On our way to New Zealand earlier this year we made a quick stop over in Seoul. I was wondering how I would fare with my Korean language skills after such a lengthy break. I felt fairly confident when asking for basic things, giving simple directions in a taxi and ordering in restaurants but I definitely wasn’t the same level I was when I left in 2010.
On our last day we went back to my favourite coffee shop in Sunae. We were running a bit short on time and I wanted to cram as much as I could into the two days that we had there but it was already getting dark and we had to travel an hour back into Seoul to meet my friends.
I wanted to ask the barista for the time. I remembered the Korean sentence I had learned to tell someone that I ‘didn’t have time’ which was 시간 없어요 “shee-gahn uhp-ssuyo”.
시간 shee-gahn meaning: time and 없어요 ‘uhp- ssuh yo’ – to not have. So I simply modified it and assumed it would translate to ‘Do you have/know the time?’
이있요 i-ssuh-yo literally translates to 'exists' – to have. So I boldly asked 시간 이있요 “Shee-ghan issuhyo?”
The young guy behind the counter looked at me very strangely and even seemed a little embarrassed. I thought my pronunciation must have been a little off so I repeated myself “Shee-ghan issuhyo?”
He hesitated once again, looked around nervously and then walked out from behind the counter and passed me a little jar of cinnamon. I was equally confused at that point but not wanting to look like a complete idiot I took the cinnamon from him as though that was exactly what I had been asking for. I continued with the charade and sprinkled it on my coffee before turning to my boyfriend and suggesting we leave.
As we walked out he asked me what I had put on my coffee and I confidently replied 'cinnamon, did you want some too?' trying to pass it off as exactly what I had wanted.
Later that evening we met up with some of my Korean friends and I relayed the story to them. It was one of those hand slapping the forehead moments when I realised what had happened. It turns out the sentence to say ‘I don’t have time’ which I had modified is only used in certain contexts. You say it when you want to tell someone that you don’t have time to go on a date with them. It’s basically a rejection. So the reverse of that sentence is “Do you ‘have time’ to go on a date with me?”
No wonder the poor guy was confused.