We’ve just thrown a French-fry covered hot dog in the gutter and I’m not sure if we should be more ashamed by our wastefulness or our cultural insensitivity.
“Do you want to walk to McDonalds?” I offer.
“No, it’s fine,” Shauna says, her face still contorted. “I think we should just go home.”
Ten Minutes Earlier
Following the smell of fried food through narrow streets we walk over a carpet of night club fliers and cards for call girls. It’s too cold to walk to McDonalds and we made a pact to eat more healthily. Also, the taxi stand is closer.
Stepping onto the sidewalk on the main road, the cold wind slices through our winter jackets. A middle-aged woman is manning a food stand right in front of us. She’s the only one still open.
Shauna pulls her blue pea coat tighter and turns to me, “I’ll be just a minute.”
The light and steam from the food cart make it seem like a warm place to stand, but as we move farther away from the protection of the buildings on the side street, my teeth are actually chattering. The woman is wearing a puffy jacket, a fleece headband and warm-looking gloves. She isn’t shivering.
Shauna points to the last hot-dog-on-a-stick, the kind battered in French fries, “Hot dog, juseyo.”
Not wanting to take my hands out of my pockets, I don’t choose anything.
The woman puts the hot dog into a vat of hot oil and lets it sit and warm up. She holds up a bottle of ketchup and Shauna nods, “Ney.”
She holds up a shaker and Shauna nods again, “Ney.”
Pulling the hot dog out of the oil, the woman wraps a napkin around the stick and pours toppings over the French fries. She hands it over with a quick, “Gamsahamnida.”
At the crosswalk, Shauna takes a bite, stops, and looks at me.
“The other thing she asked me. I didn’t know what it was so I just said yes,” she says, her mouth still full. She chews, then swallows. “It was sugar.”
She takes another bite as we cross the street. Sugar covers every bit of ketchup. Ketchup covers every bit of French fry. Chewing one slow bite at a time, Shauna swallows and stops again, “I can’t eat this.”
We look back at the woman. We ‘re the only ones on the street tonight besides the taxi drivers. Neither one of us wants her to see us throw the food away: we come here all the time.
Public trash bins are hard to find in South Korea so walking up past a phone booth, Shauna tosses the remains into the gutter.
“Sugar,” I say, coming to the question that all expats ask themselves at some point, “But, why?”
Read about other cultural miscommunications in English is Crazy, Full Stop
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Or, learn more about Korean street food at Waegook Tom’s blog