Korean Merchants And Their Customers Have Culture Gap To Bridge Koreans Have Six Different "Politeness Levels." To Look A Person In The Eye Can Be Considered Presumptuous, A Smile Is Considered Insincere.

Posted: January 17, 1992

It's high noon on a Friday at the Reading Terminal Market. Among the crowded aisles at the O.K. Lee produce store, a puzzled man in a camel's-hair coat examines a cellophane-wrapped package of mushrooms and looks around for help.

"Are these black mushrooms?" he calls to the Korean woman at the cash register.

"Nagataki," replies the clerk, busy ringing up sales.

"Yes, but are these what you call black mushrooms?"

"Nagataki," the clerk replies again.

"My recipe says 'black mushrooms,' " the man tries to explain.

The clerk gestures to her customers as if to ask them, "Can you help this guy?" But the customers shrug, so the clerk shrugs, and finally the man in the camel's-hair coat shrugs, too.

The store may very well stock the mushrooms he's looking for. Maybe he's even holding the mushrooms he's looking for. But given the language barrier, who knows?

"I don't ask them anything," said a woman shopper observing this scene with men. "I've given up."

By "them," of course, she refers to an increasingly common urban American food shopping phenomenon. Korean immigrants poured into the United States in waves of 30,000 or more each year in the 1980s. Many of them gravitated to small entrepreneurial businesses like grocery stores. By utilizing such allegedly American virtues as hard work, thrift and good value, they're gradually replacing U.S.-born grocers. Today about 15,000 groceries in North America - including 1,800 in the Philadelphia area - are Korean-owned.

Korean grocers usually make the news only when some cultural misunderstanding between habitually reserved Korean shopkeepers and their habitually casual American customers produces violence. In West Philadelphia last year, a Korean-owned hoagie shop was firebombed after the owner's son fatally shot a black customer who he said was trying to rob him. In Los Angeles, a black boycott shut down a Korean-owned grocery after the owner fatally shot a black girl suspected of shoplifting. In Brooklyn last month, a gang of masked men rampaged through a Korean-owned grocery, injuring two employees - an angry reaction, apparently, to the store's perceived surly attitude toward its predominantly black customers.

But for most shoppers - to whom food is a matter of vital, intimate and continuing concern - the trouble with Korean-owned food markets is less dramatic but still frustrating. It's the absence of a warm and friendly face who can explain the difference between McIntosh and Delicious apples and can tell you which lettuce will go best with your Kirby cucumbers.

"I'd like to be able to say to them, 'Where are the better

grapefruits?' " laments a housewife I know. "But I haven't found anyone

I can talk to."

Another shopper friend goes a step further. "They understand you just fine," she claims. "They want you to think they can't. They use the language barrier to their advantage."

But all this conspiratorial "they" talk is misguided. What we have here is a genuine culture clash. In the status-conscious Korean culture, the language provides at least six different "politeness levels" to be used depending on the relative stature of the speaker and the listener. To look a customer in the eye is considered presumptuous; to smile at a customer is considered insincere. In short, the very behavior that Koreans regard as polite and respectful strikes Americans as cold and unfriendly.

Is there a solution to this impasse? I think so. Consider the case of Yang Soon Chang - or Susie, as she is known to customers of her Center City fruit and produce shop.

Susie was a registered nurse in South Korea who came to Philadelphia with her husband and two sons in 1973. For three years she worked the night shift at Rolling Hills Hospital. But the job allowed her no time for her children, so in 1976 she quit nursing and set up a produce stand at the corner of 18th and Chestnut. Here she worked even longer hours - but she saw more of her sons and her husband, because they worked with her.

By 1980 Susie had developed enough of a loyal clientele to take her business indoors, to a small shop just down 18th Street, where today she runs a thriving business with her husband and sons, now aged 31 and 26 - a business that, incidentally, has now been around longer than such Center City fixtures as the Four Seasons Hotel and the Port of History Museum.

In contrast to the widespread Korean-grocer stereotype, Susie knows many of her customers by name, smiles readily and converses easily in passable English. "I'm a little different," she acknowledges. "I know that."

What accounts for the difference? Primarily one thing: longevity. "When we first started, there were not many Korean grocers," Susie told me. "It was hard; I didn't know what to do. Now we (Koreans) can teach each other."

They're doing that already. When the nationwide Korean-American Grocers Association convened in Philadelphia last summer, the schedule included ''friendliness seminars." The first rule, explained the group's president, Yang Il Kim, "is very simple - smiling." For us native-born consumers - whose ancestors mastered the same painful assimilation process a few generations back - the first rule is very simple, too: patience.

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