Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Korean Experience

For the past couple of weeks, I've run headlong up against the realization that, for all my railing against the homogenization of the world community, global diversity is alive and well. The boys from Seoul left for home Friday and with them, my previous assumptions about the shrinking world and internet-induced culture cloning.

For each of the past three years, Emergency Management personnel from the Republic of Korea have made the long trip to Virginia for a training exchange program of sorts. I say "of sorts," because the Commonwealth has yet to actually send anyone to Korea to complete the exchange and, given the austerity of the current budgetary climate, probably will not. The group typically stays a couple of weeks and wedges as much sightseeing and shopping in between the training as the schedule will stand. In other words, the schedule is little more than a point of departure for a whirlwind tour of as many points U.S. as can be logistically managed. This year, it was a fateful day, indeed, when new girl Kristy volunteered to be the point person for the visit.

The trouble began when the Korean coordinator from the previous two years was pulled for another project. She spoke very good English and had a firm grasp on the cultural differences and their implications, so her loss was a blow to communications. Without her, the coordination conference calls between Seoul and Richmond became two hour ordeals that stretched late into the night. After a time, we were able to establish tenuous communications with the translator from the previous two years and she ran a kind of long-distance interference in between other translating jobs. After one particularly long call in which nearly everything had to be translated to Hangul to English and back again, I thought we had an understanding on a schedule and a way ahead for the visit to proceed.

It turned out the schedule was not firm, the group wasn't happy with the hotel arrangements, and they were not at all enamored of the rate they were getting on a translator. We met Na Song, the translator, in person for lunch on the Thursday before they were due to arrive on Tuesday and (much to my relief) clarified most details of the visit. By Thursday night at 9:30, there was no more Na Song. Instead, the Korean-based travel agency found a guide over the Internet based on his Korean-language blog that said he lived in Midlothian. This and his day job as a shoe store manager was apparently enough to qualify him. The new guide, in turn, hired a new translator who was all of nineteen and had been in the U.S. for most of her life. There were no contracts, there was no money exchanged ahead of time, and the group had never met either the guide or the translator. When the group of twelve angry men arrived after a day on the west coast and an all-night flight into Richmond, the scene was set for a heavy-duty culture clash seen previously only in a Ha Jin novel.

By way of background, the delegation's senior guy was a fellow named Mr. Wan Taek Jung. But the senior guy in Korean culture doesn't actually take charge of anything. The group's coordinator was his second in command, Gil Dong. Wan Taek, Gil Dong, et al, managed to elude our representative at the airport, slip by and get loose on the town before I was able to reach the new translator. They promptly went for Korean food, although I tried to tell them we were having a luncheon reception in their honor not two hours hence. According to Ha Young, the new translator, (see how confusing this could be?), they had been without Korean food for two days and were insistent on having some. I thought it ironic that they'd come all this way to eat Korean, but I shrugged it off and told her to get them to the hotel as soon as she could.

When the boys arrived, the hotel met them with a contract (the same one we'd been trying to get signed for over a month, mind you) and an insistence that they pony up a payment method. The lobby was instantly filled with garrulous Korean men alternately demanding their keys, expressing outrage over the way they were being treated and denying any responsiblity for payment. Granted, I do not speak Hangul and they only speak limited English, so some of this was inferred and some of it was filtered through the translator. Finally, Han Lee, the guide, said he would sign the contract and provide his personal credit card as payment guarantee until he could coordinate with the Korean travel agency to wire money to him for payment.

After this near-debacle, I thought everything was running along fine (famous last words) until one afternoon when Gil Dong came to get me and insisted that I make Han Lee give him his identification. Apparently, Gil had gotten it in his head that Han was not who he said he was, that he didn't have a contract and he was just some guy trying to swindle the group. Some of this was a result of the fact that all prices in Korea are inclusive (tax and tip included), whereas all prices here are obviously not. So when the boys went to a restaurant and assumed that $5.99 meant $5.99, they were extremely displeased when Han went around to collect tax and tip money. Some of it was because one of the money wires from overseas had not arrived and Han was concerned about having money to cover the visit. Gil got wind of this and was more convinced than ever that Han was just some guy bent to make money off of him and his cohorts. It was extraordinarily difficult to get all of this out, as we couldn't go through the swindler guide and his in-cahoots translator. So Gil and I went back and forth in broken English until I thought I understood. I then had to go back and forth between Gil and Han to get both sides of the story. This was taking too long for Gil's taste, so there ensued a huge scene in the hotel driveway that featured fifteen participants: Gil Dong and Han Lee alternately arguing and talking on their cell phones to Korea; me trying to make peace; the translator in a huff because the guys had told her to sit down and shut up; and eleven Korean men standing, smoking and looking off into the distance and trying to listen without becoming involved. In retrospect, it was a fascinating dynamic. The senior guy at some point finally stepped in and tried to calm Gil down, to little effect. Han Lee at some point said he was leaving and a couple of other members went after him and begged him to stay. This caused Gil to lose face with the group so he became even more upset. I finally stepped in when Gil and Beom Sik Kim almost came to blows.

Needless to say, there was no recovering from that. The group retained Han Lee's services just long enough to get to northern Virginia and then they let him go. I heard about this when the new guide called me during my drill weekend to try to get information about the schedule. I gave him the information and told him he needed to call Han Lee, as that was the only contact we had with the group. And that was how Han Lee found out he was being let go.

He sent me an email that night expressing his great relief.

And so the twelve angry men arrived in Hampton for our statewide coordinators briefing on Tuesday with yet another translator and guide. We got them rounded up and where they needed to be for that day and the next. They departed Richmond on Wednesday morning for a FEMA tour and some last minute shopping time in D.C. Their parting shot was a luggage van that was two hours late (the 15 passenger van they were riding in did not have room for luggage). We ended up schlepping their luggage out of our classroom where it was temporarily stowed and onto the tour agency van. Last I heard, my boss was having some difficulty trying to get them into FEMA on Thursday morning. He sent me an email to remind him to tell me about the experience. I replied that I already knew.

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