Like everyone else, Chris Kim is used to getting telephone solicitations.
"But normally they're in English, not Korean," said Kim, a 21-year-old Ellicott City resident.
Korean-Americans living in the Baltimore region have occasionally received foreign-language phone solicitations, mainly from Korean companies. But since April 15, when Verizon kicked off a 10 cents-a-minute plan to Korea, local Korean-Americans have been receiving a steady stream of phone solicitations and mail from the phone company.
Verizon runs similar campaigns in big cities with large Korean populations, such as New York and Los Angeles. But the telephone company never considered Baltimore for a similar program until it concluded a company study that showed there are nearly 60,000 Korean speakers living in the area. Company studies also show that a foreign-language speaker spends 18 percent more on phone calls than an English-speaking caller.
"Customers are struck by the fact we can speak Korean, and we hope that builds a good relationship with them," said Ed Miller, executive director for multicultural marketing for Verizon.
While local Korean-Americans say they are cheered by the fact that they are considered an economic force - and consider Verizon's effort a sign that Korean-Americans are establishing themselves in Baltimore - they are ambivalent about getting more unwanted phone calls.
"This counts as a big deal, but it's annoying. You can't complete your dinner without a phone call, even if it is in Korean," said Jai P. Ryu, a sociology professor at Loyola College.
Phone companies have long courted Spanish-speaking customers, but corporations are increasingly targeting other immigrant groups, experts say. Sears, Roebuck and Co. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. have begun Korean-language marketing, and many companies in the St. Paul, Minn., region are running ads in Vietnamese.
"This is an emerging market," said Tim Searcy, executive director of the American Teleservices Association, a trade group based in Washington.
Verizon research showed that a "significant" number of Baltimore residents were making calls to Korea, although company officials declined to divulge details.
The Korean-born population in the Maryland-Washington, D.C., area also grew to about 32,000, according to the 2000 U.S. census, and many are recent immigrants who have strong ties to their native land and call friends or relatives there frequently.
"Calling Korea is an important part of your daily life," reads a recent Verizon flier.
But marketing to Korean-Americans isn't easy. Verizon uses caller lists, first and last names and area of residence in what is essentially an attempt to guess who is Korean. That means people who live in areas with large Korean populations, such as Ellicott City, have a greater chance of being called.
"It's more art than science," acknowledged Miller.
Jennifer Lee was startled when she picked up the phone recently and heard someone speaking Korean. The only words Lee understood were "Verizon" and "10 cents a minute" before she hung up.
"I'm Chinese," said the Ellicott City resident.
`Increased our base'
Despite the occasional glitches, the marketing campaign appears to be working, Miller said.
Verizon has increased its customer base by 3 percent to 4 percent since April, a rise the company attributes in part to its telemarketing efforts to the Korean community, he said.
"It's absolutely increased our base," he said.
Telemarketing to Koreans may be particularly effective because of cultural norms, some say. It's considered rude in Korean culture to hang up abruptly. Furthermore, many Korean-Americans are not on big telemarketing lists and get relatively few phone calls, so "there is still a curiosity and a respect within the immigrant communities," Searcy said.
Many Korean-Americans are also linguistically isolated, meaning that they cannot communicate effectively in English, according to the census. About 5,000 Asian households in Maryland, about 27 percent, are linguistically isolated. By contrast, only 18 percent of Spanish-speaking households in the state are similarly isolated, according to the census.
Telemarketing "is very attractive to first-generation Koreans. ... If my parents get a call, then they would probably listen to what the people would have to say," said Gloria Park, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I had to give them a pep talk about not taking those calls."
Some Korean-Americans are taking more active steps to cut down on unwanted calls. "I don't like getting the calls because you find yourself being rude to the callers, which in turn makes you feel bad," said Ryu, the Loyola professor.
So Ryu resorted to a weapon of choice favored by many of his fellow Americans to cut back on telemarketers: He recently bought caller ID.
"But some calls still get through," he said.