official post #4 : Evaluating Intercultural Behaviour

Certain cultures share some similarities, but often there are unique cultural practices specific to certain Asian countries. In this post, I will bring up the intercultural differences which I experienced last year at a local restaurant while I was in South Korea. Since our Chinese forefathers were from China and Korea (both North and South Korea in this case) was once part of China, I had assumed that Singaporean and Koreans shared slightly similar cultural practices with Chinese influence. An example would be that both cultures use chopsticks during meals.

As part of the tour, we were brought to a Korean restaurant for dinner on the first night of the tour. From the moment I stepped into the restaurant, I noticed a very interesting practice at the restaurant. We had to remove our shoes before we could enter the restaurant, something which was uncommon in Singapore. Of course, I adhered to this practice since I was in an unfamiliar environment and it was only polite to do so.

At the dinner table, we were served with an array of Korean side dishes. As Korean restaurant owners were known to be very hospitable, the restaurant owner gave us more food whenever she saw that our side dish plates were empty. At first, we (the Singaporeans) had not thought much of this gesture, but we noticed that the restaurant owner continuously came to our table to replenish whatever we had finished eating even though we did not ask her to do so. We were quite full towards the end of the dinner, but the restaurant owner continued to put food on our table. Since we did not want food wastage, we tried to tell the restaurant owner that we did not want any more food by waving our hands whenever she came towards our table. However, the restaurant owner took slight offence when we tried to reject her and she was even more insistent to replenish our dishes. What made the situation worse was that we were not fluent in the Korean Language and we ended up raising our voices while saying ‘No, no’. I knew that Korean restaurant owners were generous, but I never thought that it would be to the extent of forcing us to eat.

Thankfully, we had a Korean tour guide who had studied in China. The tour guide explained to us in Chinese that it was normal for the owners to provide food in surplus. Apparently, it would reflect badly on the owners if they did not replenish the empty dishes as it may appear that they were starving their customers by not letting them eat their fill. In addition, the owner had thought that we did not like their food when we started to wave our hands to reject the food and mistook our ‘No, no!’ as dislike to the food served.

Even simple hand gestures and words may have different meaning in different cultural context. As such, what we could do on our part is to try and learn as much as possible about the other culture and be aware of the situation we are in. Should anyone express disapproval of our actions or words, we should find out what we have done wrong and try and adapt accordingly. In this case, since language was a barrier, a third party who is familiar with both cultures (e.g. the tour guide) could be the mediator and communicator. Alternatively, learning a few basic phrases of that certain language would also be helpful.

sorry for the long post, this is the most concise i think i can go 🙂


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. noelle
    Oct 03, 2011 @ 00:26:01

    Hey Huixin,

    I want to go to Korea too!

    That aside, I agree that it is only proper for us to try and learn as much as possible about the cultural customs and language of the country we visit. That way, we can be more effective communicators which will then make our visit much more enjoyable.

    The restaurant you went do seem to be very traditional, thankfully you had your tour guide to help explain the Korean culture to you.

    But I realised in this increasingly interconnected world, cultures do seem to be getting “diluted”. A few years ago when I was preparing to go to Cambodia, we were cautioned in a Cambodia culture guidebook not to touch the heads of children (like how we like to ruffle the hair on little kids’ heads) because it is considered offensive. To our surprise however, when we reached there all of them were smacking each others’ heads and all as they played! We tried to clarify this with the Cambodian facilitator, and she said “Huh, your guidebook must be very very old!”


  2. Klara
    Oct 03, 2011 @ 02:09:34

    @ Hui Xin, luckily it was a tour you went on (where there’s a tour guide). If you are on a free and easy yourself, this would have turned into an undesirable incident.
    From here, we can actually see how important intercultural communication is and it is often the lack of knowledge of that particular culture that creates a barrier to effective communication.


  3. Zoey Zhou
    Oct 04, 2011 @ 16:45:01

    Hi Hui Xin,
    I want to go to Korea too 🙂

    This situation may happen when you visit a Chinese family! I think many Chinese family are so hospital that they will continuously replenish your plates,even when you said no. They will assume that you are too shy to eat in foreigners’ home.

    However, it’s lucky to have a Korean friend to explain the situation. Learn some daily used sentences in foreign language dose help when you are in a foreign country! I experience it myself when I was in Thailand. Every time when I bargain with Thai people in Thai, they will be happy to lower the price.And everyone will be happy when you greeting them in Thai! I think it shows your respect to their culture when you talk to them in their language,even though you may have accent.


    • Zoey Zhou
      Oct 04, 2011 @ 16:50:19

      Sorry,there are grammar mistakes in my last comment 😦
      In the second paragraph, the second sentence should be:” I think many Chinese families are so hospitable that they will continuously replenish your plates.”


  4. Brad F Blackstone
    Oct 09, 2011 @ 07:53:35

    Thank you, Hui Xin, for describing with good focus this scenario in the Korean restaurant. Your description is clear and fairly concise. As for content, it is interesting that the restaurant owner’s replenishing the “side dishes” became an issue for your group. (A good problem.) I’ve been in a number of Korean restaurants, in Korea, Japan and here in Singapore, and while I’m very familiar with the usual practice of providing those side dishes, I’ve never encountered a place that forced food on the customers. Was the owner in your story just overly insistent? As Zoey mentions in her response, she has seen the same in China, as I have in the US with one of my aunts.

    Again, it’s important, I think, to recognize that it is possible that a personal trait can be misconstrued as a general behavior. What do you think?


  5. ohmyhx
    Oct 11, 2011 @ 00:48:56

    Thank you everyone for your comments on this post!

    After attending last Friday’s lesson, it did dawn upon me on the spot whether my scenario was more of an interpersonal one rather than an intercultural one. What made me think that there was this possibility was that not all of the restaurants owners of restaurants which I had visited in Korea behaved the same way as the above mentioned owner. However, such a scenario did repeat in a few other restaurants during my trip, which led me to think that it could have been a cultural thing.

    Some cultures are known to share similar habits and practices, so there could be some overlapping of certain actions and behaviours, such as the use of chopsticks in Asian culture (albeit the type of chopsticks might differ). In fact, I personally feel that it can be quite difficult to limit actions or customs to a certain race/culture/society. As Noelle mentioned earlier, there might be a dilution of culture in this increasing interconnected world, but even so certain main aspects will be continued to be preserved. These remaining aspects, possibly with traditional origins, are probably the only true indicators to indentify one’s culture.

    Maybe I might have made an error in assuming that the whole incident is an intercultural communication. After all, as mentioned in a lesson before, a few selected people cannot represent the whole population’s behaviour and culture.

    PS: I just had an idea for a follow up post on this topic! 😀 will post it up soon~


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