Korean Coffee Culture: Lost In Communication

Given the major cultural differences between North and South, will Korean unification be a smooth process?
November 12th, 2012
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Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, Damien D. asks:

Political ideologies aside, do you think that Korean unification would be a smooth process, given the differences in lifestyle, wealth and dress sense between the North and South?

Without a doubt, one of the biggest issues for North Koreans is going to be in communicating with South Koreans after unification. You see, I never learnt English back in North Korea and English plays a surprisingly big part in South Korea’s version of the Korean language.  In South Korea there are a lot of foreign words that appear on street signs, advertisements, product names, and even in some gramatical expressions. Those foreign words were a real headache for me and made it very hard for me to understand things at the start.

When I wanted to buy something it could be especially embarrassing. Coffee shops were especially problematic for me, where the server would ask me baffling questions like “Do you want hot or ice coffee? Do you want small or regular?” When they asked these kind of questions I just stood there blinking my eyes.  Visiting the coffee shop with South Korean friends was always difficult and I always made extra effort to hide my misunderstanding.  However, some coffee menus are especially difficult to pronounce – so I’d usually just step back and let them order first before saying, “I’ll order the same thing”.  But there came a point where I became so sick of not understanding the options that I decided to take a part-time job in a coffee shop. As a result, I became a master of the coffee menu in just a few months!

When my friend (also from North Korea) got a part-time job at the restaurant she had some similar problems. A customer asked for ice water which in South Korea sounds just like the English word , “aisu watu” (아이스워터). Because she didn’t know the English “Korean” word she told the customer that the restaurant didn’t have ice water, which made the customer complain to the manager about her…how could she not understand what ice water was!?

Another problem related to communicating will result from the different ways we refer to friends and family in North and South Korea. In North Korea, they call their older sister’s husband “Ajjussi” but South Koreans say “Hyungboo”. Also North Koreans call their older brother’s wife as “Hyungnim” but South Koreans call her “Saeunni”. These were so foreign to me. Also some sentences have totally different nuance. “Il Upseupnida”(The literal translation is “There is no work”) is used as a positive expression in North Korea, meaning “No problem”. But it has a negative nuance in South.

The food culture of the two Koreas is also very, very different. Beyond traditional Korean food, South Koreans also really enjoy western dishes, something we have almost no experience of in North Korea.  Because of my North Korean taste, I always had to make a deal about the restaurant we’d goto with my South Korean boyfriend before we went on dates. One time he brought me to a famous steak house where I tried for the first time “rare” steak.  I found the taste so strange that I had to drink tonnes of Coke to get rid of the flavor.  He tried to convince me that it was a famous steakhouse and that I should enjoy it, but I complained. I just thought, how could he bring me to such a horrible place?!

Another time a friend made fun of me because of how I was using my fork. Forks just aren’t common in North Korea. Even though he was only joking about it, I became really embarrassed. I ended up buying a fork in a shop and took it home so I could practice using it!

It’s been four years since I moved to South Korea and I still find the culture so different. So of course there will be difficulties when the Koreas unify. But despite the differences, we definitely have a lot in common as Koreans. We are all hot tempered but warm hearted people, we love spicy food, and we love kimchi.  I can definitely feel that despite the country being divided, we are the same people. So if we both try and understand each other and learn and appreciate our separate cultures, there won’t be problems after unification. However, when it does take place and North Koreans become fully introduced to South Korean culture, I think a lot of them will have the same kind of problems I have had since moving to the south.


Got A Question?

Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions.

Artwork by The Morning Skyrail

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About the Author

Jae Young Kim



Join the discussion

  • Mrtgd

    Most interesting insight.

  • http://twitter.com/Caaaal Callum

    If the two Koreas do unify, it would be interesting to see how long the two separate cultures would remain. Like after years of development in North Korea, would there not be as many foreign restaurants as the south, would people still not use korean english words there etc.

  • Purunhanul

    Well, it took South Korea at least 30 years since it started its journey of economic development in the early 1960s before it began accepting English words so openly. There were times in South Korea when the government encouraged, and many businesses willingly went along with, the use of Korean only in street signs for businesses and ads. It is not entirely inconceivable that with the help (?) of South Koreans, North Korean public might take less than 30 years before accepting English words (in most cases not so much North Koreans would love to do it, but because many South Korean businesses would take those words to North as part of their products and services).

  • http://www.facebook.com/hanhwe.kim Hanhwe Kim

    This is a great story! But no need to worry about North Koreans being confused and disoriented too long. Back before Independence and during the Chosun era, North Korea was the hip and cool part of Korea. I am certain that once liberated, the people in North Korea will find their groove once again!

  • La grosse baleine

    I absolutely love this weekly segment!

  • Mick

    Reading the part of when she used to order the same thing then she decided to get a part-time job in a coffee shop and she knew all the stuff really quick was cute. Nice article.