Tonight I joined some new acquaintances for dinner at a local seafood restaurant. I met them during a recent Fourth of July celebration. They graciously invited my family for dinner this evening. My wife had planned to attend but had an unfortunate conflict, so instead I joined the two of them by myself at a great little restaurant not far from where I work. The establishment served traditional Korean dishes, many of which I have never eaten before. We feasted on Korean sushi, octopus, kimchi, beef and Asian radish, clams, cabbage soup, fish, and several other dishes. We drank delicious, smooth Korean rice wine. The meal was a delight to the palate. It was a shame that they brought so much food that we couldn’t eat it all.
One of my Korean acquaintances spoke very little English. However, she did speak some Chinese. The other acquaintance had lived in Germany for awhile, so throughout the dinner we spoke a hodge podge of languages. At different times we spoke English, Chinese, German, and Korean. It was fun to mix up languages and butcher each one of them, but somehow manage to carry on a fluid, diverse conversation. Our conversation drifted from topic to topic. In my insatiable desire to learn more about Korea, I asked question after question about Korean culture and etiquette. I gleaned many pearls of wisdom from my acquaintances about what it means to be Korean and why Koreans do what they do. I shared my own insights into American culture, and we agreed that once we found common ground that bridged American and Korean culture, we had a lot in common. We agreed that miscommunication and misinterpretation are often the biggest barriers to building mutual understanding between Koreans and foreigners. Don’t get me wrong–the evening was a lot of fun and was not merely an exposition of Korean culture. We all agreed that it was nice to get out and socialize for a change (they also spend most of their nights at home with their families). Nevertheless, the evening was very much one of those occasions when cultural differences stand front and center. When you’re surrounded by those who share the same cultural mindset, it’s easy to forget about cultural differences because they tend to be minimal. However, when you spend time with someone who is from another country and has never been to yours, culture looms large.
My acquaintances are the first Koreans I’ve spent time with who have never visited the United States. It was a great opportunity for me get to know Koreans who have not had exposure to the U.S. and who know few other foreigners. I noted some of the common cultural differences prone to misinterpretation, and I pointed these out to my acquaintances when needed. For example, when one acquaintance picked up the bill, I offered to pay instead. He gave me a look that said, "Why are you even asking?" I explained that in the U.S. it is common courtesy to at least offer to pay all or a portion of the bill. Even if it is a feigned ritual, and the one who offers to pay has no intention to pay at all, it is still polite to do so in American culture. In China, and I’m assuming in Korea as well, the one who extends the invitation generally pays the bill. Instead, I promised to have them over for dinner to thank them for their hospitality. Tonight it rained heavily. When the rain stopped, we departed. They offered me an umbrella. Of course, as an American I was negligent in bringing an umbrella. On the other hand, they had brought an extra one and gave it to me. At first I declined their offer because doing so would have required me to return it to them at a later date. Self-reliance, not depending on others, is an American virtue. They insisted, saying that the polluted Korean rain would cause my hair to fall out. I thought this was absurb and mused, I’m an American; I don’t need an umbrella. I took it anyway. In this instance, Korean courtesy trumped American self-reliance.