From the sweet fine archives || Eat pay leave. It's not that complicated.
A (relevant) reprint from the blog archives as I try to kick some serious jet lag.
Hello, friends! I just got back after nearly 3 weeks of travel and the struggle of reentery is real. I didn’t really experience jet lag going to Asia, but I’m getting hit with it really hard coming back. Plus, I feel like I have vertigo?? So I’ve spent the majority of the last 36 hours in a horizontal position. My suitcase is still on the floor, unpacked, but a mess after rummaging around for the toiletries I need immediately. Early this morning I spilled an entire cup of coffee on my bed, so I’d say things are going great!
I come back with a ton of stories to tell, but if you’ve been following some of my posts on instagram then you may know just what a ridiculous itinerary I’ve had traveling around the entire country of South Korea. I think it will take months to process everything, but one notable observation about my trip was the two different experiences I’ve had eating at restaurants vs. cafes. It can be incredibly cheap to eat a meal in Korea. Dishes like a bowl of noodles that would cost $15-20+ at home in the States can be as cheap as $7 (the dollar being strong against the Korean Won also helps).
Coffees, specialty drinks, and pastries at cafes, on the other hand, are comparable to American prices. Cafe culture in Korea is huge and in particular neighborhoods around Seoul, they are everywhere and they are charming. I’ve come to realize that you’re paying for ambiance and buying time sit in leisure, hence the higher prices vs. the restaurants I mostly ate at where it’s really just about the eating and getting on with the rest of your day. The whole transaction is fast. It reminded me of a post I wrote on my blog many years ago, pasted below, dated pop culture references and all.
Till next Wednesday. Wish me luck on kicking this jet lag/vertigo combo.
Eat pay leave. It's not that complicated
When you happen to have a particular food craving, sometimes there’s no satisfying it until you feed the craving—which is what happened to us last weekend with soup dumplings. We decided to go to Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street above Canal because we almost always get a booth and they have noodles in soup which the youngest loves (there is very little else on a menu that she likes these days). Like other restaurants in Chinatown, Shanghai Cafe has a notorious reputation for bad service and if you read any online review you’ll see what I mean. It almost makes you think twice about going. I guess I always temper my expectations and know to just eat my meal, pay, and not linger, but maybe that’s because I just know that’s what you do. Waitresses are not your friends. They do their job and you do yours, which is to eat your food.
Can I tell you a little story? Back when I was working in an office and did such things as go out for dinner meetings with my coworkers, I would always secretly cringe when anyone suggested Korean barbeque. It wasn’t because I was doubtful that my coworkers would like Korean food, but because these dinners would inevitably end up being long, leisurely affairs. That’s fine in other restaurants, but not in ones in Chinatown or K-town. If my coworkers unanimously agreed on Korean, I would try to steer them towards the few restaurants downtown which were definitely more hip and had a fusion vibe where you could linger for awhile, but they always wanted to go somewhere in K-town because the food was more authentic. Keep in mind that this was 10-15 years ago so Korean food as a cuisine, even in NYC, wasn’t mainstream.
Being “The Korean” in the group, I always ended up having to recommend a restaurant which basically consisted of me searching online for reviews or reading Zagats like anybody else because I don’t really eat out all that much in K-town. I also always ended up ordering for the table because, well frankly, the waitress would always look at me when she came by for our order. This was fine and all, but I’m not fluent in Korean and so I would stumble through the order as best I could. Inevitably, the waitress would realize that I was a non-fluent Korean American and I could just sense the immediate air of disapproval even if she didn’t say a thing.
She didn’t have to.
This little exchange and slight shift in the power between me, the non-fluent speaking Korean, and the waitress, a very fluent Korean, was always unnoticed by my dinner companions, but I will tell you that the balance of power most certainly shifted. The meal itself was always enjoyable and I’d even forget for an hour that I was wearing the badge of shame as the non-fluent Korean in the restaurant—that is, until the end of the meal.
This is where the dinner starts getting really stressful again, but this stress is only apparent to me. Usually when I’m out eating at a Korean restaurant with my parents, we pay and leave, usually as the waitress is clearing the table after our meal—a clear sign that they want your table for the next paying patrons. Dinner can be done in under an hour, but my friends and coworkers all want to stay and talk and linger and drink and talk some more. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but not at most busy restaurants on a Friday night in K-town. Let me tell you…I have been in some stressful work situations in my life and trying to subtly nudge my coworkers to move our party elsewhere for an hour while the waitress keeps walking back and forth after putting down our check has got to be up there in the 10 top most stressful moments in my work career for me.
“Well, why didn’t you just say something instead of silently suffering?” you might be wondering.
Yes, you’re right. But how can I blurt out that the Koreans don’t want you lingering in their restaurants, especially when it’s loud and your coworkers are all having a good time, engaged in heated conversations about a client or you know, some TV show like Ally McBeal. It isn’t easy to admit that your culture can be extremely blunt and sometimes rude. And maybe, just maaaaybe for making me feel The Shame, I was subversively trying to get even with the waitress who you could tell was getting increasingly agitated by the table of Americans and the one non-fluent Korean American who wouldn’t leave the table even though they finished their dinner an hour and a half ago. Because really, it was me she was glaring at, not them and I knew what she was thinking.
“You know the drill! You eat, you pay, you leave! No lingering! Why you not tell your American friends that?”
There are always these differences that exist between cultures. Maybe a simple awareness of them, which I realize is not always apparent, would go a long way. It goes both ways too, of course. Take my dad, for example. He never understands why dinners take so long to serve at non-Asian restaurants. He’ll inevitably mumble about how he’d already be done with his meal if he were at a Korean restaurant while impatiently waiting for his entree. He also doesn’t understand the bread thing.
“Why they bring so much bread all the time? I finish bread, they bring more. Why so much bread? Because food take too long?”
Incidentally, the service at Shanghai Cafe when we were there last weekend was quite good. I don’t know if the owners started reading those reviews or we just caught them on a good day, but our waitress was super nice, smiled at the girls and was overall really pleasant. They even thanked us as we headed towards the door. Thanks, Shanghai Cafe! We’ll be back, sooner rather than later.
Since writing this blog post some years ago, I’ve realized that I haven’t felt The Shame quite like this since, which means that maybe the dynamic between disapproving fluent speakers and non-fluent Korean Americans have changed? Maybe?
In any case, I’m happy to report that I managed just fine ordering food in Korea—in Korean. Yay!
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Totally been there w being The Korean in charge of recommending the Korean bbq spot, ordering the food etc. in Los Angeles. 😂
Good luck with the jet lag at home!