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Sunday, March 24, 2013

From Korea, With Much Appreciation

Many years ago, soon after arriving in Korea for the first time, my good friend, Soon Chul, made a suggestion that I have long since taken to heart. I could do something simple but important, he said, to show Koreans that I both understood and respected their culture. "Steve, when someone does something for you, if you get good service in a restaurant,” for example, he said, “tell that person that you appreciate them, say Sugo-ha-shush-simneeda." (in Korean, 수고하셨습니다).

I wasted no time putting my new expression to good use. I used it in restaurants, when my Korean teachers taught me a lesson that was helpful, or when a person at some government office or bank provided me with good service. You get the idea. I can say, without exaggeration, that in return, I’ve received an appreciative smile more than 95% of the time.

Importantly, in the Korean culture, and in most of Asia, tipping is not customary. For me, this took some getting used to. In the States for example, if you told your waitperson that you both appreciated the food and service, and then proceeded not to leave a tip, you generally would be looked at with daggers. Most restaurant wait staff expect a tip equal to 15-20% of the bill--even more with large parties. Here in Korea, a customer never leaves a monetary tip. Tourists and recent expats are often gently reproached when they unknowingly do so.

Saying "we appreciate your hard work," in Korean, always induces a smile

While Sugo-ha-shush-simneeda is used often and most Koreans don't place existential meaning in it, it is nevertheless, expressed genuinely and sometimes from the heart. The person providing the service is reminded that they have done a good job in the customer's eyes—that they have worked hard--and that you recognize and appreciate their efforts.

These days I have to remind my Korean friends traveling to the U.S. or Canada that leaving a tip is expected. They may not fully understand that wait people, at least in the States, are often paid less than the local minimum wage. These hard working folks rely on tips as the mainstay of their income. Simply saying "thanks" and "we're appreciative of your efforts" won't pay the daycare or heating bills.

Meanwhile, back here in Korea, if a foreigner unwittingly leaves a tip on a restaurant table for the waiter or waitress, they are likely to soon encounter the person running down the street after them. "Excuse me, you left your money behind," is likely to be the refrain. 

My old friend was right. Those few words have held a world of meaning for me. While my pronunciation may be off a bit, the meaning is never lost on Koreans.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Keeping the Door Open

Unlike the United States, Korea has to import every ounce of its fossil fuel needs. During this past winter there was a national initiative requiring all universities to turn off their heating from 10 AM through 1 PM to reduce fuel consumption and save the country precious dollars.

Other than a rare sighting in the fanciest of department stores, you will not see a dryer in this country. Do the math--that’s hundreds of thousands of apartment units in which the builders provide a washing machine--but no dryer. Instead, you’ll find drying racks attached to the ceilings of apartment balconies that pull up and down with a cord, like venetian blinds.
Apartments, apartments everywhere, but not a dryer to be had
Why pray-tell, are dryers extinct in Korea? Any Korean will tell you: they use far too much power, especially for a country counting fossil fuel pennies (more on this later). This may, at first, surprise the average non-Korean reader. Dryers alone, excluding their own purchase price, account for 12% of the total electrical use in a typical household. That’s $200 a year. According to Mr. Electricity, “Dryers are unnecessary in the first place since you can just hang your clothes up to dry. There’s a 100% savings to be realized here.” Koreans may be on to something. Maybe.

Our dryer
One of my favorite roles as an English professor here is sitting down one-on-one with students. My university has a great program which matches interested students and faculty in sit down weekly sessions to discuss almost anything in pursuit of the quest of helping students improve their English. I love these meetings. I tell my one-on-one students to come prepared to talk about any topic they’re interested in. Last year, Honey wanted to talk about why she failed her driving test. Chris wanted to discuss the forthcoming Korean presidential elections. John, an economics major, wanted to talk about farming techniques that might help the Korean economy. “Fine.” I said. “But when we're finished, please allow me to ask you a few economic questions." He looked at me both curiously and expectantly.  

Soon we were discussing a major paradox for me. "Why, during the coldest winter months, do many Korean institutions keep their front doors wide open? And why, in Korea, do you find many windows in hallways, and even rooms, open when it’s freezing outside?"

There are a number of possible interpretations here. For example, many are based on the old Korean belief that opening doors and windows allows germs to be whisked out of the home. But why then shut down the country’s heating systems for weeks on end, morning until afternoon to save money, while doors and windows are open everywhere?

John came back to our next session agreeing that there might be a huge cost-savings opportunity for Korea here. I made some notes and gave John a few suggestions for improving his English—the real purpose of our sessions.

It is of course one thing for a university to ask the staff to turn their computers off at the end of the workday as part of an energy savings initiative. It is quite another to attempt to change the wider-culture hell bent on keeping their country germ-free. But you’ll find me, nevertheless, closing every open door and window in Korea. Really Steve?

Back to my Saturday morning. The washing machine buzzes. It’s time to hang my clothes on the drying rack. As I release the cord and lower the rack, I’m reminded that living and being in another culture is a privilege—especially if you keep the door open.