Saturday, February 24, 2007

V for Vendetta

In our way back from watching V for Vendetta at a DVD Bang, we stopped by an independent confectionery (not Paris Baguette) near a large junction in Hadan to buy some pastries. We selected a couple of items which totalled 6,900 won (£3.76) and went to the counter where an ajumma - probably the owner - waited to serve us. But when she saw my wife's credit card, what she served was a lecture in front of the other queuing customers "You shouldn't pay with a credit card when buying such a small amount. If you do such a thing people will speak badly of you. I'll take it this time because you're with a foreigner." Hundreds of years of collective social conditioning left my wife nodding apologetically and presumably, the ajumma feeling vindicated.

As usual, I was oblivious to the entire incident, but when it was related to me outside I was very angry, and wished we'd have taken our card and walked out of the store, if not stayed there to give the woman a piece of our mind first. My wife was also angry, with the woman and with herself for not standing up to her. But that's culture for you. In the UK, people readily engage in debate with retail staff if they think they're not being treated correctly, or they think there's a problem, but in Korea you're supposed to respect your elders. One of the reasons our friend had been angry in Paris Baguette a couple of months back, was that the assistant was her junior and refused what seemed a perfectly reasonable request. The problem with this was that the junior-elder roles were reversed.

Ironically only a few days before we'd paid by card at
Tous les Jours for an amount that was less, there was no hint of complaint and we got loyalty points. It's not as though the place we went to this evening is cheap either, because it's actually quite expensive, exploiting the fact that it is the only confectionery in the area. It's fair enough if people want to set a minimum limit for credit card payments, but there are politer ways of requesting cash instead of telling a customer that people will speak badly of them if they try to pay with a card. You have to understand what a threatening curse this is in a very socially connected society like Korea's.

It probably also tells you something about being a foreigner here that the woman didn't want to outright refuse to accept the card and create a bigger scene than she already had, because she didn't want to look bad to an outsider, because she didn't want Koreans to look disunited, because she was afraid of how I'd react, or a combination of all three. I make efforts here to try and fit in as much as I can, because I don't want Koreans to think badly of British people by my example, but I'm afraid that when I learn Korean if this kind of thing happens to me the locals will be getting a lesson in English sarcasm and vitriol.

Vengeance of a sort will be ours - we will not be visiting that place again, and as the story echoes out over the social network, neither will our family and friends. Customer service is a very odd thing here sometimes.

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