Summer Stories: The Waitress
“명동칼국수” the sign read. Underneath in a smaller font, “Korean Restaurant.” I pointed out the sign for my mom to pull into the strip mall with the Korean restaurant attached to the end.
When my mom, sister, and I stepped out of the car and into the hot and humid Texas air, the nervousness began to seep into me with every step towards the restaurant. Why was I nervous? Korean language (a.k.a my eternal struggle), that’s why. In the last two months, I had only spoken two sentences in Korean. While on the phone, my friend on the other line suddenly said, “let’s speak in Korean.” But by the second sentence, I had already made a mistake, and suddenly, he switched back to English. What a great confidence booster. It made me feel like I wasn’t even worth talking to in Korean. To add, near the beginning of summer another friend messaged me and asked how I was doing with my Korean studies. I said I hadn't studied at all since the semester ended, which, sadly, was the truth. A summer of relaxation had swallowed me into days of watching tv shows I wasn't interested in and playing fetch with a tireless dog.
Back to the situation at hand.
I knew my mother and sister were expecting me to use Korean with the restaurant staff, but I felt insurmountably unprepared. After studying Korean for three years and going to Korea twice, my mom wanted proof that all those classes weren’t for naught. But I knew that since I came back from Korea last summer, my Korean skills were slowly declining. Adding on two months of being a couch potato didn’t help.
We stepped into what was the representative of every classic mom and pop Asian restaurant in my area of Texas. Yellowish walls with various Korean memorabilia ranging from a historical-looking gourd piece to old head shots of Korean actors. These swap-meet-esque items nearly always seemed to be arranged by an interior decorator who must have been drunk. The non-descript chairs and tables had a subtle stickiness. In the oddly shaped room, one table near the wall was occupied by Korean men who looked to be in their mid-30s and on their lunch break. Another table hosted a group of non-Asian office workers. Not soon after we entered, a young Korean-American couple walked in. When the waitress began speaking Korean to them, they had to tell her they only spoke English.
The mom-aged waitress approached our table, assessed our whiteness, and asked us what we wanted to drink in English. When she got to my drink order, I felt the eyes of my sister and mom, probably expecting me to use Korean. I just said ‘water’ and our waitress walked away.
Let me repeat if it wasn’t clear when I stated it earlier, I was really afraid of speaking Korean.
I went through the process of explaining and recommending foods for us to order to my family when the waitress came back. She asked us if we were ready to order, and my mom said yes, then looked at me, giving me the signal to take the reins.
I said the first dish with my best Korean accent and the woman reacted with, “Oh” accompanied by a surprised face. In that moment, I knew she had not come into contact with many non-Koreans who could speak Korean. A light from heaven shined fortune upon my situation. This “oh” was a plus point for me. In that tiny “oh,” she indirectly told me she would be pleasantly surprised if I spoke Korean, no matter how terrible.
I decided to chance it and order the rest in Korean. She took the order with a smile on her face. I ended the order with “한국어를 3년 동안 배웠어요” (I learned Korean for three years).
Our waitress bubbled with a delighted laugh then sprung into animated Korean.
“어디서 배웠어요?” (Where did you learn Korean?)
“하와이에서 하와이대학교에서 배웠어요” (In Hawaii, I learned Korean at the University of Hawaii)
I would also like to add that I made an error, it's supposed to be 하와이에 not 하와이에서. I cringed when I made the mistake, but the lady just smiled and kept the conversation going.
“한국어를 잘 하네요” (You speak Korean well), she said and then turned to my mother, “한국어를 써서 감동을 받았어요” (She used Korean, so I'm really touched). My mother smiled to the woman, as if understanding the kind lady’s words.
Our waitress had suddenly turned light and animated because of the short conversation I had with her, almost as if I had given her a present. As she walked away I felt happier as well. When I entered the restaurant I was nervous, but the small conversation reminded me that I didn't need to be nervous as long as I tried. The waitress didn't care if I made a small mistake here and there, as long as I was making an effort to communicate with her in her native language.
We spoke a little more when she brought us our food and she opened up about how she missed Korea and wanted to go back. It made me realize that I was probably the first non-Korean to ever make the effort to speak to her in Korean. In a place filled with people who didn't know her home language, Texas was probably very ostracizing and a disappointing place to live. I was glad that I had made the terrifying attempt to speak with her and to connect with her in a way that probably not many had tried before.
When we left, she thanked us for coming, told me to come back again, and thanked me for speaking Korean.
I’m glad that I made her day a little brighter, because she brightened mine. I was proud of myself for actually trying when my motivation was at zero. Although it was small talk that lasted no more than a few minutes, she made me feel as if my Korean was valuable again. With the power of language, I connected with a woman who never expected anything from me. I surprised her and possibly even made her happy.
It's these little moments that carry the most impact for me when I think about learning a language. Talking with a waitress, helping a tourist find a store, having a conversation over dinner, these seemingly insignificant moments help me remember that what's most important is communication and that even if your best comes with mistakes and nervousness, you should give it a shot. It could make someone's day a little bit better.