Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Locked inside a bank

A sequence of small disasters conspired to get me locked inside a bank after hours in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, they were still serving customers, but I was still a long way of home, surrounded by a virtual UN (at least its Asian part) of (fellow?) migrant workers from China, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere.

I was in the suburb of Ansan southwest of Seoul where there are apparently so many factory workers working so many six-day work weeks that this one branch keeps the hours of a convenience store: open 363 days a year. This is in sharp contrast to the regular hours of 9-4, a shocking anachronism for a country where long hours are common for both workers and customers. You can, for example, order a whole chicken at pretty much any hour of the night.

When I arrived an hour before closing time at 3 pm on Sunday, I was shocked to see the line spilling out of the bank. I was customer 354 and I was informed that there were 111 customers ahead of me. The closing time of 4 meant simply that no new customers were allowed. Everyone in about a thirty metre vicinity was ushered into the bank, the blinds pulled down and the shades locked. I'm sure later it emerged that some people were rounded up by mistake, but these things happen.

After about an hour, most people were gone, except for a group of Uzbeks that recognized each other by the passports they brought as identification. Without the passports, you would've identified them as Filipino, Egyptian, Russian and Chinese. It really is a remarkable country. I got in line ahead of them and conducted my business in about 5 minutes after a wait of 1 hour and 45 minutes. The Uzbek woman behind me, wearing what could best be described as a flesh-coloured corduroy jumpsuit, took some time to thumb through my copy of Dostoyevsky's The Karmazov Brothers without asking.

The bank itself is inside Ansan's Foreign Community Centre, unique for catering not just to foreigners, but undesirable foreigners. These aren't executives, businessmen, English teachers or soldiers. These are factory workers, maids and others who do the jobs that Koreans feel are beneath them. As a result, these people, for their dark skin and strange languages, are beneath Koreans for the most part. At the community centre, however, they are welcomed, trained in skills and languages, provided with legal help and even a library for their children.

One community centre in one city is hardly indicative of a trend, but Korea's rapid diversification seems to indicate that it might avoid the fate of neighbouring Japan. So far, Korea has seen rapid industrialization (about 100 years after Japan's Meiji Restoration of 1868), intense urbanization, great prosperity and the low birth rate that results from being a rich country with absolutely no space. However, while Japan has chosen to accept a slow decline in its population rather than sully its pure blood with immigration, Korea seems more open-minded.

Japan's population will decline by as much as a third by 2050, from 127 million to as low as 90 million. Korea faces similar problems with a birth rate that is actually lower than Japan's. To give you an idea of how quickly things have changed, 50 years ago, the typical Korean woman had 6 babies, compared to 2 in culturally and geographically similar Japan.

However, Korea has accepted if not welcomed immigrants. Almost half the children born in rural areas are racially mixed due to the influx of women imported to marry farmers that Korean women won't marry. Korea is now actually 2% foreign, a shocking statistic if you think about it. Where exactly these one million foreigners live and work is a mystery to me. Acting as though it has an interest in the well-being of these people who live and work in Korea but happen to have the wrong kind of skin is a welcome step for a country where children will refer to black teachers as monkeys.

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