Finding yourself gets easier at You Are Here
Eat Your Kimchi and Talk To Me In Korean launch café in Hongdae
We all know about drinking away your problems, but is it possible to drink your way to speaking Korean? If you trade liquor for coffee and maybe even open a book or two, could you simply walk outside after a cup of joe and have some sort of meaningful conversation with a random ajeossi in perfect Korean?
Not so much. Learning a new language takes hours of hard work, dedication and motivation, like needing to tell your landlady she has to knock before coming into your apartment. But while coffee alone can’t teach you Korean, the people selling it can — at least if you come to the You Are Here café in Seoul.
Catering to a growing need
The creators of Eat Your Kimchi and Talk To Me In Korean have come together to turn an old house in the city into a creative space for artists, a study hub for language learners and a coffee shop for thirsty people. The café had its opening Aug. 9, drawing a crowd of more than 1,000 people who feasted on milkshakes with such enthusiasm that they broke the blender.
“It was huge, way more than we were expecting. One girl flew in here just for the opening, and then went back to America the next day,” said Hyunwoo Sun, language teacher at TTMIK and co-owner of the café.
“We’re trying to help people connect, to make a place where people can meet, people can study and bloggers can meet. There’s not really a place for that in Korea,” said café co-owner Martina Stawski of Eat Your Kimchi.
Located in the heart of Hongdae’s guesthouse district, this café changes that. For a traveler it offers a place to get breakfast and plan out one’s day. For the local resident it offers so much more, acting as a space for creative projects and guided self-study sessions led by members of the TTMIK team. The café has its own classroom with a wall-sized chalkboard, where three times a week someone from TTMIK will be in house to answer Korean questions. Sun hopes other teachers will use the café for their classes as well.
“We (the TTMIK team) can’t always be here. We want other teachers to form their classes and use this place freely,” said Sun. This is part of his goal of making TTMIK “the center of Korean education in the world,” a plan he talks about with evil-genius determination. Korean teachers and professors around the world are already using TTMIK material in their lessons and looking to them for guidance. You Are Here is another step on their road to making Korean accessible to anyone who wants to learn.
The café isn’t all Hangeul and textbooks. You Are Here is a lounger’s dream, a place to find your bearings in the city or just kill some time. With two floors of wide-open space, a balcony for spilling poetry and a front yard for your dog to roll around in, it feels more like a shared home with a full-time kitchen staff than a café. People come and go with the casual air of neighborhood friends, leaving the impression they’ll be back before long.
The menu features most standard Korean café fare, plus a few items you won’t find anywhere else. Martina’s Chocolate Zucchini Brownies are one example, or if you prefer something heartier, co-owner Simon Stawski has something called Power Balls, a mix of so many nuts and seeds that even a nutritionist might have a hard time keeping it straight.
“It’s really dense, but it doesn’t taste like health food. The chocolate chips give you that little something sweet,” he said, battling Martina for the chance to explain the recipe. “If you can’t tell, we really care about this stuff.”
Their foodie passion is undeniable. Sun explained that all 20 people involved in the café chose the menu, and they all had to agree on an item before it made the cut.
“If one person said, ‘I hate this,’ we removed the item. We were really picky. We tried 20 different cakes, and now we only have two,” he said.
That sense of care is all over You Are Here, with fresh flowers on every table and several electrical outlets on every wall – small details that make a big difference.
“Even though we’re excited about the menu, we’re more excited about the space and what it can provide,” said Simon.
Their vision includes a spot for bloggers and other creatives to meet, making up for the lack of studio space in Seoul, a problem that seems uniquely Korean.
“In LA it’s like, ‘let’s collaborate, we’ll meet at the studio!’ Here it’s like, ‘let’s collaborate ...’” said Martina, her voice trailing. They hope the café will bring Korea’s small but growing blogging community together for more joint projects.
And why not? This café is already a meeting of two worlds, bringing the resources of two startups known for their Internet presence to a physical place where you can actually go and share ideas as a group. But like all big changes, there’s been an adjustment phase.
“We’re used to getting instant feedback and reading comments,” said Simon. “Yesterday (opening day), when someone would buy something I’d sit down and ask, ‘How did it taste? What was the texture?’ I think I was weirding people out.”
Eventually, the public might get used to giving their thoughts in real time, but the café will soon feature technology to allow them both options, making the intersection of these two worlds complete. They’re also looking to put beer on the menu, but only if something makes it past their cutthroat tasting process.
“We don’t want to sell Cass or Hite,” said Sun. “We’ll have a You Are Here beer.”
The people behind You Are Here have made this a place of nearly endless possibility. The next few months will show the owners how people intend to use the space, but overall, the concept is meant to represent something familiar in a city that can sometimes feel chaotic. For those who do come to study, there’s no place where you’ll have more resources at your fingertips.
Buddha said the jug fills one drop at a time. The You Are Here café says the waygook learns language one cup — or chocolate zucchini brownie — at a time, whatever your preference may be.