[Observer]Back home in the Third World

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[Observer]Back home in the Third World

‘Welcome home” was the first thing friends said to us when we returned to the United States after living for more than six years in Korea. The second thing was, “So, is there a lot of culture shock about being back?”
There sure is. It’s almost impossible to get anything done in this country. “Service economy,” my foot!
“Culture shock” is usually understood as the disorientation one feels in a foreign country, where “they” don’t do things the way “we” are accustomed to. This can be anything from formalities, such as bowing, or table manners, to buying a subway ticket or doing business. Hippies who try to smuggle a little marijuana into a Muslim country sometimes have ample time to reflect on culture shock from their jail cells.
But there is reverse culture shock, too, when one comes home to see his own country in a new light. An early example for us was after we had been abroad only a few months and came back a few weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
We had watched the event, numbed and sick, live on cable TV in our Seoul apartment, but we were unprepared for all the flags ― even in church. At the gas station, the marquee sign had been amended to read, “God Bless America, Free Coffee With Fill-Up.”
Another moment of culture shock strikes me every time I visit an American supermarket ― so much choice. In the pickle aisle alone, there are more than 30 different offerings, compared with two in our Korean store. Not just dill, sweet, bread-and-butter ― but low-sodium dill and sugar-free sweet and midgets and gherkins and spears and slices crosscut and lengthwise. I stood in front of the pickle display for what must have been five minutes, searching for a simple jar of pickles. Finally, I grabbed the jar closest to me and moved on to goggle at the olive oils.
This time, we are home for good, so we have to set up a household. It used to be so easy ― a few calls from a neighbor’s phone, a trip to the bank and you have phone service, a newspaper, a car loan and heating oil. Nowadays, you also have to get a cell phone, Internet hookup and 500-channel TV plan.
And now, setting up takes weeks! Nine days for the newspaper and telephone, nearly three weeks for the Internet. I still haven’t braved figuring out a TV plan.
In commercial America, nobody answers the phone. Instead, you have to push buttons or speak slowly and distinctly, supposedly to route you to the “service personnel” who can help. But the recording doesn’t ask the right questions for the button options, and the voice-recognition doesn’t recognize me, especially as mounting frustration causes me to speak louder and faster.
Americans have grown inured to these inconveniences. They grumble all the time, but mostly they encounter them only once or twice a year. For me, trying to get everything going at once was like experiencing multiple systems failure.
“What number are you calling from?” asks the phone company’s recording. But the problem is that I don’t have a phone; that’s why I’m calling from a neighbor’s phone. But we don’t live with the neighbors, so I don’t want you pestering them.
“For more information, check our Web site,” says the Internet provider. But I don’t have an Internet connection; that’s why I am calling you.
You have to go on the Internet to get an auto loan, too; banks don’t do that anymore, at least not inside the bank. But I couldn’t wait three weeks until I got Internet, because in the meantime I was paying for a rental car. So I wrote a check for the car. It cleared, but now I need a loan for groceries. Luckily, at last I have Internet service.
Most frustrating for me was trying to deal with the newspaper where I worked for 35 years. All I wanted was to buy the paper; I haven’t been able to speak to a human being yet. “Please [at least they are polite] leave your telephone number, and we’ll get back to you.” But thanks to the phone company, I don’t have a telephone number.
At the newspaper, I am not helpless; I have connections. So I called a friend who still works there and got the phone number of the vice president for circulation. I didn’t expect him to answer his phone ― he is a vice president, after all ― but I thought his secretary might answer, or at least call back.
Eventually, a paper was delivered. One paper. Then delivery stopped. I left another message on the vice president’s voicemail.
And then the bill came, charging me for papers from the day after my first call ― eight papers before delivery actually began ― along with an offer to switch me to the “Easy-Pay” system. Just enter my credit-card information and be automatically debited. Um, I don’t think so.
Few potential subscribers are as motivated to get the paper as a former employee like me; most anyone else would have said, “Forget it.” If American newspapers are losing readers, it may be, at least in part, not Internet competition, but because people who want to get the paper can’t break through the communications barriers that protect an ostensible communications company from having to communicate with its customers.
And to think that in Korea they have the opposite problem ― hard-sell sales reps coming to the door, browbeating housewives, leaving unwanted papers and then demanding payment.
Once we lived in Moscow, back in Soviet days. You could never get anything done. If you wanted something, the first thing was to determine whether or not the product or service existed, then whether it was available to non-Russians or non-communists, then where the permit to get it was issued, then the hours the permit office was open, then where to go to pick it up and the hours of availability.
It seemed a nightmare, until a colleague moved from bureaucratic Moscow to anarchic Cairo and found himself homesick for red tape. “At least in Moscow there was a system,” he said.
America has fabulous systems dreamed up in the name of efficiency by the brightest minds in the most prestigious business schools. But efficiency is faltering. America is becoming the most advanced Third World country, and technology is greasing the skids.
Watch out, Korea!

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper
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