[OBSERVER]High frustration in a low-trust countryKorea is a funny country. Actually, I quite like it. There is a lot to be said for a big city where a woman can go out safely at night, and where pretty girls in uniforms beckon cars into parking lots with fluttering fingers and dancing feet.
It still astonishes me that when a computer or household appliance goes down, a repairman comes to your apartment within 24 hours. And not only are his charges ridiculously modest, by the standards of my country, he doesn’t sneer at you for not being smart enough to figure out the problem yourself.
But this applies only when repairmen make house calls. When my laptop needed a new keyboard, I was told to bring it into the repair place, and the part would be ordered from America. It would take three weeks.
Couldn’t I just bring in the laptop when the keyboard arrived? No. They won’t order it until they have the laptop in the shop. Apparently the idea is to hold the laptop hostage in case I don’t show up to pay for the keyboard. Why can’t they hold my credit-card number hostage, as in every other country?
As they say, Korea is a low-trust society.
Consider how hard it is to pay bills here. Elsewhere, it is hard to avoid paying them. In Seoul, I often trudge from bank to bank, toting wads of cash, vainly seeking a bank that will accept my money.
Apparently, both my creditor and I have to have accounts in the same bank, or it’s no use. This is not always true; I can send money to my landlord in Daejeon. But paying the bills for gas, the newspaper, Internet access and cable TV is a real chore.
The bank where I keep my own account will accept payment for some of these bills, if the payee also has an account there. But the apartment maintenance can only be paid at one of two other banks, where the apartment management keeps accounts. But those banks won’t take my money, because I do not have accounts at those banks.
So if I can’t pay at my bank, and I can’t pay at the apartment’s bank, can I just squat until I get deported, hopefully a year from now?
“Why don’t you just open accounts at all those other banks?” Korean friends advise.
Because I don’t want half a dozen bank accounts to keep track of, that’s why. I’ve managed until now by playing the “ignorant foreigner card.” Since I am an ignorant foreigner, the banks usually yield in the end and take my money. But after several years, the “ignorant foreigner card” is losing its effectiveness. All the nearby banks know me. Unless I want to travel to Incheon or Uijeongbu to find banks where I am a stranger, I guess I shall have to give in and open accounts at all the banks where I have creditors.
By the way, if someone tries to tout Korea as a financial hub because it has more bank accounts per capita than any other OECD country, I wouldn’t be too impressed, if I were you.
Speaking of paying bills, here’s something funny. My wife and I have cell phones from the same phone service, but purchased at different times. Her bill is paid automatically by transfer from my bank account. But I can’t get the same service “because you are a foreigner.”
“My wife is a foreigner, too,” I point out.
“Then she can’t have her bill paid automatically either.”
“But she does. See? Here’s my bankbook with the transfers noted.”
“No, it is not possible, because she is a foreigner.”
I abandoned the argument, lest they take the logical next step and remove her from automatic bill paying.
If the fear is that a foreigner will skip the country leaving behind unpaid bills, wouldn’t it make sense to require all foreigners to have their bills automatically paid by monthly transfer?
Korean Air’s new policy on frequent-flyer tickets is a puzzler. It seems that the national flagship has taken up the burden of defending the sanctity of marriage and safeguarding the legitimacy of children. It seems an odd role for an airline, but here’s what happened.
I used mileage points to buy tickets for my son and his wife and their baby to fly roundtrip to Seoul from Japan. No problem. The tickets will be issued as soon as I produce documents proving my son’s marriage and the baby’s parentage.
“What business is it of Korean Air if my son and his wife are married or living in sin? And in either case, why would they travel with someone else’s baby? Is this an anti-kidnapping measure?”
“I am sorry, sir, but this is our new policy.”
If I understood correctly, this policy applies only to couples traveling on frequent-flyer tickets purchased by someone else. My wife and I won’t have to produce a marriage license the next time we fly out of Incheon, but Korean Air doesn’t want me donating my miles to just any Tom, Dick and Harry or Kim, Lee and Park, as the case may be. The airline used to accept passports showing that traveling couples and children had the same surname.
But it has had to crack down. Why? Because too many adulterers have been riding Korean Air? If I were a newspaper editor, this is a story I would look into.
* The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei University’s GSIS.
by Harold Piper