Language Fail


It must have happened to everyone who has travelled. That complete breakdown in communication, where something simple and easy in your own language, culture or country turns into an epic fail of gigantic proportions. Often frustrating, sometimes expensive, they’re the sort of memories that change slightly over time, from a gigantic irritation at the time, to the kind of thing you can laugh over with your mates when having a drink a few months later.

Recently, on a trip down to Busan, on South Korea’s southern coast, I had not one but two ‘lost in translations’ moments in two days (I know, you think I’d learn from my mistakes, but guess I’m slow on the uptake).

With Buddha’s birthday on the Friday, it seemed like an appropriate time to go visit Beomeosa Temple. Set in the hills above the city, the temple lies snuggled in lush green vegetation, impressive considering how close it is to the sprawling port below. Decked out in all its splendour, with local city dignitaries and the monks present for the birthday celebrations, the temple was buzzing with activity, and an awesome sight to see.

This meant it was busy. Super busy. Since Korea is hardly quiet at the best of times, busy in Korea means queues, masses of people, queues, people and some more queues. Deciding to skip the hour long queue at the bus stop, we started walking down the mountain, aiming for the nearest metro stop. And good choice, walking downhill next to a little stream, in thick shade is not exactly gruelling punishment. And when we spotted a makeshift stall under the trees where a few groups of Koreans were having a quiet beer or rice wine, we just couldn’t say no to one ourselves. So, ordering a few beers in Korean from the ajumma (one Korean phrase I have mastered) we sat back and waited. And waited. And waited a little longer. Eventually, one of our group plucked up the nerve to go see what the situation was with the ajumma and our missing beers. Just a quick aside on Korean ajumma’s.

A generic term to describe old woman, or grandmother, these little old ladies are old school Korea. Old beyond their years, with the ubiquitous curly hair, hunched over due to a life of hard physical labour, these ladies are known for the forthright and direct nature. Nothing gets in the way of them, especially queues. And heaven help you if you do, because they are not shy of using there elbows. And it’s very unusual for them to speak English.

Our Costly Snack. Credit: Karel Malan

So anyway, after being shooed away vigorously, eventually an ajumma plopped a tray filled with food in front of us. A large tray. Filled with the Korean savoury pancakes, and their big blobs of pinkish gelatine that they seem to enjoy so much. And fewer beers that we originally ordered. Bugger. With the help of a friendly Korean who spoke some English, we eventually discovered that you don’t just order a beer here. The drinks go along with the food. OK, so not to bad, the bill was bigger than we were bargaining for, but manageable when split amongst the group. But the embarrassing part came when it was time to pay. Meal done, the ajumma didn’t want to accept our cash. After trying a couple of times, we wrote if off the Korean service and started strolling off down the hill. Oops, big mistake. It appears we could only pay the other ajumma, for whatever reason, and the Koreans had thought that we were trying to dine and dash. Talk about embarrassing. Thankfully, the second ajumma showed up, and we were able to sort the cash out, but still. It’s never great to be seen as a criminal! Especially when you’re innocent.

Fast forward to Saturday, and we were wondering around Jalgachi Fish Market. An institution in Busan, and a helluva sight for visitors, there are just tanks and tanks of fish, squid, lobsters, mussels and every possible type of sea life. Most of them alive and well, living out their last days until someone chooses them for dinner. This is exactly what we did to one rather good looking lobster and a decent sized fish.

We hadn’t planned on eating there, but we started to chatting to one of the fishmongers who spoke excellent English, and were impressed with the prices. Plus the fact that we would eat the fish immediately afterwards in one for the restaurants right above the market. Except, it turns out (once the fish had been killed, and rather expertly filleted) that the prices were not quote as cheap as we’d thought. In fact, they were loads more than we thought. And there was no option of putting the fish back and wondering off…. So, we pooled all the money in our wallets, and walked upstairs with literally not a dime between the five of us. This had better be one excellent seafood meal.

Jalgachi Fish Market

Thankfully, it was. A view of the harbour, and excellent fish, half eaten raw (sashimi style) and half barbequed, along with a lobster for dessert all made for an excellent dinner, and the horror of a bill the size of a small child began to recede from our thoughts. That was until we got hit for a second bill. It seems that the restaurants felt the need to charge a bill over and above what you’ve already paid them for the fish, so essentially we were being asked to pay lots of money for kimchi, water and cutlery. A tricky situation when we had not W5 to rub together…. Talking our way out of this one is going to be tricky.

Published in: on 31/05/2010 at 10:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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