I’ve lived in Korea for over six years now. Time has just flown right by. I never expected I would live here for so long. Yet here I am. I’m practically a citizen! With time spent living in a foreign land, cultural differences often disappear from the memory. What once stood out in my mind as strange practices by the Korean people are often now taken for granted as cultural norms everywhere. When I visit Canada, the place of my birth, I often have what I can only describe as ‘reverse culture shock.’ I’m surprised by some of the practices of my fellow Canadians, and I’m reminded with a faint memory of a time when I used to do those same things. I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve been somewhat Koreanized.
Thankfully there is a season for recollection. Every March and September here in Korealand, there is an influx of new teachers; new bodies to give me a reminder of a life, a system of manners and social expectations I once knew. I had one such recollection this last week.
At the school I’m presently working at, we’ve had a new ‘foreign’ teacher come to work for us. He’s part of a new program that teaches after-school classes. His contract is a little staggered from the norm and begins a month earlier than usual. Since he’s here early, I’m able to spend time in the workplace with a newbie. I get to see firsthand the reactions of someone in the actual workplace. Usually when I meet people who are new to Korea, I only see them in a context outside of the workplace. This time, I get to see him at the workplace, and I’m reminded of some of the questions and pressures that come with starting a new job in a new country.
This last week we were treated to a dinner by our school. It was officially a farewell dinner for myself and another teacher, but included a welcome to Andrew (the new after-school teacher) and another new worker (I’m not sure his role at the school). This dinner contained the usual fare of the men drinking it up and eating like horses. Literally eating like horses. Mouths open, making a kind of slopping sound, little bits of food falling from their mouths to the table. Completely disgusting. This is a recurring bit of culture that I’ve still not completely used to. My wife (a Korean native) and I often laugh at this aspect of Korean culture. She says that she never noticed it until she met me, since I was so adamant about keeping my mouth closed when I chew. Now she can’t stop noticing it.
The metamorphosis into horses during mealtime is not what I want to write about, though. I’d like to call to attention a fascinating piece of Korean culture that reveals a lot about the difference between the Korean and Canadian psyche. This piece of culture is the term ‘service (서비스, suh-bee-seu).’ The difference in thinking about customer service and what ought to transpire to make a fair business transaction is a pointed mark of difference between cultures. Let me demonstrate this from the story of our dinner.
During the dinner, the oldest teacher and the vice-principal began talking about what free dishes ought to be included with our meal. Nowhere was it advertised that if you buy a certain amount of food you could choose other menu items gratis. It was just assumed. There is a feeling that runs deep in the Korean mind that when you buy something from a business, they ought to include other peripheral things in the sale. This is visibly seen at restaurants, where a restaurant is often judged by how many side-dishes are included in any given meal. My wife often comments about how she likes or dislikes a restaurant based on the quality/quantity of their 반찬 (bahn-chahn), side-dishes. This is a marked point of difference with Canada, where we have a whole section of our menus marked ‘appetizers.’ I remember buying a plate of onion rings from TGIF’s in Michigan last time I visited, and complaining to the manager because they gave me 5 onion rings in total. He explained to me that they were given by weight, not quantity, and in the end he gave me another plate. My mind couldn’t process the fact that this restaurant was charging me somewhere around the area of $6 for 5 onion rings. It was an absurdity that couldn’t be reconciled in my brain.
One night last week, however, my mind was transported back to a time when I believed you ought to pay for everything you get. Andrew served as a sort of time machine for me, as I saw how perplexed he was at the situation (his parents are Korean, so he can understand the Korean language). Eventually they decided they wanted some plates of 만두 (mahn-du), which is a fried dumpling with meat inside. The staff brought out 3 heaping plates. Later on in the meal, my colleagues decided they wanted more, so they asked for some bottles of alcohol on the house. They were told that the restaurant couldn’t provide this, but that they could provide some specialty desserts. After a bit of grumbling and back and forth banter between the vice-principal and the manager of the restaurant, an agreement was reached and we received a few plates of a specialty dessert and a bowl of duck eggs. Just another dinner in Korea.
This is not a rarity here. My mother-in-law is always able to get extras thrown in when she buys something. My wife is always asking for samples from cosmetic companies, even when she makes a small-ish (around $20) purchase. I bought a 6-pack of beer once because it came with a badminton racket. The racket was just taped onto the side of the pack. I’ve gotten mugs from boxes of cereal, ear-muffs from bottles of juice, and boxes of Kleenex for spending $50 at a grocery store. The idea of service here is that money is hard-earned and isn’t to be thrown away. A good purveyor of goods or services is concerned with more than just a profit. They are concerned with the welfare of the consumer. They are concerned with creating a relationship with customers that creates long-term customers. The idea of customer service back home as I can remember it, is that you do whatever you can to make the sale with as little effort and cost to you. If you provide a service related to your product, you charge for it. If you are a serviceman/woman, you expect a tip no matter what kind of service you give, and no matter what kind of attitude you have while serving. Service people here bow to you, try to be as helpful as possible without the expectation of a tip. I’ve tried tipping people on numerous occasions because I was truly moved by the quality of service they provided. It was not accepted. The people couldn’t even understand why I would offer it to them. My wife has taught me that to offer a bottle of juice or a candy bar is a much better way to show my appreciation. What a wonderful concept!
One night at dinner, I was given a glimpse into the vast gap that lies between my native culture and the culture I currently live in. I have to say that this is one area where Korea puts my culture to shame.