Cultural distinctions

I went to the dry cleaning to pick up my alterations. Usually, it’s staffed by a pleasant Korean woman, with whom I would chat about the weather. Last time, I was met by a middle-aged Korean man. He had a bit of a gruff demeanor. He started telling me about his troubles with the weather this past year. Then he said that his car had gotten “f***ed up” by the salt.

I was a bit taken aback. I think this is the first time I had ever heard an older Korean man use a curse word casually, in English, with someone he had just met (and a customer at that). I started to feel uneasy and left as soon as I could.

As I reflected on that encounter, I realized that I experienced some cultural dissonance in talking to this man. There are certain cultural norms that are part of how I interact with older Korean adults, centered around expectations of respect and civility (even the Korean words I use are different). I seldom interact with Korean adults who use salty language, and certainly not in English. However, I was still quite surprised by how much it affected me.

Today I went to a different cleaner, where I met an older Korean couple. They were warm and friendly, asking me about my family (I tried to explain what work my dad does, but I forgot the Korean word for “Actuary”). I really enjoyed talking to them. If the alterations turn out well, I’ll definitely go back again.

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