Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Weekly G-Spot 5: Demystifying your age

Sorry to my 1 or 2 regular readers who missed the G-Spot for the last couple of weeks. Vacation time always makes it harder to come into the office.

This weeks G-spot is not so much a grammar moment, it is a moment to reflect on an aspect of culture that creates great confusion between Koreans and Non-Koreans; the answer to the question: "How old are you?"

I have often said that if I could teach one thing to every Korean who ever learned English it would be this:

When someone asks you your age in English; answer with the English standard. When someone asks you your age in Korean, answer with the Korean standard.

Since I have lived in Korea, the question of age has always plagued me. Rather than being able to ask a simple question, I have to ask at least two questions to find out how old someone really is. Koreans count their age at birth as '1 year' and move up to '2 years' at the next Lunar New Year. So, it is possible that in this year (2008) a child born on 6 February would be 2 years old on 7 February of the same year and would rise to 3 years on the following Lunar New Year's day. For most people the disparity is not this severe but the fact that you age is likely to be 1 to 2 years different can cause several problems.

The issue of age in Western culture is important at certain times of one's life and there are times when knowing a person's exact age is very important. For example, at the age of 18, we are considered adults and, among other things, are allowed to vote in most places. But NOT if election day falls before our 18th birthday. When we turn 21, we are allowed to drink alcohol legally. But not at 11pm on the night before our 21st birthday. Everyone's birthday is a very important day because it signifies the changing of your age. For Koreans, everyone changes their age on the same date; Lunar New Year's Day. So everyone in the same grade is the same age most of the time. A 'Chingu' or friend can only be someone who is the same age. Birthdays, while still celebrated, do not carry the same significance as they do in western culture (they even put the wrong number of candles on the cake!). But age is still very important to everyday life and most Koreans can tell you their age....or can they?

When I ask someone in English, "How old are you?" The normal response would be "I am XX years old." I would know someone's age in years. However, when I ask a Korean the same question, it must be followed by "Is that Korean age or 'western' age?" or "Is that in Korean years or 'real' years ?" (If I want to be a bit of a smart ass). Because you can never really know if a Korean speaker of English will respond with their 'correct' age or not.

So, how do we avoid this problem? We really can't. Probably, we will continue to wrestle with the question of 'age' when speaking with Koreans in Korea. However, what about Koreans living in America? How do they answer the question of age when they speak English?what about when they speak Korean?

What makes sense is to answer according to the culture of the language. If someone ask my daughter in Korean? "Myeot Sal e ay yo?" She would answer, "Yeoseot Sal imnida" but if someone asked her in English the same question. "How old are you?" then you would answer "I'm 5 years old." It works for my 5 year old (6살) daughter and myself, it can work for you to.

But it can be confusing for Koreans to tell their age in English. Many do not think about their age in English and will answer it quickly by translating the number rather than taking the time to think about the month they were born. There is a simple way to calculate your age in English that works for most people (those whose birthdays fall between New Years Day and Lunar New Year's Day may have some calculation troubles for a few days out of a year). You only need to know if your birthday has passed for the current calendar year and assume your 'Korean age' changed on January 1st (many Koreans do this anyway.) Just think:

Did have my birthday this year?
If YES, then subtract 1 year from your Korean age and say that number for your 'age.'
If No, then subtract 2 years from your Korean age and say that number for your 'age.'

As a disclaimer, I mention again. The calculation seems to be a bit more confusing if you are calculating the answer between Jan 1 and Lunar New Year's Day (late Jan-early Feb) for a person who was born around the same time of year. But this method seems to work for most of my students who can easily calculate their true 'age' using this method. Any comments or suggestions are welcome.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A WTF moment to share

I was at Costco purchacing the months supply of beef, chicken, scorched rice and a few sundry other items totalling about 120,000. I gleefully placed my items on the checkout counter and after the woman checked them out I gave her my credit card and said (in Korean),
"12 months, please."
"12 months!!!" she replied looking at me like I must have lost my mind.
"Is that strange to you?" again I repied in polite Korean.
"Yes. There will be a lot of interest." she said, still holding my card at the top of the swiper gadget and now having attracted the attention of most of the other 100 or so people in the adjacent checkout lines. As if, I didn't know this.
"That's what the customer wants, just do it." This response was NOT in the polite form. She swiped it, gave me the card and the slip with a smirk that thouroughly deserved to be smacked to the back of her head. I signed, took my card and grumbled off to take my 20 minute escalator ride to the roof parking lot.
Granted that it may not be the best decision to put groceries on 12 months payments; that was not exactly my decision either (wife's); but who was SHE to question it.

Woori Bank Credit Cards

I have had a considerable amount of experience with credit and banking in Korea (most of it inconvenient or downright unbearable) Now, A recent article in Korea Beat about the inconvenience that foreigners experience living in Korea reminded me of a recent experience I had with Woori Bank.

A man came into my office and explained to me about a credit card that was somehow associated with the Private Pension company and Woori bank. I listened attentively to the deal and decided that it was a pretty good deal. Having been assured by the gentleman that he was an official of the bank and he was sure that there would be no problem for a foreign professor to get a card, I decided to fill out the application.

I waited the standard 10 to 14 days to receive my card in time to make more Christmas debt but it never came. I called the man and he said that there were a "lot of applications" and could I please wait a little longer. Two more weeks passed and still nothing. I called the man again and he suggested me to call the banks customer service center. After getting my wife to help me wade through the phone messaging system (Anyone else notice that there is often NO way to push a number to speak to an actual person?) we spoke to a woman who said that my application had been denied because I have an E-2 Visa and only E-1, F (and a few other) visa holders could get them. We tried to explain that the copy of my ID that the gentleman who came to my office made was incomplete. I actually have an F-2 visa and have for 2 years, but that fact was written on the back of the card and now is almost illegible because it was written on the back of the plastic card with a 'permanent' marker. She basically said that it didn't matter because the application was received with THAT copy and I could not get the card. I was uncerimoniously denied and not only given NO notice of the fact, but denied for illegitmate reasons.

The man came to MY office and I applied for the card but got denied because immigration doesn't have the good sense to make permanent amendments to the alien card. The bank doesn't have the good sense to call me. They could't tell me that I was denied OR why I was denied or to even ask me why my registration card says that my E-2 visa expired 3 years ago but I still, obviously, hold a position at a local college.

On a good note for foreigners in Korea, both KEB and Lotte card have English speaking staff that are very helpful and they will accept applications from foreigners with good jobs (not an unreasonable request). I have also spoken to someone in English at Samsung card (which is very useful if you shop at Costco as it is the only card they accept) but it was a bit of a labor to get through. KEB will also extend private unsecured loans for foreigners with good bank relationships and the usual proof of solvency (you usually need to speak to the branch manager as you will undoubtedly be denied by the peons at the counter). The problem with credit for foreigners in Korea, also mentioned in the Korea beat article, is due to the lack of a proper ID number (that is a KOREAN ID number). Korean credit reporting company keeps no records of foreigners in Korea. So, even if you have a 10 year history of credit card usage and loans, there is no way for the bank to check your references. If they did, it would be a lot easier for foreigners to get loans at global minded institutions like KEB.

Hall of Shame: I have been outright DENIED even applying for a credit card from LG (TWICE) and BC card (multiple times). I had a Kookmin card but stopped using it because it was too much of a pain in the tush to get it renewed when it expired. When I applied again, I was denied. I also had to get my loan for my house in my wife's name because of the same kind of problems mentioned in the Korea Beat article. The rule of thumb when trying to get credit in Korea is to be persistent and have a willing translator by your side when you make the calls to the customer service numbers. I have made calls, written nasty letters, posted to bulletin boards and basically harrassed bank minions into going beyond their programmed "I'm sorry but that's impossible" and changing it to the more correct "I'm sorry, I really didn't know what the hell I was talking about" because they never had this experience before and it was easier to say 'no' and hope you go away and leave them to their uncomplicated existence.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Say it ain't so, Nomad!!

First Asia Pages and now this!!!...An icon of the Korean Blogosphere, Lost Nomad, has thrown in the blogging towel. He is abandoning us to get in some more fishing (and maybe spend some time with his family too:)....oh wait... or was that the other way around...:)
Well, you will be sorely missed. I do hope you will pop in and let us know how you are doing via a comment or two here and there. Happy Angling.

I leave you with one of my favorite fishin tunes:

Brad Paisley - I'm Gonna Miss Her
Video sent by Okdude81

Brad Paisley - I'm Gonna Miss Her