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How Koreans Who Are Merely Acquaintaces Quarrel

[Image description: A square is split into two parts, a blue part and a red part. Both have a black circle at the centre. In the blue square, a line of white footsteps walks right through the centre of the black circle, on to the other side of the square. In the red square, a line of white footsteps is seen carefully treading around the circle while making its way to the other side.  Image source: Laurent Haug]

In a nutshell: by text-message, in politely arranged words, and over weeks, without every calling each other rude names and making sure they do not offend the other person.

I recently had a ‘quarrel’ with a Korean acquaintance whom I worked with two years ago. We keep in touch a couple of times a year by text, but have never met since. Let’s call this friend A.

A asked me to translate a couple of documents for him. I said yes, and obviously I thought I was going to be paid, since he knows I work as a translator. It didn’t even cross my mind I needed to state it (which was unprofessional of me, I realize now. Won’t make this mistake again). When I finished the job, I sent him my bank info, with my usual quota listing. He was startled, and said “Oh, I didn’t know this was a paid job. I’m really broke these days and in debt. I’ll pay you next time”. I texted back “Oh okay, I’m having a tough time paying my student loans too.”

A few days passed by, and it really bothered me that he had not even considered paying me – taking my work for granted – I found  that very rude. So I carefully wrote, “I’m sorry I did not tell you outright it was a paid job. But since I had told you some time ago that I’m working as a translator now, I thought you knew it would have to be paid. I did work for you, and I think it is wrong of you to think of my work as free”.

He replied “I thought friends help each other out. And since you’re talking about owing money, I bought you several lunches because I thought we were friends”.

I don’t like to fight with others. It’s just not a nice thing to do, and if it isn’t anything serious I’ll just let it slide. But if it’s work-related, it’s different.

So, I said “I’m sorry I forgot about you buying me so many lunches. I really don’t remember about that because I was really busy when we were working on that project together” “But if it was that much money, why did you not ask me to pay half? Why did you insist on buying the lunches? You know I’m okay with going Dutch.”

“Because we are friends. And friends don’t act petty like that”

That’s when I realized we had completely different sets of values, and different ways of thinking. It wasn’t about me or him doing something wrong, it was just that we viewed things differently.

I think, on principle, that people should go Dutch when they eat together. Because you ate, and I ate too. So we pay half. If for some reason I don’t have enough money, maybe I can borrow from you, but it’s my duty to pay you back.

But I’ve also been living in Korea. So sometimes I let people buy me food, and sometimes I buy them, usually one for one. (Or I buy lunch, and you buy coffee. Which works out because coffee costs as much as a meal here, or more) And if I buy someone a meal, I usually forget about it, because I don’t like to keep counting all those small things. What you give, you give. It’s done.

Then I remembered this story from a Korean friend of mine from high school. She’s working as a graphic designer these days, and when she was in university people she knew from lectures or student clubs would ask her to ‘help’ them with designs – posters, pamphlets, and such things. Everybody expected it to be free. Even she did.

I went to see her one day, and she said “I’m really sorry, I can’t stay for coffee, because this poster design needs to some minor alterations! Last-minute change, really”. I said: “But you aren’t even getting paid for this job. Why are you letting them boss you around like this, telling you to change the design one hour before the printing?”. She replied: “But they’re poor students, and I sort of know them from this course I’m taking”. “But they’re not your friends, it’s none of your problem! You should have asked them to pay you, you did a good, professional-looking job! You’re a poor student too, you know!”.

Then she said: “Wow, sometimes I remember, you really used to live abroad. That’s not the Korean way of doing things” (we’ve known each other for years).

When I talked about this argument I had with A, most of my friends said “Wow, he expected you to do it for free? I mean, you should have told him to pay up front, but how did he not expect to pay at all for professional work?”. Most of my friends have lived abroad, so their replies are not typically Korean, though.

Anyway, I kind of let this slide (because honestly I could not for the life of me remember how many lunches he had really bought me), and I agreed with A that we just had personal differences, and we agreed to stay friends. I’m relieved he didn’t get all angry and start yelling at me over the phone though, because he’s 5 years older than me, and in Korea that would give him the right for him to yell at me, regardless of the circumstances. Or that’s what I’ve been told.

This entry was posted in: People


Internationally lost since 2000, Emily was born in Seoul, raised in India, and has been living and studying in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands since 2014. A translator and interpreter by profession, she enjoys talking and debating just about anything.

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