Since lately I appear to have devolved into a Debbie Downer who only pines over Thailand or whines about the frost that has settled over my city, I have decided it is time to remind myself — and all of you devoted readers — what it is I truly love about this little peninsula.
I’ll start with the excellent restaurant service. Gone are the days with jaded teenagers bringing me plates like its a chore, grumpy and feeling entitled for a tip out of my hard-earned cash. Oh no. Culturally, the population here has an incredible amount of pride in their job performance, whether they’re on the city council or serving you bibimbap. The service I’ve encountered in restaurants and cafes is quick, efficient, and over-the-top polite. Recently I opted to spend a snowy Saturday night in, and headed to a local Italian joint to score a take-out dinner for one. While I waited for my mushroom risotto, waiters popped over to bring me water, bread, soup and doted on me like I was a dining guest. At every establishment, the staff goes out of their way to make customers comfortable.
In most restaurants and bars in Korea, you will see a small doorbell-type device perched on your table. If you need anything — be it banchan, anju or a couple more mekchus — you simply press the button, hear a faint ding, and a waiter or waitress appears before your eyes, waiting for your order.
Now, this whole process isn’t remotely as rude that it sounds written down — it is just practical and efficient. In America, you expect your servers to check in to your table constantly, even when you don’t need something. Then, of course, when you decide to order, your table help is nowhere to be found! Why waste their time when you’re not ready, and your time when they’re helping someone else?
Enter table bells. It’s not like we expect people to come running when we ring cowbells designed to call over servants — this system just allows the servers to be doing other work until you actually need them. This also takes away wait time at bars, which can be frustrating when you’ve been desperately waving money as every bartender ignores you.
Enjoying cuisine or beverages in Korean, but nary a button in sight? Don’t fret. It is also socially acceptable (and downright necessary) to call “Yogiyo” to get your server’s attention if you are in desperate need of a bottle of soju or another bowl of garlic. Yogiyo translates to a polite way of saying “here” — but again, it is not rude. It would be obnoxious to yell “Yogi” because the addition of -yo to the end is what makes this saying formal and respectful.
Beats the hell outta waiting for your server to finish out their path around the crowded restaurant in the States!
The best thing about the exquisite service in Korea is that it doesn’t cost extra. Waiters don’t dote on you because they want or expect a tip, they do it because it is their job. Period. No lagging on the food, no expectant glances at your purse, no eye rolls — just friendly, helpful service for no charge. I know that when I go home, I will expect much more out of restaurants and their staff. If only American restaurant workers made a decent wage, so that tips can be given for above-and-beyond service and not necessary for the wait staff to have the money to live.
And then there’s the free food with the alcohol. ‘Nuff said.
Not only do Koreans display pride in their workplace, they echo that in their wardrobe. No one leaves their apartment without being immaculately dressed — heels, tapered blazers, not a single hair out of place. Mothers of the children at my school look better picking up their children from kindergarten than I look when I go to the club! Although being surrounded by gorgeous, flawlessly dressed women has had a positive effect on me — I leave the house in sweatpants less frequently, or cover them up with my knee-length winter coat. I’ve also been inspired to pick up pieces at little boutiques to add a little oomph to my tired wardrobe.
And you better make sure you’re looking you’re best, because if you’re not you will definitely hear it. Koreans are honest, brutally at times, because their culture demands it. Not only does everyone follow the rules, but they snitch on people who don’t. The honesty can be painful when your co-worker tells you, unprovoked, that you look tired or hungover, but it can come in handy when you leave your iPod at the gym.
Earlier this week, I walked home in the bitter cold only to realize that was exactly what I had done. I trudged back, and my MP3 player was sitting at the front desk, waiting patiently for me. In America, I had an iPod stolen from my house and one stolen from my car, but Koreans wouldn’t even take my music sanctuary as it sat in front of them at the gym. So there it is — thank goodness for honesty.