Yesterday I went to a travel agency in Seoul to buy airplane tickets for Julianne and I to go to China . . .
I walked into the travel office at around 1pm and knew that I’d possibly have to wait for a few minutes cause most (if not all) Korean women (99.9% of the travel agents in the offices are women) always have to brush their teeth and then touch up their make up after eating.
But as I walked into the first of a series of offices (the agency is a big one) I got to experience the ‘oh-shit-it’s-an-English-alien!’ reaction simultaneously from four late-20-something Koreans as they all kept looking at each other, several times, after I asked if any of them could speak English.
After a good 30 seconds, and several repetitions of looking at each other in a kind of invisible rock-paper-scissors-who-is-going-to-deal-with-the-alien-telepathic-conversation one of the girls said, “Follow me,” and then lead me up to another floor and into another huge office cubicle area with more travel agents. (Side note: I have to wonder if she learned “follow me” from listening to a K-pop song, lol.)
She then, and at this point I appreciated her being so courageous as to try to interact and communicate with what I’m sure to her must seem like a gigantic shaved head fat white alien, pointed at the clock and then seemed at a loss as to how to explain to me that I’d have to wait a bit because the English speaking Korean travel agent wasn’t back from lunch. Actually, the fact that she cared and was flustered and trying to think of the English to explain this was really nice of her because all too often the Korean will just rattle off something lightning fast that I don’t understand and not care if I understand too.
I told her in Korean to relax, and that I’d just sit and wait and that it was no problem. She was extremely relieved and then went back to her office.
I sat and waited for about five minutes, and then the English speaking travel agent came over and brought me back to her desk.
I told her I needed two one-way tickets to China for the end of August, and then sat as she searched through the computer. She then typed out a ticket price, 540,000 won, that made my face do a Spock-eyebrow-are-you-shitting-me expression,
I reminded her that I didn’t want a round-trip ticket and she apologized and looked up new tickets. The total price including taxes was 260,000 won each–much better!
After giving her my phone number, passport info, and email address she then asked me how I wanted to pay for the tickets–I handed her my credit card.
Now, after five plus years in Korea I’ve learned to assume that I can’t assume anything when I’m interacting with a Korean. The cultural differences, and different ways of doing things, teach you that you just can’t assume something will be done or not done in any given situation with two different cultural actors–but I thought it was safe to assume the travel agent would charge my credit card . . . and I was wrong.
UPDATE: Actually, while proof-reading this post and rethinking some things it may have had nothing to do with Korean cultural patterns and cross-cultural issues at all, and more to do with this agent’s personality/capabilities . . . but at the same time I’ve had far too many experiences like the one I’m writing about, and heard too many similar stories from other teachers in Korea, to dismiss it as not being a cultural phenomenon.
I left the travel agency thinking that I’d completed one more of the many tasks Julianne and I have to do in order to go to China . . . and then I get a text message today saying, “hello!here is AAAA Travel. yesterday your credit card wasn’t approved for ticket.”
Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of Spock where his eyebrow flies off his head or I’d put that here too! I immediately call the travel agent and asked her what is going on, and she repeats what she told me in the text message. I apologize and then tell her I will look at my account and call her back.
I check my account and everything is fine and the charge should have gone through. I call the agent back, and begin asking her several questions . . . she tells me she needs a ‘copy of my card’ in order to do the charge again. I ask her why when she’d already photocopied my credit card (yes, I know, you’re not “supposed” to do that–but in Korea this kind of thing is apparently ‘normal’) . . . and she said she couldn’t explain it more clearly in English so I let it go, and said I’d drop by again tomorrow with my card.
After hanging up I kept thinking about what was going on, and asking myself questions. I realized that what she was saying made no sense because she had had my credit card in her possession, and that if she’d actually CHARGED my card at the time I was in the office that she would have told me THEN that my card was not approved–I call her back for a third time.
She finally admits to me that she never charged my credit card–though how this is possible I don’t know–when she took it from me to do the payment. I keep asking questions and she finally confesses that the other girl she gave my card to to charge my account punched it into the computer as a cash payment. The agent didn’t tell the girl to charge it as a credit card, and they BOTH somehow missed that it didn’t get approved as a debit taking money out of my account (which would be impossible because the card is only for credit) . . . nice.
Anyways, all of this nonsense is apparently going to work out in my favor because Julianne and I realized, a little late, that we cannot go in person to the Chinese embassy in Seoul to apply for our Z Visas. The only way to get the Z Visa in Seoul, according to what we’ve been reading, is to go to a travel agency that also is approved by the Chinese government to apply on the behalf of clients to get the visas they need through the Chinese embassy.
NOTE: The info at the ‘visa application methods’ link is from 2007, so be careful and don’t assume that it’s still up to date (though from what I’ve seen it doesn’t look like the info gets changed or updated very often).
If the charges had gone through on my airplane tickets I would have been screwed because I would have lost a huge amount of the refund due to penalty fees. I’m also kind of happy that the travel agent is going to be forced to learn not to do such a lackadaisical job when doing the payment for a foreign customer in the future–maybe.
I’m really hoping that the three (of 32) Chinese government approved travel agencies in Korea (see the link above) with ‘smiley faces’ (numbers 1, 8, and 15) signifying that they have English speakers/services can actually help Julianne and I apply for the Z Visa cause otherwise the only other options we have are,
a) Fly to our home countries and apply for the Z Visa there–nope, too expensive and would take too much time.
b) Fly to Hong Kong and apply there. This would suck because it would cost more due to the extra flying time and hotel and meal costs.
While writing this post I got an email from the university I’m going to be working at asking me to let them know the airplane ticket price quotes BEFORE paying so that the powers that be could give their approval on the cost of the tickets–if they don’t give their approval Julianne and I won’t be reimbursed for the cost of the tickets. Unfortunately, this rather vital piece of information is not included in the list of tasks that we were sent in an email that gives some general instructions about how to apply for the Z Visa. Once I’ve actually met the Chinese people I’ll be working with I’ll then consider asking them to add this to the instructions they send out to new teachers they hire . . .
Oh, a third option for how Julianne and I might get our Z Visas would be to trust our university to get them for us after we arrive in the country–but that’s a little sketchy. I remember, somewhere in the massive amount of reading I’ve been doing on the Internet about living and teaching in China, that the school/university has to be “SAFEA” certified (or whatever the term is) with the government in order to get a Z Visa for a native English teacher . . . I just don’t have the source for that info handy (and the source could have been wrong too, though I think it was posted by a native teacher inside China).
Anyways, I called and found out that an English speaking travel agent will be available on Friday morning for one of the smiley face agencies . . . now I just have to hope they don’t quote too high a price for the tickets cause the powers that be at my university might not approve the cost for reimbursement–if that happens, I don’t know what Julianne and I will do . . . let’s hope that that doesn’t happen.
Well, compared to preparing to come to live and teach in Korea getting ready for China has been a fair bit easier and a little cheaper too– so far.
Knock on wood . . .