Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Who Knew Restauranteurs and Customers were Mortal Enemies?

Dear Korean,

Why so many Koreans so hot-tempered? I work as a waiter at a Korean restaurant. Even though I am obedient, non-complaining, and always smiling, (my grandparents were REALLY Japanese and instilled similar values in me) the customers (
ajummas in particular) do not seem to care, and only demand more water, more pori-cha, and lose their heads when an empty panchan plate is not removed from their tables. I have seen Korean waitresses at other restaurants and their rude behavior toward the customers (and me), and would think that my generosity would have them turning a new leaf, but it does not. I just want to know why there are so many that have such abbrasive personalities that do not respond well to a pittling little college student trying to make next semester's tuition payment and his tendency to treat everybody with respect.

Tofu Master Extraordinaire

Dear Tofu Master,

It’s the Japanese blood in you. Koreans can smell it. Koreans cannot wait for the giant earthquake to come and sink all those islands into the depths of hell. (I’m not making this up. There is a Japan-made movie that describes this scenario exactly, and it did pretty well in Korea by all accounts, although everyone who has seen it agrees that it was a shitty movie. ) The Korean will soon do a series on Koreans’ well-documented hatred for Japanese, so this discussion will be saved for later. Or maybe they are mad because you keep on misspelling things. It’s bori-cha (“barley tea,” delicious) and banchan (“side dishes,” an essential part of any Korean meal). Those two are understandable, but misspelling “abrasive”? Come on.

Just kidding Tofu Master, the Korean should be the last person to tease anyone for their nationality or their spelling skills. You got the correct impression of a very interesting phenomenon that occurs in any service industry run by/patronized by Korean people. Why does this happen?

On a fundamental level, Korea is a country that transitioned from being an agricultural society to being a post-industrial society waaaaaaay too fast. (In fact, entire East Asia is like this.) So the mismatch between how people behave and where the society actually is begets many hilarious consequences, including this one.

It happens in any service industry, but take restaurants for example. In the good old days when Korea was poor and everyone was hungry, restaurant owners was doing a huge favor for their customers. Ever driven through some parts of the country where you don’t see a gas station for hundreds of miles, then found a place that sold gas for four dollars per gallon? Do you care if the place is shady or the owner gives you an attitude? That’s exactly the restaurant situation in Korea in the old days. In an agricultural society, who the hell would eat out when it’s a huge challenge already to get some eating out of the ground? Only those who were traveling (and can afford things) would purchase food, and they absolutely would not care how shitty the food or the service was. Without that restaurant at that place, the travelers would have starved anyway. So service providers in Korea traditionally assumed this attitude of “Be grateful that I’m doing business here,” and did away with all the frills like smiling or not throwing food on the table. Cooking and serving food are hard work already; people expect the server to smile as well? Jokka. (“Go fuck yourself.” Literally, it translates to "peel a dick.")

Later (in fact, much later), Korea got richer and competition among restaurants finally emerged. But the attitude survived, since Koreans know that (being practical as they are,) they eat the food, not the service. But action calls for an equal and opposite reaction, so react Korean consumers did. Sensing that now the customers were the king of the market economy, Korean customers decided to toss out all the pleasantries against service providers as well. After all, being polite to everyone is tiring. (The Korean thinks that it’s the stress from being polite all the time that drives some Japanese people to go on mass-murdering rampage a few times each year. But that’s another story.) The singular force in this movement, of course, is the ajummas, whose irrepressible energy constantly seeks out for new advantages they can exploit.

So, Tofu Master, you are caught in a race toward the bottom. Customers don’t care about shitty service because they expect them. And customers are shitty toward you because they expect shitty service anyway. The Korean advises you to join the race, since you will find that the bottom will be quite lively and fun. Who doesn’t enjoy a good shit-flinging fight? Except for the Japanese I guess.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I love this post because it addresses the exact issue that I've been so curiously wondering about. Thank you for providing an excellent explanation to an otherwise peculiar phenomenon.

    I have just one small objection...or perhaps just a point to add:

    Korean restaurants and/or service providers IN KOREA (especially Seoul) COULDN'T BE FARTHER FROM THIS PICTURE. In fact, they are so extremely kind and smile-y and high-pitch-voiced that they sound fake. They often employ incorrect grammar so they can layer honorifics upon honorifics to the point that even a piece of object a customer owns is utmost-ly revered. (This last part annoys the closet Grammar Nazi in me the most.) I assume it's because of exactly what you pointed out: Customers are kings in this new thriving, competition-driven economy.

    However, the Korean-Americans and Korean immigrants in the U.S. who own restaurants--many of whom have immigrated decades ago and have never been back to Korea since the '70s--seem to believe that Korea is still like its old days, and somehow think they have to guard this bizarre standard of customer service as if it's a national treasure.

    Having gone to school in California near Koreatown and Orange County for years around the time of your posting in 2007, this discrepancy was perhaps the biggest shock to me about the difference between the Korean culture and the Korean-American culture.

  2. Bad customer service also extends to clothing was a massive culture shock to me when I first visited!


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