Friday, September 7, 2007

One Decaf Short Cultural Conflict Latte

I started this days ago, but that dang phone call I got a couple of days ago threw me off my game.

The funny thing is I'm such a techie pinhead that when this was happening I was going to start writing about it right there, but I left my PDA at home. You can't do much with a mobile keyboard is the PDA is MIA. Thus, I had to actually write it on paper and then turn around and type it up! (...gasp...)

It was like seeing a weird mini "Clash of Civilizations" being played out.

I went to Starbucks in the Itaewon district of Seoul. For those of you who don't live here, Itaewon is the icky foreigners section of Seoul. I say it's icky because, well, it is. It's a disorganized jumble of shops that cater to Western tastes. I would disagree that the stores actually do. It's mostly low quality crap and tourist souvenirs. There are some decent tailors and shoe makers (BTW, call Bob if you need a sturdy pair of custom made shoes: 011-234-0461). After refusing to go there unless I had to for years, I finally came around for a couple of reasons 1) it's only about 10 minutes from where I currently live, 2) there are some stores that sell foreign foods and that's a Godsend when you want dried Kiwi or a can of Campbell's Soup without going across town to Costco, and 3) it is great for restaurants. I also used the coffeehouses in Itaewon to study my butt off, so I also have a certain level of comfort there.

Anyway, this is what happened. I head upstairs to lay claim to one of my favorite tables near a plug. The first thing I notice is a quartet of Western (yes, read that as white) expats with a screaming baby. Across from these expats is another pair of expats. Two what appeared to be Middle Eastern men. One of these men was on the phone and talking pretty loud. However, I remember when the Iranian revolution happened and L.A. had a lot of Iranians move there. In general, a lot just talk that way...whatever.

The Westerners expats noticed the volume level too. Now, in the West it would have been very appropriate to politely ask him to lower his voice. However, my read on the situation flowed not from my Western sensibilities but from how the Koreans around me chose to respond. The Koreans just kept on with their own conversations or whatever they were doing and didn't skip a beat.

However, it was this group of Westerners, who weren't all that quiet themselves, who had to start something. Okay, honestly, it was the loudest guy in that group who chose to start something.

Instead of the polite request, he HAD to go there. He said this, "Could you speak a little louder?" I was really shocked that a stranger would say this to another stranger. I thought this was incredibly rude particularly because it wasn't like the group of Westerners were talking in hushed whispers and the wailing kid didn't help either. Plus, a polite request will usually get you much further than a snarky question.

I was so agitated by it I considered telling him to shut the fuck up and mind his own business. However, I figured the situation was already tense enough. Instead, I was a wuss and just went downstairs to order my coffee.

When I came back it was tenser. The baby was crying. The snarky Westerner had gotten up to comfort it by walking back and forth with it. The loud Western expat was still throwing verbal jibes their way. I recall him saying something like someone's parents should have used a condom. I don't think he was talking about the wailing bundle of joy he was holding but maybe he was also a jerk to babies (who knows...) There were mutual jeers and taunts from both sets of expats and generally it was a bad idea for me to go there to study.

Eventually, the Middle Eastern men left and the Westerners followed. However, it just seemed to be an unnecessary and hyper-confrontational way of dealing with something that a polite request would have taken care of much more easily.

It was just another day in the Land of the Morning Calm.

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  1. Was this on the third floor of the first Itaewon Starbucks? Because trust me, the acoustics there are problematic. Last year I was at the computer table working...and I got a phone call from a Korean client. He was on a subway platform and asked me to speak loudly. Our phone call was rather brief (less than 3 minutes) but in the middle of it (me with one finger in my other ear)...a Korean guy was in my face telling me to keep it down.

    I mean he was in my face...and the three of us (me, he and a Korean woman) were the only ones on the third floor. I was pretty pissed as it was an important phone call and I was speaking loudly because I had to so he could hear over the subway...

    maybe that place just has some bad acoustic karma.

  2. This was the new one at Noksapyong. There are too many scary waegooks in the one near Itaewon station. I avoid it unless I just happen to be in that part of Itaewon.

  3. In Korean: 외국인 - waegookin - foreigner ;)


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