Friday, August 18, 2017

close encounters of the international kind: cashier redux, etc.

An overseas friend writes (slightly edited, and with an alias):

Hi, Kevin,

Re: your nutty cashier who didn’t handle Korean. Some ramblings. Feel free to save and read later for when you need to handle another cranky [person] who can’t handle a foreign face, and just goes to $@’%& pieces when you show up.

Tale, the first. My American buddy and I would regularly have a weekly dinner at the same BBQ joint.

It would be a quiet night for them; the manager knew us and stood guard at the door while the waitress du jour would handle the table work. Until the one nutty waitress achieved vapor-lock when we walked in the door, and couldn’t handle it. We took our table(s) in the corner, and she finally approached. My buddy ordered in Korean, as was the case for about 8 weeks in a row at this point.

The girl got more tense as my buddy ordered. She kept uttering sounds for “What?”, “Again?”… then finally broke down and turned to walk to the manager at the cash-register by the door. She wasn’t crying, but she was on her way. “I don’t understand English!” she cried to her boss.

The manager said nicely-but-loudly (in Korean), “He’s speaking Korean. Just take the order!”

She pulled it together finally. As I recall, I had to interject myself by pointing silently at the menu and gesturing with multiple fingers to indicate “2 beers,” “3 orders of pork.”

Tale, the second. The Japan Post Bank $’@%&# wouldn’t process my money transfer.

Just a few weeks ago, I hit the local Japan Post Office to do a money transfer to the USA. Just a little bit, for some small bills. And exactly the same as I’ve done for quite a while. And PRECISELY the same as I’ve done here a few times now. But this bitch wasn’t having it.

As I walked in, I asked another clerk (without my taking a number to be served first, I just needed a blank form) for a copy of “this form I got here, I need another.” She gave me two. I spent a while filling it out, and I finally grabbed a ticket number to be served in this sleepy joint when I was ready to go.

The bitch got my form—which is the SAME as the last 10 I’ve done—and she achieved vapor-lock. She had to explain *something* in Japanese. I couldn’t quite follow. Especially since I’ve done this transaction more than her 35+ year old self has done… and I don’t work at a bank.

So I call my wife. Bitch talks with wife… poorly. I get the phone back, wife is PISSED. Teller was RUDE. Not casually rude. But $&@’% the #*$% rude. Teller wasn’t even trying to be decent.

Long(er) story, short(er)—returned with wife in tow; another teller helped us with no trouble, and we left. Last time I went back, didn’t see The Bitch.

I hope all is well.

Best regards,


re: that first story

There was a time when I snidely thought this sort of communication breakdown happened because the foreigner was speaking poorly in Korean, with a thick accent. Ha! Silly, incompetent furriners! But after hearing many more such expat stories, often from Korean-fluent people, I began to realize this was a cognitive/psychological problem on the part of the Korean interlocutors. There's a mental filter in place that causes the Korean's mind to short-circuit when Korean pours out of a foreign face. I suspect the filter is rooted in unjustifiably low expectations: Koreans, as a rule, simply don't expect foreigners to become competent in spoken or written Korean, so every instance of competency is a rude awakening (we have to make exceptions, though, for Koreans who routinely deal with Korean-competent foreigners). There's plenty of justification for low expectations because there are indeed many foreigners who make little to no effort to learn Korean despite years in country, but there are more and more foreigners—many of whom appear regularly on TV—who aren't merely competent but actually fluent in Korean.

To be fair, I've caught myself suffering from the same cognitive problem while back in the States: there have been times when, in talking to a foreigner or a fellow citizen of foreign extraction, I've automatically (and unjustifiably) assumed that the person couldn't speak well, so when s/he said something clear and obvious, my mind would unnecessarily scramble the utterance so that it became unintelligible, thus forcing me into a "What?/Again?" situation. So it's possible to enter a conversation while already primed to expect mistakes, and this expectation of mistakes is, at least in part, what leads to breakdowns in communication.

1 comment:

King Baeksu said...

In China and Japan, the default language is the local one and most locals expect you to speak that language first if possible. If you're unable to do so, they'll try to accommodate you in English but they certainly don't feel awkward or uncomfortable if they can't. I suppose it's just a matter of cultural pride and confidence, which South Korea often seems to lack.

I wrote about this issue a decade ago for the Chosun Ilbo, but evidently change is moving rather glacially:

Can You Please Speak Korean, Please?

Rereading my column now, I find I rarely have the same issue these days and most of my interactions with Koreans when out and about in public are relatively smooth. I suppose a big part of it is the kind of energy you project, which Koreans can easily, albeit often subconsciously, can pick up on themselves.

Just be positive and chill, and that'll take you a long way.