Thursday, June 7, 2012

Americans Don't Drink Americano

            For a country that loves cafes as much as Korea, there is precious little coffee in the country.  In front of me as I write this there are at least eight cafes in my line of vision, and I know that there are many more just out of sight.  I also know that with the possible exception of Dunkin Donuts they will all charge a minimum of what amounts to $4USD for their drinks.  Yet despite this, none of them actually serve coffee.
Years ago, somebody decided that it would be prudent to place espresso in hot water and tell people that the concoction constituted a beverage. This bastard of an individual was, I believe, an Italian, and I imagine he was concerned about adding one more inferior product to Italy’s already long list of the Fiat automobile, Serie A football, and Fascism.  Not wanting to have such an atrocious beverage attributed to his own country, he called it the “Americano.”
            Admittedly, the name has a nice ring; it sounds exotic, yet steeped in domestic reliability.  And America, for all the pretense, still has an element of cool, much the same way that Henry Winkler has remained “the Fonz” in our collective minds despite his receding hairline and ever expanding gut.  I suppose this is what drove the Korean powers that be to choose the Americano as their nation’s version of coffee.
However, Americano is not coffee.  It is espresso dropped in hot water.  I tried explaining this to the Dunkin Donuts staff one day:

“I only want coffee.”
“Um…this is coffee?”
“No, just coffee, no hot water.”
“I just want the black stuff.”
“You want a double shot?”
            Since I tend to use Dunkin Donuts as a place to study and write, in addition to “coffee” I usually buy some food to help justify my use of the facilities.  In the U.S. I opt for a sesame-seed bagel with egg and cheese.  In Korea, however, the sandwich selections are only slightly more appetizing than the “chitlins” of my native American South.  My favorite of the items on display is one that looks to be a cross between macaroni and cheese, maggots, and potato salad, served cold with mayonnaise on a sandwich.  Usually the chocolate donut is the safest option.
            This tendency to mark as American that which only slightly resembles the products with which I grew up is perhaps best exemplified by the Korean t-shirt industry.  Foreigners traveling in China seem to always come back home with spiffy shirts laden with perennially chic Chinese characters; I assumed the same would be true in Korea.  Yet the only t-shirt I own with any Korean script on it was made by a Canadian company.
I have yet to see a Korean shirt whose English phrasing makes sense either logically or grammatically.  My personal favorite is one that states, “there are over 20,000 individual career paths in the U.S.  Do not go into a career that is already jam-packed.”  Thank you for the sage advice, t-shirt manufacturer.
Pop music, sadly, is not immune to the English virus either.  From BoA’s timeless line, “you still my number one (no verb necessary), to the Wonder Girls’ poetic realization that they are all “so hot,” Korean artists have used English to express thoughts deemed too deep for their own language.
I suppose I understand the phenomenon.  It’s neat to be able to speak another language, and people who can tend to be demonstrative with their abilities.  That said, the only musicians in America who regularly use another language in their songs are Latinos who actually grew up speaking Spanish.  Other than Styx, few bands have looked to Asian languages when their lyrical prowess ran out in their own.  Somehow I doubt the use of the greeting “Anyong” would noticeably improve Three 6 Mafia’s discography.
In a way the obsession with the West is endearing.  It’s somewhat comforting that middle-of-the-line fare such as that offered at Pizza Hut and Outback Steakhouse has made its way into the upper-tier price range in a foreign country.  “Yes,” I want to say, “you can thank me and my fellow countrymen for bread sticks and fried onions with dipping sauce…just don’t blame us for the inevitable expansion of your waistlines.”
On the other hand, traditional Korean food is delicious.  Koreans seem to think it’s a special occasion when they treat a foreigner to his own country’s food, but the majority of westerners in the country would, excepting times of homesickness, prefer Korean barbeque to pepperoni pizza (at least, anyone familiar with the ingredients used by Pizza Hut would).  While I felt sorry for the convenience store clerk who told me she couldn’t afford to take all her son’s friends to Pizza Hut for his birthday, I couldn’t help but think that this was fortunate for the respective digestive tracts of her child’s friends.
Koreans who have spent time abroad don’t seem to feel the same desire for western food as their domestic counterparts, having realized that foreign does not always equate to haute couture.  Don’t get me wrong; I love America and much of what it has to offer.  TGI Friday’s, however, is not an offering for which I feel a particular affinity.
I am, granted, proud of many of my country’s offerings, among them our educational opportunities.  There are a number of good secondary schools and universities in the U.S., as clearly evidenced by their international appeal.  At the same time, the Korean obsession with shipping children off to America is a bit ludicrous.  Realistically, not all children are capable of taking proper advantage of the opportunity to study abroad.  There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being unable to speak English, or with not having lived in America.  Korea is a perfectly fine nation with a stable, promising economy.  There is no dearth of high-paying positions available in the country, and frankly the standard of living is comparable to that in the U.S.  Technologically, the Koreans are, on a per capita basis, significantly ahead of those stateside.
Yet many of the most desirable occupations in the country require the ability to speak English.  It’s not that in carrying out the duties of said jobs one will actually use English, but rather that English ability is seen as a barometer of intelligence.  In the U.S. the ability to speak Spanish might be necessary if you want to work in Miami, but you would hardly expect a lumberjack in the Yukon to be adept at the spanish subjunctive case.
With some reserve though, I must admit that it can be nice to be surrounded by my mother tongue and culture, halfway across the world.  The Korean children forced in vain to attend countless night schools learning it are pitiable, but I firmly believe that, in order to succeed, every country might ask themselves, “How can we make an eighteen year old American punk-ass kid’s transition to our country less painful?”  If only they had thought of coffee...

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