If that’s the office coffeemaker, I guess this must be KoreaWhether you’re hunkered down in Podunk, Iowa, or Pohang, Korea, an office setting would seem to be a sterile world, not much different from one country to another. Cubicles, fax machines and water coolers: same thing, different time zone, right?
Guess again. Bear in mind that most people in Korea eat, drink, socialize, sleep, work, eat again ― and brush their teeth ― at work for half their day. I may not be the most sensitive person, but even I can’t help but start to notice stuff that’s, well, different.
Take tooth brushing. Some of my co-workers brush their pearly whites to a polish a good two, three times a day. Some tuck the implement away in a drawer, alongside the name cards and Xylitol gum canisters, but others keep them handy, standing upright in their pen-and-pencil can, or in tiny hallway lockers located en route to the john.
Have you noticed the guys in slippers? In my hometown of New York, the secretaries wore white sneakers on their commute to the Daily News building, then slipped on high heels. At the JoongAng Daily, the order is flipped around: guys strut into work in polished dress shoes, then slide on a pair of comfortable slippers at the office. Certain personnel even have shoe locker privileges.
“It’s more convenient,” one middle-aged Korean colleague told me, adding that the open-backed slippers let his feet breathe better, especially in summer.
As long as everyone maintains good foot hygiene, I have no qualms about slippers. The same goes for the brushing; icy-mint breath beats fermented cabbage breath any day of the week.
Now, with 48 million Koreans in a Kentucky-sized land area, space is at a premium on the peninsula. You may grumble at taking out a second mortgage for cup of coffee, but oh, the spacious table you get!
This dearth of privacy applies to our office airwaves as well. Have you noticed that 99 out of 100 personal phone calls come in on mobiles? It’s not your average bbbbrrring either. We’re talking the theme to “Dr. Zhivago,” classical music and Europop. The diligent types program their gizmos to distinguish who’s calling by the melody. “I don’t have to look at a caller ID, I just listen to their song,” one co-worker explained to me cheerfully. In a small, cubicle-less room, this adds up to a virtual cacophony of electronic tunes. But hey, I’m no party pooper; I’ll admit to tapping my fingers to the beat now and then. Strangely, the cell phone ruckus is an exception, as rowdy outbursts are generally frowned upon at the Korean office; noise levels in the newsroom are usually on par with those at a library. “You’re supposed to hunker down and work, and not talk,” is how one co-worker put it.
Speaking of coffee, have you noticed the size of a cup of joe? While grunts at the Daily News fueled up on 16-ounce (473-milliliter) cups of the black liquid, here you get maybe an ounce from a boxy unit called Tea Time. The kiddie cup does provide a great excuse for additional “coffee breaks,” though, since it takes 16 trips to equal one New York-sized beverage break.
Ahem, on a more serious note, have you noticed the Confucian influence in your workplace? The guys, they retreat to a dark, smoky den to crack jokes and play a round of janggi, a type of board game, under the din of a TV. Women have their “Female Reporters Rest Place,” filled with expansive sofas, a blanket or two and a bank of lockers, presumably for toothbrushes.
The more you look, the more questions you have. Why does our third-floor landing have an enormous mirror? Is it for showing off your pearly whites? And how come so many staff have orchids on their desks?
Scratch beneath the surface of Korea’s staid office settings and you’ll find differences. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to pick up a toothbrush.
by Joel Levin