[VIEWPOINT]How not to enjoy Korean food

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[VIEWPOINT]How not to enjoy Korean food

Many times I have seen handmade paper umbrellas in living rooms or personal libraries of American homes. They are Japanese-style umbrellas that usually garnish ice cream sundaes and cocktails. I have also seen Japanese-style chopsticks, neatly packaged in a paper case and displayed where visitors can enjoy them as the host does. Some homes I saw displayed napkins with Ukiyo, or "floating world" style paintings pilfered from Japanese restaurants.

These are souvenirs indicating that the host has been to a Japanese restaurant, some of which have the most expensive menus among ethnic restaurants in the United States. Americans like to show that they have been to a Japanese restaurant, where the waiters give immaculate service. You look for a lighter and there is the waiter with a lighter for your cigarette. Your water glass is empty, and the waiter rushes to fill it.

Late September, I was in Rome with a group tour. We had a reservation at a Korean restaurant, but had to wait outside on a cold, breezy evening. Despite the reservation, we had to wait outside the restaurant like a pack of dogs on a Roman street. Only when a group of Korean diners came out were we able to go in. Once inside, we sat at tables as servers banged down dishes. They literally threw a bunch of spoons and chopsticks at us, leaving us to sort them out. When the food arrived, I could not agree that they were indeed Korean dishes.

The owner of the restaurant, who said she was a long-time resident in Italy, did not consider Korean package group tourists to be customers who should be treated with care. To her, we were a group that would probably never come by again. That infuriated me, and that is why I am writing this column -- so that she may be infuriated as well.

On top of bad service and not-so-great food, the restaurant did not have my favorite liquor. Since I had a bottle with me, I asked the hostess whether I could open it. She seemed bothered, saying "In principle, it is not allowed but..." I asked her if it was acceptable in principle to make customers wait outside, and her face darkened. I came out of the restaurant without finishing the food -- but I did finish my bottle of liquor. So much for principle.

It must be my white hair. When I go abroad and eat at local restaurants, I am automatically called "sir" and my wife "ma'am," not only in high-end restaurants but in casual ones as well. Bantering with friends and employees is one of the great pleasures of traveling. But I am usually frustrated when I go to Korean restaurants. Do they treat me different because I am a fellow Korean?

I have had bad experiences not only in Rome, but in Athens, Beijing and Ulan Bator. Korean restaurants there were nightmares, cheaply capitalizing on Koreans' penchant for kimchi stew. But when I am on a group tour. I have no choice of restaurants. But Korean restaurants abroad are usually ill-lighted and have dirty rest rooms. Other people might think that all Koreans live and eat like that. I wish travel agents and Koreans working abroad had such a fear in their hearts as well.

The writer is a novelist and translator.

by Lee Yun-ki

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