Burgers, language, culture, confusion, and headaches

I had a burger in mind. It was one of those things. My friend had mentioned a burger joint on the weekend but the universe and more local and personal factors conspired against it. So the burger didn’t happen during my weekend outside of the big smoke. The funny thing is I don’t even eat burgers all that much and can easily live without them. This was a case where the idea was going to stay in mind till the desired was satiated. When I arrived at the Express Bus Terminal in Seoul I wandered around a bit and and saw a burger joint called Johnny Rockets. I had some vague memory of this place as being American and the decor was set up like something of a 50’s burger joint. Well, as much as it could in the food court of a shopping area attached to a bus terminal. I decided Johnny Rockets was the place to go, at least to get that burger out of my mind.

Before I tell you about the burger and the place I will tell you about a restaurant in my neighborhood I frequent. It is called Abiko Curry. They serve Japanese style curry rice and related dishes there. Those familiar with (Indian) curry might be surprised by the taste. I enjoy it, even though I like to think of it as vastly different from Indian curry. I don’t really have the language to describe what it tastes like so I think you will have to try it yourself if you are not familiar. Sorry. Abiko Curry sells Japanese-style curry and there is plenty of Japanese around in the restaurant as well. Something I found interesting there was how the staff says (I think) “Irashaimasen!” when customers arrive. Say is probably not the most appropriate verb here. Perhaps sing or enthusiastically shout would be more correct. I guess it adds some Japanese style or feel to this Japanese curry joint in another country. The staff also thanks and says goodbye to customers in Japanese, also in what seems to me to be a singsongy manner. I get a slight kick out of this whole thing and for me it adds to the experience.*

The most striking thing for me about Johnny Rockets at the Express Bus Station in Seoul was not the high prices or even the decor. It was the singsongy greetings and goodbyes the staff gives to customers. In English. I found it not only surprising but also jarring. “Harro!** Welcome!” they shouted in unison to each and every arriving customer. This bugged me.


I am still not completely sure why it bothered me so. Maybe it was just too loud for my fragile condition at that time. It was loud but I think there was more to it. I am afraid my annoyance with this doesn’t paint me in a very positive light but I have been thinking about it for a long time and I have already typed about 600 words so there is no reason to turn back now. Congrats to you for reading over 600 words basically about two dining establishments and one guy’s craving for a burger. Good job, good effort.

Back to Johnny and his Rocket, I think part of what bothered me (on some level) is that their greeting was not how we greet folks in the US of A. ‘Murica. This is not what it sounds like. At this point it might be possible for some readers to be “thinking poor little big white native speaking guy had his burger ruined by Asians not greeting customers in the way he is accustomed to and so he is now whining about it on his blog.” I don’t have much of a defense to that except to say I think I am trying to find and explore the causes for my annoyance rather than simply whinging. I think the fact it was close but still far away from the culture I grew up in that caused it to be annoying to me. When it was Japanese language and culture used in a curry shop I had nary a problem with it, but when it was closer to home and still off it was jarring and headache inducing.

One idea that kept coming to me is the idea of the Uncanny Valley.*** This place was in some ways close to my idea of an all American place servin’ up fries and burgers that came from a past I didn’t even experience but it was still way off. That gap got under my skin and was evidenced in the itchiness I felt when I heard the greetings.

If the greetings had been done in Korean it would not have registered with me, I am sure. There was something about it being done in English.  I briefly highlighted the English pronunciation above. I wonder what my reaction would have been if  the staff sounded like they were from Seattle instead of Seoul. I think of myself as and ELF kind of guy but something here got me. I guess I wondering why they had to do this greeting in English but I also realize it is part of their shtick**** and not really and of my damned business.

Maybe this  use of English (“my language” even though I realize it’s not) just for show and nothing more bothered me? It doesn’t usually. Some Johnny Foreigners get all bent out of shape when they see English errors on signs and things in businesses. It doesn’t tend to bug me at all because I know that this English is more for decoration and more for their typical customers, who are Korean. It is not about me. I am fine with that. Yet, hearing the English-ish greetings in melodious unison in this place  irked me.  Was it about sound or this specific sound. Was it something else?

I honestly don’t think the idea or the ideal of an American burger joint is sacrosanct and seeing this altered is what made me uncomfortable. Yet, I didn’t like being there and I don’t think there much of a chance I will be going back. I’d love to know if there are any other theories on why this might have impacted me in this way. I’d also love to know if anyone has had any similar experiences in their lives, whether home or abroad. Thanks for reading.

By the way, the burger was just ok. I am not sure how accurate my review is because I was in a rush to get the hell out there.




*I like the “Chicken Set.” I usually go for the 2 (out of 4?) on the spiciness index they use at Abiko Curry.

**Oh how I fretted about this spelling and point. The fact is it sounded more like an R than an L to me. As the many tired jokes can attest this is often an issue for Northeast Asian users of English. I don’t wish to make fun of the staff there or try to impose any sort of linguistic norms upon them.

***I realize this is not an apt comparison because everyone involved was fully human. This is simply what kept coming to my mind and not a proper explanation of my thoughts and feelings on the matter.

****שטיק –Yiddish achievement unlocked!

****I am relatively proud of myself for not using the word appropriation anywhere here. I also resisted the temptation to include a picture of Katy Perry in some weird version of geisha dress as I thought it would be confusing and detract from my points. You know, assuming I had them.


I wrote this post in advance and used the “schedule post” function. I will surely get back to any comments, but maybe not immediately. Comments are very much appreciated but a response from me might not come immediately. 


  1. Ben Naismith

    Hmmm, you may not want to come to an ‘American’ restaurant in Dubai then. Most of the time you get a loud, singsong greeting from the Filipino staff (including my favourite gender neutral ‘maamsir’).

    Still, when you really need a burger…

  2. Hana Tichá

    Hi Mike,
    This is an intriguing story. I don’t want to be too personal (=impolite) trying to rummage through somebody’s feelings but I dare say this is not about a mere linguistic prejudice. To me it’s more about our deep roots and our relationship with the place we come from.
    While checking the meaning of the term uncanny valley, which I had never heard before, I immediately remembered a film I once seen as a kid called The Inquest of Pilot Pirx. Long story short, Pirx’s task was to detect a ‘malicious’ human-looking robot in his crew. I remember how unsettling the plot was for me, especially when the robot revealed its identity by doing something slightly non-human for the first time.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing this post; it got me thinking – it encouraged me to think about a similar situation and I realized that I often get irritated by small details which seem to have nothing to do with me. But it’s good to stop and think about why certain things irk us. And the best thing is to write a post and share it 🙂

  3. Pingback: 14 relatively unexciting things about me, this blog, blogging, this year, and so on | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s