Hitting the Language Barrier, Stomach First

It’s impossible not to be drawn to Hongdae if you live in Seoul. While I’m not one for the nightlife, the area is always teeming with interesting cafes and promises of interesting events around each corner. Whether it’s the Santa Walk in the wintertime, the sporadic live performances from aspiring musicians, or the strange and often poorly planned events by the local students (they set up walls for anyone to draw pictures on, on a rainy day) there’s always somewhere to go and something to see.

This particular night, my girlfriend and I had a particular goal in mind. Food.

After enough trips to Hongdae, you realize that the nightlife centers on restaurants. There are clubs aplenty with long stretching lines and crowds waiting for entry, but the same can be said for the restaurants. It isn’t strange to see a crowd waiting for seats at the Charlie Brown cafe’ or lines forming for some of the more popular restaurants on the main street. Regardless of whether you come for the clubs or for the shopping, you’re always in for a good meal.

While the main areas have lots of great choices, each of the side streets is home to a wealth of restaurants. My girlfriend had found out about a Japanese restaurant down an alleyway not far from the clubs and bars that is pretty well known. Tonight wasn’t any different as I left my phone number and Korean name with the host before we made out for the nearest Starbucks. We were excited to try a new restaurant which was made even better by the prospect of eating food that wasn’t Korean.

A short wait that felt longer than it was eventually gave way to a phone call from the restaurant telling us a table was ready. We returned to find the cat that makes his perch next to the entrance unfriendly and decidedly bored by our presence. After a few seconds trying to meow his language, it was a warm entrance into Tekan Izakaya and a quick greeting before we were seated in the corner of the restaurant next to another couple.

We took one look at the menu when hopes gave way to reality.

The Korean language is loosely based on the Japanese language and several Chinese dialects (most notably the Han dialect). Through the ages, the language has undergone several transformations and permutations to become the current language it is today. Unfortunately remnants of the language remain and aren’t taught in schools (at least not the in the schools I attended in California) but are learned as a part of living in Korea. My girlfriend (not of Korean descent) looked at me with hope and I returned her gaze with one of panic. I could read the menu for the most part but besides the generalities I didn’t know what most of it meant. Species of fish were scribbled on the specials and a good deal was romanticized Japanese (which is still taught in many high schools in Korea).

Needless to say, my Korean was worse than useless here. We called over a waiter who came by with a smile and asked if we were ready to order. When I asked for an English menu, his smile faded and returned weakly when he responded, “We don’t have one.”

The waiter disappeared for a few minutes while we made hushed whispers about what looked good and hurriedly tried to use our smartphone apps to translate what we could. Without any photos on the menu, we tried to make do as well as we could. The couple next to us had no troubles ordering a seafood broth and a plate of sushi (none of which looked particularly appetizing to us unfortunately). The waiter arrived back and asked if we needed any help or any suggestions. I think our panicked faces were enough for him to get the message as he tried to help us understand what each dish was… in Korean.

I’ve gone back and tried to translate what I remember of the descriptions but it amounts to,

“The eel broth is made of eel and seasonings with garlic and onion.”

The problem? I don’t know what eel is in Korean. So what I heard was,

“The — broth is made of — and seasonings with garlic and onion.”

After another five minutes of useless explanations, I politely asked for a few minutes while my girlfriend and I looked over the menu. I took a closer look and translated what I could and we eventually settled on a three plates that sounded appetizing along with two beers. I guess it should have been surprising that what we ordered wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. Rather than getting a full course mean for ~$35 what we got were smaller appetizers meant to go separately with  larger dishes. We took it in stride and laughed at our own foolishness while the waiter made frequent trips to our table to inquire about the state of our food, whether it tasted good, along with other questions which we answered with smiles.

The food itself was great although the portions were smaller than we had hoped. All in all the dinner an interesting outing (although not one to be repeated in the same manner). It wasn’t until we asked for the check that the waiter ventured forth a question that had probably been on his mind all night, “Excuse me but aren’t you Korean? Shouldn’t you be able to read the menu?”

My girlfriend could barely hide her laughter as I sat there and nodded with a big goofy grin on my face, “Yes, and yes.”

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