Friday, August 01, 2014

criminal record and becoming a taekbae expert

Today's adventure began when the lovely lady from Dongguk gave me a call around one in the afternoon. She said that Dongguk still needed one document from me, a document they ask of every prof who works there: a criminal-background check. I found this exasperating: the whole point of my being on an E1 visa in the first place was to avoid the hassles that came with E2-style paperwork (background checks, federally apostilled documents, etc.—a huge fucking pain in the groin). I replied to the lovely lady that E1 visa requirements didn't include a criminal background check, and that getting a check this late in the game would take months. She said she'd get back to me and hung up. A few minutes later, she rang again and insisted that Dongguk needed this document, but that she was talking about a Korean criminal-background check, not the FBI one with the federal apostille on top. I expressed my relief and told her I'd get one right away. Since I'm to meet her (and possibly her center's director) next Thursday, I told her I'd bring the document along with me. She said that would be fine.

So around 3PM, I went out and caught a cab. I texted Miss Dongguk that I was on my way to Hayang's pachul-so, which I thought was a police station. She quickly texted back that I needed to visit a gyeongchal-seo instead, as this was the place that would print out the required document. I'm still unclear as to what, exactly, the difference between a pachul-so and a gyeongchal-seo is, because they both mean something like "police station," but no matter: I told the taxi driver to head to the nearest gyeongchal-seo, because that was what the lady wanted.

"The nearest one is in Gyeongsan City," said the cabbie. I winced. That was going to be a long ride. "You sure you're not going to a pachul-so?" he asked. Then he beckoned: "Let me see your Kakao." I handed my phone over, its screen open to the Korean-text dialogue I'd been having with Miss Dongguk. The cabbie read the part where Miss Dongguk had written, "Not a pachul-so, but a gyeongchal-seo," nodded, and headed south to Gyeongsan City. I kept Kakao-ing with Miss Dongguk, telling her that I hadn't killed anyone in Korea, so there shouldn't be a problem with my criminal record. She texted back the Korean equivalent of "H-H-H," i.e., "Heh heh heh."

The drive was as long as I'd thought it would be. As both the cabbie and Miss Dongguk agreed, the printing process wouldn't take long, so the cabbie offered to stay with me while I got my form. At first, I suspected he was going to let the meter run while he waited, but the guy turned out to be a straight arrow: he offered to stop the meter and accompany me into the police station in case I needed any help. I joked with him that he was going to be rich, today, thanks to me. The trip to the police station had already cost almost W14,000; I was going to owe the guy nearly W30K by the time I got back to Hayang.

We parked at the police station, a huge district building, and strolled into the ground floor. A uniformed lady bowed politely to us; we turned left and went to the jonghap-johwae (roughly, "all inquiries") office. This turned out to be, on the visitor's side, a little booth of a room with a bulletproof-glass boundary that separated us from the larger office farther inside. A businesslike policewoman spoke with us in a crisp manner, asking what I had come for. I let the taxi driver do most of the talking; while we were en route, he had gamely called ahead to this office to alert it to our imminent arrival, and he had explained my situation while we were on the road. The crisp lady was the same person the cabbie had spoken with earlier, so after asking one or two perfunctory questions, she pointed at a form I needed to fill out, then she took my alien-registration card to begin the records-printing process. I filled out the form with the cabbie looking over my shoulder and saying, in English, "Name here! Address here!" as he pointed at various blanks on the form. I think this was more because he wanted to show off what little English he knew than because he was trying to be helpful: he had just finished an extended Korean conversation with me in the car, and had seen my ability to send text messages in Korean, so he already had an idea as to how literate I was.

The process truly was brief: I filled out the form, handed it to the lady, and she keyed in the information. She printed out a first draft of the criminal-background report, asking me to confirm the spellings of my name and my address in Korea. I did so, noting two errors, which the cabbie also saw and loudly echoed. The lady quickly took the erroneous draft away, typed in the corrections, reprinted, and showed me the new form: no errors this time. "Geunyang gajyeogashimyeon dwaemnida," she said: You may just take the form now. I bowed and thanked her; the cabbie did, too, and out we went.

By the time we got back to Hayang, I did indeed owe the cabbie W26,000, so I just gave him W30,000 and told him to keep the change (you don't normally tip cabbies in Korea). I asked him to drop me across from Hayang Station so I could get a train ticket; he did so, then he got out of the car and shook my hand. This was a good cabbie, I must say; friendly, chatty, and willing to go the extra mile to help out. Once he understood my mission, he threw himself into the project and became, in essence, a co-adventurer. Today's ride confirmed my faith in humanity. I crossed the street and got my train ticket from yet another friendly staffer; she complimented my Korean, saying I sounded as though I'd lived in Korea a long time. In such situations, I've learned to boil my life story down to just a few quick elements that slightly fictionalize the truth: I normally say, first, that I'd lived in Seoul for eight years and, second, that my mother was Korean. The fictionalization comes from the fact that I really didn't learn that much Korean from Mom, despite the implication that I had. Most of my Korean was learned in college and during my eight years in Seoul.

But the story of friendly, helpful people isn't over. The previous night, after getting advice from my buddy Tom about how to ship my possessions cheaply to Seoul, I visited our local convenience store after having done my massive, 17K-step walk. I had already packed up four moving boxes earlier in the day yesterday; I appeared in the convenience store with one box and asked the friendly ajumma to help me figure out how to use the taekbae machine. As you'll recall, taekbae is a sort of courier/parcel delivery service; the machine in question is a small touch-screen computer with a scale next to it—a more complex version of American-style self-checkout devices in modern grocery stores. I had no clue how to use the machine until the ajumma came around the counter and guided me, step by step, through the process. Touch "non-member." Touch "general package." Weigh the package and calculate shipping cost. Type in the recipient's name and phone. Enter recipient's address. Type my own name and phone. Type my own address. Verify info is correct. Hit "agree" to consent to share personal data entered. Print sticker and receipt.

The ajumma was there with her daughter, who stared owlishly while her mother guided me painfully through the processing of that first box. After that, I was on my own for the next three boxes, each of which I brought to the store one at a time because each box weighed about 15 kg; carrying 30 kg (more than 60 pounds) would have been a bit much to ask at that time of night, after I had already walked nearly eight miles. The key-in process took a while for each box, but I went slowly, calmly, vainly trying to minimize the amount of sweat I was leaving everywhere, on everything. With each successive box, I became more confident in my use of the taekbae machine, and I was glad to see that no box cost me more than W7,000 to send north. I'd had nightmares about spending hundreds of thousands of won on shipping until Tom told me that taekbae was the way to go.

So: a friendly cabbie, a friendly train-station employee, and a friendly convenience-store ajumma. The world's got its good people. Meanwhile, I've got my clean rap sheet from the Korean police, so the cosmos is in balance and everything is proceeding smoothly. I move out of Hayang this coming Wednesday. There are still a few things left to do—one of which I can't write about until I know its outcome—and then off I go, to the next phase of the journey.



Unknown said...

And this is why I like Korea so much more than China, aside from having a Korean mother. My Chinese and Korean abilities are about equal, but I've never experienced a Chinese person going so far out of their way. Yet, Koreans have done similar to what you describe for me often enough that it doesn't seem unusual.

A little bit of Korean helps a lot more in Korea than a little bit of Chinese in China. It's that damn inferior writing system mostly.

Charles said...

I didn't know that you don't need a criminal background check with an E1 visa. I've got permanent residency and they still demanded a background check for me. Although I think that might be a SNU thing, being a state school--they told me that they required criminal background checks of every foreign employee, no matter what their status.

Anyway, glad to hear that you met some helpful people. The cabbie, in particular, went above and beyond the call of duty.