Ask The Globe Trotter
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Okay, so I know you are culturally sensitive — can you please tell me if this is offensive:
I went to work today, and my phone somehow changed to another language-it looks to me like writing in either Japanese or Korean. I called my computer help-desk to inform them of this, and and explain what happened. When she asked me to decipher the language on the screen, I said “It looks Korean or Japanese.” The person on the end of the line got very upset with me, saying, ”I wish you wouldn’t say that,” telling me and my colleague we were being very offensive.
I later found out she was Korean.
I honestly don’t see anywhere that I am wrong, I have studied other Asian languages but not necessarily Korean of Japanese, but still I know what those languages look like and made an educated guess. I wanted to express that my language settings changed not that the computer was suddenly spitting out weird or funny language. The phone was also made in Korea, I’m not sure what else I was supposed to assume. I really want to fix this situation, and figure out what I did wrong.
I am culturally sensitive, I swear !
Can you please shed some light on this situation?
Culturally Tongue Tied
Wow. You have an interesting situation on your hands. Living in the West, and being able to deal with so many people and cultures creates such a robust and dynamic society. At the same time, we all carry strong roots and histories of where we come from, and this can become challenging to navigate because it’s so nuanced. Sounds like your phone reverted back to its default settings (especially if its an old, plug in the wall phone) and it could easily be in Mandarin, Cantonese or Korean. So you were in the right region–but your colleague may have her reasons for getting a little peeved.
Much like the belief that ‘Africa is a country’ heralded by many western school children and foreign aid organizations, there is a tendency to lump all of Asia together. Now I’m not saying you do this, but many people cannot tell India, from China on a blind map. Perhaps this says something about the state of our geographic education, or the state of non-chalence in facts (as we witnessed in the Kony case). The USA is so big we often don’t know our own country— as I think back to a colleague of mine who once claimed there were 52 states. (Hawaii and Mexico). Needless to say, it was a teachable moment.
But I digress, In the States, we assume that foreigners wont understand the exact location of Alabama or Rhode Island, so we say “I’m from America.” I would often hear a joke from Costa Ricans in San Jose, who would say “I’m from a America too!”
As North Americans we tend to think we’re the only Americas out there.
Perhaps your colleague felt that you lumped the countries together. Or perhaps, it stems from the deep history and foreign policy that Japan has had with Korea over thousands of years. Only in the last hundred years did Korea free itself from Japanese imperialist rule. And the history of abductions and Japan-ization is something that Korea has tried to move past over decades, but the healing process is long.
The situation is so tense and complex, there are islands known as the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japan) that the two nations still argue over, trying to determine whether it belongs to one country or the other. (Fishing and gas deposits in the area could also have something to do with the claim for resources.)
Despite diplomatic talks, there is still a subtle tension between Japan and Korea. However, “soft power” influences, such as Korean Pop Music and Japanese fashion, have infiltrated popular culture throughout Asia, diffusing the tension in some ways. We are seeing a “Korean Craze” right across Asia that celebrates Korean music, fashion, and dance and boy bands. (Check out Super Junior, or the Wondergirls).
Both cultures, are rich and unique. Your colleague may have felt upset that you suggested Korea and Japan were interchangeable in their language, even if that wasn’t your intention. Now there are a NUMBER of similarities between Korean and Japanese language, for example the words for ”appreciation” “relationship” and “promise” are very similar. So you weren’t wrong necessarily, but perhaps it just seemed too general for your colleague.
Here is my recommendation: Approach your colleague and explain that you did not mean to generalize, but you were just so frustrated with the phone and needed it fixed. Ask her about her family life, and her own visits to Korea to learn more about where she is coming from. Tell her that you done some research on the subject and would like to know more. And perhaps, once you smooth things over by communicating openly, you can bring her something from your own culture, whether its canoli or Irish soda bread. But make the effort, and diffuse the tension. We all have moments that “hit a cultural nerve” even if the moment was not intended to offend.
The main takeaway from this is that there are so many unique and interesting cultures, its hard to get to know them all well. If the opportunity presents itself, make the most of the opportunity and embrace a new cultural understanding.