Thor's Korea Diary

The Banker's Tale

@3 March 2002

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Mr Kang dreads my arrival every month. His round face flushes slightly as I claim a seat in front of his desk, and his eyes shift with mild desperation to little piles of paper that suddenly need urgent attention. It is no good though. He knows in his heart of hearts that I am not going to go away until we have both suffered a confused ritual which will take at least an hour. The problem is that each month I bank some money in a foreign currency term deposit, and with the Pusan Bank that means an extraordinary amount of unfamiliar paper work. In fourteen months I have accumulated ten (yes, ten) passbooks of various colours, but they are only the tip of the paper mountain.

Bankers have always been difficult to love. Jesus Christ picked a popularity winner when he tipped over the money-changers' tables. The Prophet Mohammed had some hard words for usurers too. Not that these outbursts made any serious difference. Rome, after all, co-opted the Christians as a political ploy. Stout bankers have gone to church on Sundays ever since, and resumed thieving on Mondays without a qualm. In the usury-free lands of Mohammed, bankers still laugh all the way to the bank as they continue to grow rich with other people's money.

If you travel to the People's Paradise of China, where Marx and Mao officially did away with capitalist running dogs, there is also a banker's miracle to behold. Amid the filthy rubble and stained concrete slums of five hundred and sixty mostly disintegrating cities you will find, every couple of kilometres, a finger of polished green glass or somesuch architectural sculpture, pointing into the polluted stratosphere. These baubles are jewels on the fat fingers of China's five laughably competing banking corporations. The hand which owns them is the Party, and the necks they screw belong to China's long suffering people. They are all technically bankrupt, but with the brazen assurance known to bankers from time immemorial, their gnomes continue to build themselves air conditioned palaces across the land.

You would never guess it at the street level, but a swathe of South Korean banks also teeter close to insolvency, born of shonky business practices apparently OK in the Korean fish bowl, but suddenly capsized in international waters. They have been saved from time to time by reckless injections of public funds, forced mergers, and opaque rearrangements of cross ownership webs amongst Korea's small elite of super rich families. However, their position is not (at least in present public knowledge) quite as hopeless as Japan's terrifying banking paralysis - for that one is literally a falling out amongst thieves. Japanese banks are owed awesome amounts by the Yakuza (Mafia) [One estimate by US investment bankers, Goldman Sachs, puts Japanese bad debt at 237 trillion yen]. The Yakuza are stuck with multi-billions of dollars worth of devalued property. A few bankers who tried to collect had their heads blown off, so the survivors wisely obfuscate, and the politicians are locked in the same Yakuza embrace anyway. Now the Japanese nation is slowly being strangled by a Yakuza led recession ... [e.g. see the Far Eastern Economic Review, January 17, 2002 at ]

For Mr Kang and I though, the rise and fall of corporations and civilizations is only distant thunder. I have the immediate problem of where to stash my pathetic reserves of cash, and Mr Kang has the career threatening problem of getting me away from his desk without making some dreadful clerical error. I feel for Mr Kang, but selfishly wish that my money and my time were not at his bumbling mercy. He is a caricature of his species.

The shopfront of your modern bank is of course not served by the bodily presence of owners and senior management. Rather, there is an army of clerks (rechristened "bank officers" in these euphemistic times) who front the glowering resentment of the masses. From New York to Bahrain to the unlovely suburbs of Korea they are mostly a hapless crew, trained and dressed like performing monkeys, but barely in control of the intricate routines they are expected to perform. One wrinkle in their script and they freeze with panic, retreat to calling headquarters on telephones which never answer, or throw up a smokescreen of misinformation. Mr Kang is easy to satirise, but I meet his double on every visit home to Australia. Indeed his Australian double is somewhat more traumatised, and probably gets corporate psychiatric counselling to steady his nerves. Irate Australian citizens have a cultural talent for verbally pulverizing the inept. For me, the Australian difference is that I can bypass the counter-jumpers by doing most things now with the click of a web-page button, and savage bank fees for "personal attention" encourage me to keep going that way. Navigating my finances in Internet Korean would be even scarier that coaxing Mr Kang; (though I note that a competing bank, HC&B has just made Internet accounts available in English... ).

Today when I slouch in, a woman of about thirty is eyeballing Mr Kang intently. She has a bo dae gi on her back (a kind of padded cotton blanket with straps for holding a baby) and it is pretty plain that she has had enough of watching him dither. Mr Kang does not dare look up at her, so he doesn't notice my ominous arrival either. Rather, he has a passbook and several other pieces of paper in front of him. His hand hovers indecisively above each for a full half minute at a time, before hovering above the next, then moving to start the cycle again. The man who monitors the security cameras must get a kick out of this show. But I have come well prepared this time, with an interesting book. Before settling down to read the book, my eye drifts over the busy little human community which is this bank.

The foreign exchange desk is on the narrow side of a long rectangular counter, so I can survey the melee of customers over the shoulders of the bank tellers. When normal customers enter, they take a ticket from a machine by the door, then wait for the ping and red flash of their number above a teller's desk. The pings and flashes come briskly. These tellers are all young women (almost certainly unmarried), dressed in neat grey uniforms, and they operate with disciplined courtesy. At this bank they accept not only cash deposits, but payments on all kinds of utilities and even seat bookings for certain cultural events. You sense that the general banking service here is not yet quite so alienated from public sympathy as the maximum-charge-for-minimum-service which has blighted modern Australian banking culture. Nevertheless, the gender organization of the staffing is intriguing. Behind the working girls, well protected from the jostling public, is a solid phalanx of besuited males, all at desks, and none obviously overstressed. Only a trouble-shooter at the corner counter, and our woeful Mr Kang at the prestigious foreign exchange counter are males. Mr Kang's predecessor, a much sharper fellow with a whisp of humour about him, had moved on to the troubleshooter's saddle, from where he could rescue his junior from the worst entangelments. Now I notice however that he is gone, so Mr Kang's disasters will be irretrievably his own.

After many minutes of Mr Kang's fiddling, the lady is finally able to rescue her passbook and bolts for the door. What foolish hope. In my mental geography she is already down the steps and heading for the market when little squeaks begin to erupt from the lips of the bank clerk. There is a kind of flailing of arms and legs as Mr Kang gets mobile and fights his pudgy way past obstructions to the end of the counter. As he falls through the glass doors I can hear him crying "kidariseyo !, wait, wait ....!.". His po-faced colleagues don't twitch a muscle, for that is the Korean way, but unless they are made of stone they must be dying of hilarity inside. We see him next five minutes later, flushed but triumphant with the passbook, though without the customer. She must have told him to fetch the goddamned thing back himself. The resolution of all this drama is a single forgotten photocopy, more scrap for Pusan Bank's mouldering paper mountains. I sigh and pick up my book again, guessing that Mr Kang has another expedition ahead of him in the direction of the market.

Bringing a book isn't the only way that I have wised up to Mr Kang. It is painfully obvious that he can't walk and chew gum at the same time. I therefore plan carefully to feed him small tasks one by one. Firstly he can update my savings passbook, then he can make a transfer into a won term account (paying better interest than dollars at the moment). We manage this inside twenty-five minutes, which is something of a record. But then there is the big one. I want him to renew my US dollar term deposit. Oh dear. This is yet another passbook, cleverly designed to accept deposits in about six different currencies, but only a couple of entries in the currency I happen to use (or any of the others). A truly brilliant bit of documentary engineering. Every other visit this means getting a new passbook, and THAT means pretty well everything involved with opening a new account - a flurry of papers and pin numbers and signatures, yet another photocopy of my identity card ..... Poor Mr Kang. Manfully he soldiers on, his tremulous hand fluttering for whole minutes above this form or that. There is much soulful gazing into a computer monitor, and the clock creeps up to the forty-five minute mark.

There comes a time though when his shoulders square as much as they are ever likely to. I sense that we have reached a decisive moment. Indeed, he takes a deep breath and plunges the new passbook into the maw of a machine. This thing is supposed to magically squeeze the stuff on the computer screen into the printed columns of the passbook. There is a whir and a clatter, then Mr Kang advances to retrieve his handiwork. Nothing happens quickly with Mr Kang, but shortly I hear a kind of hiss like escaping air. He sinks into his chair paralysed, eyes lowered, his head on his chest. Obviously he is in deep thought, though I am not quite sure that it has to do with suicide because the passbook remains hidden. On this occasion it takes quite a while for life to re-emerge. My first clues come when he scrabbles in a drawer and extracts one of those white correction tape things. Intrigued, I rudely peer over the desk and discover the awful truth. The pre-printed "rules and signatures" page in the front of the passbook has been brutally overprinted with all that messy stuff about my actual money. So now, with infinitely slow care Mr Kang whites-out swathes of the cover page until it looks like a crash casualty from an emergency hospital ward.

By the time the last bit of offending type has been covered I notice that my friendly bank clerk has recovered some of his confidence. After all, a task, one task, has been visibly completed. Now what was the next step again? Ah, paralysis once more. It is clear that Mr Kang hasn't the foggiest idea how to get that vicious printer to REprint where it is supposed to. Koreans are nothing if not social creatures, but there is the matter of "face", and though I suspect that Mr Kang doesn't have a whole lot of "face" left in his social deposit book anyway, it is evidently out of the question to call for help. Finally inspiration strikes, and with a quick conspiratorial glance at me he hooks out an expensive ballpoint pen. Isn't it a cruel world ? The path of the wicked is set with terrors. With a sad little bleat, Mr Kang realises that he doesn't know enough magic to translate the computer screen into those nasty passbook columns. Disconsolately, he begins to scrape the white-out off the cover page, line by line, with his fingernail, copy the numbers, then repaint the naughty printing....

I am smarter than the lady with the bo dae gi. I race down the steps of the bank without a backward glance, cover my tracks through the front door and out the side door of a furniture shop, and do a double wiggle into a supermarket. If Mr Kang is yelping "kidariseyo! kidariseyo!" somewhere up there on the main road, well I don't want to hear him.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"The Banker's Tale"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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