Quality of Life
One reason I find Korea a more enjoyable place to live is that they have not yet learnt to be as efficient money grabbers as some western countries. Yes, Korea is capitalist but it is certainly not as aggressively exploitative as the UK or indeed much of the western world. Of course, bad things happen in Korea, like anywhere else, and without doubt political and corporate corruption exist here as much as in Britain where a ‘forgiving’ population has effectively pardoned the recent greedy excesses of politicians. The things I like in Korea are possibly destined to disappear in the greed which seems to epitomize aggressive capitalism but until then, here some of the benefits I enjoy.
I love the idea of ‘service’ (서비스) that shops and restaurants offer to loyal customers. A few weeks ago I recorded and wrote about the ‘concessions’ I earned (see: Freebies) in a seven-day period, and which amounted to 20.000 Won (£10). I had free onion rings, quite a number of free beers, garlic bread, small bottles of vitamin drink and was given 1000 Won (50 pence) discount for medicine, by my pharmacist. Being given a ‘service’ immediately puts you, the customer, in a ‘ special relationship’ with the business and though you can reject it and immediately ‘shop’ elsewhere, it is rewarding and re-energizes my belief that humans are not all money grabbers. There is much more a sense in Korea that a customer is important primarily because smaller businesses vastly outnumber the large ones where in terms of customer numbers, your individual allegiance is unimportant. In Home-Plus or Tesco’s UK, my own opinions and importance are marginal and quite often the response to my complaints summarized as: ‘your expectations and tastes are obviously higher than the average customer.’ With a multitude of small businesses in the form of shops, restaurants, markets and street vendors, your importance as an individual customer in Korea, is of more significance. The practice of being able to negotiate a discount for large purchases is an added bonus.
I’m crap at wrapping gifts but in Korea this is a complimentary service and I’m sure the wrappers have had special training. In the UK gifts are usually only wrapped at Christmas and in the season of goodwill, the biggest hypocrisy of all given it’s the greediest period of the whole year, you can expect to be charged for the service. When I hand over £3-4 (6000-8000 Won) for the wrapping of a gift which I have just paid £40 (80000 Won) I really feel ripped-off. You can shop your entire life at small businesses in the UK and in all but the rarest of occasions can you ever expect reward for your loyalty.
On my last visit to the UK, almost a year ago, both my local supermarket, Tesco’s, which in Korea masquerades as ‘Home-Plus, and one of the large, do-it-your-self stores, B and Q, were introducing automated checkouts. As I stood in a queue in B and Q, a number of assistants were on hand to help familiarise customers with the new machinery that would no doubt put some of them out of work. Shopping in either of these stores is unpleasant as the are both gargantuan warehouses where cameras outnumber staff 10-1 and seeking help requires several laps of the premises only to find the teenage assistant has no idea where anything is. The automated checkout had been programmed to welcome customers and provide basic instructions and I was pleased to hear a number of people in the queue voice displeasure at yet another facet of customer services being relegated to a brainless machine. Despite the fact the moaning will achieve nothing and that by this time next year the automated checkout will be fully accepted, I too voiced my dissent. Of course, what separates me from other customers is that not only are my ‘expectations higher than the average customer,’ but the lengths I am willing to go in revolt verge on the lunatic. My Luddite tendencies would not think twice about squirting superglue in the slot designed for a credit card and I can wage a solitary regime indefinitely. Gramsci once suggested that even shopping is a political activity and I can take mine to the extreme.
When I went shopping yesterday, in my local E-Mart, I counted 4 pairs of staff on duty at each point of entry onto a level of the supermarket. As customers entered a level they were greeted with synchronised bows and verbally welcomed. Apart from the checkout assistants in stores not yet fully automated in the UK, eight members of staff is probably about the number employed on the entire shop floor of a British supermarket. In Korea, customer support isn’t a luxury but an expectation and there are always a couple of staff employed for every section of shelves and assistance is never more than a few meters away. Parking your car, a subject a broached in Ear Piece Mania, can entail as many as 10 parking assistants all of whom are trained in the intricacies of the bizarre hand signals used within Korean car parks. In the UK and many other places, customer support and adequate staff to assist shoppers, are either relocated in somewhere like India or have been viciously culled in the drive to maximize profits.
The first of an army of car parking attendants encountered in parking your car in the supermarket car park
Several years ago a faulty USB port on my computer damaged my camera and electronic dictionary but this was no worry. Most companies, especially ones such as Samsung, Iriver, and mobile phone manufacturers, have service centers in every major town. For eighteen months, one of the Daegu service centers for Samsung was next to my academy, until it moved a five-minute walk down the road. Regardless, there will be a number of other Samsung centers in the city. Iriver, the manufacturer of both my MP3 and my palm reader are twenty minutes down the metro-line and the service center for my Nurian electronic dictionary, is five minutes away by bus. So, whenever I have had some problem, customer support is on hand, easily accessed and the product repaired and back in my possession within days and possibly quicker. On two occasions, mobile phone problems were repaired while I waited. When I recently had my camera repaired in the new Samsung service center, it took three days and when I went to collect it, it was wheeled out from the an adjacent room on what I can only describe as a cake trolley. Much the same support is available for computer problems and a computer service shop is located less than two minutes from my one-room. Meanwhile, in order to keep frustrated customers at bay and continue operating a second-rate service, a token service at best, UK service centers are located in the furthest corners of the country and require your faulty goods to be ferried away by courier service. And to ensure they can operate a slow service that is cheap to run, all public interface is removed and the call center relocated to Bombay or Bangladesh.
Korean medical care is efficient and there are more doctors and medical facilities within a six-minute walking radius of my one room than there are be in my entire home town. Indeed, 4 hospitals are within a five-minute walk, and in less time than it takes me to walk to work, three minutes, I can reach two ophthalmologists, 6 opticians, urology, cardiology, neurology and ENT clinics, and a women’s’ health center. In addition, there are probably 5 dentists, a number of skin clinics, and a dietitians and two veterinary clinics. Remember, Korea is much more up than out and one high-rise block can contain more facilities than an entire British street where commercial businesses traditionally and almost exclusively, occupy the ground floor. A few weekends ago, the husband of one of my colleagues needed an MRI scan after though I’m told there are a limited number of such facilities in the city, he was able to get a scan on the day he needed one and at a cost of 111.000 Won (£56) after deducting the amount provided by insurance. My colleague actually moaned that this was too expensive. Visiting the doctor involves a wait of no more than an hour and I don’t need to make an appointment. Even without Korean medical insurance the cost of a visit is no more than 7000 Won (£3.50) while the cost with insurance, is an ‘extortionate’ £1.50. And the greatest advantage for anyone living in or near a Korean city or big town, is that most medical needs do not interrupt your daily life. When I have needed anything other than minor medical assistance in the UK, I have usually had to travel a substantial distance and then sit in various queues for several hours. All clinics in Korea have tasteful waiting areas with televisions, complimentary tea and coffee etc, and very often a couple of computers with free internet access. Admittedly, I hear and have seen examples of doctors and nurses not following universal procedures, but back home despite our rigorous rituals hospitals are still plagued with skin eating viruses and for every account of bad practice I experience or read about on the Korean peninsula, I can match them with corresponding ones from the UK. At least when I spot something unsavory in the Korean system, I do so in comfortable surroundings, with a complimentary coffee while watching the television and all without sitting in long queues which have necessitated taking the day off work.
With eating is my main pleasure, the ample amounts side dishes that accompany a Korean meal and which can usually be re-ordered at no extra cost, is enjoyable. The recent cabbage shortage (Ersatz Kimchi in a State of Emergency) saw prices rise to 10000 Won (£5) for a large cabbage and caused subsequent problems with kimchi production but rather than just hike the cost up, and subsequently leave it high even after production costs have fallen, as happened a few years ago with petrol prices in the UK, most restaurants in my area decreased kimchi and salad amounts and to compensate increased the portions of meat. My local bo-sam restaurant (보쌈) doubled the slices of pork from 7 to 14 and has only recently reduced the number as the price of vegetables, and most especially cabbage, has decreased. In restaurants, chilled water in summer, and warm water in winter are complimentary and a can of coke is usually the same price whether chilled or not. In recent years, especially in hot weather, it has become a trend in the UK to charge up to as much as 1000 Won (50p) extra for the privilege of a cold drink, especially in extremely hot weather.
In Britain, unless shoes are leather it is difficult getting them repaired and for items like trainers you don’t repair them at all. Over the years we have been encouraged to sling things out and replace them as soon as they are worn. In Korea you can easily have the worn collars of shirts reversed and repairing shoes with rubber soles, including trainers, is easy. I had my rubber shoes soled and heeled almost a year ago whereas in the UK I would have been compelled to throw them in the bin.
Need a pair of glasses? It would probably work out cheaper to fly to Korea and buy a few pairs than pay the excessive charges levied in the UK. There is no charge for the eye examination and the price of frames begin at about 15.000 Won (£7). I have three pairs of glasses and all have frames costing less than 20000 Won (£10). Koreans love colourful frames and the range available, extensive. Cleaning cloths and cases for glasses are all free and the cleaning clothes cute and decorated. A pair of varifocal glasses, with the glass graduated so they look like ordinary glasses, costs around 200.000 Won (£100) and outside one of the opticians within a minutes walk of my one-room stands a special electrical device which you can use to clean your glasses. It’s free to use! Since optical care was privatized in the UK, the British have been abused by high street companies ripping them of. You can easily pay in excess of £300 (600.000 Won) for a pair of varifocals but the monopoly held by such greedy companies is being seriously threatened with the emergence of online opticians.
There are many flaws in the Korean system and I probably turn a blind eye to many of them, but with all the advantages I have outlined, plus a national tax of around 3.3%, (my monthly bills, including tax, all amount to a grand total less than that I would pay for the lowest of my monthly utility bills in the UK), I do not feel I am being fleeced or financially raped. Unlike many western countries, quality of life doesn’t cost and arm and leg.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.