Charlie’s first impression

(*For those who are wondering who Charlie is, please refer to the description of this category, “Charlie and I”)

Photography courtesy of Caeul Lim.

Photography courtesy of Caeul Lim.

When my sister told me that life in Boston would be very different from the one in Seoul, it didn’t quite hit me how it really would be. Sure, the scenery (more green grass? more blue sky?), the people (definitely more non-Asian people), and the language (no additional explanation needed here) would be different. But when it all comes down to it, what could be so different, I secretly wondered. After all, it’s just people living in cities, right?

Okay, maybe Boston IS prettier than Seoul...

Okay, maybe Boston IS prettier than Seoul…

It has nearly been a week now, and I still need to get used to the notion that I haven’t come here for a simple visit, but to live. But at least, I can now say that, what is indeed ‘different’ from Seoul is, at first glance, the little things, which, at second glance, add up to become big things that truly matter and make a whole world of difference between the two cities.

Let’s start with the small things. Ordering a coffee at Starbucks is a whole new experience here.

Starbucks - where you learn your English for daily usage

Starbucks – where you learn your English for daily usage

It’s an experience that teaches you that no matter the years you spent learning English, no matter the coursebooks you have gone through to the point that the end of the pages curled themselves, no matter the number of TOEFL tests you have taken, you are never quite prepared to order a simple coffee at Starbucks. It’s a quite a scary, challenging and disappointing experience that makes you doubt about your English fluency.
For my first two attempts, I spent more time saying ‘Sorry?’ than actually ordering. I just couldn’t understand the simple phrase ‘Would you like it to be sweetened?’. Thank god I ordered for a simple cup of Joe, because when you go beyond that, you have to figure out the kind of milk as well (skimmed, soy, and what not). Then you move on to a sandwich at a more ‘personal’ coffee shop where they actually make your sandwich, and you have to choose the type of bread and the type of flour used in that bread.

'I'll have my sandwich in a baguette please'

‘I’ll have my sandwich in a baguette please’

I guess it’s all a matter of being used to having all these choices, (I already managed to answer ‘No thank you’ to the first ‘Would you like it to be sweetened’ this morning), but nothing prepares you for the first time you hear the list of choices you apparently have the freedom to choose from and the state of pure blankness of mind that follows.
On a larger level of things, the presence and degree of simple kindness and easygoing-ness are the ones that have most struck me so far.

3357978294_64a64a8fb4The simple yet surprisingly heart-warming feeling you get from the word ‘Good morning’ you hear from a stranger on a bright breezy, indeed ‘good’ morning. The shy smile just for you from the person next to you or across from you, just because your eyes met for a fraction of a second. The lack of honking from cars, or rather, the very significant decrease of honking. Seeing someone pick up something the other person dropped and sharing a few words. Having people hold the door for you with a smile. Wishing Starbucks people (yes, I’ve been to a few Starbucks ever since I’ve been here – they have free wi-fi – and they’re basically everywhere) a great day and having them wish you likewise.

The meaning of ‘service’ here is also something I had not been used to in Korea. I have no doubt that Korea provides one of the greatest services known to people.

Greeting customers at the entrance of a shopping mall - a very common and 'normal' sight in Korea.

Greeting customers at the entrance of a shopping mall – a very common and ‘normal’ sight in Korea.

The customers are king and queen, and people working in this industry will go to great lengths to make you feel like one, from using the formal form of speech to anything that is remotely related to you (your phone, your meal, etc, which is, technically and grammatically incorrect), to kneeling when taking your meal order. The constant smile and the bow that comes naturally are all ‘qualities’ that are referred to as ‘good service’. But that is all it is, a ‘service’. Something you pay for and something they are paid to deliver. The distinct line that separates the receiver and the provider. Your world and theirs.

The truth behind the smiling faces.

The truth behind the smiling faces.

And as you get used to it in Korea, the line, albeit invisible, allows you to disregard the things these people say if you think they’re outside of the realm of the service they provide. Perhaps you don’t purposely ignore them and fail to see them as individuals who have the same feelings and rights as you do. Nevertheless, that is how things naturally happen. It is only once you step outside of Korea that you realize it’s actually a ‘person’ that takes your order and that helps you create your brand new bank account, and not a robot repeating the same lines to every single other customer. I’m sure that not every single person in the service industry in Boston is always in a happy place. But at least, I feel here that I’m not addressing Mr. Banker-at-your-service, or Miss Salesperson-at-your-service, but rather John or Ingrid, Individual, Person, Human Being. (I am not setting up a stereotype of Banker=man and Salesperson=woman. John actually helped me set up my bank account at BoA and I bought my phone from Ingrid at Verizon.)

And apparently, seeing them as such is not easy, or something that comes naturally, since my sister warned me that I completely ignored a couple of times when some people (waiters, among others) asked me how everything was, which I have absolutely no recollection of (obviously, since if I had heard them, I would have, of course, answered them). I don’t know if this ‘faked feeling of equality’ in Boston is better than the plain division ‘customer/employee’ in Seoul, but it just feels more right… doesn’t it?

PS: Obviously, Boston is not a perfect place either, and I’ll probably rant at some point during the five years here (how public transportation is amazingly slow or how meals have crazily huge portions), but so far so good. 

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