, hey Outback. (Charlie Crespo)

Oh, hey Outback. (Charlie Crespo)

If you’ll allow me a quick digression, I need to explain something. I promise it will make sense in just a second. I’ve been eating with chopsticks for a while now and, although I’m no expert, I consider myself pretty adept at using them to get food into my mouth. Before I went to South Korea, however, I didn’t know that what I considered the standard chopstick wasn’t really used there (cultural ignorance alert). Unlike in China and Japan where you are given the wooden, rounded chopstick, in South Korea a flat, thin metal chopstick is used. There are some explanations as to why that is, but the important thing to know is that using the metal chopstick is way more difficult than using the wooden one.

OK, so anyway, we walked into the restaurant and sat down around the same type of grill in the middle of the table. This time we weren’t fazed; we had this down. When the waitress approached we pointed to the same menu items and soon were greeted with all the delicious condiments and the plates of raw meat. We didn’t need to ask for help this time and got to grilling. Needless to say, we were happy not to embarrass ourselves a second time.

Everything was going well and the food was good. A quarter of the way through the meal however, the waitress quietly approached the table and without saying a word laid down a fork at each of our sides and just as silently retreated across the room. Sean and I stared at each other in disbelief. While we thought we were looking like Korean barbeque veterans, the waitress had actually seen two Americans fumbling about with chopsticks like a toddler trying to corral a fumbled football.

To this day, I tell myself that she did what she did out of the goodness of her heart. She saw two customers struggling and figured she’d help them out. Of course, just because I tell myself that, doesn’t mean that’s what really happened. She could have just as easily went into the back of the restaurant and laughed it up with her coworkers, just as Sean and I would when customers would order a filet mignon well done at the restaurant we worked at back home.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Even though we tried our hardest, Seoul got the last laugh.



CharlieCharlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.

Previously from Charlie Crespo:
No Longer Buried: Paa Joe’s Ephemeral Art
Monday’s Viral Video: Impala on the Run
The Strange, Sad Saga of Amanda Bynes
Phil Mickelson Reminds Us Why We Love Sports
Monday’s Viral Video: For Those Senior Citizens About to Rock, We Salute You

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