First Encounters—The Challenge of Culture

Yongju Lee had been in the United States less than 24 hours on his new job assignment and he was already feeling alienated and wanting to return home. It wasn't the lack of familiar food, or the new work environment, or the absence of a set schedule. He was amazed that in such a short amount of time, multiple people had already treated him with a complete lack of respect for his experience, ideas, and background. In familiar Korea he had been treated respectfully. In the United States, everyone was so informal, and he couldn't figure out how to fit in.

Yongju arrived on a Sunday evening in a medium-sized, midwestern town after 22 hours of traveling. After the chaos of immigration and customs, he was ready to relax on the drive from the airport. As he walked into the receiving area of the airport, he scanned the name placards people were holding up. Not seeing his name, he looked more carefully but still didn't see his name. After waiting 45 minutes for his driver, he tried calling the administrative assistant. She did not answer, even though he had received a letter from her saying, "If you have any questions, please feel free to call."

Not knowing what else to do, he joined several other people milling around in front of the kiosk labeled "information" to get some help. When Yongju finally got to the counter, the attendant was on the phone and just pointed her index finger in his direction without saying anything. She finished her phone conversation, but before Yongju could ask for help, another man jumped in front of him to ask where the nearest restroom was. When Yongju finally had the attendant's attention, he asked for directions to his hotel. She said she hadn't heard of that hotel.

Now really flustered, he wandered outside the airport terminal. It was at this point that he happened to see an airport shuttle with his hotel's name on the side. Hoping this would be the end of his troubles, he pulled his bag over to the shuttle. Since there wasn't anyone there to take it, Yongju dragged his heavy bag up the shuttle steps. Yongju was surprised that the driver didn't offer to help or to even welcome him. Instead, he just remained sitting. Yongju hefted his bag into the compartment above an empty seat and sat down. As he relaxed on the ride into the city, he looked forward to meeting his colleagues, who would surely be waiting for him at the hotel. No one was waiting in the lobby when he checked in. He did, however, receive a message from the administrative assistant saying he would be having "dinner on his own" that night.

In the morning, he ate a continental breakfast alone in the hotel lobby. Guessing there wouldn't be a car to take him to the office, he hailed a cab and found his way to the office. He was encouraged when a sharply dressed young man greeted him in the lobby and rode the elevator up to his floor. Unfortunately, Yongju's cubicle was not ready, so he was placed in a conference room. The young man told him orientation would begin soon and that he should just wait. After waiting for an hour, a group walked in for a scheduled meeting. Yongju found his way across the hall to an empty conference room. His visit had been planned for months, yet his arrival seemed like a complete surprise.

In his first team meeting that afternoon, he was introduced to all the members of the marketing team, and then, in turn, they quickly introduced themselves and jumped right into the day's business. That was when Yongju became angry. He was a senior marketing professional on a six-month assignment from the Asian manufacturing division, and these people were talking about the Asian market like he was not even in the room. He sat in silence, politely waiting to be invited into the conversation. The invitation never came. As the meeting broke up, several members of the team greeted Mr. Lee. They talked loudly and slowly as if he could not understand English, then promised to have lunch with him during his stay. No one asked for his opinion or offered to involve him in their part of the project, so he returned to the temporary "office" with nothing to do. This was going to be a long six months, he thought.

Meanwhile, in another part of the company, Candace Hayes and Jim Thorton from the U.S. headquarters were arriving in Korea to spend six months in the Asian manufacturing division. Along with Yongju Lee, they were part of a high-priority and expensive company-wide exchange program. This strategy had been developed to create better relationships and to reduce the significant miscommunication and errors the company was experiencing between the various regions of the world. Candace, a product development director, and Jim, one of her team members, had been preparing for the stint abroad by learning about Korean food and geography. They even got some language instruction and were prepared to accept business cards and gifts with both hands. But when they got off the plane, the culture hit them in the face. Thinking they would have the day to rest and prepare to make a good first impression, they planned to take a taxi to their hotel and rest for the next day. But to their surprise, they were greeted at the airport by a young woman who identified herself as the "host" and administrative assistant for the department where they would be working.

"Ms. Hayes, Mr. Thorton," said the host. "Welcome to Korea."

"Please, feel free to call me Candace."

"And I'm Jim."

"Yes, Ms. Hayes, Mr. Thorton," said the host.

The host escorted Candace and Jim to a luxury car where they and a company driver set off for the hotel. Somewhere in the polite conversation along the way, it became clear that it was the host's "duty" to deliver Jim to a restaurant in the downtown area where there was to be a gathering of peers and colleagues. They stopped at the hotel and dropped off Jim's luggage. Candace, who was Jim's supervisor, was escorted to her room by the host, and Jim was whisked away by the driver, who did not speak English.

Bleary-eyed from the long flight and unshaven, Jim stumbled from the car. He was ushered into a private room at the restaurant where he received greetings from ten or twelve men. He knew some of their names from working with them previously over email. He was then placed in the "seat of honor." This is when he was surprised to learn that all of these people were there for him. After a long dinner, with food that "was never meant for a stomach like his" and too many drinks, the team produced a karaoke machine. After a few songs, Jim was invited to sing.

"I'll make a fool of myself," he told the only other westerner in the room.

"That's the point," said the more culturally experienced expat.

The next day, Jim received an early-morning call from Candace. She wanted to be on time for their first day in the new office. She had requested that the driver pick them up at 7:30 a.m. Jim was there, even though his head was aching from the previous night's "festivities." The host met them in the lobby of the hotel dressed just as freshly as she had been the day before.

"Good morning Ms. Hayes, Mr. Thorton," said the young lady.

"Please call me Candace," said Candace again.

"Yes, Ms. Hayes," said the host. It was clear she was not going to make any progress breaking down barriers with this young woman.

When they reached the manufacturing plant, there were offices for both Candace and Jim, well prepared with supplies. There was coffee instead of tea, and even flowers provided by the host. It was noticeable, however, that Jim's drinking companions were not there. They did not come into work until mid-morning, just in time to go to lunch with both Candace and Jim.

By late afternoon, it finally seemed there was some momentum and productivity in the office. Candace and Jim attended separate meetings according to their responsibilities. Even with his energy dwindling, Jim fully participated in a critique of the current marketing effort. In fact, it seemed to Jim he was the only one being critical because the rest of the team sat silent as he tried to improve on the concept.

Thinking they would go back to the hotel around 5:00, Candace and Jim tried to keep busy while waiting for their host, but she did not arrive until 7:00 p.m. The office was still buzzing.

"Don't these people have families?" thought Candace.

Their colleagues took Jim out again that night for food, bad drink, and karaoke. He returned to the hotel just before midnight.

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