The Burger Must Be Ordered

  • onOctober 19, 2014
  • Vol.5 Autumn 2009
  • byKim Yeonsu

Between October and December of 2008, I was in Spain and Portugal participating in the Korea Literature Translation Institute Overseas Residency Program for Korean Writers. I experienced a good deal during my travels, but in this essay, I feel I must talk about how to order a burger. When traveling abroad alone, and I’m sure everybody does this, I often grab a burger. My parents ran a bakery, which in Korea, meant I ate a lot of burgers as a child. By the time I reached adulthood, I had stopped enjoying them. Even so, I gravitate toward burgers when traveling around Europe or the United States because a burger really is the most convenient meal for a traveler.

This is how I order a burger: I look for the golden arches. I follow the large yellow M and walk through the door of the establishment attached to it. I wait for the line to shrink. When I get to the counter, I point at the picture of the set menu that I made a mental note of during the wait. The employee taps on the set menu button on the cash register, looks up at me, and says something.

Fast food restaurant employees all over the world are supposed to ask something at that moment. It might be part of the fast food company policy. If the place in question is Korea, they will ask, “May I get you anything else today?” or “Would you like to try our side menu?” They do not always ask that, but experience over time has led me to expect something like it.

The same goes for when I am abroad. The employees ask me something at that point. Based on experience, I expect the question to be similar to what the employees in Korea ask me. But when I am in a foreign country for the first time, and I have not yet spent a full day there and the employees ask me questions that are not similar to any question I expect, I panic when faced by the unexpected question, at which point the employee’s words begin to sound extraterrestrial. And so I hit a roadblock in my burger-ordering endeavor. The roadblock is the result of my hasty generalization. Wishing to hear only what I want to hear, I have brought miscommunication upon myself.

Once I erase the expected questions and listen to what the employee is saying, I hear the question. It was “Cash or Credit?” in the States, and in Spain, the employee asked, “What kind of bread would you like?” I quickly understood the American’s question, but it took me a while to understand the Spanish employee’s question. No burger joint had ever offered me the choice as to what kind of bread I would like. To understand this question, I must erase all of my prior burger ordering experiences and translate the employee’s question word for word. “Hmm. I would like soft bread, please. That one over there.” If you can communicate in a city you had never been to, you are amazing. Once you have experienced this a few times, you can handle such amazing tasks with relative ease, that is, unless you hop on a plane and fly off to yet another unfamiliar country.

If we cannot order the burger, we starve. But there is nothing painful about not being able to read foreign novels. Unless you possess a fierce literary curiosity, you prefer novels written in your native language to foreign ones. Sentences that flow through your head in your native language are as wearying as the employee throwing unexpected questions at you when reading in a foreign language. Under those circumstances, one cannot demand fierce literary curiosity from foreign readers. Therefore, universal themes are always important. Cultural differences can be overcome only when there is a familiar theme. That is to say, the burger must be ordered. The special revelation that you can pick your buns in Spain – that comes later. 


by Kim Yeonsu

Author's Profile

Kim Yeonsu is a novelist. Kim debuted in 1993 by publishing a poem in Writer’s World. He published the novels Walking While Pointing to the MaskGoodbye Mr. Yi Sang, Route 7The Night Is Singing, and Wonderboy and the short story collections I Am a Ghost WriterTwenty, and World's End Girlfriend. Kim has received a number of literary awards, including the Daesan Literary Award and Yi Sang Literary Award.