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Culture clash in South Korea starts with a bang

The ruckus started with the bowling ball incident.

Several months ago, somebody tossed a 16-pound ball from a 12th-floor window at the World Meridien apartments here, a projectile that residents complained could have crushed any unlucky person standing below.

And thus began a social tug of war between some Korean and American residents in this quaint town of 90,000 an hour’s drive north of Seoul.

Thanks to a U.S. military housing policy introduced in February, 1,000 service families moved to off-base housing nationwide, often next door to Korean families.

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More than 4,000 Americans converged on Dongducheon, home to the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. In some cases, the foreign newcomers made up nearly half an apartment complex’s population.

What followed was a clash of cultures, with complaints about rambunctious American dogs on the one side, and frosty Koreans on the other.

Dongducheon Mayor Oh Se-chang consulted with U.S. military officials before finally proposing a unique solution: In regular social gatherings, the two sides hold cultural exchanges and talk out their differences, an exercise in international relations on a neighborhood scale.

Recently, about 400 Dongducheon residents near Camp Casey, the main military base here, gathered around long tables Oktoberfest-style. Drinking beer and Korean makgeolli, a rice wine, they belted out verses of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as well as a Korean ballad about loneliness, “Firefly.”

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“People talked about their cultural differences and how to resolve issues,” Oh said.

World Meridien neighbors have come a long way since the bowling ball incident.

“I saw what looked like shattered pieces of a bowling ball spread out on the pavement,” complex worker Kim Han-jin said. “An American couple was having a domestic dispute, and the husband threw out the bowling ball. He later apologized to his neighbors.”

The summer became a not-so-neighborly standoff. Park Seung-hye recalled her frustration over the large American-owned dogs that suddenly invaded her apartment complex, running around off-leash and scaring children.

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“The dogs aren’t small puppies. They’re huge and inappropriate to breed in an apartment setting,” the 31-year-old mother of two said. “Many of the soldiers didn’t clean up after their pets. Dog dung was everywhere.”

Loud parties were another concern. Many Americans threw outdoor barbecues late into the night. “It felt like an English village gone bad,” said Kim Sun-mi, referring to English-speaking communities where Koreans learn about Western culture.

The newcomers were no happier. “Just because I’m an American, I felt that I was being watched to see if I cleaned after my dog,” Spc. Robert Payne said. “The language barrier made things difficult because a lot of Koreans look so serious all the time and I wanted to be friendly.”

Rachel Galloway was miffed that apartment notices about planned power outages or water shutoffs were never posted in English. “I was doing some laundry and there was suddenly a blackout,” the 24-year-old homemaker said. “Another time I was taking a shower and the hot water stopped. It was in the middle of winter.”

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Mayor Oh had his hands full. “It’s customary for the military police to get involved if there’s trouble between soldiers and civilians,” he said. “But this was a conflict between two different cultures, and the solution was to talk about it.”

Many doubted that anyone would show up at the mixer, but Dongducheon officials persisted. Both sides finally warmed to the idea, realizing that the issue wasn’t so much about being American or Korean, but being good neighbors.

Now, regular events are planned. At World Meridien, announcements are now made in English and Korean, and street cleaners say dog feces aren’t a problem anymore.

That development encourages dog owner Payne.

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“Change won’t happen overnight, but it’s a good start,” he said. “I enjoy living with my new neighbors. I learn a lot about South Korea, really get to know the country.”

Kim works in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.


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