Feeding Seoul's Homeless

I started volunteering at a soup kitchen for homeless men a few months ago and recently began showing up every Friday evening as a regular thing. I have different tasks every week. Sometimes I wash cutlery (here that means spoons and chopsticks, of course) and sometimes I serve food; this week I served the soup. As the soup-giver is at the end of the line and therefore the last server the men meet before they head to find an empty seat at the tables, I asked a Korean co-worker how to say, "Enjoy your meal" so I could say it to the men as they received my soup.

"Mashi-kay juseyo!"

At the end of our service, when the line had disappeared and our soup had become a lifeless broth, I asked my Korean friend to explain what the sentence actually meant. I'm always curious to know how sentences translate in other languages, like how in Twi (one of the main indigenous languages in Ghana), the expression equivalent to "come back" (ko bra) actually translates to "Go come." Or in French, Bonjour ("hello") literally means "good day."

"What was I saying to everyone? What does that actually mean?" I asked.

"'Enjoy your meal,'" he said.

"No, no. I mean, what does each of those words mean, individually? Because I know 'juseyo' means something like 'want' or 'give' so"

"'Duseyo' means 'eat,'" he said. "Oh! No, no! Not 'juseyo.' 'Duseyo!'"

"What? Oh...oops."

"'Mashi' is 'deliciously' and 'duseyo' is 'eat' so the sentence is, 'Eat deliciously.'"

"But I was actually saying, 'Give me deliciously'?" I asked. "We're giving food to homeless men and here I am saying, 'Give me your food!' That's a pretty awkward and unfortunate mistake to make!" We had a good laugh before my friend told me that the men probably didn't hear the difference and if they did, probably understood what I was trying to say. But, other than that little speed bump, I'm enjoying volunteering at the soup kitchen.

It's interesting to see the different characters who stop in. Some are regulars, some come only once. Some are pushy and others polite. Some practice English by saying "thank you" to me, while others don't even look me in the eye. Some are disheveled and dirty. Some look like they just came in from the officewhich maybe they did.

Co-workers at the kitchen tell me that, with the economy the way it is now, there's a number of people who work during the day and then have no where to go home to. I still don't understand how someone can have no one to turn to, no where to go in their tough times. It's just something that will never make sense to me, I guess. Just shows how lucky I am, how much I have to be thankful for.

To volunteer with PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect), check out the group's Facebook pages here or here. Among other projects, the group continues to organize the "Feed Your Seoul" event each Friday and Sunday at a soup kitchen in the city from 6 to 7:30 pm. 

Hearty Meals for the Homeless (Korea JoongAng Daily) detailed PLUR's Friday service in September 2009