Thursday, March 04, 2010

Korean Karma's Gonna Get You

As I headed back north on the train from Gyeongju to Seoul I noticed snow falling as I gazed out the window. I arrived at Seoul Station to a major snowstorm, the biggest in years I was told. There was a long queue at the taxi stand in front of the station, and cabs were few and far between. A few people ran from the taxi pickup point to the parallel taxi drop-off point. I wasn't sure if it was kosher for cabs to take passengers who were essentially trying to beat the system, but it seemed to work. A kid, maybe about fourteen years old, who spoke some English came up to me and said, "It may be better to wait there," pointing to the drop-off point. Why not, I figured, I'm a New Yorker. But no cabs were coming. A few cabs started coming to the pickup point. Then the kid came back to where I was waiting. "Maybe it's not so good an idea," he said. "You can get in line in front of us." He and his family were now at the front of the queue. I was touched by their generosity and hospitality. On the one hand I'd be taking advantage, but I also believe that one should never refuse a kindness unless it is beyond what the person offering can reasonably afford. People normally don't (or at least shouldn't) make offers they don't expect or hope to be taken up on.

So I got into a cab and told the driver, "Ibis Myeong-Dong Hotel." I pronounced it Eebis, as the Koreans do, not Eyebis. I quickly realized the driver wasn't sure where he was going. He was talking to me in Korean, as if I understood. "I don't understand Korean," I said about five times. The snow added to the difficulty. It was tough to navigate the streets. He made it to the Myeong-Dong district, but then seemed to be going in circles, aimlessly. I got out the map I had with the hotel circled. Somehow that didn't seem to help. It may not be the Lotte (Seoul's biggest hotel), but I think cabbies should know it, especially if shown a map. Finally he asked a guy for directions. That didn't seem to help too much. Obviously Seoul hasn't adopted London's approach to hack licensing. Familiarity with a fairly well-known hotel or the ability to read a map don't seem to be prerequisites.

Eventually he got there. I couldn't see the meter, but I knew it would be much more than the fare should be. When I had taken a cab to the station a couple of days earlier the fare was 3,000 Won (under $3). I got out 3,000 Won and tried to hand it to him. He started yelling and pointing at the meter: 8,600 Won. "Hotel to station, 3,000 Won." I said. He started yelling again and pointing to the meter. I pointed to the hotel. "Come inside." I said. I thought maybe I could get the guy at the desk to translate our altercation. He just kept yelling. I added another 1,000 Won to the kitty. "4,000 Won. That's it!" I said. He yelled some more, then accepted the 4,000. As I was getting out of the cab my inner ugly American surfaced and I said, "Let me teach you some English: 'fuck you!'"

I had accepted the kindness of strangers and got the worst cabbie in Seoul. But I also saved those nice people from the worst cabbie in Seoul.


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