Fightin' words

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Fightin' words

There is an old Korean saying that goes, "When your cousin buys a piece of land, you'll get a stomachache."

Many Koreans have found echoes of that envy-laden proverb in "Wang Xiao-ling's Korea Report," and a controversial book written by an author from a neighboring nation that many residents of the peninsula consider to be as close as, well, a cousin.

Wang Xiao-ling, 26, is a native of Sandong province in China. She majored in Korean studies at China's Sandong University and is currently getting a master's in the same field at Seoul's Kyunghee University. Her experiences with Korean people while studying and living in this country led her to write a book that compares Chinese and Korean cultures and explains how Chinese people often view Koreans.

That view is not always complimentary.

In her work, published in March by Seoul's Garam Books, Ms. Wang speaks of a general attitude that Koreans have of looking down on Chinese. It's a trend, she says, that is due in part to Korea's economic success and is something that many Chinese, whether tourists or businessmen, including herself have experienced.

"When I go to markets such as Dongdaemun and mention that I am a Chinese from the mainland," she says, "I hear replies like 'This is probably too expensive for you people.'"

Ahn Seung-taek, 29, a Korean who has read the book, dismisses Ms. Wang's theories as simple jealousy.

"Chinese people cannot accept the fact that a little country that used to be their vassal state is now wealthier than their homeland. It's a typical legacy left by the middle kingdom ideology. Their pride is hurt."

Mr. Ahn says that the book itself lacks objectiveness since Ms. Wang view's is tainted by that middle kingdom ideology that has been drilled into Chinese minds for ages. "Out of fairness to her, I would say that her book is a good indicator of how the average Chinese people think of Korean people. She is a college student, so to speak, one of the 'elite.' If that is her view, it is easy to see how other Chinese would think of us." Nevertheless, Mr. Ahn adds that Ms. Wang is trying to paint Korean society by just picking a couple of bad apples. His fondness for Korea's neighbor has greatly diminished since early in the World Cup when Chinese fans questioned the playing ability of the Korean national soccer team.

In her book, Ms. Wang mentions the hurry-up attitude and do-it-yesterday mentality of Koreans that may get things done quickly but in many cases, according to her, leads to trouble as well. "Korean people make fun of the Chinese 'slowness.' But in fact we are just cautious. When you think about the collapse of the Seongsu bridge and Sampoong Department Store I think that Koreans need to take a step back and 'plan' things more systematically before hurling themselves into a job."

Conversely, Mr. Ahn stresses that this relentless drive to succeed has been the cornerstone of Korea's economic success. "Accidents happen to everyone. When Korean people set a target, we put all our energy into getting there. Day and night. It is this do-it-all attitude that has earned us a reputation that enables us to do a lot of construction business in Middle East countries such as Saudi Arabia."

"I was surprised at the reaction Koreans had to my book," says Ms. Wang. She has received nasty telephone calls and a Korean Web site rips her and her book.

"I wrote this to make people understand what makes us mad and what many Chinese people think about Korea." Pausing, she then adds, "The only thing I regret is that I did not write some positive aspects, because there are many as well. But then again, there is no point in writing a pat-on-the-shoulder story."

The controversy regarding this book serves as a good mirror of the complex relationship between these two "So close and yet so far" countries.

Both nations share a long relationship, for Korea used to be regarded as one of the vassal states of the "great middle kingdom." Ms. Wang says that it may be that this notion has not changed Korea's image much in many Chinese people's eyes although the country itself has been hailed as one of the Asian tigers. "If you go to the southern or western parts of the country, people still think that Korea is just a small satellite country of China," says Ms. Wang.

When the countries began official diplomatic relations in 1992, many Korean businessmen scrambled to China to grab their share of what is a huge potential market with billions of customers. Ms. Wang says that many Korean businessmen started off on the wrong foot with their Chinese employees, trying to enforce Korean business cultures. The graduate student says that their mistake is that they wrongly assumed that Korea and China shared a similar cultural background. "Chinese people do not hold annual memorial services for dead ancestors and college students do not bow to college professors," she says. "People do not show their respect to older people or seniors at organizations by bowing." It is true that Confucious has had a major influence in Asia but according to the writer, China has undergone many changes -- from its Cultural Revolution to the communism that has ruled the country for the last 52 years.

"For years, China's local press has reported incidents in which Korean business owners tried to force their employees to adopt Korean business cultures such as bowing," says Ms. Wang. "Some Korean businessmen punished their employees who did not want to bow by making them get on their knees." The author points out that unlike Korean conglomerates that are more sensitive to the localization process of their entities, many small and medium Korean businesses in China are busy concentrating their efforts solely making money that they forget that their company business image might project that of Korea.

In her book Ms. Wang says that Korea's image is tarnished by the spending frenzy of its people. Because living costs are relatively cheap in China, Ms. Wang says that Koreans, whether businessmen or students in China, always seem to be "throwing their money around." In the eyes of the Chinese, this behavior is seen as acts of the "nouveau riche." Ms. Wang says that Chinese people have tremendous pride and damaging this pride is the fastest way to lose respect in China.

"I had one employee of a Korean company in China tell me that her Korean boss waved money to fan his face," says Ms. Wang in a dismayed voice. She adds that many of the Korean students who study in China are easy to pick out of the crowd for their don't-worry-about-money attitude. According to Ms. Wang, these students do not hesitate to leave a campus and eat in expensive restaurants, while their clothing always seems to reflect the latest trend. In addition, she says that instead of studying, many Korean students seem eager to take every occasion to drink.

The Korean company LG Chemical runs its own factory in China and operates a training program for its 20 to 30 Chinese employees each year, in addition to the standard company training. This class is solely dedicated to teaching recruits to understand Korean culture, economic climate and business practices.

Ahn Jong-chan, a human resources manager at LG Chemical, says that the training helps both sides. "As we ran our program, we found out that our Chinese employees were much more different from us than we initially thought. This program helps to remove potential mistakes by making one side better understand the other. Needless to say, we educate our own personnel who go to China."

Choi Sun-gyu, who teaches global business environment classes at Yonsei University's graduate school, emphasizes the importance of mutual understanding.

"Learning and understanding the cultures of the country in which one wants to do business is essential to succeed," he says.

"The bottom line is that in many failed cases, people committed errors right from the beginning, not even knowing they did. No matter how small the mistake, unknowingly you may have insulted the other side."

Nevertheless, despite the negative things that Ms. Wang said in her book and the reaction of readers like Mr. Ahn, there is one point upon which both agree.

"We don't know as much about the other side as we think we do and that is where our misunderstandings start," Ms. Wang says. "We should forget our past and start from square one. After all, it has been only 10 years since we have known each other."

by Brian Lee

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