Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Taxi Driver

I asked him if he had any funny stories about driving a taxi and he thought for a moment.

“Three years ago I picked up two drunk customers,” he said. “They wanted to go to a farm at the top of a mountain. Maybe they lived there, I don’t know. I answered the call and dropped them off at the top.

“The road was very narrow on the way down. And dark. Suddenly, I stopped because a boar ran onto the road. It was big. I had never seen one before. It was so big. I heard they can attack people.” He held his hands next to his mouth with the index fingers up like tusks and swooped his head at me.

“I worried that if I used the car horn, maybe it would attack. I turned off the lights and the engine. It was me and him on the mountain in the dark. I was so scared. He didn’t move. Just sit in front.”

After fifteen minutes of staring each other down, the boar moved on. But Mr. K would never forget his moment on the mountain with the wild.

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I met Mr. K because I was late to work. I usually took a bus to work, but I had to get a cab if I was late. This wasn’t a problem. Taxis are everywhere in Korea. And they’re cheap. My school is five miles away, and I can get there for just five bucks.

There’s a taxi stand right next to my bus stop. During the slow hours, taxis line up here to wait for customers. I can look out the window right now and see the taxi line. There’s seven cabs. But during rush hour, people line up to wait for taxis. There’s no need to call one. You can stand on any street and immediately find a taxi.

So I stood on the street and waited until a taxi picked me up. I got in and told the driver, Mr. K, my school’s address. Halfway through the drive, he asked me in clear English for help understanding the lyrics of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” He played drums in a rock band and they were covering it. I helped him with the lyrics and he gave me his number, telling me to call him if I ever needed a taxi.

I never did need a taxi. I bought a bike. But two weeks ago I decided I’d love to know what it’s like to be a taxi driver in Korea for a day. I called Mr. K for the first time and we arranged to get lunch.

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“How old are you?” Mr. K asked. I had just told him how many years I had been teaching English. He was surprised.

“I’m thirty.”

“You look so young.”

“Yeah, I don’t know why.”

“Your skin is white and clear.” Despite all the formality of Korean culture, they’re very direct when talking about appearance.

“I guess so.”

“My skin is green and unclear,” he said.

I disagreed. He actually looked very young for his age, and I had told him so before. But he’s a modest man.

He said, “Too much sun on my face.”

“You mean you get too much sun while driving?”

“Yes.”

“How many hours a day do you work?”

“Twelve to fourteen hours.”

“Wow. Twelve to fourteen hours in the car? Don’t you get tired?”     

“So tired. My back gets sore from sitting all day.”

He explained to me how he tries to get out and stretch while waiting in the taxi line during slow hours, but it’s not so easy. Every time he gets out to stretch, the car in front gets a passenger and the whole line moves up. So he stays in the car all day.

“What was difficult when you first started working as a taxi driver? For example, it was really difficult for me to manage time when I first started teach.”

“The first time I started,” he thought for a moment. “Well, I have to be in the car all the time, like I told you. That was difficult. I do many things in the car. For example, I have an exercise band.” He moved his arms to demonstrate how he uses an elastic resistance band, pulling it across his chest. Like pushing open elevator doors.

Sometimes he practices drumming on a pad he keeps in the car. He pulled up a picture on his phone. It’s a single drum pad that holds onto his leg with a Velcro strap.

He also reads while waiting for passengers. He even met his girlfriend because she was a customer.

Mr. K gets a lot done in that taxi cab.

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When he finished, I asked him, “What hours do you like the most? Night hours or day hours?”

“I liked the night hours when I first started, so I did that for about two years. It’s better money. But it’s too much trouble. Now I work daytime hours from seven in the morning until nine or ten.”

“What kind of trouble did you have with the night hours?”

“I had a lot of trouble. Drunk people. Rude people.”

“What do people do that’s rude?”

“I look young. Many customers talk to me like…” his voice trailed off as he searched for an English word on his phone. He showed it to me: discrimination.

He explained that he’s in his forties, so customers should use word choice to respect that. But they didn’t. Even after he told them his age.

Korean, like most languages other than English, has formality structures built into the language. Korean sentence structure ends with the verb. The verbs can end with an “eh,” “ayo,” or “imnida” sound. These verb endings are respectively informal, formal, and very formal.

There’s no equivalent in English. But if you know any Spanish, it’s a little like “tú” and “usted.” One is informal and used when you can speak casually. The other is formal for when you need to use language that keeps a respectful distance.  Latin Americans are pretty relaxed about the difference, but it’s very important to Koreans.

I don’t think about formal and informal structures often as an English speaker—an American English speaker on top of that. But it’s a theme that I’m seeing in my conversations with Koreans. In fact, it reminded me of a story that the convenience store owner from the previous post told me.

He once had a female employee that was in her fifties. A male customer, also in his fifties, came in and spoke to her using the informal “eh.” That pissed off the employee, and they got into a shouting match.

When Koreans meet each other socially, one of the first questions they ask is how old everyone is because they need to know what types of words and tense endings to use with each other. This is difficult to explain because Americans and Koreans, as far as I can tell, are at polar opposites of the cultural slider scale with this. I mean, we do respect age differences. But if we were put on a mathematical graph of “age distinction” next to Korea, you could basically round our value down to zero.

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The closest English equivalent I can think of would be if you go to a restaurant and say, “Could I have a water, please,” instead of, “Get me a water.” Even then, the later is offensive or charming based on the speaker’s tone. But assuming it’s said in an offensive way, that’s the best comparison I can do for you. One is a regular transaction. The other feels like belittling someone because of their position. And in Korean, that’s just the difference between ending a sentence with “ayo” or “eh.”

Whatever language you speak, just be kind to people. You have no idea how hard they might work and what wild boars on a dark mountain they may have survived.

 

 

Pictures : Melissa Beth Rose 
Words : Michael Smit

Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Convenience Store Owner

I don’t get why people read blogs. I don’t know why you would want to read my thoughts when you have perfectly fine thoughts of your own. Or if you’re going to read someone else’s thoughts, at least make it someone worthwhile. Like Mark Twain.

But you do read my stuff and I’m thankful for that, so I want to make it worth your time. I was thinking about what I would like to read in a blog and I got an idea. You see, blogs are a bit voyeuristic. Like a personal diary you found lying on the ground. Or like people watching at the mall.

I used to do that when I was in high school. I’d sit in the mall and watch people and think “I wonder what a day in his life is like.” I want to know what it’s like to be a taxi driver for a day. I want to know what it’s like to be a Walmart greeter. That’s what I want from a blog, so that’s what I’m going to write.

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I’m going to start doing little interviews for this blog. No names or pictures. It’s not a biography. It’s a day-in-his-shoes-ography.

I won’t do this for every future post, but often enough.

For the first one, I interviewed the owner of a twenty-four hour convenience store in Korea. We’ll call him Mr. K. I made up that name. “K” because he lives in Korea.

Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Convenience Store Owner


We had just finished our interview. As we sat watching the first real snowfall of the winter from the coffee shop window, he told me, “You know my part-timer? The young girl who works at my store? She will achieve her dream next month. She will save one hundred thousand dollars.”

“Sorry, a hundred thousand?” I spoke slowly. I was sure he either confused his English numbers or was speaking in Korean Won instead of US dollars. A hundred thousand Korean won is roughly a hundred dollars.

“Yes, a hundred thousand.”

I wrote the number down to make sure nothing was getting lost in translation. “The girl who works part time in your convenience store saved a hundred thousand dollars in seven years? Not won, but dollars. How?”

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“Yes. She was in eleventh grade when I hired her. She gave up on going to university. I told her ‘You listen to my advice. Save your money. Do not buy clothes. Do not meet your friends. Just save your money and you can achieve your dream.”

Mr. K owns a convenience store down the road from my apartment. Convenience stores are the lifeblood of Korea. You don’t realize how, well, convenient they are until you move away from here. 7-11. CU. Buy The Way. 365 Plus. No matter where you are in the city, you’re guaranteed to see three of them. One to your left, one to your right, and one straight across the street. Imagine a world with a 7-11 on the corner of every neighborhood. It’s not high quality, but where else can you get milk when it’s two in the morning and you want a bowl of cereal? It’s beautiful.   

Mr. K speaks English very well, so I sat down with him to talk about what it’s like to run one of these convenience stores in Korea. This side story about one of his longest term employees came as a surprise after the interview had finished.

“When she started working here, she made three thousand won (roughly $3 USD, which we’ll use from now on for convenience) an hour and only worked a few hours a week,” he told me. “She saved two thousand dollars after her first year. She showed it to me and we were proud. But then she needed braces and used all her money. The next year she saved three thousand dollars. Then her father needed surgery and she used all her money again. Now she makes six dollars an hour. Another employee quit and she asked for his hours. She works many hours now.”

He continued, “So I said to her, ‘Don’t tell anyone how much you save. Don’t tell friends. Don’t tell family. You just save.’ And she did. She works twelve hours a day, seven days a week,” he told me. “She doesn’t need food, she can eat in the store. She doesn’t need a car, she walks a short time to the store. She doesn’t need to buy new shoes, she’s just in the store all day. She lives with her parents and just saves and saves. She doesn’t even have a cell phone. If her friends want to see her, they must come to the store and see her.” 


But he still refers to her as his “part timer.” I’m not sure what the distinction of being a part timer means out here in Korea.

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He told me, “She spent no money for the last five years and achieved her dream. In a few months, she will have saved a hundred thousand dollars.”

From the very start, the whole interview went in a different direction than I expected. I wanted to know funny stories about how 24 hour convenience store employees entertained themselves during the slow hours of the night. I wanted to know what they thought about the strange customers who walk in at two in the morning to buy toenail clippers and a bottle of vodka. But I got a different story.

The interview derailed after my very first question. I asked, “Are the night hours slow? What do you do during those hours?”

“Usually my part timers work in those hours.”

“But you never worked through the night hours before?”

He thought for a moment. “I didn’t know anything about convenience stores when I first opened this shop. I was an import/exporter in USA. But my friend owns the building my store is in. He told me to not spend time in USA. He said I should come back to Korea and own a convenience store.”

“The first two days, I had no part timer. I worked all day and night by myself. I thought, ‘I don’t know why I have to do like this.’ Finally I hired a part timer. I walked to the bank and I felt like my legs were, um…” he shook his arms to demonstrate how wobbly his legs were. His legs felt like jello. I believe that’s the phrase he was looking for to describe how he felt after working forty eight hours straight.

He could finally go home at night after hiring someone to work through it. But this created a new problem. He finished work at midnight and started at eight in the morning. And he lived an hour and a half away. “When can I sleep?” he asked me.

After a month of commuting every night, he took a sleeping bag to work and found some cardboard boxes to throw on the ground in the small employee room at the back of the store. He sleeps there through the night–every night, because he works every day. He told me he only goes home two days a year during harvest and spring festivals.

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Here’s his schedule now. He wakes up at eight, checks his inventory, and orders items he needs. At ten, he has breakfast and then goes to the bank to deposit cash. By noon, he’s finished his business and takes a nap on his box bed for a couple hours. His employee finishes work at four, so he works the cashier until about seven. Another employee starts work at seven, and his store’s inventory delivery arrives around the same time. He finishes inventory by eight and has dinner. After dinner, he takes a rest on his box bed again until about ten. He gets up at ten to receive another delivery. He stocks his store and gets to sleep a little after midnight. Then he wakes up at eight and does it again.

As we walked back to the store after the interview, I didn’t know what to think of this unassuming man in his vest which matches the color of his store’s  logo. He sleeps on a pile of cardboard boxes every night, but he might be doing very well for himself. He told me he lives in Gangnam, which is a lot like the Hollywood of Seoul. Of course, you can find cheap living in Hollywood if you’re willing to bend your standards. But the point is he might be doing very well for himself. I hope he is. He’s a good guy and he deserves it.

The thing is, even if he was doing very well, you’d never know. He would just sleep on his box bed, work seven days a week, never buy new shoes, and save and save and save.

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Pictures: Melissa Beth Rose 
Words: Michael Smit