Story by: Jenna Davis, Photos by:
The barista stared at me expectantly through his thick, black-rimmed glasses, waiting for my order. I felt the familiar flutter of butterflies in my stomach. My palms began to perspire. I gave a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure no one else was within earshot. Then in a meek voice, I told him my order, knowing full well that one mispronounced syllable would be the difference between a low-fat latte and something you might hear in a porno film.
There are plenty of aspects of the Korean language that leave the average expat scratching his or her head. Coffee, however, is fairly uncomplicated — if you’re willing to settle for the fixed options on the menu. But if you want your drink tailor-made, you might end up ordering more than you bargained for.
When I moved to Korea I left behind my usual order and settled for sub-par coffee out of fear of having to say anything other than “café latte” to the barista. This was fine for a while. I gritted my teeth, sucked down the coffee for the caffeine buzz, and patted myself on the back for my flexibility. Most of the time the coffee was fine, but sometimes it ranged from being syrupy sweet, not sweet enough, weak, or loaded with whipped cream.
Part of the problem, according to a Korean friend, is that most Koreans stick to the fixed menu in cafés. So while there may be more Starbucks in Korea than any other country in the world, obviously excluding the U.S. and Japan, it seems that Koreans have yet to perfect the art of personalized coffee orders.
I don’t see myself as a particularly fussy customer when it comes to coffee, but being surrounded by dozens of cafés on every block and not being able to order my java just how I wanted, became a constant source of frustration.
And then my resolve began to weaken. I didn’t want to be flexible. What I wanted was a little caramel syrup. I wanted a dash of cinnamon powder. But most of all, I wanted low-fat milk.
I took my coffee destiny into my own hands and looked up how to say “low-fat” in Korean. I was relieved to discover the word was fairly straightforward—“jeojibang.” I strolled confidently into the nearest café, so sure I was about to finally get what I wanted, or at least be understood this time. Instead, I received an awkward silence and a bewildered expression from the woman behind the counter. After some gesturing and writing “1%” on a crumpled receipt to no avail, I left defeated and without low-fat milk in my latte.
Irritated by the difficulty of such a basic request, I marched up to my boss at the time and commanded, “Tell me what I’m saying,” and repeated my new Korean phrase. “Ahhhh,” she said in a knowing way. “You are saying you live alone.”
No, I was definitely not trying to confess I lived in a room by myself. I was trying to say “low-fat,” I told her, and then she correctly pronounced the word for me. To my untrained ear, the two phrases sound identical.
All I could do was laugh at the absurdity of the situation and accept the sad reality of never getting my usual coffee while in the ROK.
I tried to say the word a few more times to Korean friends. I blurted it out and asked them to tell me what I had just said. They burst out laughing and cried, “Why? Why are you saying that?”
“I’m trying to say low-fat, but it means I live alone, right?” I asked.
Wrong on both counts. According to my friends, “jeojibang” is just one long “a” sound away from a very crude word for the male genitalia. Open your mouth in a long oval, and you might have the word for low fat. But open your mouth in a slightly more circular manner, and you’ll be asking for something they don’t sell in a café.
Even after a short coaching session, I still couldn’t manage the correct pronunciation. A different Korean friend told me later, “Don’t worry. This is a very sensitive word and hard for foreigners to say.” Part of me wanted to crawl into a hole and die because I had unintentionally talked dirty to several different baristas.
At that point, the only thing left to do was give it one more shot for the sake of experiment, and this article.
So, I bravely approached the counter and ordered a jeojibang latte. I held my breath while I waited for a dumbfounded expression to appear on the barista’s face, but it never came. It seemed he had understood me perfectly, though a grin was now curling at the corner of his mouth and he had a slight twinkle in his eyes behind those black glasses.
Was this because of my exaggerated words I had taken great care to pronounce, or was it because I had just ordered a hot latte with penis milk? I guess I’ll never know.
This embarrassing incident gave me the idea to write a guide for expats with useful Korean phrases related to coffeehouses. So, while attempting to order your coffee just the way you like it, at least now you won’t have to humiliate yourself during the process. Because let’s face it, not being able to order your coffee perfectly, is a first world problem if there ever was one.
Milk: Uyu (우유)
Soymilk: Duyu (두유)
Low-fat: Jeojibang (저지방)
Non-fat: Mujibang (무지방)
Iced: Eol-eum (얼음)
Brewed coffee: Haendeu-deulib (핸드드립, 주세요)
It’s no surprise there are a fair number of English words used in café menus considering Starbucks is recognized for igniting the coffee craze in South Korea after opening its very first store in Seoul in 1999. The trick to being understood is to pronounce the English words with a Korean accent. Few understand me when I ask for cinnamon in my latte, but if I ask for “shin-a-mon,” there is little confusion.
When ordering a specific number of coffee drinks, always list the noun first, then number. For example, “One café latte, please.” would translate to “Café latte hana juseyo.”
If you want to add something to your coffee, use the word “neoh-eo” (넣어). For example, if you’d like to add vanilla syrup, say, “Vanilla syrup neoh-eo jusayo.”
If you would like to hold something in your coffee order, use the word “ppae” (빼). “Hold the milk.” would be “Uyu ppae jusayo.”
Perhaps the most important tip of all, if you want to play it safe with low-fat milk, it’s best to opt for non-fat milk, or “mujibang,” which I’m told does not share a likeness to any X-rated vocabulary.
I want low-fat milk, please: Jeojibang uyu juseyo. (저지방 우유 주세요.)
I want non-fat milk, please: Mujibang uyu juseyo. (무지방 우유 주세요.)
Do you have soymilk: Duyu iss-eoyo? (두유 있어요?)
No milk, please: Uyu ppae juseyo. (우유 빼 주세요.)
I want an extra shot of espresso, please: Shot chugayo. (샷 추가요.)
I want plain, brewed coffee (hand drip), please: Haendeu-deulib juseyo. (핸드드립 주세요.)
I want a pump of caramel syrup, please: Kalamel sileob neoh-eojuseyo. (카라멜 시럽 넣어주세요.)
I want my drink iced, please: Eol-eumneoh-eojuseyo. (얼음넣어주세요.)
Some baristas also recognize “iced” in place of “eol-eum”
I want my drink hot, please: Tteugeoun geollo juseyo. (뜨거운 걸로 주세요.)
I want my drink extra hot, please: Deo tteugeobge hae juseyo. (더 뜨겁게 해 주세요.)
I want a small size, please: Seumol saijeu juseyo. (스몰 사이즈 주세요.)
I want a medium size, please: Midieom saijeu juseyo. (미디엄 사이즈 주세요.)
I want a large size, please: Laji saijeu juseyo. (라지 사이즈 주세요.)
Don’t make my drink too sweet, please: Neomu dalge haji maseyo. (너무 달게 하지 마세요.)
Can you add a little cinnamon powder, please: Sinamon paudeo neoh-eo juseyo. (시나몬 파우더 넣어 주세요.)
I’d like to have decaf please: Dikapein eulo juseyo. (디카페인 으로 주세요.)
This isn’t what I ordered: Jega sikin ge anieyo. (제가 시킨 게 아니에요.)