When the Customer Experience Gets Lost in Translation

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To treat myself in Seoul, I love going to different coffee shops and sitting there for hours on end. I love getting lost in my writing or drawing among crowds of people studying or catching up with friends old and new. I usually try to save my trips to cafes for the weekends as a way of saving money on coffee during the week.

Because of my infatuation with Korean coffee shops, I managed to perfect my Korean coffee-ordering skills and can now waltz into any cafe with ease. My heart no longer beats uncontrollably when it’s almost my turn to order and I’m not scared of making mistakes. These ordering interactions are also a way to improve my language skills should our coffee-ordering dialogue go off-kilter.

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‘So what does this have to do with customer experiences and translations?’ What a great question! Let’s discuss…

Occasionally, my Korean cafe trance is interrupted when a sales assistant at the other end of my aforementioned coffee-ordering dialogue responds to me… in English. Meaning: I’ve said ‘Korean Korean Korean’, only to then receive a response in English. ‘So’, I hear you ask, ‘what is so bad about this and why is it so concerning to you that you’ve written an entire dissertation (this blog post) about it?’

Living in a foreign country and sticking out like a sore Australian thumb has many challenges. I know that having people speak to me in English is a gesture of goodwill. I personally think that it is amazing that so many Korean people can speak English and are very willing to make foreigners feel at ease. However, pouring my heart out to someone by ordering a coffee in my very best Korean feels a little bit embarrassing when I am met with a response in English. This fuels the daily anxiety I feel as someone who has been living in Korea for over a year and has a rather long, never-ending way to go with their Korean language skills.

‘Okay, but where does the customer experience part come in? So what if you feel inadequate and angsty, we all do?’

As someone who slaved her university days as a customer service worker in both hospitality and retail, I am all too familiar with the language of good service. How to greet people, how to make people feel like they’re the most important customer in the world etc. It wasn’t a skill I was very good at, to begin with, but over time I improved my communication skills and my confidence in interacting with customers from all walks of life.

After several years of working jobs that I hated, I, in turn, became highly sensitive to customer service everywhere I went. Having experienced it myself, I became more aware of the struggles customer service workers face and gained a newfound respect for dish hands, Uber drivers, bartenders and everyone else in between. I started to show increasing respect to the workers who were kind and welcoming to me which made me want to be a regular customer.

With a bad experience, on the other hand, I would usually try and avoid ever going there again. That may sound petty, but living in Melbourne, there were plenty of places for me to buy a coffee, sandwich or a pair of shoes. Once you’ve worked the Christmas shifts in a retail shopping centre, you learn how to be polite to people with literally zero effort. It becomes a role that you must play to survive. It’s not that hard to be polite to someone who just wants a pair of jeans that won’t sag around her butt.

So, again… what does language have to do with your customer experience? Well, it’s not so much the use of English that I have a problem with, it’s the way the English is used that can dampen the experience.

Let’s say I ask for a hot latte in Korean (you always have to specify if you want a hot or cold drink in Korea which is a whole other blog post right there, the ‘assume hot unless otherwise stated’ rule doesn’t apply here). I’m standing there in front of the cash register, thinking my Korean skills are award-winning and I await a response from the sales assistant. If they then reply with a ‘hot?’, or a ‘take out?’, in English, this is where my fury ignites. Not only have I just spoken to them in Korean, and they have understood me, they feel it necessary to confirm my order in a different language. A language that they assume I speak because of the way I look.

I would be grateful for this as a traveller, but as somebody who now calls Korea their home, it feels disheartening. Furthermore, the English being used is usually formed as one or two-worded sentences. This can really negatively impact the customer experience, especially if you are like me and you are eagerly trying to improve your language skills. Let’s compare the English dialogue of a one to two worded sentence with a sentence used by customer service workers in a native English speaking country:

‘Hot?’ vs ‘Would you like that hot or cold?’

‘Take out?’ vs ‘Did you want that for here or to go?’

‘Membership?’ vs ‘Are you a member with us? Would you like to sign up?’

‘For here?’ vs ‘Whereabouts are you sitting? Did you want to have that here?’

‘Bag?’ vs ‘Do you need a bag? Will you be needing a bag?’

Korean is a complex language with many forms of honorifics, it is relatively easy to offend someone by accidentally talking down to them in casual form. As a language learner, I am taught to speak Korean politely in any given context. It’s the best way to avoid offending somebody because ‘when in doubt, be polite’.

English, on the other hand, does not have these same language rules. The nuances of being polite in English is something that can’t be taught easily with formulas or sentence patterns. When students learn English, they don’t learn levels of politeness the way learners of honorific languages such as Korean and Japanese do. Your teacher might correct you by simply saying ‘this way might sound a bit more polite’ or ‘that is considered rude in English’.

For example, when I was working as an English here in South Korea, I corrected my students any time they used words like ‘wanna’ and ‘gonna’. I told them they are not real words and they are only used by lazy people (I know, I’m literally the worst person but I wanted my students to annunciate, sue me). With younger students who simply yelled ‘teacher, bathroom’, I never let them go to the bathroom until the practiced saying ‘Teacher, may I go to the bathroom’. If you don’t try and break a student’s habit then and there, their cute language faux pas might stick around for the long run.

Considering this, imagine a Korean sales assistant simply saying ‘Hot?’ in Korean to a Korean customer. That customer would most likely be offended. This brash language translates as rude in English. If somebody simply said ‘hot?’ to me at a Melbourne cafe, I would probably respond with an affirmative grunt rather than give them a spoken response. Using single word responses is quite abrupt in any language. The language of customer service is very important in making the customer feel welcomed and valued for spending their $5 on a cup of hot milk.

This unnecessarily long blog post was inspired by an observation a friend and I made here in Seoul at a cafe. When she ordered her drink, they responded to her in English with one or two-word responses. When I ordered, they responded to me in Korean, which my friend overheard. She made the comment ‘wow, when they speak to you in Korean, it sounds so much more polite than when they speak to you in English’. She’s right, Korean customer service workers employ a very polite form of language because they must show respect to everybody. They wouldn’t even speak that politely to their own parents. My friend and I both shared very different experiences because of this one small language difference.

While I do appreciate people trying to speak to me in English, I always make a somewhat arrogant effort to respond in Korean. I am trying to integrate myself into this culture by speaking as much Korean as I can. I could simply respond to everyone in English because as a native speaker, it is the easier option. However, I would never improve my skills that way. I don’t want to become dependent on English and look back and wonder why I haven’t improved my language skills. I guess making such a conscious choice is the reason I am so passionate about this topic!

Furthermore, just because I am foreign, there really is no way of knowing if I speak English. South Korea attracts visitors and ex-pats from all over the world. Russia, France, Spain, Uzbekistan and America – nobody is immune to Korea fever. Are these scenarios I am describing any different from me trying to speak Chinese to an Asian-looking person in Melbourne as a cafe worker? If I did that in Melbourne, the customer would feel terrible, especially if it turned out that their mother tongue was Korean, Japanese or something not remotely similar to Chinese.

So I beg of you, if somebody, in any language or country, is trying their best to communicate with you in your native tongue, take it as an opportunity to help them, not belittle them. I have made so many mistakes from using only Korean, but those mistakes always help me grow and give me a funny story to tell my husband when I get home. Interacting in one or two words of English with somebody who is trying to learn Korean is not going to improve your English, nor will it improve their Korean. If you do want to speak English to your foreign customers, do the extra homework and improve your sentence structures. It doesn’t hurt to be too polite.

The places I do feel very grateful for English are places like immigration, hospitals, and sometimes banks. However, I recently successfully acquired a new credit card without using any English. Even if there is an opportunity to use English, I will always do my best to use Korean. I may stumble through conversations and get lost listening to native Korean, but I am always better off having tried. Having been put in that difficult position in the first place is a great way to learn, much like any other learning opportunity in life.

What do you think about this? Do you feel a little dead inside when somebody responds to your Korean in English? Or is it just me? I understand that this is quite a negative post, but I do acknowledge that many Koreans in customer service are able to communicate in English very politely. The fact that so many Koreans want to learn English and improve their skills is also somewhat miraculous. Australians should really follow suit. This was merely my observation as someone trying to call a different country their home and often feeling more and more like an alien than a local.

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Osulloc Tea Museum, Jeju Island

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Hello internet, it’s Jo So Ko here, your friendly neighbourhood Korea travel blogger, ready to give you all of the scoops on travel in Korea. Not really. I actually always leave it up to my husband to organise things when we travel. I’m just happy to walk around a new place, take photos and eat yummy food.

We recently travelled over an actual sea to go to Jeju Island! It was crazy to fly over an ocean, during these strange and uncertain times. In this post, I wanted to highlight one of the spots we went to on our trip which was the Osulloc Tea Museum!

Osulloc is a big tea company in South Korea owned by the Amore Pacific group, who have a  monopoly on the health and beauty industry in Korea. You might have heard of some of their previous Kbeauty films such as Innisfree, Etude House, Laneige and Primera.

The tea museum in Jeju consists of a large building with some tea history and a tea store, as well as the famous Osulloc Cafe. There are two cafes outside, one of which houses an Innisfree store. There are a lot of other things that I could tell you about if I was a better travel blog. Outside is the main star of the show: the beautiful green tea fields. You can frolic about and pretend to be a green tea farmer, but in reality, there are so many bugs that it’s not as pleasant as it sounds. Just look at the pictures, I’m no good with words these days.

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Directions

The museum is open from 9am – 7pm every day and has no entry fee

 

Sushi and Cherry Blossoms

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Today was a day of sushi and cherry blossoms. The flowers are a’blooming and the birds are a’chirping because spring is a’coming people. The cherry blossoms are nature’s way of saying, ‘hey guys, everything will be okay’.

Cherry blossoms are like the training wheels of nature, they make us feel safe and sound before we summon the confidence to do life with only 2 wheels. After they’re gone, we forget they were even there! Before you know, we’ve smoothly made the winter to summer, heatech to humidity transition.

WHAT AM I SAYING? It was my first back working every day this week and my brain is a little soggy. All of this quarantine has made me lose the humorous edge that helped crown Jo So Ko as the internet’s best travel blog 12 years running.

Time to get some rest, but first, here is a video I made about my work life in Seoul! Check it out if you have nothing better to do 🙂

Exploring Cafes in Seongsu, Seoul, South Korea

Amore, Seongsu

This is an amazing concept store in Seongsu that houses all of Amore Pacific beauty brands and a rooftop cafe. There are lots of skincare and makeup samples to try, but I was more excited by the vintage graphic design and the actual design of the building.

I am still a bit confused about the whole concept but they have a lot of things to offer. I would just love to sit down with the design team for a second to figure out their intentions and perhaps make it a bit more English friendly ~~ but that’s the designer in me. We then went to the cafe on the rooftop, which only really sells green tea flavoured things… so if that’s not yo speed, you’re going have a tricky time up there! However, I think the drinks looked better than they tasted 😦 I would recommend you hold off from going to the cafe and just go to a better one nearby like Cafe Onion (keep scrolling for more!)

Visit the website for more info

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How cute is their branding (from their site)

Cafe Onion, Seongsu

Just down the street from Amore Seongsu (or up the street, depending on which way you walk. Sorry, I’m not a map) is Cafe Onion. It is quite a famous spot here in Seoul and they have multiple cafes around the city. I have been wanting to try their bread for a long time! The coffee and bread is not that different from your local Korean bakery but it has a really nice vibe in the cafe!

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Wifi password on the wet tissue = genius

20200318_182148If you’re curious to see more from these places, be sure to watch the weekly vlog I made last week! Have a great week and stay safe xxx

My Korean husband cooks Jjapaguri from the movie ‘Parasite’

parasite-jjapaguri-sceneIf you fell in love with Bong Joon Ho’s latest film ‘Parasite’, you might be curious about some of the food that was featured in the Oscar-winning movie. At a very tense moment in the movie, the newly appointed maid to the Park family is asked to make a dish called ‘Jjapaguri’. The English translation is ‘Ram-don’ but the Korean name comes from the two different types of instant noodles that are used in the dish. To make Jjapaguri, you need these two types of instant noodles that you can buy from your local Korean supermarket:

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Jjapaghetti and Neoguri

I was curious to try the dish for myself and I’m lucky enough to have a Korean husband who knew exactly how to make it! We live in Korea so these ingredients are readily available. We wanted to keep the recipe as similar to the dish made in the film so we even added beef! (Beef is a very expensive ingredient here in South Korea! Pork is usually the favoured meat). Here is how our meal turned out, it was surprisingly delicious and I think I may even like it more than I like Jjapaghetti by itself:

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The soju is optional!

Hwaseong Fortress: UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Korea

There are fourteen listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites here in South Korea, and one of them is only a 15-minute drive from my home. Hwaseong Fortress is located in the Gyeonggi Province city of Suwon. Suwon is also home to some of Korea’s biggest tech company HQs like Samsung and LG.

The fortress was built in the 18th century by King Jeongjo for defensive and political purposes. It was also built to house the tomb of the King’s father. The Suwoncheon stream runs through the centre of the fortress which you can see in images below. UNESCO’s website state the following about the incredible features of the fortress:

‘The walls incorporate a number of defensive features, most of which are intact. These include floodgates, observation towers, command posts, multiple arrow launcher towers, firearm bastions, angle towers, secret gates, beacon towers, bastions and bunkers’.

Information Source

If you’re looking for a beautiful place to explore that is just outside of Seoul, I would highly recommend visiting the Hwaseong Fortress. People were starting to set up picnics along the stream now that the weather is warming up here. The site boasts gorgeous views of Suwon and is a great way to get in a mini-hike on the weekend. There are also lots of beautiful modern cafes juxtaposed against traditional architecture and the surrounding fortress. Here is the cafe we visited. Scroll to the end of the images to find out how to get there.

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How to Get There

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Take the Line 1 train to Suwon Station and catch the 66 Bus to the fortress

Happy Korean New Year: My First ‘설날’ (New Year) as a ‘며느리’ (Daughter-in-law)

Hello internet world, let’s talk about the fact that the moon calendar makes no sense to us Gregorians! Haha maybe another time, for now let’s just discuss Korean Lunar New Year. Koreans celebrate the Lunar New Year in a celebration called Seollal (설날). This was my first Seollal as a 며느리 (daughter-in-law) so everyone made a big fuss. Traditionally, 며느리’s are supposed to wait on each man’s beckon call and prepare copious amounts of food for the family, as well as clean everything. Fortunately, this was my first time as a daughter-in-law so I just sat there and smiled and made my husband help the women in the kitchen. It’s 2020, damn it!

On New Year’s day (Sat 25th Jan 2020), we ate rice cake soup (떡국) and a yummy eggy pancake. We also had lots of crustaceans and a variety of rural style side dishes. I celebrated Seollal in Yeosu, my husband’s hometown. The food and flavours in Yeosu are different to other parts of Korea. They like very salty side dishes and consume a lot of seafood. Some flavours are too strong for my weak little Australian palate, so I just shamelessly pick at the dishes with the most sugar.

We also ate steamed pork ribs (갈비찜) and sweet potato noodles (잡재) on New Year’s Day! We paid visits to both grandparents and did our New Year’s bows for good luck and great health. This was my first time bowing in Korea! When you bow on New Year’s Day, you have to say ‘새해 복 많이 받으세요’, which is like saying ‘I hope you receive lots of luck in the new year’.

This holiday went by so quickly but here are some pictures that I managed to snap. Whenever I pull out my phone to take pictures of food, I look so silly! I’m still such a tourist in this country despite living here for over a year. I hope you had a great new year, how did you spend yours? Does your country celebrate the lunar new year?

Sweet potato noodles (잡재), Steamed pork ribs (갈비찜) and Kimchi (feat. Danbi the puppy)
Fresh kimchi, samjang sauce, garlic and a vinegary soup moment.
Close up of the steamed pork ribs (갈비찜)
A beautiful door
No strawberry can out-strawberry a Korean strawberry
A spotty train while we waited for our ride to Yeosu. The New Year’s festivities were happening during the start of the corona virus outbreak, so masks were necessary!
Korean New Year Pancakes with crab, spinach and other yummy things.
My stomach gets angry at me if I eat too much Korean food. It’s like ‘yo, why haven’t you been eating any cake or complex carbohydrates?’

The Colours (and smells) of Gwangjang Market, Seoul, South Korea

Yesterday morning, we popped open our umbrellas and hopped through puddles to get to Seoul’s ‘Jewelry City’. Yes, that is a real place in Seoul, and yes, we finally bought wedding rings as a proclamation of our love. We hadn’t planned on it, but Gwangjang Market was located right next to the city of jewels. We had really been wanting to go there for a long time, what a cowinky dink. My husband is particularly keen on street food and was in heaven at the market.

I’m not sure why I thought otherwise, but shopping for wedding rings is so difficult. Why do western men have to shop alone for engagement rings? What a terrible culture. We went to four different sellers, touched a lot of hands and saw a lot of fake diamonds (they don’t put the real diamonds on display for some reason??). Because of this difficult shopping decision, we had to take a time out and feast on street food. We decided to eat some 족발 (Jokbal – pig’s feet), 잡채 (Japchae – sweet potato noodles) and 떡볶이 (Tteokbokki – spicy rice cakes). We then went in for a second sitting and ate 빈대떡 (mung bean pancakes). What’s was even better was the stall seats were heated. You definitely need a warm bottom to consume things like pig’s feet and mung bean pancake.

It was a happy accident that I had my camera in my bag yesterday. I just woke up with that feeling that a good snap was waiting for me, you know? Despite the cold, the rain and the difficult decision making, we ended our day with full bellies, three wedding rings and the realisation that my husband and I have the same ring size! Enjoy some of the pictures I took, but just remember that I was really hangry whilst taking them. Let me know if you’ve been to the market, I’d love to hear about what you ate!

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Hiking Gwanhaksan

Yesterday, I started my day with full mobility of my lower limbs. I ended the day drunk on makgeolli (Korean rice wine), with shaky knees and frozen fingers. This is of course because we ventured to Gwanhak Mountain, located next to Seoul National University. With autumn in full swing, it was so magical to wander through a trail lined with red and yellow trees, crunching on leaves as we hiked 600m above civilisation!

I wanted to bring my fancy camera but, being a novice hiker, I decided to stick to my camera phone. I didn’t need any unnecessary weight holding me down. Hiking is incredibly popular in Korea so we had many buddies along the way. At the top of the mountain, there is a beautiful temple. Because a lot of high schoolers have their SATs this Thursday, there were prayers and wishes hanging from red lanterns. I wanted to soak in the beauty of it all but the temple was on the edge of a cliff and my hands were turning blue. I was joined on the trail with my husband, two classmates and my lovely Korean teacher (oh, and a lil puppy).

I hope to start hiking more regularly! However, it’s starting to get real chilly and there is no way I’m going up one of these Korean mountains in the winter! There was one very smart businessman selling icecream in the middle of a rather gruelling flight of stairs. By the time we saw his little esky, our sweaty bodies were ready for an icy treat and we (obviously) proceeded to buy them. Little did we know that 30m later, we would reach freezing temperatures and lose our craving for refreshing icecream. Had he sold his popsicles at a higher altitude, he would have had to carry a lot of melted bags of ice down the mountain. A very savvy businessman indeed. Enjoy some pictures! The air was not so great on Sunday so there is a bit of a fog situation! Have a happy week and go to my blog to read more about my life in Seoul, South Korea.

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