A South Korean professor is researching a book that will examine the differences among Asian social customs.

Min Byoung-chul, a professor at Konkuk University, was recently having lunch with some Chinese students. This time, it was the teacher who was taking notes.

The students were citing differences between Chinese and South Korean culture. Why, they asked, do Koreans look at them strangely when they lift their rice bowls to eat, or smoke in front of the elderly?

And why do Korean teachers get insulted when they hand in their papers using one hand instead of two? And hasn’t anyone told teachers that students from China would never bow like their Korean counterparts?

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Japanese students voiced similar differences with Koreans. Why, for example, do South Koreans talk loudly on their cellphones in trains and buses, a practice that’s a social taboo back home?

Min has made an avocation out of cataloging such differences. He’s a cross-cultural interpreter whose terrain is the delicate, often undefined line where cultural mannerisms clash.

Over the years, the 59-year-old educator and his team of researchers have queried people at airports, coffeehouses and classrooms in the U.S. and Asia about cultural faux pas committed by visiting foreigners.

Min has written three guides that, country by country, highlight the differences between American culture and the social customs in South Korea, China and Japan. He is researching a new book that will examine the differences among Asian cultures.

The time has come for such a book, he says, because the improved political and economic climate throughout northeast Asia has translated into more regional tourism and business travel.

South Koreans need to be ready, Min says.

“South Korea is becoming more diverse with more interracial marriages,” he said. “All cultures have their differences. And if Koreans can’t grasp those differences, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

In 1993, Min published “Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans,” examining customs that are often lost in translation across the Pacific Ocean. He co-wrote follow-ups, “Ugly Japanese, Ugly Americans” and “Ugly Chinese, Ugly Americans,” which further detail clashes between East and West.

His research, which has included studying and teaching in the U.S. and offering English-language classes on South Korean TV and radio, led Min to conclude that the language barrier is but one hurdle between cultures.

“A 70-year-old Korean man once reached over to rub my inner thigh as we talked in my office,” he said. “His gesture was meant to show, ‘I know you. I’m friendly. I’ve seen you on TV.’

“But I explained that as South Korea becomes more globalized, foreign visitors won’t understand. I advised him to stop doing that.”

The 2002 World Cup and the influx of English-language teachers here have brought more Westerners to South Korea, introducing additional opportunities for tension.


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