Monday, September 20, 2004

The Benefits of Knowing Half-Assed Korean (and the Aftermath)

NOTE: This was originally written for my email list on 9/20/2004 (thus the date). I went through, changed a little (a very little) and edited it today, 10/12/2004.

**Prologue**: If I ever write a book about Korea, I think the subject of this post will be the title. One thing you should know about the latter exchange is that it was all in Korean and that I was pretty liberal with the translations. If I did literal translations it would make me look pretty stupid.

**Part One** (The Electronics Market): One thing that I've learned recently is that signs in both Korean and English in Korea often don't say the same thing in each language. For example, most restaurants that proclaim"Korean Restaurant" in English often say "Chinese Food" right above it in Korean. Or, the chain "Home Plus" in English is "Samsung department store" in Korean. If you ever come to Korea, don't be fooled by English signs; they often say different things than the Korean.

That said, there are bi- and tri-lingual (Japanese too) signs all overthe Yongsun electronics market in Seoul. Mostly they proclaim what brands the many, many tiny booths sell, but sometimes they inform you of the great deals you'll find there. On both counts, the signs are often wrong.

When you approach the tiny little booths selling about any kind of electronics you can imagine (but mostly cameras, cell phones, and portable audio), you'll almost certainly be followed by someone. I don't mean that someone will come up to you and talk to you. They won't. Say "hi," and you'll be lucky to get a nod even if you say it in Korean. The people at these shops (who are predominately young, fast talking men) only speak when asked a direct question, but they'll follow you the entire time you're in the their booth.

**Part Two** (Buying a Camera): The trip to buy a camera was my second time at Yongsan market. The first time I ended up spending more money than I planned, so I was ready this time (I did learn later that I got a good deal on my first purchase, though). I was armed with knowledge of what I wanted and how much I would spend. I was also armed with
haggling terms, and just general chit-chat. I was ready--or so I thought.

I walked around to the booths asking prices and comparing them before I finally selected a booth to haggle at. The reason I chose the booth was because it had quite a few cameras and the prices were reasonable (and apparently negotiable, since I said something was too much first pass through and automatically got a cheaper price).

When I said that I might be interested in a camera, I was ushered to the back of the booth to have a sit down conversation. We exchanged pleasantries and got right to business. During the pleasantries, I made what I thought was a very calculated move: I told the guy that I was from France. I did this for two reasons: 1) It would enable me to conduct the conversation in half-assed Korean instead of half-assed English. I wanted to practice my Korean, and besides people generally give you better deals if you speak in Korean to them instead of English. And 2) If he really knew I was from America, he would automatically assume I had cash.

Why didn't I pick a poorer country, you ask? Because my Korean is still crap, and France was the only feasible country that I knew the name of.

The first thing the man did when we started to negotiate is question my choice of camera. I had one that I liked, but he insisted that this other camera was better (and truly, it was). I laughed and said "sorry, that's just too much." It was more than I wanted to spend even if it was a nice camera.

He pointed to the one I originally wanted "This camera's old, you wanta new one." I was impressed that he was so keenly attuned to what I wanted, so I told him to show me this other camera. He showed me a few of the less impressive features (for example, that it had a decent shutter speed), so I asked about more complex features. He showed me--but since he thought I was French, he set all the menus to French. I pulled out some of my old college French and did my best at understanding what they said and what he said in Korean to figure out what was going on.

I said, "okay, it's pretty nice," and he got ready to pack it away for me right then. I stopped him quickly. "No," I said, "it's still too much." The camera was listed at 430,000 won (about $375), and I wanted to spend 350,000 won at most. He laughed and said it was a very good camera and that he should charge 500,000 won. I got up to go, and he sat me back down.

When I sat back down, I said that I wanted a discount. He laughed and again said it was a good camera. "But it's too much," I said. "Give me a discount. We're friends aren't we?" At which both he and I laughed. I was being pretty obnoxious, but I think he appreciated it. He said he had to ask his boss, and left.

I really think that he just went around the corner and stood there doing nothing. The reason that I think this is because I'm pretty sure he WAS the boss. Everyone else answered to him and his name was on the shop's business card he gave me when I left.

When he came back, we said he could give me a discount: 420,000 won, he said. I laughed and said no way. "It's still too much," I said,"give me more of a discount." He laughed and said he couldn't. I got up to go, and he sat me back down.

How much did I want to pay, he asked. 380,000, I said. Still more than I wanted to pay, but it was a substantial discount. He said he could give it to me for 410,000. Too much, I said. He couldn't go any cheaper, he said.

I said okay, but I only gave him 400,000. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "sorry, it's all I have." It was true, that's all I had on me--but there was a cash machine about ten feet away. I wasn't about to use it, though. He laughed, shrugged his shoulders and gave me the camera.

"Alright," he said. "We're friends now. Next time you come to Seoul, you come back." That's when he gave me the shop's business card with his name on it.

**Part Three** (The Aftermath): When I left the Yongsan Electronic Mart, I was pretty pleased with myself. I had carried on an entire transaction in Korean, and even though I paid more than I wanted, I thought that I got a pretty good deal. It was a nice camera, so I was pretty happy.

When I got back to Daejon, I was excited to check and see how much I had saved. I looked up the camera online. When it was new, it retailed for about $399. I had paid $350, so I was pleased...until I looked a little more. The camera was a few months old, so some places were putting it on sale. I found it for $265 within about 5 minutes. After all that, I still got a little fleeced. Live and learn.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Korean Ryan Goes to Church

NOTE: This was originally written for my email list on 9/12/2004 (thus the date). I edited it when I reposted it today (10/12/2004). In the post, it's mentioned that I'll get pictures next time. I have them. They should be posted no later than 10/17/2004.

Not church, reallly. A buddhist temple.

The first thing that struck me was the area that the temple was in. If Daejon has a slum, it's this place. First time that I've seen real poverty since I've been in Korea.

That said, the surroundings made the temple stand out even more. The temple was three stories of maticulously painted wood. The detail and color were incredible (pictures eventually, I promise). And the temple sat at the foot of a nice mountain. The view from the third floor was spectacular in one direction and a bit disheartening in the other. Life's like that.

The ceremonies were held in a huge hall on the second floor. The front of the hall had three enormous gold buddhas surrounded by about 500 small ones. Each of the small buddhas had a name tag with one of the people who had spent the night in the temple over the last year. My name will be on one eventually, as I plan to spend the night there in the coming weeks--I just didn't have time to this weekend.

This was a special ceremony for foreigners, so it was mostly inEnglish. The beginning and all the songs were in Korean though. And part of the ceremony was in a language that I didn't recognize. I didn't have a chance to ask what that language was.

As many of you know, I'm not terribly partial to organized religion, but that I have a soft spot for Buddhism. Keeping that in mind, I was really uncomfortable with all the bowing and chanting at the start of the ceremony, but the actual dharma talk was incredible. It gave me a lot to think about.

The talk was by a French Monk who was currently living in Mongolia. She pretty much just got up and winged it--talked about whatever came into her head. But it was really cool because most of what she talked about touched me personally. She talked a lot about things I struggle with in my life. I was really glad to hear it. Life's like that too.

After the dharma talk, everyone went downstairs and had a free lunch. Bibimbap (ummm, spicy vegetables and rice), some seaweed soup, and an orange. It was really good and happily all vegan. They also served tea, but my friend and I had to leave before that because she had plans to go hiking later in the day (she never did actually go).

At any rate, it was an interesting experience and I plan to go backsometime--if for no other reason than to talk to the monks (who werequite interesting) and get some good vegan food.