This weekend my wife and I took our son to a children’s dentist’s office for a cleaning. I naively thought that children didn’t get cavities until their permanent teeth come in, but sure enough, my son has a cavity. Because children have a short attention span, and my son grew restless sitting in the dentist’s chair, the doctor scheduled a follow-on appointment in about three weeks to do the filling and seal our son’s teeth. I’m proud of my son–he was very well-behaved during his first dentist’s visit.
The dentist’s office is located in Apgujeong, an affluent neighborhood in Seoul south of the Han River. Located in Seoul’s Gangnam District, Apgujeong is a relatively new development that sprung up in the late 1980’s next to Seoul’s 1988 Summer Olympics site. Today, living in Apgujeong and greater Gangnam (Gangnam means "south of the river" in Korean) is generally a sign of wealth. Cramped apartments in cookie-cutter apartment complexes routinely sell for more than $1 million. Those who want to see the upscale side of Seoul need to venture down to Gangnam. Many tourists who visit Korea stay in the older areas of the city such as Itaewon, never venturing out to experience the more affluent side of Korea.
The decor in the children’s dentist’s office reflected this affluence. I have never been in a nicer, more child-friendly dentist’s office. The office was filled from floor to ceiling with children’s toys and English and Korean children’s books. A PlayStation video game console sat in the corner. A large model train circled the entire office overhead. A children’s play tent stood in another corner. Children’s posters and memorabilia plastered the walls. I even saw a TV-video combo embedded in the ceiling above the children’s dentist chair played a children’s video. Wow–talk about getting kid-glove treatment! These amenities made the dentist’s office an absolutely enjoyable place to visit. This office was a stark contrast to the no-frill dentist offices I visited in the U.S. as a child, where entertaining children consisted of providing a small stack of dog-eared Highlights magazines for them to read before being seen by the dentist.
I was really impressed by the high-quality customer service we received from the dental staff. I expected nothing less in a country that excels at providing customer service. The dentist treated our son very gently and gave us his diagnosis in meticulous English. He walked us through treatment suggestions and helped us weigh our options. As we waited for the dentist, the receptionist served us hot, Nescafe-style instant coffee prevalent in Korea. She alternatively spoke in English to us and in Korean to Korean customers, making sure we received the assistance we needed. The excellent service reminded me that one of the positive aspects of Korean culture is that you can generally expect good customer service, especially if you are a foreigner. Although as a Westerner it is difficult to assimilate into Korean culture, you can generally expect to be treated well. For example, when we ate with some friends at a western-style restaurant on Friday evening, we were told we would wait 45 minutes for a table. 15 minutes later, we were seated. My Korean friend told me that the restaurant likely seated us sooner because I am a foreigner. Appearance, including your dress and mannerisms, is an important factor in how much attention you receive. t helps to dress professionally–if you wear a suit, tie, and overcoat I as did, you may be perceived as "important" and treated better than if you wear casual clothing.
Blog Note: No Name, let me clarify what I mean regarding perceptions of danger in Colombia. You’re right–in many ways, Colombia is no different than any other place. I have heard fabulous reviews of Colombia from my compadres who work there. In fact, I was–and still am–interested in doing an assignment there. I’ve heard that Colombians are very friendly, the expatriate quality of living is high, and the country is absolutely gorgeous, a gem that has been given rough treatment by the media. At the same time, it is still a place that has historically been a hot zone of drug and paramilitary activity. Until recently, Colombia has been a dangerous place in which to live as the Colombian government battled drug lords and rebel groups such as the FARC. Bogota was often subjected to violence–although it has subsided under President Uribe’s rule. Kidnappings were frequent, although less frequently nowadays. Colombia is still classified as a dangerous assignment, and those who work there receive an additional amount of danger pay for living there. Moreover, much of the country is still officially off-limits, and crime is an ongoing problem. I would love to work there, but I have to take my family’s concerns into consideration when bidding on an assignment.
I realize that danger is a relative concept, and the reality in Colombia today is different than what plays out in the news. The same is true in Korea. Although the Korean Peninsula is still technically at war, it is not generally considered a dangerous place despite the large number of troops facing off against each other at the DMZ just 50 kilometers north of Seoul. 50 years ago, South Korea was once considered a dangerous place, but no longer. The same should happen to Colombia over time. It takes time.