Sunday, July 4, 2010

Grappling with menus and Korean hospitality

DINNER HAD followed the same pattern since I'd gotten here. I would point at a Korean symbol on the menu and hope for the best. If you were really lucky you might have a picture to refer to - this time I didn't. I ended up with a huge platter of various unidentified objects covered in batter and fried. It tasted pretty good, whatever it was. Ignorance, to roll out a wonderful cliché, is bliss.

The food made me thirsty so I pointed to a beer tap at the counter, hopefully. The lady who ran the place shook her head and said something about a "bottle". I figured the tap wasn't working. OK, I said, a bottle is fine. Ignoring the numerous bottles of beer lining the fridge, the woman took out a large green bottle of something with plants on the label. From the label it looked like the kind of drink Madonna might sip on in between bouts of Yoga. The woman opened it and poured it into a teapot and put it in front of me. It was milky white and, whatever it was, it was definitely not beer. Well, when in Seoul. . .

It was slightly fizzy and had a unique, but very pleasant, taste. And it went down extremely easily. At first I wasn't even sure if it was alcoholic. Fifteen minutes later, feeling lightheaded, and with a half a whole teapot left to finish, I had a pretty good idea.

As I was battling through my third or fourth cup of this mysterious drink a middle-aged man entered the restaurant and got my attention. He barely had a word of English but I gathered that he was giving me the name of what I was drinking. "Ma-ko-li" (Spelt "Makgeolli"; I've since discovered it's a type of rice wine), he told me over and over, giving me the thumbs up and grinning. "Yeah, it's good," I said.

He said nothing for a moment and then looked up from where he was sitting again. "You are handsome boy," he said.

Uh oh. I'm not used to been called a handsome boy in general, not least of all by middle-aged Korean men. Thoughts of date rape, hidden sex dungeons and bathtubs full of ice flashed across my mind. I could see the tiny 50-word column in the Irish Times announcing the vivisection and pawning off some Irish student's body. It wouldn't even warrant a picture or nice headline.

Maybe I was too cynical. Maybe he was just nice. Maybe handsome meant something entirely different here - like "you are interesting" or "I appreciate Irish culture". Or maybe it was just consensual bonking he was after. And who was I to be picky? I'd yet to meet any Korean ladies.

The man made a gesture at the lady running the place and she brought a a small saucer of food over to my table. It seemed the man had bought it for me. This was getting worrying. I gestured thank you and tried what was before me. It was very spicy, like gimchi (spicy, fermented vegetables that Koreans eat with everything) but with unidentified chewy bits. Octopus, perhaps?

Eventually I finished my teapot and went to pay for everything. But the woman wouldn't accept any of my money. She pointed to a man sitting across from me. He had paid for the whole meal, drinks and all. I was speechless. In broken Korean I said thank you repeatedly to the man, who had now been joined by several other men at his table. I felt awkward that there was nothing I could offer or say to return such kindness. I couldn't have offered him a piece of lint from Ireland.

I walked out onto the street with a smile on my face. At times it was difficult to always stand out like a sore thumb; it could be disheartening when every attempt at communication was a struggle. But on this night I had been made feel very,very welcome. Hospitality like that you won't find back home. Not even if home is the land of a 100,000 welcomes.


  1. beggars can't be choosers johnnie!

  2. That sounds great. It's a pity that a kind gesture from an old man is to be treated with suspicion nowadays.

  3. PS - succesfully posting the above comment was more difficult than getting through Australian customs. Third time lucky.