Monday, November 29, 2010

conformity redux

I spent a good deal of time earlier associating Koreans with a conformist, hive-mind mentality, and saying very little about its equivalent here in the States. Yesterday evening, I had a rather unnerving experience at the Home Depot in a nearby town (my current town doesn't have one), and it reminded me strongly of my many experiences with the same phenomenon in Korea. I now live in a more racially homogeneous part of the commonwealth, you see, and racial homogeneity brings with it a certain cultural homogeneity. Of course, I'm talking about being in a majority white region. Oh, there are minorities about: I've seen Latinos, South Asians, and Chinese. But they're few and very far between. I hope no one takes this the wrong way, but it's striking that roles generally occupied by minorities in the DC-Metro area are occupied by the majority race here (one of my religion profs privately made a similar observation once, when visiting a western state). In Alexandria, the Home Depot staffers come in all shapes and sizes; in the town near my new place of residence, the staffers are, as far as I can tell, entirely white.

What made yesterday's Home Depot experience unnerving was the consistency with which the staff treated me every time I approached their section. First, there was the greeting as soon as I entered the store: "Welcome to Home Depot." Right there, I was reminded of countless upper-level stores in South Korea where a greeter intones "eoseo-osaeyo" and offers a stately bow. Perhaps I haven't been listening hard enough, but I've never heard "Welcome to Home Depot" at any of the Home Depots near DC. Yet out in the boonies, there it was.

Next was the way each staffer greeted me as I neared his or her section. While I've heard the question "Hi! Anything I can help you find?" in the DC-Metro area, the difference here, at this countrified Home Depot, was the amount of physical distance before the staffer felt the need to offer the greeting. In most cases, I was fairly far off-- more than fifteen yards-- when the greeting was used. As you can imagine, this meant that the greeting couldn't be whispered or spoken too conversationally: it had to be made with the volume turned slightly up. I often had to look directly at the staffer to make sure that he or she was talking to me.

The consistency with which this happened was impressive. I'm all for good customer service, but I was beginning to realize that different regions have different notions of what such service entails. I further suspect that, in racially homogeneous areas, it's easier for the boss to delineate customer service policy and enforce it, since every underling comes to the table with roughly the same cultural assumptions and understandings. In the more diverse DC-Metro area, it may be harder, by contrast, to expect such consistency. Each person will interpret etiquette and store policy at least partly according to his or her ethnic perspective; there will be a broad norm, but with plenty of variation inside that norm.

My understanding, as an Alexandrian, has been that the "May I help you?" question doesn't appear until you're within about ten feet of a given staffer. Exceptions abound, of course, such as when it's obvious you're the only customer in the store, but those are only exceptions. Suffice it to say that a loud greeting from fifteen yards away takes me a bit out of my comfort zone.

Up to now, nothing I've remarked upon has truly been negative. I was taken aback by the difference in customer service, yes, but it was just a matter of recalibrating my sensibilities to How Things Are Done in these parts. What disturbed me, however, was the behavior of one Home Depot staffer in particular. Her comportment, too, reminded me of behavior I've seen while living in Korea.

I had been searching the store for a Rubbermaid footstool-- something small, that I could use in my kitchenette to reach some above-the-cabinet spaces. My wanderings took me toward the far end of the store where they sell large ladders and smaller, foldable stepladders. I reasoned that the footstools-- which I hadn't found in the "cleaning items" section-- would most likely be here. When I was more than fifty yards away from my goal, a small, late-40s blonde woman materialized and moved to intercept me. She had a bright smile and a voice that was either marred by too much smoking or ravaged by laryngitis. "What are you looking for?" she rasped brightly, smiling and stepping directly into my path-- something none of the other staffers had done. I told her I was looking for a one-piece, non-folding Rubbermaid footstool. "Oh, those are on the other side of the store, aisle 46. They're not in this section." She said this with convincing authority, so I assumed that I was the one in the wrong, thanked her, and marched all the way back to the same aisle where I had previously looked for the footstool. Nada.

My zigzagging progress through the store eventually brought me back to that lady's section again. Not seeing her around, I plowed forward to the wall with the ladders, and... voilà. There was the footstool I'd been looking for.

Was the lady being racist? There's not enough evidence to say, but her performance as a staffer was in marked contrast to the polite, friendly assistance I'd received from every other staffer in the place. This lady came off as both insincere and intent on keeping me out of her section. She reappeared when I was in the process of self-checking my items (for those of you out of the country-- that's a big change in recent years in the States: the self-checkout line, where you ring your own items up), and began hovering while I was checking out. At the end, when I'd bagged everything and placed it all back in my shopping cart, the lady asked solicitously, "Is everything OK?" I didn't like the implications of her question. It sounded almost as if she wanted to see my receipt and check it against my purchased items. I pasted a smile onto my face and told her everything was fine, and deliberately added that I'd found the footstool I'd wanted-- in her section. The lady moved on with no further comment. That, too, struck me as odd.

Either the woman simply lacked social graces (she never once made eye contact with me, even when posing direct questions), or she saw a big non-white guy and felt she had to defend the castle from the barbarian intrusion. Neither alternative is particularly pleasant, and I found it amusing to receive this sort of treatment in my own country. In Korea, you see, Koreans often make no bones about their attitude toward foreigners-- or more precisely, toward anyone who doesn't look like they do (there are, for example, Chinese and Japanese with "crossover" looks who can pass as Korean, at least until they open their mouths). Even in cosmopolitan Seoul, where foreigners abound, one is likely to be stared at on the subway or viewed with suspicion by the shopkeeper. It's a simple fact of expat life, and one either learns to cope with it in some way, or one builds up resentment until life in Korea is no longer bearable. I found that being able to speak a good bit of Korean was extremely helpful in most cases; a lot of the Korean mentality is rooted not so much in racism as in the culturally determined "Hermit Kingdom" worldview. This is why even fellow East Asians aren't immune to the anti-foreigner scowl.

But the Home Depot lady and I spoke the same language and had many of the same tacit cultural assumptions. Despite this, I had the distinct impression that she automatically viewed me with suspicion. Had she experienced a rash of thefts out of her department? Had she had a bad experience with someone from another race? Had she been brought up in a household where epithets were casually thrown around? I have no idea. All I know is that the vibe I got from her was markedly different from the vibe I got from everyone else in the store.

The two ladies in my rental office are black. Both are extremely friendly, and are easy to talk with. A couple weeks ago, one lady, Candy, told me about a bad experience at a Costco in that same nearby city. She was accosted by a door minder (they check your Costco member ID on the way in, and pore over your receipt on the way out), who rudely asked her whether she'd bought everything in her cart. This happened in front of Candy's child, which was a pretty humiliating experience. She said she'd never go back to that store. I remember nodding while listening to this story, and thinking That'll never happen to me. How wrong I was, eh? Heh.

Unlike Candy, I do plan on revisiting that Home Depot. I'm scientifically-minded enough to want to give the staffer some benefit of the doubt. To that end, I'd like to see whether she'd behave the same way if I came for a second visit. Nothing she did was as obviously humiliating as what the Costco staffer had done to Candy, so there's a slim chance that I just caught her on a bad night. If that's the case, then I'm sorry for this whole rant, but I truly can't shake the feeling that she was stepping over a line.

All of which is to say that Korea and America aren't all that different. Conformism can be found in both places, as can racism, in both subtle and obvious forms. Being half-Korean means being the odd man out in any region of the world where everyone looks a particular way. In other parts of the world, where's it's no big thing to be the child of parents of very different races, it's easier to blend in.



John from Daejeon said...

Actually, that's good to hear about "The Home Depot." You've been away over that last few years, so you haven't seen first-hand how bad the customer service/service had/has become there. And with "Lowe's" providing better service, care, and prices, The Home Depot lost a lot of money and customers over the last few years. Things were/are really bad at some stores with employees nowhere to be found when customers needed help and usually running in the opposite direction when customers were looking for them (you can read all about it by searching "The Home Depot problems" on the web). It didn't help matters that the fired CEO then got a $210 million dollar severance.

Personally, after enduring countless wasted hours wandering the aisles with other frustrated customers, I left The Home Depot for the greener pastures of Lowe's and have never been back thanks to Lowe's service, products, and prices.

And like your friend, I've been stopped numerous times at Costco, but they actually have that stipulation in the contract you sign when you become a member there. Plus, by selling higher priced items, they are hurt more deeply by shoplifters than other stores. I'm never happy with their interrogations of me at the door, but it's a price I'm willing to pay for cheap gas (usually the cheapest in Houston) and fine products. However, I've actually been more scrutinized here in the South Korea Costcos than those in the states.

Oh, yeah, you need to inform "The Home Depot" of what occurred during your latest visit, or how else can they really change for the better, especially if they don't know the location of their "infected or deadwood?"

Charles said...

"Welcome to Costco. I love you."

(If you're not familiar with that line, get thee to a video store and rent Idiocracy forthwith.)

That's an unbelievably horrible thing the Costco staffer did to Candy. Checking receipts is one thing (I read somewhere that they don't actually have any legal right to do this, and you can refuse to show them your receipt, but I don't know if this is true), but flat out accusing someone of shoplifting? What with the way the TSA is treating travelers these days, one could be forgiven for thinking that the idea of "innocent until proven guilty" has fallen by the wayside.

As for your experience, it's hard to tell, but I can understand how it might be a dose of culture shock.

Justin said...

> Being half-...

I suspect such a distinction does not exist in the minds of many. If you look Asian, you're Asian.

Maybe you should calmly explain that you'd only eat half her dog?

Charles said...

Interesting article on the legality of receipt-checking:

(Turns out that the Costco member agreement includes a clause specifically allowing receipt checking.)

Kevin Kim said...


Here in the States, I'm more likely to be mistaken for Latino (even by Latinos) than for Asian.


Yeah, the receipt-checking doesn't bug me; it's generally just a routine once-over and then they let you through. I've never had any problems with Costco on that score, and I'm one of those sheep who simply took the procedure for granted the first time I ever set foot in a Costco branch. Baseless accusations of shoplifting, though, are definitely beyond the pale.


The local Lowe's in Alexandria hasn't been that impressive compared to the Home Depot down the street, but I imagine there's a great deal of variation among stores, so it'd be wrong of me to generalize from a single example. Our family stuck with Home Depot during the renovation, mainly for reasons of quality and variety of products-- not to mention that the HD was physically much larger than the Lowe's, which meant it had a larger stock of just about everything. I agree about prices, though: Lowe's is cheaper.


Smallholder said...


Your co-worker's story is atrocious.

Yours? Not so much.

From what you wrote, I would be much more likely to attribute cancerwoman's behavior to poor personal skills and lack of knowledge rather than racial discrimination. In fact, I don't see anything that even points in that direction. I've been sent to the wrong aisle before - I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often, given the number of items in a Home Depot store. As to stepping right in front of you, perhaps she had been counseled about being more proactive with the customers (as the other folks were) and she took it to the next level. The fact that she showed up near the register again is odd, but also could be explained by coincidence. When you told her she was wrong about where the stool was, she might have been one of those many people who don't like being corrected (perhaps you've met some, I don't know, everywhere?)

If you saw her ignore white customers or greet them more deferentially, then you'd have some reason for suspecting racism.

A thought experiment: If the person had been Korean, would you have reached for the same explanation of her behavior?

This is not to say she wasn't racist. She could have been. But there isn't enough evidence to reasonably think of her that way.

And even if she was, suspecting her on that minimal basis is unhelpful to you. We ought to confront pernicious racism that still exists. But if we see it everywhere, it exhausts us and squanders focus. Plus, it makes us feel suspicious of everyone else. I saw the creeping nature of this when I taught in Baltimore. Some of my kids were so disposed to see racism that it made them continually angry. As an example, those kids would frequently accuse Korean grocers of being racist because they would leave money on the counter instead of putting the change in their hands. I explained that in some cultures it is impolite to touch others directly, but they couldn't get past it. This mindset made them suspicious of everyone.

Perhaps you've heard my story about the kid who lost his prized job at McDonalds on the first day. When he announced it was due to racism, I asked him what the racist had done. "That racist m-fer asked me to clean the bathroom!" When I pointed out that someone had to clean the bathroom and that jobs like that frequently fell to the newest hire, he wouldn't even consider that.

At any rate, I do try to inculcate Heinlein's Law into my students - never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence. Once is chance, two times is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

We'd all be happier if we just gave other people's internal motivation the benefit of the doubt. Think modern politics in which disagreement is assumed to be malicious. If we just assumed that Democrats/Republicans are misguided in their policies rather than actively communist/evil/plutocratic, we could have more civil discussions.

Anyhoo, I came by to check and see if you had written anything about the escalation in the Koreas. Any thoughts or links you'd like to share?