Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Southern hospitality

This is the fifth post in my series of quirky cultural differences. Four and death are homonyms in Korean, so I will do no fourth post. South Koreans, and I suppose North Koreans too though I've never been, are very hospitable. They will go out of their way to help you get around in their country. This does stem from a somewhat justified belief that you're a complete buffoon who could not possibly get around in this country without their help, but it comes from good intentions.

Take for example, Saturday afternoon. I was waiting for a bus in a slight drizzle. The guy with an umbrella standing 10 feet away came over and stood with his umbrella over me. I suspect he would not have extended that same courtesy to a fellow Korean. At the pizza restaurant where I've been going for a year, a woman explained (in Korean) how to order: look at the menu, choose a pizza and then order.

My favourite kind of hospitality is the kind where someone follows you around. At the mighty 63 building (Korean is good at telling you what things are: fish is "water meat", Namsan is "south mountain" and a phone is "electric speech"), I had a hard time finding the observatory at the top because its actually an art gallery. I was looking at a map when all of a sudden, a girl appeared behind me. She explained the matter to me and then disappeared. When I couldn't find the ticket booth, she appeared from thin air again to direct me.

The other time I was assigned a personal agent was at a birthday party. A baby's first birthday party is an over-the-top celebration, and I went to my co-worker's baby's first birthday in search of the food. I was the only foreigner there and as I walked around the banquet hall looking for the food, a girl appeared from nowhere. "My aunt told me to help you," she said. "Is there anything you need?" "Uh, I'm okay," I said.

"Actually, where's the food?" I cracked. "It's over there," she pointed to the back.

Other items on the list are people who carefully watch me reload a subway fare card, friends who hail taxis for me because Korean right arms are special, and the sauna in central Seoul where there is a fridge-sized poster urging patrons to be kind to foreigners. I can't forget, however, the Korean tourism information helpline (simply dial 1330). You can ask them anything you've ever wanted to know about Korea.

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