Korean Customer Service

Sometimes culture shock is less about overcoming difficulties and more about managing pleasant surprises.  Most of my experiences in Korean shops and restaurants shock my system in this fashion.

For one, tipping isn’t a thing here. Also, any sales tax is often the merchant’s responsibility.  In other words, the price on the menu or shelf is what you pay.  If you overpay, then restaurants return exact change.  

At first, I was inappropriately excited over what amounted to several dollars of savings.  I come from a culture where, “if you cannot afford to tip, don’t go out” is a common admonition.  Socializing in Korea is free of the math anxiety brought on by bill-splitting (though for some reason my friends and I circulate money at restaurant tables with no obvious rhyme or reason).  Also absent is the mentality that customers must purchase good service and that servers must hustle for livable wages.  Here, good service seems to be a cultural norm.

There is a small price to pay in lieu of tips.  In the U.S., servers tend to visit tables frequently – almost too frequently.

“How is everything?”  

“Can I bring you anything else?”

“Would you like another drink?”

“Can I interest you in some dessert?”

“I know it’s only been several minutes and you haven’t taken a bite yet, but how is everything?”

“Still no on that dessert?”

“I should really call you a cab, but in order to put food in my baby’s mouth I must ask if you want another drink.”

In Korea, the customer bears the burden of requesting service.  Many restaurants have a button to press if you would like to order something.  In other places, you flag down servers and bartenders with a wave and a “Yeo-gi-yeo!” (Here!)

In many bars, free snacks are served to patrons who order a couple drinks.  This is by no means unique in the world, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.  In restaurants, many meals are served family style with included all-you-can-eat side dishes (banchan).  I am in love.  I can ask for more kimchi or vegetables free of charge.  Vegetarians rejoice!  Vegans still have to pay upwards of 20,000 for meat that they will throw away (or send to my table).  However, if you dine with a couple of friends, eating out rarely breaks the bank.

My experiences in shops and grocery stores have been full of unexpected surprises as well.  I often buy pork at a local grocery store called Mom Mart (a name that often gives me a sharp and fleeting pang of homesickness).  As I enter I bow, loudly mumble a greeting, and proceed to the meat counter.  I order the most economical cut of pork (which is still around $5.00 a pound) in awkward white-guy introductory Korean (“This one.  400 grams.  Please give me.”)

The butcher weighs it, tags it (with about 20g extra), and asks me a question in Korean.  One recycled and ungrammatical sentence cannot save me now.  I blankly stare.  Resorting to gesture, he hands me a bag of green onions and a bag of some sliced pink vegetable that pleasantly reeks of garlic and ginger.  He uses his hands to tell me I’m supposed to use the veggie slices to prepare small pork wraps.

I’m an American.  I grew up naturally suspicious of people using small gifts to plant seeds in my wallet.  I tried to tell him I didn’t want the vegetables, but he refused.  I noticed no price tag on either bag so I shrugged and proceeded to the cash register.  They didn’t charge me.  Now I go to Mom Mart twice a week and order the same pork.  Stir-fried pork wraps are now my favorite meal.  Their seeds bore fruit.  I’m a loyal customer. 

Korean shopkeepers tend to reward their most loyal customers with intermittent free gifts.  The rough English translation is “service.”  One day I walked into a hardware store to purchase a screwdriver.  The shopkeeper handed me a can of plum juice.  While the small businesses by my apartment are not the cheapest options, the heart-smiles tend to outweigh the potential savings (not to mention the time saved not walking one kilometer to Lotte Mart).

Sometimes I wonder if I benefit from an inescapable foreign appearance.  I feel like as long as I smile and make a modicum of effort to speak Korean (even if it’s grammatically poor and phonetically jarring), I often encounter random acts of kindness.

One afternoon I stood in a Seoul subway station waiting for Line 3.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a Maxim coffee vending machine.  A notorious coffeeholic, I hustled over like a child hustles to a candy store with a dollar he just earned cutting a neighbor’s grass.

I stood in line behind an older man purchasing a cup of coffee.  He looked at me and just said, “ko-pee?” (coffee?)

I smiled.  “Nay.  Ko-pee-jo-ah-yo”  (Yes.  Coffee is good.)

He smiled and handed me the cup that he had just ordered.  I couldn’t believe it.  I smiled and accepted it with two open hands.

“Go-map-seum-ni-da,” I said as politely as I could.  

I returned to my friends, sipping a Maxim mocha, gratefully reflecting on what just happened.  My Korean skills are basic at best.  I know few phrases and even fewer grammatical rules.  A Korean language pedant would eviscerate my lack of eloquence (whatever though – prescriptivism is for arrogant nerds).  Regardless, I think people simply appreciate the cultural effort.

“Here’s this foreigner who is making an attempt to learn my language.”  

An effort to understand a language is an effort to understand a culture.

If kindness could kill, my parents would receive a very unfortunate phone call.  Culture shock is real, but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant.  Sometimes the shock is learning about where your home culture comes up short.

Q & A

If anyone has a question about my work or life in Korea, feel free to email me at ischneid87@gmail.com.  This question came from Mrs. Newman.

I’d like to know what goes on in your English class. Is it like a Spanish or French class in the U.S.? Do you have set conversations you run through or do you wing it? Do you have a textbook to use? What does an average lesson plan look like? Are you discussing English or American literature? What are some of your students’ common misconceptions regarding the English language?

Excellent questions.

My official job title is Native English Teacher (NET).  In school, Korean children learn English by reading grammar books and listening to lessons in Korean.  They learn how to read and write English at a high level, but tend to struggle with listening and speaking.  Therefore, my job is to introduce some native language input and lead English speaking activities.  I also incorporate some writing activities that lead to students reading their work aloud.

Many NETs in Korean elementary and middle schools frequently use textbooks and set conversations.

As a high school NET, I am largely left to wing it.  I am provided a textbook to think of grammar structures to use, but I have near total creative control in lesson planning

I tend to structure an average lesson plan as follows:

  1.  Daily questions
    1. What is today?
    2. What is the date?
    3. How is the weather?
    4. How do you feel today?
  2. Introduce a target language structure (e.g. First Conditional “If…then…”)
  3. The class chorally reads several examples written by me.
  4. Guided practice speaking activity (typically involves fill-in-the-blank sentences followed by conversational practice.)
  5. Independent Practice
    1. Organize either a competitive game or a collaborative group activity to use the target language structure.
    2. Typically consists of some group writing followed by some spoken performance (e.g. design the perfect Saturday using “planning” words (First, Second, After that, Finally, etc.)).

Because my primary focus is speaking and not reading (they read a ton in their Korean English class), I do not focus much on English or American literature.  However, I often make references to American songs, movies, and T.V. shows.  One lesson about rhyming had students composing new lyrics to the Ram Jam song “Black Betty.”

In terms of misconceptions, I do not hear much.  Overall, students’ opinions of the English language inhabit a large spectrum.  Some are very interested and have desires to move to the U.S. for school.  Others plan to be farmers or public servants in positions where little to no English is required.  These students (understandably) are tough to motivate.

In terms of difficulties regarding language use itself, my students’ most frequent struggles include articles (e.g. “*yesterday I went to market with friend.”) as well as speaking English numbers (“Teacher!  How you say… *points to 35,000*?”)

Both are very understandable difficulties.  The Korean language does not differentiate between definite and indefinite articles.  In fact, (as far as I know) there are no articles at all (though there are other determiners (e.g. my, this, that)).

In terms of large numbers, Korean is a base-10,000 language (1,000,000 is translated as baek-man (100 “ten-thousands”) which differs from English, which changes terms every three digits (e.g. thousand –> million –> billion –> trillion).

I hope I answered your question.  If not, feel free to follow up.  Tell The Honorable Mr. Newman I said, “Hello.”

Photo Corner


The King senses my below-average singing abilities and looks on with paternal disapproval.  I sang anyway.  I scored a C+.  C’s get degrees.


Nightmare went full 666 when we shot off fireworks in Peace Park.


This is an accurate reenactment of encounters with my students on the streets of Namak.


My subconscious mind apparently hates surprise candid photos. In reality, I feel much better than I look :).

2 thoughts on “Korean Customer Service

  1. I am sooooo happy that you are doing so many unusual and amazing things you would never have done in USA. Keep these wonderful stories coming. iloveu, grandie


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