Give the guy a little credit; just don’t ask me to repay it

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Give the guy a little credit; just don’t ask me to repay it

I’ve never met the previous tenants of my Seoul apartment, Park Jin-yong or Jang Sun-a, but I think of them often ― usually when the bill collectors arrive just after dawn or when the mailbox is jammed with overdue notices.

Sometimes I gaze at the only photograph I have of Ms. Jang, a speeding ticket, and wonder what we’d say if we met. The picture, taken earlier this month from an overpass in Pocheon, Gyeonggi province, shows a woman in a Burberry-style raincoat behind the wheel of a Daewoo Leganza. Her face is obscured by shadow. Her passenger, presumably Mr. Park, has been whited out by the police, lest he not be Mr. Park.

Ms. Jang also has two parking tickets, both issued at the Sunaedong Pantheon, which I’m told is an upscale shopping mall in Seongnam, Gyeonggi province. I’m comforted by the thought that she’s fashionably outfitted.

Of course, I already knew that from the Fendi, Lancome and Kiehl’s advertisements that arrive almost daily.

My wife, Cai Jing, and I moved into our Ichon-dong flat in August. The bill collectors started showing up a few days later. We initially thought they were door-to-door salesmen. But they had no wares and were reluctant to produce business cards. They refused to believe that Jing wasn’t Korean. Her speaking English didn’t dissuade them. Nor did queries in Chinese about their proficiency in Mandarin.

What made them pause were our invitations to enter the house. Bill collectors aren’t accustomed to being welcomed into homes. (Indeed, Korean law bars collection agents from making house calls without a court order.) From that point, we always offered cold water or hot tea, breakfast if we were eating breakfast, lunch if we were having lunch. The collectors fled.

But shortly afterward the repossession notices appeared. We knew they were important from the red chop marks, with dates and times dutifully recorded in any available white space.

Less than a month after landing in Seoul ― and days after our goods were hoisted off the freighter from New York ― Hanmi Bank was threatening to “forcibly auction” the furniture and appliances in our apartment. If we weren’t home, the bank’s notice read, Hanmi would summon the police, enter the apartment and clear it of saleable goods.

A co-worker phoned the bank to explain that Mr. Park and Ms. Jang had vacated the premises. Hanmi had heard that tale before.

Much to the chagrin of our neighbors ― though not to us since we can’t read hangul ― Jing and I began posting Hanmi Bank’s, the Industrial Bank of Korea’s and other creditors’ collection-by-force notices on our front door. Next to them, we taped copies of our lease and our freshly minted alien registration cards.

The bill collectors were undeterred.

The doorbell rang the next Saturday morning and I found myself confronted by three large men. They wanted Mr. Park. Urgently.

Standing in my cotton briefs, the elastic a bit too worn at the lower extremities, I let loose with a tirade, gesturing at the lease and my I.D. card on the front door. “Is this Mr. Park? Do I look like Mr. Park?”

I demanded to see their I.D. cards. Dumfounded, they produced them. One man said they had worked for Mr. Park and wanted their back wages, although he couldn’t name the company or say what business Mr. Park was engaged in. He apologized, collected their I.D.s and left.

The bills continue to arrive.

I now take them to work, sealed in their envelopes, and hold them to my co-workers foreheads. They guess how much Mr. Park or Ms. Jang owes, and the person who’s closest to the amount gets a bag of tangerines. Most bills for Mr. Park are in the 4 to 5 million won range ($3,500-4,000); a bit less for Ms. Jang.

Recently, we delivered the speeding and parking tickets, along with a plastic bag filled with bills, to our local police precinct. They told us to toss them out.

Then, a “credit expert” from Softbank Media in Seoul rang our doorbell. Lee Yong-woo showed more interest than the police and carefully leafed through the bills, occasionally shaking his head and uttering “tsk-tsk-tsk” while making notes.

Last week, he sent us an e-mail message saying he had tracked Mr. Park to Seongnam and discovered where he was living. “For your help, I need not worry so much anymore,” Mr. Lee wrote.

Hopefully, we won’t either.

by Hal Lipper

“At Home Abroad...Korea” is a monthly feature. We invite readers to share their experiences or suggest topics for articles. Please respond to
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