Thor's Korea Diary

Visa Run

@20 September 2000
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Did a visa run to Japan earlier this week. One of the rackets run by nation states is that they won't give you a work visa on their sovereign soil. A steady stream of itinerant teachers is forced to shuttle out of Taiwan, Korea, Japan and any number of other countries to get some silly stamp. It is one of those industries created by the bureaucratic mind. I had been employed at the last minute by a college, after term had begun. The twenty odd days that it would have taken to obtain a Korean work visa in Australia would have left a lot of unhappy paying students in South Korea. I also learned later that the college was uneasy about sending a signed contract (necessary for the visa) to a face they had never seen. The deal was therefore that I would pick up an instant tourist visa, drop into Korea, and then, as I understood it, make a quick round trip to Japan for the necessary work visa stamp, all arranged by them. That last bit turned out not to be in the imagination of the gent who set this up. They wanted me to pay for a return Japan air fare, overnight hotel, 5,500 Japanese yen for the visa -- maybe something over US$400 all up. I balked. We argued for a day, and eventually settled for a backdoor compromise.

Getting out of Pansong Dong, my new home, to anywhere is a slow business. The road to Ulsan city up the coast wends through the mountains, past this far flung satellite of Pusan city. It is a stomping ground for heavy container trucks, barging buses, darting taxis, and private vehicles of every size and description. The whole grinding mass crawls to a halt at a series of arterial blockages before you can escape it on the subway at Tongnae. So departing for Japan in the early morning, I stood for an hour with commuters as the bus lurched from stop to stop, an overnight bag balanced between my feet. Longer than the actual flight time. A taxi could have done no better -- there was only one road. I was heading for Pusan Station where I had heard rumour of an airport bus. The man at the station tourist bureau agreed that there was indeed an airport bus, and drew me an incomprehensible diagram on a scrap of paper. His English was shaky. We worked together decoding his handiwork, and finally cracked the meaning: I had to go to the other side of the road and walk south for a hundred meters. As I got to the beginning of the hundred metre dash, the magic bus appeared, made a swerve at its marked bus stop, and disappeared into the milling traffic. So I waited, and waited. After twenty minutes, an ancient crone tugged me by the elbow. I was surprised. In South Korea the people in the street seem to leave you strictly alone. But she was persistent. "Four thousand", she kept hissing in English. It was not a number I could connect with anything. The Lonely Planet Guide had said the bus cost a thousand won. The crone shuffled back to a sort of cigarette booth that I hadn't noticed before, and crawled inside. Presently she re-emerged with a book of tickets that were marked "Airport Limousine". Limousine? Who needed a limo'. Then I saw that the bus stop was also marked "Limousine". Oddities of the English language. I delivered four thousand won into the crone's claw, grumbling about inflation. "Nine", she said, extending our conversation. Hmm, that was about the clock: another ten minutes.

There are cities in the world where propping up a lamp post and watching the world go by can keep you cheerfully occupied for a whole morning. Watching six lanes of traffic go by though is not the stuff of romance. I had managed a quick bite for breakfast with the idea of a leisurely snack at the airport, but now my throat was dry with exhaust fumes .. That was the cue for another apparition to appear at my elbow. He was diminutive, a mere pixie of a man, in dark, neatly pressed trousers and a white business shirt. He wore white gloves, and his hair was slicked back with half a jar of brilliantine. "Taxi", he hissed. I ignored him. "Taxi", he breathed in my ear again, "air-a-port". "Go away, I have a bus ticket". He retreated five paces, like a jackal that has had a burning brand shoved in its face, then circled back. "You late", he advised. No there was plenty of time; I just wanted a cup of tea. "Go away". "A thousand won," he shot back, "only one dollar". What? I had heard this line before: a rough take on the US dollar exchange rate to help befuddled foreigners. "Give me limo ticket and one dollar" he pleaded. " "Get lost..". This time he padded back to an immaculate silver cab, pulled up on the pavement. So that was the end of it. There must be a fiddle somewhere, if he could trade with the bus ticket. My attention wandered back to the road. That bus was due again any minute. Suddenly the pixie was back, urgent this time. "No dollar, no dollar, just limo' ticket" he whined. Behind him was a young Korean with all the accoutrements of Executive Man, and a well-permed businesswoman in her twenties. I had become part of a different profit and loss equation.

I sat in the back of the cab with Executive Man. He had pimples, gold rimmed spectacles, a brown suit, an expensive gold watch. He nursed one of those of briefcases that can hold one letter and a newspaper, and cost as much as a shipping container. With that kind of class, we oughtn't need a babble-fish in the ear. Business jet-setters speak English as surely as they wear Italian shoes. He smiled the smile of diplomacy and opened with "I'll pay for you". Aha. What spin had the pixie put on the foreigner? An impecunious Russian sailor? A won-pinching backpacker? Well, let him be open hearted. I had no shame. It turned out that Executive Man was going to Seoul, but he wouldn't tell me much more. The traffic was heavy, so we settled in for another hour of sudden swerves and rushes, followed by long motionless periods of gridlock. At one point the pixie driver, who had barely concealed his gloating when I joined the cab, broke the boredom with his version of an international conversation. "Russia man?" he enquired, looking in the rear vision mirror. "Australian", I said firmly. There was a buzz of animated Korean. This was news. It was definitely more popular to be an Australian than a rouble-poor, hard drinking Russian, or a red neck American marine. "Olymp-ii-k", said the pixie happily. "Sydney is my home town." "Aaah, Sh-iii-di--ni". Much clucking of approval. But we couldn't progress far on that.

Shortly the businesswoman and Executive Man made an electronic migration to other places. A generation ago you would have been locked away for talking to yourself in public, but now it seems that half the world's population is only "virtually" on the street, in a restaurant or driving a car. Their real minds are telling Mildred, or Mr Kim, or Santa Clause not to forget to feed the cat. And so my two very important executive fellow passengers were soon busy holding dislocated conversations on their mobile phones, while I slumped there bemused, like a man who has accidentally taken off his shoes in the wrong bedroom of an expensive hotel.

Pusan is a rotten place to build an airport. The narrow, angular mountain valleys which give it character also serrate the skyline like granite can openers. Korean pilots have an unenviable reputation for being cowboys, but maybe they have to be to fly in and out of places like this. Although it takes an hour in logjammed traffic to reach from downtown, the airport is not particularly distant from the city centre as helicopters jump. It squats on a marshy island in a river delta, a kilometre or two from the coast. If this were a bus terminal, you would be slapping mosquitoes, but air terminals have an ambience all of their own -- lots of glass, towering atriums, polished floors, check-in queues. They are a kind of reaffirmation of Parkinson's Law, that work expands to fill the time available. Or travel time expands, and costs. To catch an intercity bus, you get there two minutes before departure and pay the driver. For a train you can count on a few more minutes of preliminaries, and boats hang around making up their minds to pull up the gangplank, or finally berth. Planes though.. Heck, they are like atomic power stations -- simple in concept and excruciating in the execution. Here I had been on the road for two and a half hours already, just to get to the airport. Now I would be screwed for some kind of "departure tax", as much as an intercity bus ticket, because air travellers are presumed to be rich or spending other people's money. Then I would run the gauntlet as a potential hijacker, because unlike trains, aeroplanes can fall to earth.

Pusan only has international departures to Japan (I think), so travelling to such a dangerous place the hijack checking is especially enthusiastic. Or perhaps the security officers want to get promoted to the big apple, Seoul. They ran my overnight bag through the x-ray machine three times. Muttering, a man in dark blue set to work like a ferret opening all the zips and pushing his fingers into the cracks. At last uttering something that sounded like "aha" in Korean, he emerged victorious with a folding fruit knife. This knife with its plastic red handle has followed me dumbly all over China and across the Pacific Ocean to Australia. Now though, I had to be rendered weaponless. A form to fill in, the hapless fruit knife sealed into a big dispatch bag, an accursed checked-in luggage tag stapled to my ticket, which meant hanging around at the carousel in Fukuoka. Next to me an elderly Asian lady was spluttering with rage in a language nobody in blue could understand. They were offering her typed explanation sheets in half a dozen tongues. She had just been disarmed from carrying the exact twin of my fruit knife.

Almost thirty years ago I was a dispatch officer at Sydney airport. The job had a certain glamour about it, and paid very well. On a busy Monday morning we would turn around a plane every ten minutes, and the coordination was exacting. Safety was the only acceptable reason for delaying a flight. Thinking back to the long hours I have spent in airport departure lounges since, it seems sometimes that air "safety" must be desperately fragile. This morning, for our hop across the channel to Fukuoka, the flight was forty-five minutes late. The sky was blue, the air was still, and eight planes sat on the tarmac awaiting clearance. At least there was time to study the passengers... In the early 1980s I caught the overnight ferry from Shiminoseki in Japan to Pusan, and found myself amongst a coven of smugglers. They thought I was crazy traveling empty handed. Well old customs never die. I had been puzzled at the check-in by what looked like a geriatric migration. A day later, on the return, exactly the same horde of busy ancients were checking in with the savior faire of worldly pros. Then I understood. By that time they had made two international trips while I slept.

No wonder I had to upgrade to business class to get a seat on the return journey. It seems that the flight to Fukuoka is booked out every day by an army of peasant grandmothers who wrestle huge boxes up to the check-in, then stagger on board with trolleys piled high with duty free. When we finally got airborne, I was sitting next to an old girl with duty free piled between her legs, up to her chest. The airline's largess for this hop across the strait was a boxed lunch. I watched with fascination as the trolley came adjacent to our seats for a couple of minutes. It had beer cans on top, boxed lunches stashed in the ends. Each time the flight attendant turned around my neighbour would snitch something and stow it calmly into a large handbag. She wound up with four boxed lunches and three cans of beer. God knows how she planned to make a buck on those. But I guess the grannies were keeping the airline in business. A few cans of beer were kind of frequent flier points.

Fukuoka from the air looks like Korea from the air -- all black mountain valleys and ice cream scoops of hazy bays. Getting to town though is infinitely easier: the subway runs run straight under the airport, and there's an information desk with free maps and a lady who knows exactly what you want when you utter the words "Korean consulate". The visa run is a handy money spinner for the whole service industry. I asked for a cheap hotel and was promptly booked into a "businessman's" shoebox a few minute's walk from the main station in Hakata, for 5,700 yen. Hmm. Well, economical is a relative concept... By this time it was already after midday -- so much for arriving ahead of the cheapskate ferry and hydrofoil travellers from Korea -- so there was no time to waste getting out to the consulate.

Then my eye caught the eye of another exile. He must have been hovering on fifty, thinning sandy hair, that kind of pale, freckled skin that speaks of Scottish forebears, big clumsy fingers ... "Three guesses where you're going", I smiled. There is a whole tribe out here in the wilderness, stragglers from those hordes of men in the post-industrial economies who suddenly find that they are unemployable. Nobody says that they are too old -- they are after all in the prime of life -- and nobody says that twenty-five year old personnel officers, and insecure managers in their thirties have a horror of hiring people older than themselves. Nobody says it, and the law denies it, but that's the reality on the mean streets. So these middle-aged men buy lawn mowing franchises, or take hopeless, cynical retraining courses, or follow humiliating and dishonest rituals to get unemployment cheques from offhand government clerks. A few put off the evil brand mark of "long-term unemployed" by wrangling temporary contracts for several years in foreign cultures far from home. Being a speaker of the world's most wanted language, English, is one of the few lucky breaks available to some of them; (on bleak mornings I wake up wondering where I fit into this sorry pantheon). So I saw Jock and profiled him at once.

But this fellow was not given to reflection. A practical question. Where could he change won into yen, he wanted to know. Oh dear, my new acquaintance was in desperate trouble already, and he didn't realize it. He had come with only Korean currency, not even a credit card. Outside of Korea you can't change won. Insane, a major trading nation of the "free world" with a non-convertible currency. I had overheard this critical information from staffroom gossip. The employers, the government agencies with their myriads of required forms, never tell you basic, essential things like this. He received the news with a kind of unfocused shrug, like someone who has been told to go to the shop next door. How long would it take for the penny to drop? As long as it takes to reach a subway vending machine. Nope, sorry, Korean won didn't work in these ones. OK, well you can't say hello to a stranger, then knowingly leave him stranded. I sold him some of my own yen currency, leaving myself a bit short. We took the subway together out to Tojinmachi.

Jock wasn't exactly effusive, but in dribs and drabs it came out that he worked in a hogwan in one of the small cities up the coast. Hogwans are private cram schools, famous for hiring with grand promises and huge demands for teaching hours, then firing on a whim, or when business falters. Typically their customers range from infants to businessmen expecting instant fluency for a trade fair, and heaven help the teacher if baby Kim or grandpa Kim decide that he's not doing things in the expected way. Jock's flat New Zealand mumble had already seen him exited from one hogwan, hence the need for a new visa. The experience had done nothing for his speech -- I myself often had to ask him to repeat. Neither a professional teacher nor a linguist, lacking the objective knowledge to remake his own persona, he was stumbling numbly around the fringes of language teaching, shuffling across that arid plain of middle life.

We emerged into the sunlight in what seemed to be a quiet suburban suburban street. We both had an instant sense of being back in one of the more prosperous parts of Australia or New Zealand. An occasional car hummed by on perfectly sealed bitumen. Glass fronted shops and offices dozed quietly, human figures were rare and fleeting apparitions. The directions from the girl at the travel desk had seemed clear enough, but now on the ground we had no idea which way to turn. A young woman with party glitter on her cheeks was trapped in our gaze of bewilderment as she came up the subway stairs. Trapped into a "can I help you", but with English too fragmented to give any credible directions. We did gather that Fukuoka stadium was off to the right. Its great copper dome is one of the city's defining landmarks, and my map marked our destination in its general direction. The distances were not great (pleasant surprise), a mere ten minute walk. Although mountains hem the skyline to the east, the city itself is quite flat. We made our way through down quiet roads and spotless laneways towards the stadium, until across an intersection on one of its corners were could see a high fenced compound flying the white flag of Korea. It was lunchtime, when such places are always closed, so we took the cue and wandered into a small shopping complex by the stadium. There was, of course, one of the ubiquitous MacDonald's Hamburger joints, selling grease and cardboard at what looked like inflated prices, but reassuringly familiar to foreigners lacking the courage for dietary adventure.

The consulate had a sleepy wariness about it, like someone who has been mugged often enough to always keep half an eyelid open. The heavy iron grill front gate was locked, permanently perhaps, so we made our way to the side facing the stadium, which had a security office and one of those steel concertina barriers that run in a track. Here we met Mr Foo. Mr Foo was about four feet high, and dressed in the dark blue uniform of his gatekeeper caste. He was a dumpy fellow with high blood pressure and a nervous manner, but basically friendly. Seeing two pale, gawky barbarians approaching, he scrambled into his cubby-hole, and as we drew level pushed a visitor's book into our faces. The "address" category had just enough room to write "Australia", which seemed precise enough.. Inside, the place was like an old-fashioned bank, with glass-topped tables for filling out forms, and an inner room with a shiny counter and a (no doubt) bullet-proof glass enclosure. At the back was one of those coin-in-the-slot photo booths. The stolid occupant of this bank-like vault did not seem pleased to see us. His utterances were telegraphic: "passport!" (snatch), "come tomorrow!" "5,500 yen!" "no Korean money!" .. If he knew where to change money he wasn't saying. Jock looked distressed, as if the full disaster of being penniless in Japan had just registered. But I had a problem myself, for selling Jock a survival ration had left me short too. The visa fee was news to me too, though I should have guessed. Did the consular clerk know where some American dollars could be changed? He waved an arm vaguely in the direction of Tojinmachi. When did the banks close? "3.30pm", he snapped, and in a major concession to friendly relations added "hurry! now!".

So we tracked back to the subway, past little lanes and high backyard fences. It was pleasant enough in the winter afternoon sunshine, but we tried not to think about what other small catastrophes could suddenly loom around the corner. That's the thing about being a stranger in a strange land. The kid who has kicked a ball around his town's backstreets, and graduated there to middle age, has all kinds of back-up systems. He knows what can be gotten away with, where to cut corners, what mate to ring if the sky falls in ... But as a stranger, an interloper and foreigner, you are flying on one wire. If that snaps, the trapeze act is over, and it's a long long plunge into the chasm.

Eventually we did find an unassuming shop front bearing the logo of a bank. American dollars speak a universal language at this moment in history, but if I had not retrieved my passport from the grumpy Korean clerk, it would have all been too hard for the powdered young bank lady in her lime green uniform. I had thought of breaking a traveller's cheque, then recalled my first encounter with a Japanese bank. That was Osaka, in 1982, when I watched in disbelief for thirty-five minutes as my humble traveller's cheque progressed from desk to desk, finally accumulating the reluctant imprimatur of the very important "salaryman" at the back of the room. It didn't look as if much had changed. The powdered lady in green bowed in that elaborately polite Japanese way, and presented me with a form to fill out which apparently wanted to know everything back to the details of my paternal great grandfather's second marriage. No, this was the moment to splurge my small store of actual American banknotes -- but I still had to fill out the damned form. Faced with this sort of nonsense nowadays, I am apt to write "Santa Clause, The North Pole", or "Number one toll booth, the Sydney Harbour Bridge." There is a minor anarchic pleasure in stuffing foolish archives with fantasy facts. At last though, the greenbacks were whisked away and the Japanese stuff presented on a little plastic tray. Should I have left the small change as a tip? Jock was hovering there looking mournful, so without filling out any forms we swapped some Japanese stuff for Korean stuff. In fact, he pretty well had no Korean stuff left after that, and I was going home won rich.

Our visas would be ready, said the consul's clerk, at 10am tomorrow. Now there was time to kill in this beautifully planned and very expensive corner of Japan. As we crossed the road to Fukuoka stadium shopping centre, Jock suddenly suggested a photograph. How about using the consulate as a backdrop? I lined him up on the kerb and stepped back a few meters. Behind Jock's bulk, in the viewfinder of my little Pentax Espio, an action movie erupted. It had something to do with arms and legs all dressed in dark blue. They were flailing in a manner that suggested panic. Curious about this tantric development, I looked up and saw Mr Foo in a state of great excitement on the other side of the street. Did he want his photograph taken too? I lifted the camera and zoomed the lens. Mr Foo bounded behind a pillar by the consulate's gateway. After about a minute his very red nose poked around the corner of the pillar, followed shortly by a pair of very round eyes. Yaaaah! The camera was still there! Eyes and nose vanished again. Oh dear, so national defences had come to this. Jock and I walked away shaking with laughter.

Back at Hakata station, my sometime partner split to find his hotel, and I wandered off to find my businessman's shoebox. It should have been easy, but it was also easy to take the wrong diagonal street and turn a ten minute walk into forty minutes. This hotel was about as close to processing batch chickens as you could humanly get, but I didn't mind being a number. They took credit cards and gave you a key -- a big advance on the nosey "xiaojia's" of China -- and once I had walked through an anonymous doorway somewhere on the eleventh floor, I knew that this was a small, rented, private space that nobody would invade for the next twelve hours. These places don't live on tourists, but on the salarymen who hang around late in the office (compulsory Japanese ritual), then get drunk with their mates. Instead of commuting back to the family apartment, where he's pretty well an unwelcome stranger anyway, your tipsy salaryman takes one of these "business bedrooms" for the night. There's a plastic bathroom, made in one hermetic unit with drainage pipes screwed on, a single bed, three coat hangers on wall hooks, and a narrow desk with a TV on it. The TV has five nondescript free-to-air channels, and a "pay" selection of pornographic channels. The "pay" part of it is automatically recorded at the reception desk downstairs. This electronic recording also goes for the bar fridge under the desk, crammed with a kind of skeletal vending machine to dispense beer and Snickers, with scarcely a spare centimetre for the guest's own smuggled in purchases.

Long before the modern city of Fukuoka was thought of, Hakata was known as a trading port, and jumping off point for contacts with those reluctant cousins, the Koreans. Nowadays the granite office fronts, the banks and hotels, are almost indistinguishable from the business districts in any American or European city. Underground around the station are the usual arcades of small, brightly lit shops. Before you have walked far, these abruptly give way to a long, soulless, tiled pedestrian tunnel leading to the next subway stop. A denizen from Shanghai would feel lonely at peak hour in Fukuoka. I wandered the darkening streets looking for signs of life. By a built-up stormwater channel-cum-river I found an airy arcade, high arched latticeworks of glass and steel that made me imagine London's nineteenth century Crystal Palace. The arcade shops were drawing down their shutters -- it was around 7pm -- and an occasional young office lady on a designer bicycle wove around the thin trickle of pedestrians.

On the list of things to buy in my pocket notebook was "contact glue" for my running shoes. Over several weeks in Pusan, I hadn't seen any place looking like a credible hardware store, so the boutique hardware store in this Crystal Palace arcade was a welcome sight (I suspect that Japanese merchants could turn anything into a boutique). I went inside and performed a little pantomime of gluing up shoe soles for a broad and avuncular Japanese lady in an orange plastic apron. She nodded gravely. We found a shelf holding an enormous toothpaste tube of the stuff, boxed with various plastic nozzles for spreading it. With careful pedantry she did several pantomimes to show me how to use the different nozzles. It would have been churlish to cut her short. Having properly respected her professional training, I handed over what seemed like a large sum of money for a tube of glue, and she bowed me out of the shop. The arcade came out on another sleepy street, so I walked over the domesticated river, and followed its embankment towards my hotel. Here there seemed to be the remnants of an entertainment or red-light district. Little restaurants, suggestive doorways, nightclubs, a bouncer here to keep the riff-raff out, or a spruiker outside some striptease joint to get the riff-raff in. No riff-raff in sight though; they didn't seem to think I was worth the trouble.

Further up towards the station, tethered to pedestrian fly-overs, was a turreted structure that looked like a Transylvanian castle built of glass. By now I was thinking of dinner, and Canal City as it was called, had an inner courtyard with several eateries gathered around a fountain and artificial lake. Rather nice. The Wendy's Hamburgers there were half the price of Macdonald's at the stadium, but what sort of diet was that? There was a pizza cafe, and Dunkin' Donuts. All heart attack stuff. Why do I hesitate to do a Marco Polo and just walk into one of the local nosh houses? Their food is always better than those international franchises. Maybe it's shyness, or the energy needed to point at other people's plates when you can't read the menu, or a fear of getting something inedible and offending everyone, or maybe the fear of a huge unexplained bill for incomprehensible extras. One way or another, it doesn't happen often enough that I make a leap into a culinary black hole, and tonight wasn't one of the times. I wimped out and headed for a Seven-Eleven type store. It was clear that these were also set up for the late-working salarymen. All kinds of interesting looking meals were pre-packed in shrink wrap. But obviously you were expected to take this food back to the office. Unlike in Australia, none of these stores offered the convenience of a microwave oven.

I settled for a couple of steamed meat buns (baotzi) and some milk, then vagrant style, propped myself against a pylon base in a lane to snaffle them. That was meant to be unobtrusive, surely easy in this unhurried town. It took several minutes, as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, to notice that I was not alone. On the other side of the laneway was a large van, in a fact a futuristic small bus. As I leaned there impassively the bus was approached by a svelte creature straight out of a Vogue pictorial. She daintily clambered into the vehicle. Over the next several minutes a steady stream of these fashion plate apparitions glided into the bus, and I began to feel slightly indecent, like an old man in a plastic raincoat looking through the keyhole of a virgin's bedroom. Who were they? At a guess, "office ladies", unmarried females doing the obligatory company overtime, who would now be delivered safely back to their parent's houses. It was time for me to stop being a voyeur. The hotel receptionist in his grey uniform handed over my room key with robotic courtesy. Then I found myself in a lift with a flushed and exuberant Japanese elder, an immaculately suited and be-tied senior businessman who would spend the day with his face carved in stone. But this was after hours. "Aaah, where are you from?" he yelped with delight, slapping me on the arm. His young male keeper, stone sober, trusted to get him home on just such evenings, made restraining clucks. "Aaah! Oosetaraalia!" As I left the left he shouted "auf Wiedersehen!" and his youthful keeper bowed with humiliation.

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

"The Sports Festival" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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