I Asked A Korean Person To Pass Me a Napkin -- And I Never Expected What Happened Next

The East and West have entirely different ways of looking at the same thing.
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A few months before I left Hyundai and Korea, I was dining with my team. One of my junior female team members, whose English was quite good and who had lived for a short while in the States, was sitting to my left, next to the napkins. I asked her to pass me one.

She did and then asked me, “Did you ask me to hand you the napkins because in your culture it’s considered rude to reach in front of someone while they’re eating?”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s right.”

“In our culture, it’s considered rude to interrupt someone while they’re eating to ask them to hand you something,” she replied.

That was why Koreans had been jabbing their hands in front of me at meals for the previous three years, I realized.

But there it was, finally explained to me so clearly that even I could understand: Each culture—Korean and American, Eastern and Western—had been behaving in a way it believed to be polite, only to actually be behaving in the rudest way possible to the other culture. It was a small example of what I came to realize was the larger truth: Korean and American, East and West, have entirely different ways of looking at and understanding the meaning of the same thing. And although each side probably believes its intent is clear to the other side, oftentimes it could not be more opaque.

“Korean and American, East and West, have entirely different ways of looking at and understanding the meaning of the same thing.”

I came to explain it this way: If you set a glass on a table in between an American and a Korean, they will both see a glass. But it will mean very different things to each of them. To the American, the glass will mean “thing that will soon provide me with a refreshing beverage.” To the Korean, the glass will mean “thing that I must fill and serve to my seniors to show my respect for them.”

This concept, thought of in another way, is not unfamiliar to us in our highly politicized America. Republicans and Democrats will look at, say, the same social problem yet have two totally different interpretations of how it came to be and how to solve it.

If the Napkin Episode, as I came to call it, had happened a few months after I’d arrived in Korea, my three-plus years there might have gone more smoothly for me and for everyone around me.

It’s not just that Americans and Koreans speak different languages. The language is only the mechanical representation of the divide and is in fact the easiest chasm to bridge. I had always considered myself a superior communicator. I had made my living at a high level doing just that for two decades, making complicated stories clear and easy to understand for a general readership.

But in the East, my record was mixed. To the English-speaking foreign journalists who visited Korea, I was still a good communicator. They often found me a welcome relief from my colleagues, whose Korean-accented English the foreign journalists—who were not native English speakers, either—sometimes found difficult to understand.

But to my Korean colleagues I was a poor communicator, at least for a large part of my stay there. Part of the problem was my quirks. I sometimes use double negatives. I’m sorry, but I can’t not do it. For a native English speaker, this was not a problem. For others, it was a source of pure confusion. The bigger problem was that I didn’t think through how to respond when I didn’t understand something I was being told. “So, wait,” I’d respond in exasperation. “Are you telling me it can’t be done?”

“No, sir.”

“No, it can’t be done, or no, it can be done?”

“Yes, sir.”

I was putting my poor colleagues through an Abbott and Costello routine, and no one was laughing.

“I still remember how puzzled I was the first time one of my team members referred to my 'American accent.' 'What accent?' I said.”

I still remember how puzzled I was the first time one of my team members referred to my “American accent.” “What accent?” I said. “We don’t have accents. Brits have accents. Australians have accents. Even Canadians. We don’t.” To me, the British accent is a deviation from the norm—accent-free American English. But to a Korean, and to most of the world’s population, American English is just another kind of English accent.

This realization shocked me more than it would have had my ignorance been only linguistic. But embedded in my response, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was my belief that America is the industry standard for the world. Not just for English but in everything: politics, power, sports, entertainment, finance, you name it. It’s America’s world and everyone else is just playing in it. It didn’t take long living on the far side of the world to disabuse me of this notion. Yes, America was still by far the world’s richest and most militarily powerful country, and American movies got big audiences in Seoul. But over here, Beijing and Tokyo had much more impact on Koreans’ daily lives than Washington. No one followed the NFL. Whole epochs of American and Western history were unknown. In the wake of the Great Recession, there was a general feeling that the West was in decline and that the twenty-first century would belong to Asia, not America.

I was feeling more than befuddlement over the way I sounded. This was a symptom of a much deeper dislocation I was feeling and confusion over the way I thought about America’s place in the world.

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