Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Trusting the Universe, Korean Honesty, and My Wallet

Back in 2000, as everyone knows, I met K (my husband), at the Andong International Mask Dance Festival. This is also the festival that made me fall in love with Korean Mask Dance Dramas (in the inaugural year, 1997). And of course both of these things have changed my life.

In 2001 I went to China to see K for the first time (before I knew more than a few words of Chinese, and none of Tibetan). I took the boat from Korea to Qingdao, and without any Chinese managed to buy myself a  ticket (seat, not sleeper) on a train to Xi'an (most of the way to the end of the train line nearest K's home). In Qingdao in the train station waiting for my train, nervous, laden down by a huge camera bag and another bag for clothes and necessities, I desperately needed the bathroom, but had already realized how hard this would be to navigate without setting my bag on a very nasty Chinese train station bathroom floor covered in fluids one does NOT want to identify. Then I met a Korean-- he had seen me on the boat and said something to me. All I needed to know was that he was Korean. "Can you watch my bag? I have to use the bathroom!" and off I went, only realizing once in the bathroom how funny it was that I was willing to trust this fellow based purely on the fact that he was Korean. (As it happens Kenneth as I are still friends, he brought his family to a performance of K's in Vancouver in August-- I don't think we'll ever lose touch of each other).

I have always been convinced of Korean honesty, and a little government and business corruption aside, I maintain that belief.

I did lose my wallet on the bus once. Dang that sucked. And I did have to pay a "finder's fee" to get it back (the finder claimed the cash was already gone when he found it). Actually he wouldn't even deal with me. My friend Yoomi's mom had to go meet him and exchange for my wallet. Ugh. But that guy did not dim my belief in Korean honesty.

Until last Thursday, that is.

I arrived at the Andong International Mask Dance Festival at 2pm, right as the performance of Goseong Ogwangdae was starting. I had left home at 7:10, caught a bus to the bus station in East Seoul (a single bus... but it took forever to get there), but then was stymied when the next two buses to Andong were sold out. As an experienced traveler in Korea, I joined the line of people hoping that not all the ticket holders would show up... allowing me to catch an earlier bus. I missed the first bus by three people. When the second bus hit departure time I was third in line and made it on. Anyway, I arrived in Andong with this big rush rush rush stressed energy. I got in line and bought a ticket for the performance hall (the festival is free, except for that one hall. A single entry is 7,000 won, in order to come and go as I liked I bought a 30,000 won ticket good for the entire duration of the festival). I even managed to find a front row seat in the packed hall. When the funeral procession of the last act entered the stage I stood up and slipped 10,000 won into the rope on the front of the "coffin" for the character of Keun Eomi. This was the last time I saw my wallet.
Hwang Jong-uk Performing in the Role of the Old Monk

After the show I gleefully reunited with my Goseong friends (although in fact I saw them all in July, but still I had a chance to tell them about my job, and I'm still pretty excited to say "I got a job! I'm a professor now!"). Before long the bus took most of them back to Goseong, except Hwang Jong-uk, Minsu, and two K-Arts students who were helping out. I hung around with the four, especially Hwang, walking around, taking photos of them teaching a demo class for kids, and then eating dinner together (Hwang's treat-- I think I owe him about 20 meals at this point). Once they left I had to carry all my stuff again, and decided to go check into a hotel, then return for some night photography.

In the hotel room I couldn't find my wallet. "Don't freak out! Don't freak out!" I kept repeating. But it was really gone. The hotel owners (who couldn't remember me from last time, but that might be good as last time I left with their key and didn't find it in my pocket and send it to them for at least a week) were pissed when I tried to leave with the key but not paying, but I assured them my friends would loan me money.

My friends?!!! My only real Andong friend, Yeong-ae, was in Bali performing at the opening ceremony for APEC. I walked back to the festival in a half panic, looking everywhere I'd been and asking at each official desk, tourist info center, the police station, the ticket office, and finally the main festival office if a wallet had been turned in. In the main festival office Gwon Duhyeon (festival director whom I've met before but barely remember) reached into his wallet and set 50,000 won on the table in front of me. "Give me your name card" I insisted. And eventually he did, although he really would have just given me the money. I went looking more, then returned to the office. "Can I use your computer?" I asked Gwon and checked, finding out that my Chase accounts hadn't had even a whiff of action (my wallet had a Korean cash card, "check" card, two Chase cards, my Islander's Bank card, my driver's license, my university ID that I'd received on Tuesday, my transportation card loaded with more than 40,000 won, 110 in American cash AND over 250,000 in Korean cash). Sitting there I got a text from Hwang Jong-uk "Shall I save you?" he asked. "What does this mean?" I asked Gwon, handing the festival director my phone. "Oh, you're a friend of Hwang Jong-uk?" He asked, laughing, and dialing Hwang who promptly ordered Gwon to give me another 50,000 won.

I couldn't shake the memory of the man who'd wanted a finder's fee to return my wallet, and although I felt that my wallet had to return to me, I tried to accept that all the cash would be gone. And I kept trying to remind myself that I have a job. After spending seven years as an MA and PhD student with only one year in between (on Buddhist pilgrimage) and one year after finishing my doctorate (unemployed), I am very used to being stressed about money. And if someone started using my check card, I'd lose much more than just the cash. Korean "check" cards (kind of like a debit card) don't need even a pin, just a signature. (Gwon and I had tried to cancel my check card, but I couldn't use the automated system because I didn't know the account number). Dejected, but "saved" from embarrassment at the hotel by Gwon's loan, I settled in for a mostly sleepless night tossing and turning as I imagined someone partying with my money.

I was first in line as the door opened at Daegu Bank in the morning. What would you do if a foreigner walked into your bank without any ID? Would you cancel and reissue their "check" card?
Me:      (After summarizing the no money, no ID issue) You need to call my friend at Daegu Bank in Seoul (holding out my phone with her name and number)
Them:    Uh, we can't do that. (But then checking on their computer) Oh, a Jo Suhyeon does work in Seoul!
Them:     (After their phone connects) Do you know a foreigner called 시이달?
Jo SH:     Yes, of course.
Me:        Give me the phone! (Into phone in total Daegu-dialect whine) I lost my wallet. It has this and that and that and that in it! And I'm in Andong! Alone!
Jo SH:     Don't worry, give me back to them.
Them:      (After listening to Jo SH) Here is our form filled out with your ID number and your bank account info, sign here. Okay, here's your new card. And there hasn't been any activity on this account.

Of course I called Jo Suhyeon back to thank her after I had withdrawn some money. At that point I felt much less stressed, because it seemed I wasn't going to have a large amount of money lost, just potentially a lot of hassle to replace all the rest of the cards and ID. Then I had a nice breakfast (at my favorite Andong restaurant).

By the time I got back to the festival I knew my wallet had been found. Arriving at the festival I learned that it had been found by Im Jaeseon, a "friend" of mine whom I've known for about 15 years-- a professional mask dancer with Hahoi Byeolshin'gut Talnoli. Every single thing, including all the cash, was still there. I paid back Gwon, bought a fancy ceramic plate for Im, and had a good rest of the festival, my faith in Korean honesty stronger than ever.

Breakfast on my third day in Andong-- Note the Andong Salted Mackerel and two-type of squash squash savory pancakes

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