Sunday, August 12, 2007

foreigners in difficulty

The online Chosun Ilbo has an article about the woes of foreign residents in Korea. I agree with some points and disagree with others. The article starts off with a common complaint: simple procedures such as acquiring a cell phone are difficult for the average foreigner, despite supposed changes in the regulations:

Last April, "K", a 30-year-old Japanese graduate student in Korea, had an unpleasant experience trying to subscribe to a mobile phone service.

Because K is a foreigner, a clerk at the mobile phone company demanded that he either subscribe to the service under the name of a Korean national or pay a W200,000 (US$1=W941) deposit. He had a similar experience trying to subscribe to an Internet service. In the end, K paid the W200,000 deposit to the phone company and he found a Korean friend willing to sign him up for the Internet. But the episodes soured life in Korea for K. "There seem to be too many complicated procedures that foreigners have to go through to live here," he said.

I wonder whether K got shafted because he was Japanese. I don't recall being asked to submit a W200,000 deposit for any service, phone or internet. In both cases, however, I did have to ask my Korean friend to help me with the arrangements, and the bills that came to my residence were in his name.

But the article also mentions something that I believe isn't quite the problem it might seem:

Even the most basic of daily interactions can be stressful for foreigners. Some non-Koreans have reported food shop owners who browbeat them into buying dishes after they sampled a free snack. A visit to a Korean hospital can be a terrifying experience for foreigners who fear for their safety when medical staff don't understand their language.

I think it's unreasonable to expect any country to cater to the linguistic and cultural needs of its foreign residents. The image that comes to mind is the classic scenario of the Texan who steps out of the plane at Charles de Gaulle airport and exclaims, "Damn! A whole country fulla' furriners!" By choosing to live in another country, we expatriates tacitly agree that we have willingly placed ourselves under the care and protection of a society and culture that will be very different from our own in ways we cannot always anticipate. This is why making an effort to learn the local language is so important. Speaking ability is evidence to the natives that this foreigner, at least, is trying to get along here. In America, we have the same expectation, which manifests itself every time someone yells, "What's the matter? Can't you speak English?" I agree that a hospital visit might be a nightmare if the staffers don't know your language, but why are they obliged to know it?

Then there's this:

A 34-year-old American expat called "J" said that credit cards presented undue stress in Korea. "I have never had a problem using my credit card in any other country. But here in Korea, merchants rarely accept it. And just because I'm a foreigner, it's impossible to apply for a cash card to withdraw my deposits."

Note to J: I had no trouble getting a cash card on my own at my local bank. Try harder. If language is a problem, go with a Korean buddy or lady friend. Or tell your employer that you had trouble obtaining something that other foreigners routinely obtain. I've had trouble with cell phone and internet arrangements (in both cases requiring the presence of my buddy JW), but as I said, the cash card was something I obtained on my own.

However, J's other complaint, the one about credit cards, sounds legitimate to me. I've never tried to apply for a credit card in Korea (I only recently got myself totally out of credit card debt and am in no hurry to start back on that slippery slope), but back when I did use a credit card here, I routinely had trouble: despite having good and plentiful credit, my card was often declined simply because of compatibility problems. It may have become a reflex for many merchants to spot a foreign credit card and automatically say, "No, we don't accept those." This isn't so much the merchants' fault as the fault of Korea's online infrastructure: the Korean internet is famously incestuous, working well within Korea's borders, but not always so well when interfacing with international servers. That's changing, of course, but problems still abound, and in many transactions paper is still better than plastic.

Kim Hyun-joo, a senior researcher at the Korea Consumer Protection Board, said that with the number of foreigners visiting Korea on the rise as a result of globalization and the open-door policy, how the Korean people treat them is becoming an important criterion for national competitiveness. "We need to work out a variety of support programs that assist foreigners in their daily life as consumers," Kim said.

Yes, that's true, but Korea doesn't have to go so far as to try and accommodate every taste and need. Expats who come here should shed their culture-centric expectations about being able to navigate Korea in their native tongue. That, or they should do what many expats already do, and confine themselves to foreigner enclaves like Itaewon and Banpo.


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2 comments:

daeguowl said...

I understand why foreigners aren't readily granted credit cards in Korea. It's the same in the UK (and presumably the states) where I was told that in the past people have racked up big bills and then buggered off back home without paying them....

I've never had any proble using my credit card here, (although I only tend to use it for large purchases cos of being shafted on fees) but I do know of a guy who recently visited the States and was consistently rebuffed in his attempts to use his Australian credit card...

It is my unfortunate experience that a lot of things that you bitch about experiencing abroad and tke for granted back home are suffered by visitors to your country whether your country be the UK, the USA or Korea...

John from Daejeon said...

The U.S. banking system changed the way ATM and credit cards are used abroad on July 4th, 2006 due to the massive amount of fraud taking place overseas. On the 5th, I couldn't even use my ATM card in Canada; however, you can go into any bank that accepts your credit card worldwide and get a cash advance.

The problem is that many people never leave their home countries, yet their card information is stolen over the internet and used in foreign countries by hackers and organized crime. It is definitely a pain for those of us who travel abroad.