Monday, August 17, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers & Friends, and a Lack Thereof...

I was debating blogging about this because of what WILL happen - namely my mom freaking out. But I thought I would post about this, in case anyone else has a similar experience in Korea and needs to go through the same procedure that I just did.

I think I need to burn my green shorts. This is the second time in 10 months that my wallet has been stolen from them. As my friend, Douglas, sardonically remarked yesterday, "Don't burn them yet. You know what they say: the third time's the charm...". Yeah, I'm not really sure what that even means, but it made me laugh, which is really all that I can do in a situation like this.

The good news is, other than the cash in the wallet, the photos, the phone numbers of my school staff, my book club discount cards, my bank card, and my alien registration card, nothing much was lost - oh, except for the lovely wallet itself which was a gift from a special someone. Man, do I feel like an ass. Still, after a great deal of work conducted by my Korean-speaking friends, and a day of leg-work by me, things are taken care of. Most importantly, the important cards were canceled and my bank card was canceled before the thief could spend too much money with it, though he (or she) did spend some.

It happened like this:

My friend Lexi and I went to meet a couple of friends (Brian and Joowan) at Jamsil Stadium to watch a Korean League baseball game between the Lotte Giants of Busan and the LG Twins of Seoul. The game itself was a great experience. I've been to two K-League soccer matches as well as a World Cup 2010 qualifying soccer match, but this was my first baseball game. The crowd was great - divided nearly half-way down the middle of the stadium between Giants and Twins fans, and each section was rowdy as hell - for the entire game. Back home in Calgary, as I'm sure is the case in MLB stadiums, the fans are generally pretty laid-back - enjoying their sun, suds, and brews. Not here.

Here, there are cheerleaders for each side, each with their own theme music, multiple costume changes, and zany dance moves. Also, inexplicably, there was Spongebob, Dora, and Jimmy Neutron. Perhaps it was Nickelodeon Night. The fans also treat it like a premiere league soccer game - singing and performing choreographed chants pretty much for the game's duration. It's a good thing too. While back home, if the visiting team went up 8-1 by the top of the 3rd inning, home fans might be inclined to boo, or throw something at their team, or worse. Here, they just keep cheering like mad. Incidentally, the Twins made in interesting, down 12-11 in the 8th inning before finally succumbing 14-11. Still, a great game.

So, we make our way to the subway, where it is packed as hell...

Let me back up for a minute though. Just a week previous, I was remarking to another friend while he was shopping for shorts, that "ever since I got pick-pocketed in Cambodia...", I always make sure to buy shorts that have pockets that seal properly. Of course, it helps is you actually use said method of sealing, be it buttons, snaps, or industrial strength welding, to actually close the pockets that are there to carry your valuables. More importantly, none of this matters if you find yourself in a situation where someone really wants what you have and is bold and skilled enough to get it.

That was certainly the case in Phnom Penh. There, Steph and I found ourselves in the middle of a water festival, suddenly surrounded about five blocks deep in all directions by locals. In this kind of festival atmosphere, there's not a lot you can do when people start pushing and trying to get some sort of flow going. When you're getting groped from all directions from people just trying not to get trampled, safety suddenly becomes your first concern. A perfect opportunity for someone to make off with your credit cards, bank cards, and money that you just changed and didn't leave in the hotel, because truthfully, the hotel seemed about as secure as your shorts' pocket. At least my passport was safe. What a nightmare that was, and I have Steph to thank for being the calm one and taking the lead in solving all that needed to be solved over the internet amid pure chaos.

Well, here in Seoul, you don't have as many people who could use my wallet contents to pay for their yearly living expenses as exist in Cambodia. South Korea is a pretty wealthy nation, and yet, despite the recent theft, a place that I feel very comfortable and secure in. Still, it pays to not be an ass.

Here's how I was an ass...

As we get on the train at Jamsil, along with a lot of other people, we got smushed on the car as happens when many people are lining-up. With Brian in front of me, and Lexi behind, I was pressed on all sides and I could actually feel something touch my back pocket (where I keep my wallet). But I could feel all sorts of my parts getting involuntarily touched because of the crowd. I even remarked to Lexi as I was getting pressed: "Gee, it's awfully friendly in here." Of course, that was probably the precise moment that my wallet was getting lifted. It's quite possible that having just gone through the pay gate, I neglected to actually do up the button on my pocket. Awesome.

I didn't notice it until the end of the trip when Brian and Lexi were leaving and I sat down for the first time that my wallet was gone. I immediate stood up in a still-crowded subway and starting searching frantically for it. People looked at me like I was a madman, which at the moment, I essentially was. I called a Korean friend right away to see if she would be able to cancel my bank card for me. I spent the last 10 minutes on the train wondering how I was going to get home - my last stop being about an hours walk from my place.

It was then that a nice lady who, along with her husband, had been viewing my frantic pacing and phone-calling with concern extended a hand towards me with a 10,000 won bill ($10.00). Truthfully, coupled with the frustration, I almost cried. After getting my wallet yanked, it was just the right act of kindness that I needed to not lose it and punch-out a train window or, more likely, break my hand again. I was touched by the offer, but I tried to tell them that it was too much. I did need the money to get on the bus though, so eventually I communicated that if they had a bill for cheon won ($1), I would be more than grateful. They understood and kindly gave me the money I need to get home.

There's nothing like theft to make you feel violated and frustrated that you didn't make a simple and different decision. It was tough to get to sleep that night, pissed-off as I was, but I was comforted by two things: Sung Sook had so kindly stayed-up to make some phone calls to cancel my card, and to get the ball rolling on replacing them, and Brian had texted me offering any support that he could give at all. The next day, I had four different friends, Korean and otherwise, offer to take me out for lunch. Didn't make me feel like less of an ass, but it made me feel better to know that people were trying to get me out of my funk.

What makes me fee even better was the conversation I had with Brian two nights after the game. Brian, a Korean/American any-thing-but-orthodox pastor from Kentucky, had been at the game when my wallet was stolen, and had been telling his father back home about the theft. His father apparently asked if he had spoken to his (Brian's father's) friend. Brian's father's friend you see, well... to make a long story short, this guy is involved in both the Korean Mafia and the Japanese Yakuza. Not only that, but he also reminded Brian that he "has people" in the Seoul police department.

That's kind of scary, I realize, but from my perspective, what moves this into cool territory is the exchange the followed between Brian and Brian's father's friend (BFF). Something like this...

Brian: "...yeah, so Dave had his wallet stolen..."
BFF: "Is this Dave a friend of yours?"
Brian: "Yeah, man."
BFF: "Well, you know if the guy who took it was one of ours, he'll regret it, and remember, I've got people on the force, so we're going to find the guy who stole it and we're going to put a real hurt on him."
Brian: "Ummm... I don't think that's..."
BFF: "Oh, it's necessary..."

Dave: Nice.

While I don't expect my wallet to turn up, it's good to know that the cards were canceled (mostly) in time, and it's REALLY good to know that I count Brian among my friends here in Korea.

So, should you ever have your wallet stolen in Seoul, as a foreigner, here's a checklist of what you'll need to do...

1) Call a Korean friend as soon as humanly possible so that he or she can cancel your Korean bank cards, which can function as debit and credit cards, and are as secure when making a purchase - ie: not secure at all. Your Korean friend will need to know your Alien Registration number so that they can put a hold on the card. Of course, if your ARC is also in your stolen wallet, you may have to wait until you get home. By that time, the jackass who stole your wallet may have already bought something fun with your money. Thankfully, my thief had cheap taste and spent only 23500 won ($23.50) at a convenience store before the card was canceled. Maybe he really needed three weeks of ramen, and fast!

2) You'll need to make a visit to the local police station, hopefully with a Korean friend, where you'll need to make a police report of the incident and ask for a copy. A Korean friend is necessary so that you can solve problems such as having the four police officers behaving like the keystone cops, smacking each other in the head and scorning one another for their English skills for the spelling of my middle name, "James" with an "n" where the "m" should be. Entertaining stuff.

3) You will then need to take this police report to your local Korean immigration office, where you will need to first print your address in Hangeul (Korean script) in the form of a "proof of residence" certificate, before grabbing a number and waiting in line for 3 hours to talk to an immigration officer who will accept your 10,000 won, police report, and application form and tell you to wait ten days before you get your new ARC card.

4) You then take your receipt for this and head to your bank, where you can find out how much money was spent before the card was canceled, apply for a new card, and get one.

5) Become friends with Brian.

Just make sure you do these things in the right order, or you might find yourself doubling back more than once as I did.

Anyway, that's the story. I realize this means that my mom will be wearing a bullet-proof vest and traveling by armored car while in Seoul, but the truth is, Seoul still remains much safer, generally speaking, than a city (Calgary) with a tenth of Seoul's population. Yes, bad stuff happens here, too - but the things about a relatively rich city this populated is that there are almost always massive amounts of people on the street. This generally results in a low crime rate, but hang on a second... what does the US Department of State have to say about this?

"Although the crime rate in the Republic of Korea is low, there is a higher incidence of pick-pocketing, purse snatching, assault, hotel room and residential burglary, and residential crime in major metropolitan areas, such as Seoul and Busan, than elsewhere in Korea. U.S. citizens are more likely to be targeted in known tourist areas, such as Itaewon (near the U.S. Army Garrison in the Yongsan area) and large market areas downtown. Incidents of rape have been reported in popular nightlife districts in Seoul, as well as in the victims’ residences. Bar and street fights as well as occasional harassment of Westerners have also been reported in nightlife districts in Seoul. Travelers should exercise caution when traveling alone at night and should use only legitimate taxis or public transportation. Travelers may reduce the likelihood of becoming a crime victim by exercising the same type of security precautions they would take when visiting any large city in the United States."

Or, from the Korean Herald (November 2005):

"...The overall crime rate was 1,674 incidents per 100,000 people in Korea, while those numbers were more than one third higher in Japan at 2,240 per 100,000. The United States and the United Kingdom followed with 4,119 and 11,240 per 100,000 people respectively. Murder rates in 2002 for Korea, the United States and United Kingdom per 100,000 were 2.1, 5.6 and 3.5 respectively. Rape and sexual assault in those same three nations were 19.8, 33 and 86.6 per 100,000 respectively.

“I feel safer walking down the street late at night in Seoul than I did in Boston,” offers one expat. He added that the drug culture of the big cities of America were what led to higher crime rates. “Korea seems pretty drug-free.”

An outsider may be surprised to see many busloads of Korean police around the city, but this in no way reflects a high crime rate. They are most often used as crowd control around important buildings or to prevent the frequent protests from getting out of hand around the capital."

Anyway, this latest incident leads to one change, because despite Douglas' assertion, when it comes to wallet-from-pants theft, I don't share the idea that the "third time's the charm." I will now be carrying my T-Money (Transit) card separately from my wallet. My wallet I will keep in a secret compartment of my pants, guarded by trap doors and ancient booby-traps that would shame a Peruvian temple. The things is, I don't want anyone to get hurt by Brian's dad's friend. Also, when the subway train gets that full, I will start barking like a lunatic - you know, the ones you see on the C-Train back home. That ought to keep people at bay.

Thanks to Brian and his zany mafia family friend, and to Sung Sook for all of her help, and to Chris and Jen for the pizza and Oliver for the Quiznos. It's good to have friends in high and low places. All is good, and it won't happen again. To quote the 43rd President of the United States:

"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."


Jen Davies, MA, CCC said...

You're feeling like W? You poor, poor man. -Jen

Anonymous said...

Always good to know you have connections with the local mafia. Hey, I forgot to metion on our skype that a friend of mine will be travelling to South Korea in September with his wife to teach English. You mind if I forward your blog and Facebook stuff to him? It's Neil James and Emiko. Neil and I have done several shows with the Shakespeare Company. good guy. I particularly want him to be aware of this post, jsut in case they become targets of crime. Good info to know.


George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Yeah, I know Neil. I'd be happy to be a contact for him here. Tell him to look for me on facebook and get in contact. Nice.

vagabondshandi said...

That sucks, I'm really sorry Dave. That definitely falls into the seriously bad luck category.

On the plus side, maybe it will be like when I got my wallet stolen in Seoul - it turned up at a police station about a month later with about $50 missing, but everything else intact. You never know, maybe they really did just desperately need a couple weeks worth of ramen!