Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Don't judge a cop by his mustache

"Ay-pee-pee-ell-ahee-she..." the policeman carefully spoke into the phone. "Sir, that says applicant," I helpfully translated. "Ah, that says applicant," he spoke into the phone. Then, he looked into my eyes for a second before speaking: "they'll talk to you in English".

The voice on the phone was even more clueless than the poor police officer. "Uh, hi, the, uh, police officer would like to know why you need fingerprints." I explained my reasons briefly, as best as I could, thinking of how ancient texts made their way to us: copies of copies of copies made by someone who heard it from someone who first heard it and memorized it.

The fingerprints were required by the Korean ministry of immigration, who told schools, who told me, who told the volunteer translator (the police had resorted to calling a help line on their own cell phone), who told the police. Clearly, something in there had to go wrong, and yet it didn't.

Sure, at one point the policeman asked me if I spoke English, and about 30 people gathered around to gawk, with older officers doing what they could to seem less clueless than subordinates. This sometimes meant arguing about things utterly irrelevant to the task at hand, sometimes it meant proving their worldliness with some sophisticated English conversation like, "where are you from?"

Before I went there, the police emphasized the worst about Korean society: older, male, authoritarian, unhelpful and unconcerned. I was embarrassed but pleased to realize that the police, though not very good at speaking English, were as accommodating and helpful as any other aspect of Korean society.

Of course, I'm sure that they may let me down yet, but on this day we generally had the run of the place, up to and including washing our hands in their evidence lab, aptly titled CSI. Afterwards, they even served us cocoa (okay, it was green tea) and we shared a mutual bonding moment until someone asked "why the hell are they still here?" So, then they asked us, "uh, why are you still here? Finished?" Before we could answer, they'd shown us the door out.

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