Let’s Go Outback Tonight
Written after a particularly traumatic restaurant outing.
I like to tell people the truth—that I was born in South Korea, to a military man and a farmer’s daughter. The exoticism of that intentionally-partial reality tends to cloud certain details: that I have spent most of my life in the U.S., that I wear my shoes in the house, that I don’t speak a lick of Korean, that I am 5’ 8”.
My mom and I visited her side of the family in Songtan and Seoul in the fall of 2006, for the first time in 18 years. For me, the experience was largely exciting, disconcerting in an entirely different way than for my mom, whose relatively-new American way of life had weaned her from all Korean familiarity. That is to say, what was once her everyday way of life had been nudged into history by AMERICA!, so she had to battle with the loss of her history versus the comforts of her new life versus the way her family lives, blah blah.
But this isn’t a story about loss. It is a story about cultural confusion and, more than that, embarrassment.
On the maternal side, I have one uncle who speaks English. I gather he is some sort of international businessman; I have no evidence of this save for a business card that says “Johnny Lee”; it is common for Korean people with difficult-to- pronounce Korean names to adopt typical American names to make life easier for everyone. Uncle “Johnny” (known to me as Samchoon my entire life) really wanted me to feel at home, offering me assorted alcoholic beverages and offering to buy everything I glanced at sidelong. Samchoon decided to take us out for dinner, and in a fairly questionable fit of hospitality, suggested Outback Steakhouse in Seoul.
I’d already No Reservations-ed a few times, ducking into back alley restaurants, sitting on upside-down buckets and eating spicy soups of God-knows- what, and that’s fine, because it’s all part of the experience and a facet I genuinely enjoyed. But it had been about ten days at this point, and even if only for one meal, I was ready to eat with a goddamned fork.
Samchoon triple-parked (something he did with alarming frequency) and ran in, only to find the wait was unbearably long. Naturally, we parked the car and walked two doors down, in the same building, to another Outback, this time only to be seated immediately. The menu was basic, with new names for the same items I imagine are on the menu stateside. I decided on a pasta dish, and my mom ordered something similar.
While stirring my Coke (which came half-full with no ice and was refilled at no point during the meal), I tuned out the Korean conversation happening next to me and people watched. Even at home, I’m a little obsessed with hip-looking, young, Asian couples, and at the booth next to us, one such pair was sharing a huge salad and plate of ribs. Adorable.
The waitress brought our food, and I immediately began inhaling my Queensland shrimp and noodles, or whatever it was called, and my mom did the same. Several minutes and half a plate of pasta later, I looked up from my gluttony long enough to realize that my extended family was dishing out a little of this, a little of that from everyone’s entrées. I glanced, panicking internally, at every other table in the restaurant. Sure enough, those humongous American-Australian portions make sense to Korean people only in the context of sharing. That is to say,
IF YOU ARE GOING TO ORDER A THREE-POUND ENTRÉE, YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO SHARE IT.
I could feel my cheeks burning, and my mom had come to the same realization at roughly the same time I had. Heads bowed in shame, we finished our meals in mutual embarrassment, silently begging for forgiveness from our tiny Korean dining partners.
After the meal, my aunt, mom and I stopped at the restrooms, where I was confronted with my ultimate Asian vacation nightmare: the bidet. The idea of the thing has always given me the heebie jeebies. I am by no means electronically-inept, but this thing has so many buttons. So many. And not a single letter of English to be found. I did what any tourist lacking in confidence would do and held it until I was sure I knew how to flush. I pressed a button that, to me, looked like water going down the drain, and threw myself flat against the stall partition when a surprisingly powerful stream of water shot out of the bowl. Ducking, I inched out of the stall and slammed the door shut, only to see the water pooling on the floor.
Seconds later, I heard my mom yell, “Becky! What’s ‘BEE-DAY?’, followed by a blood-curdling scream and then my mom, shirt soaked through, emerged from her stall. She had to borrow my aunt’s jacket to leave the restaurant.
Let this be a hard lesson for Americans about exploring new cultures. To paraphrase, ‘tis a far better thing to justifiably embarrass yourself in an unfamiliar place than to accidentally bidet your shirt in an Outback.