Wednesday, May 15, 2013

when "simple" isn't simple

Today's adventure: "reloading" my cell phone!

Earlier today, I received a text message saying that my prepaid phone was low on minutes and data, and that it needed a recharge (choong-jeon) or, more precisely, a reload. Tom, who had helped me buy this cheap little 1990s-era slider phone at the beginning of my month here, had told me that a "reload" would be simple enough: just stroll into an SK Telecom branch office, ask for a reload for X amount of money, and let the workers do the rest.

Not so fast.

I tried exactly that tack about an hour ago: there was an SK office located right at the bottom of my apartment building, so I went inside and spoke with the staffer about a reload. He asked me what my phone number was; I told him. He then took my phone, began the reload procedure, stopped, and said, "Where did you buy this phone?" "In Itaewon," I said. He smiled... or grimaced. It was hard to tell. "Your phone's not actually on the SK system," he said, "so a reload would be difficult." He then explained that there were several main telecoms—SK, LG, etc.—but that my phone was on some sort of third-party network. "You can call 114 information," he offered. (Many utility/emergency numbers in Korea are the mirror image of their American analogues: 119 for emergencies, for example, and 114 for information.) He thought again, then said, "Shall I call for you?" Relieved, I said that he could.

The man reached a 114 lady; they spoke about the reload procedure for a moment, then the man handed the phone over to me. The lady told me I needed to find a local 7-Eleven (convenience stores often have recharge facilities for T-Money cards and such); once I was there, I should call 114 again. I said "OK," but was secretly worried: 114 is a generic number. How could I be sure to get the same lady again? I hung up, thanked the SK staffer for his kind help, and asked him whether he knew of any nearby 7-Elevens. He shook his head sympathetically, grimacing again.

I left the SK office, racking my brains because I knew there was a 7-Eleven around somewhere close. Then it hit me: there was a 7-Eleven a couple doors up from the DC Mart where I do my grocery shopping! With that destination in mind, I turned on my heel and started toward it.

A bunch of little kids were sitting at stools and a long table that had been set up against the shop's front vitrine. None of the tykes, thankfully, stared; they were content to chatter amongst themselves. I walked into the store and dialed 114 again. Through some sort of telephonic magic, I got the same 114 lady. I told her I was in the local 7-Eleven; she asked me to pass her to the cashier. The cashier had just disappeared into the back freezer/storage section, so I bade the lady wait. He came back out not long after, a gray-haired man in his late fifties or early sixties. I explained my situation to him, told him the 114 lady wanted to speak with him, and passed him the phone. The conversation took several minutes, during which time the cashier hit certain keys on his cash register, somehow helping along the process of reloading my phone.

At one point, the cashier got confused by whatever the lady was saying, so he called out a younger staffer (his son, I think), who took over the conversation. The younger staffer fluidly punched some keys and asked me how much money I wanted to put on the phone; to be safe, I said W20,000, which would last me well beyond the end of my trip. He then explained that he was going to print out two receipts for me, for W10,000 each. On each receipt was a code that I would have to read out to the 114 lady. Presumably, this code would allow the phone to reload. I picked up the phone, and the lady guided me through the process, receipt by receipt. I called out the series of numbers I saw on the slips of paper, and finally heard those glorious words: "You're finished. The phone has been reloaded." I thanked the 114 lady and both 7-Eleven staffers, père et fils, for their help. "If one can help, one should help," said the father.

Two automatic text messages came right away, each confirming W10,000 worth of reload. I saw that my phone's current total was W22,614. In other words, before today's reload, I'd had only W2,614 left on the phone. I could have gotten cut off in the middle of an important conversation. Some intuition had nagged me, starting yesterday, about getting the phone reloaded. I'm glad I did it today.

Quite a thrill ride, that. I galumphed over to DC Mart, bought some grocery items, and walked back to the apartment. Tom called not long after, so I told him all about my troubles. "Sorry about that," he said. I laughed it off: "I'm always looking to practice my Korean."

So that's the phone-reloading adventure. I didn't learn any new lessons today, but today's escapade confirmed an old truth: nothing in Korea moves in a straight line. From the expat stories I've heard, this seems to be true of Asia in general. In my case, it took the help of four people to get that damn phone reloaded. Of course, it could also be that my American notion of a "straight line" differs from the Asian notion. An Asian in America might find herself stymied and outraged by some of the labyrinthine rigamarole that Americans go through without a second thought, never once musing that there might be more efficient ways to accomplish certain tasks (buying contact lenses comes to mind).

On the way back to the apartment, I stopped at a sandwich kiosk and bought two el-cheapo sandwiches. I'll blog about those momentarily.


1 comment:

John said...

That guy at the SK store always takes good care of me. We usually bring him some treat from America as gets my authentic SK prepaid up and running. I'm hoping next trip he can unlock my new smart phone so I can use it in Korea.

I've done that sandwich kiosk once or twice. Not my favorite. I always like those fancy packaged sandwiches at Paris Baguette, but they are pricey.

Good luck with the forthcoming interview(s).