I spent a good chunk of my Friday out with my #3 Ajeossi and Ajumma, who represent the seriously Christian branch of my Korean relatives (my #4 Ajeossi and his family are Buddhist; my #1 Ajeossi has no particular church, temple, or tradition; my #2 Ajeossi is a Christian convert, but his conversion was mainly for reasons of business networking; I don't think he's that serious or committed). Several weeks ago, we agreed to meet on the 15th. Since Friday is normally Ajumma's day to set up the floral decorations at her church (a devoted church member, she does this weekly), we agreed to meet at Geumho Presbyterian Church—a church, and a neighborhood, that I hadn't visited in nearly twenty years.
The walking route to the church from Geumho Station was a bit fuzzy in my head. I knew I needed to go out of Exit 1, from the station, then walk downhill, eventually jogging left into an alley. The church, though fairly large, was one of those tucked-away houses of worship that was hard to see from the main street. At one point, I stopped and asked some old grandmothers for directions; they pointed me onward, telling me to cross the street at the large T intersection and jog over to the alley. I trudged on, eventually finding the church right where I had left it nearly two decades previous.
My first order of business was to take a dump, so I ducked into the church's restroom—much improved since the '90s—and texted Ajumma while I was sitting on the throne and muttering "Thank you, Jesus" in reference to the shiny, clean, up-to-date plumbing. (I had feared a single squat toilet, which is all the church had back in the Clinton era.)
Ajumma texted back that I should meet her in the church's upper sanctuary (it's a split-level church, which allows for simultaneous worship services). Ajeossi saw me before I entered the main church; he was holding a pair of pruning shears and trimming some flowers. After paying my respects, I went inside the upper sanctuary and waved to Ajumma, who responded with a cheerful greeting in English. She doesn't speak much English, but she sometimes feels the urge to speak the foreigner's tongue whenever her outlander relative makes an appearance. Ajumma was obviously still busy with her flower-arranging, so I let her and her companion, an unfamiliar lady who kept staring at me, continue working.
It had been years since I'd actually been inside a church. (Back when I was in Hayang, I meditated once or twice at the local Buddhist temple, but in terms of ambiance, a temple isn't a church.) I'd almost forgotten what the atmosphere could be like. I sat in a pew and stared around me, aiming for a bit of serenity. Unfortunately, a loud shop vacuum was blasting away in the back of the sanctuary, so silence wasn't an option. Eventually, Ajumma delegated the rest of the flower-arranging to her companion and said "Let's go!" to me. We walked out, met Ajeossi, walked down to the street, and found the family car. Ajumma tsked at the poor parking job that Ajeossi had done. He pulled the car out onto the street, away from the wall it had been next to, so we could pile in.
And then we were off.
We drove all the way down to Yongin to visit the local district office.* Our purpose: to see whether it would be possible to obtain a document called, informally, a hojeok (i.e., a family register), and known more formally as a jaejeok-deungbon.** We had to stop at one point to ask for directions—this despite the fact that Ajeossi has a very nice dashboard GPS that he obviously doesn't know how to use. I used my own cell-phone GPS to confirm the directions that Ajumma got from a stranger in a store's parking lot, and we found the district office of Mohyeon-myeon, my maternal grandfather's birthplace, with no problem.
As we were walking toward the administrative building's entrance, Ajumma said she'd prayed to God that we'd be able to obtain the hojeok here, on the first try, without having to be sent to another office. I nodded; I didn't pray, but my own fingers were crossed. Ajeossi parked the car while Ajumma and I made our way inside.
The staffer we met was probably the blandest, most nondescript-looking Korean woman I've ever seen. She had "BUREAUCRAT" written all over her, and I suspected from the start that she'd be trouble. Sure enough, our exchange stopped almost immediately when the lady told us we'd need to fill out a form to request the hojeok. We filled out as much as we could, putting both my mother's name and my maternal grandfather's name on the form. We had very, very little to go on, however, and this proved to be a problem for our functionary, who spent nearly an hour telling us, in various ways, that what we wanted wasn't obtainable, and/or that we'd need to consult with a different office and come back.
The battle of wills went on and on, but in the end, Ajumma and Ajeossi wore the woman down. She called an outside source and had several back-and-forths with all three of us (once she realized I spoke Korean, she looped me into the conversation as well). Per my Golden Goose boss's advice, I wrote my mother's birthdate in serial-number form to show the bureaucrat that I had half of Mom's jumin-deungnok-beonho, i.e., her citizen's registration number, a rough analogue to an American Social Security number. I gave the lady my birth certificate, which showed Mom's name in English (as "Suk Ja Kim," with race/color listed as "Oriental"), as a way of proving that, yes, I was related to the woman in question. At several points, Ajumma repeated that my mother had passed away, and that "we're the only ones he [Kevin] has," as a gentle way of pressuring the woman into doing her duty. At another point, the woman said she needed some sort of proof that Mom had been born on the date we claimed she'd been born on; I rifled through my smart phone's email archives and dug up a PNG file of Mom's Sookmyung University ID card, on which was written, mirabile dictu, her birth date.
The woman finally relented after we had given her enough information to go on, and she printed out the much-coveted jaejeok-deungbon. Before giving it to us, however, she quizzed us as to my mother's relatives' names. I again dug into my cell-phone archives and supplied the name of my maternal grandmother: Lee Soon-nam. My Uncle John in Texas—Mom's little brother—had supplied my grandparents' names earlier.
When I look back on Friday's efforts, I see that, a bit like how it is with The Avengers, it took the efforts of all three of us to pierce the nearly unyielding wall of bureaucracy. I admit that, about twenty minutes into this frustrating process, I was ready to throw in the towel and walk away. The staffer wasn't nasty, but she also didn't seem inclined to help—at least not initially. Luckily, Ajumma in particular was dogged in her pursuit of our mission objective (Ajeossi is more soft-spoken, but he kept after the woman, too, in his own way), and I can say with assurance that, had I tried to obtain the hojeok on my own, I would have failed miserably. I also congratulate myself for piping up at crucial moments—providing Mom's birth date, calling up her old college ID, and confirming her mother's name.
The document, when printed out, ran several pages and cost us, in the end, only W1,000—not even a dollar. Ajumma, who had shown persistence without resorting to any of the stereotypical ajumma-style tactics (shouting, bullying, grandstanding, etc.), made a special effort to thank the lady. She hung around the office to have a different set of documents printed out for her own purposes; she later told me and Ajeossi that her documents had cost W2,000, but she gave the lady a W5,000 bill and told her to keep the change.
We drove back into Seoul. Right before Ajeossi dropped me off at a Line 3 station, I thanked both him and Ajumma profusely, telling them how stressed I'd been about obtaining this document, and how relieved I was that we had, in the end, gotten it on the first try. I made sure to say that none of this would have been possible without their help; Ajumma said, "Of course—we're family," and that was that. Both Ajumma and I got out of the car: I had to walk down into the bowels of the subway station, but Ajumma said she wanted to go get some exercise at the park across the street. As Fridays go, this rates as one of the best Fridays I've had so far this year.
At the same time, however, I'll note with some annoyance that it really shouldn't take so much concentrated effort to obtain a damn document. Although we left that district office feeling a sense of victory, it's fair to ask why we should have to feel any accomplishment at all about what should, in the end, be a very simple, straightforward task. How many "Kim Suk-ja"s were born on May 4, 1943? At a guess, only one. Mom's file should have been easy to find—assuming the database was structured logically.
Doubtless there are reasons why the lady at the counter initially balked at helping us. Human psychology is such that we tend to become territorial, the kings and queens of our own little dunghills (witness my own snippy behavior toward uppity commenters on my blog). But people who work in bureaucracies need to be trained to remember—as my Golden Goose boss says—they they're there to serve, not to dictate. I've had similar problems with some of the office assistants at the universities I've worked at: they forget who's higher on the totem pole and act as if they hold authority that they don't actually possess.
But I'm not worried about the intricacies of human psychology right now. I'm just happy to have completed the second of three crucial steps that need to be taken to obtain my F-4 visa. I already have my birth certificate; I now have my hojeok; lastly, I need Mom's naturalization papers, and to obtain those, I need to speak with Uncle Sam, the Great and Powerful.
*My friend Young Chun told me this wasn't necessary: the relevant document could have been picked up anywhere. Still, the trip was worthwhile.
**Again, Young was the one who told me the proper Korean name for the document.