Tuesday, August 28, 2018

why knowing (some) Korean can be helpful

Incident 1: this past weekend, I was in Itaewon at the foreign-food store, shopping for tomato sauce, when I heard a loud Korean woman trying to ask a harried staffer about where to find tang galbi, i.e., beef short ribs for stewing. Unable to speak English, she was getting nowhere, despite having her granddaughter there as a sort-of interpreter. The staffer, for his part, was a South Asian guy who didn't speak much more than pidgin Korean, so the two were at an impasse. I finally decided to step in, flashing the staffer an image, from my phone, of the stew beef in question, then confirming with the grandmother that that was, in fact, the meat she was looking for. The staffer found some galbi in a freezer, but it was the cut of beef that you grill, not the type you stew. I mentioned this to the staffer, and the grandmother nodded vigorously, apparently understanding the English word "grill." Eventually, the staffer was able to find what the lady wanted. I, meanwhile, was happy to have helped out a little, but I had to wonder why on Earth the woman had come to a store that catered to Middle Eastern and South Asian tastes to find a Korean cut of beef.

Incident 2: just today, a non-Korean-speaking coworker, AL, told me that his renewed US passport had come to his residence via courier—or, at least, that an attempt at a delivery had been made. Obviously, my coworker wasn't home to receive the package, so the delivery folks tried a few times to contact him. They called; he missed the calls. They sent AL a message via the Kakao texting service; he didn't see it until much later. They also sent him a few text messages via regular text; he didn't see any of those until much later. (I'll be honest, here: I don't get how people miss their calls and texts so often when they've got phones that are capable of flagging messages. Set your phone to give you alerts, then don't ignore the alerts! If you want to live a caveman's existence, unplugged from the world, then it's better not to get a phone in the first place. That, at least, would be self-consistent behavior to me. Note, too, that I'm not saying you need to become a slave to your smartphone. But replying to messages in a timely manner is a form of politeness, even if your reply is a curt, "Got yr msg. Wll say mor sn.") When AL did finally see the record of all the calls and messages, he came to me and asked if I could help out by talking to the delivery folks to find out what was up.* Complicating the matter was that the delivery people expected to be paid a courier fee of W6,000 upon completion of delivery. So I looked over AL's various texts, took down his shipping-confirmation number, then called the courier office. Strangely enough, the guy I talked to immediately knew I was talking about AL and his passport; we went over the fact that the delivery guy would be wanting a fee, and I noted that re-attempting a delivery to AL's residence tomorrow would be fruitless because AL would again be at the office, not at home. The staffer I was speaking with remarked that, when today's delivery was attempted, someone in AL's building apparently said that "no one by that name lives here." Very strange, as AL lives in a small building, and all the neighbors know each other. I asked whether the courier could deliver AL's passport to our office here in Daechi; the staffer demurred, saying the delivery address couldn't be changed. The staffer then suggested that, instead of re-attempting delivery to AL's home, we could have AL come straight to the staffer's office, a well-known delivery service called Logis. And that's ultimately what we decided to do. So AL will head out to Logis early tomorrow morning (the place opens at 8:30, and it's near AL's home) to pick up his passport, thus obviating the need to pay any delivery fee. AL thanked me; I texted the Logis guy to confirm AL would be by tomorrow morning, and that's where things stand now.

My Korean is clunky, but it's helpful in some situations.

*Despite my parenthetical rant above, I don't actually know why or how AL managed to miss so many attempts to contact him. Is he the type to just ignore incoming calls and texts until they become an impossible-to-ignore pile? Did he have his phone off for several hours (not likely)? Does his service suck, such that the messages didn't get through until much later because of a glitch (I've always found the "glitch" excuse hard to believe; most smartphones perform with about the same level of efficiency these days)? I really don't know what happened, and I thought it might be rude to ask.


John from Daejeon said...

I don't do texting at all. When did calling people on a telephone, and leaving a message if they are unavailable, fall out of fashion?

Kevin Kim said...


I totally agree with you, but leaving messages has been out of fashion in Korea for years: no one can be bothered to leave a voice message with a reason for calling. The expectation is that, merely by calling you, I'm leaving you my phone number via caller ID, so that's enough of a clue that you need to call me back. You, meanwhile, see the number and think to yourself, "Well, if Kevin had something important to say, he'd leave a message," so you don't bother to call back. It's selfish, lazy thinking on both sides of the aisle.

For Koreans, if it's not somehow in your face, as with a Kakao message or a regular text message, it's not worth considering and not a reason for urgency. Emails fall into this category: Koreans feel little need to check their email and almost no need ever to respond to emails. I find this unimaginably rude and fucked up, but there we are. That's the culture I live in.

Kevin Kim said...

Actually, lemme take part of that back. I'm not against texting. My friends who hate texting, and who only ever call and/or leave voicemails, are usually that way because they don't write very well: their spelling and grammar are utter shite, and they're too damn lazy (or too slow) to use a keyboard.

Charles said...

So how much of that parenthetical rant is bitching at me for turning off my kakao alerts? Or am I just reading too much into that?

And, for what it's worth, I've had text messages (which I do leave the alerts on for) arrive much, much later than they were sent on occasion. I have no idea why, but it does happen every so often. Not very often, though.

Kevin Kim said...


I wasn't thinking specifically of you, but now that you've got me thinking about your case, I can say that I've never really been bothered by your choices re: how to handle your smartphone, mainly because you and I simply don't Kakao that much: we're inveterate emailers. Tom is the one who Kakaos with me most frequently, but he often forgoes typing in favor of leaving Kakao voice messages or just outright calling me. He hates typing because (1) he can't bang out error-free messages, (2) he can't bang out error-free messages as fast and as voluminously as I can, and (3) he's just lazy about typing—ironic for a guy whose day job involves teaching writing. You've seen his emails, so you know the quality of his prose: he just can't be bothered to edit/proof himself.

But I wasn't focused on Tom, either, when I did that mini-rant: I'm surrounded by coworkers and acquaintances who all have different "policies" when it comes to how they handle their cell phones. Most are normies, but some will loftily say that they turn off all their notifications (I'm thinking of one odious female ex-coworker in particular)... which leads me to wonder why they have cell phones to begin with if they can't be bothered to be properly responsive. Why tell anyone "Text me!" or "I'm available via text/Kakao, etc." if you're not actually available by those means?

Back to you for a sec: you, at least, had the courtesy, early on, to make clear well in advance what your own phone policy was, and I respect that. That, coupled with the fact that you and I don't Kakao very often, makes you far, far from the focus of my rant.

Charles said...

Good to know I haven't been antagonizing you unnecessarily (any and all antagonism has hopefully been completely necessary).

I didn't even know you could leave voice messages via Kakao until Tom did it to me. I still don't know how to do it myself (not that I have any real interest in doing so).