Last week in the company cafeteria I did as I always do and tried to eat my food without raising my eyes or making eye contact with anyone. Eye contact apparently being some sort of subtle invitation for others to come and invade your personal space, interrupt your eating, and pollute the environment with lame stories about their families, etc. However, when dealing with the foreigner, social norms are often tossed out the window, and thus coworker Gomez Kim (name changed to protect dignity) invites himself to sit across from me and immediately starts talking. Gomez Kim works in accounting and is fond of telling people “I know everyone’s salary”. The family photo that sits on his desk reveals a wife who is larger than him and who doesn’t smile for photos, and two children, a young boy and girl. I am almost completely sure that his wife exercises total control over him outside of the work place. She is taller than him, has a face that only a mother could love, and she also outweighs him. It is not hard to imagine her physically abusing Gomez Kim whenever he ‘steps out of line’.
Gomez Kim is what Koreans might refer to as ‘oily’ (느끼하다), and what you and I would call sketchy, shifty, dodgy, a grease-ball, cringe-inducing, etc. Most of what he says is generally offensive, commenting on people’s weight, age, personal habits or appearance and often times regurgitating outdated stereotypes about foreigners (blacks are criminals, white women are promiscuous etc.) in order to see what kind of reaction he can get. My reader however will know that dealing with such individuals in the ‘western way’, by telling them to ‘fuck off’, is completely incompatible with the Korean work environment, where genuflection to one’s seniors and a bare minimum of sham polite tolerance for everyone else is the norm. In simple terms, bowing and tongue biting are the social graces that will serve to keep you employed until you outlast your general usefulness or until you simply become ‘too old to work’ (Korean age ~48).
Today Gomez Kim has another fascinating Wile E. Coyote story with which to regale one of the company foreigners. “You know last month I was gone for a week.” Yes, Gomez Kim was mysteriously absent from work for a week. “Yeah, I heard. You had a car accident. Are you okay? You were in the hospital for a week” I say, giving him the attention he is probably seeking. “No, no I’m fine. I wasn’t really injured at all.” Of course, yours truly has been living in Korea for a decade and knows full and well why Gomez Kim was really in the hospital for a week, but I string him on anyway, hoping to hear some kind of new and exciting criminal mastermind narrative. “I went to the hospital because I wanted to get money from the other driver by pretending to be injured.” In western countries it is mostly taboo to discuss criminal activities at the company lunch table, and for this reason, I prod him some more. “Gomez, where did this horrible accident occur?”
A shit eating grin appears on his face, so I know I’m about to be stupefied. “It happened in the Emart parking garage. The man behind me bumped into my car.” My brain misfires and I momentarily forget to bite my tongue. “You mean to tell me that you, your wife, and your two young children were in the parking garage at Emart, and another car bumped you from behind at what, 1 kilometer per hour, and you got out of the car, and rolled around on the ground complaining of severe neck pain. And like, you did that in front of your own children as well as the CCTV cameras? Seriously?
He replies “Well, you have to understand,” (my situation/culture) “This is what we always do when someone hits our car.” Is he using the term “we” in a collective way, referring to all Koreans? Surely not, …right? “Oh, I didn’t know that. I learn new things every day” comes my standard reply to this type of statement. A long time ago a more experienced waegook boss, an old Korea hand, drilled this sentence into my head. Said it was the single most important phrase that prevented him from being fired over the years. Whenever he heard about some absurd fuckery, he’d recite that phrase ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. I learn something new every day’, and he’d say it with a convincing face, playing the ignorant waegook chimp, eager to learn from the wisdom of his local coworkers and ‘seniors’.
“Yes, so I went to the hospital, and the staff admitted me for a week.” I bite my tongue. What I’m really thinking is ‘You mean a fully qualified Korean doctor, after hearing that you were bumped into in the Emart parking garage, decided it would be prudent to have your body occupy a bed in the hospital for an entire 7 days? And this was someone who had graduated from a real medical school and had a real medical license, not one that he had obtained from a cereal box, right? Get the fuck out of here!’ But what I really say is “Oh, I see, it must have been boring staying in the hospital for a whole week.” Gomez Kim nods at me. “Yes, it was boring and I had to share a room with seven other patients, but I could go outside to smoke, and I had my smartphone, so I could watch movies.”
Intrigued about Gomez Kim’s foray into the exciting but seedy underworld of criminality and insurance fraud, I inquire “So how much cash did you end up getting?” Another shit eating grin. “Well, actually I got nothing.” Astounded, I ask “You got nothing? What happened?” I am now laughing inside. “Well, actually, when I went to the police station to file my claim for hospital expenses I was very nervous because everyone was looking at me. I started sweating. The officer in charge started asking me questions rudely and he said that nobody believed my story about being injured and that I should pay my own hospital bills.” Internal Laughter Meter (TM): Hyena Status. “Wait, so you got no money AND you have to pay for your entire week in the hospital? How much is that going to cost you?” He then replies “The hospital bill is 940,000 won, plus the police wrote on the accident report that I was not injured, so our company is deducting those 7 days from my vacation time.” My internal self is on the floor rolling around laughing.
One enduring thing about Gomez Kim is that he has no problem telling face-losing stories if he thinks that it will garner him some kind of sympathy. So the net profit from his ill-conceived criminal enterprise was -940,000 won, a public shaming at the police station, and 7 days of lost vacation time. Plus I am guessing (or hoping) that his name is now input into some type of insurance fraud blacklist. But questions remain. At the time of the incident, did his children actually witness his ‘Hollywood action’ and fully understand what was going on? Did his wife (larger, domineering) force him to get out of the car and roll around on the ground claiming neck pain? Did anyone bother to ask the hospital why they admitted him into inpatient care for 7 days despite him having no visible injuries? Did his occupying the bed prevent an actual sick patient from occupying the bed? Are most of the other incare patients also pretending to be sick/injured?
If a doctor is willing to hospitalize a patient for 7 days despite a complete lack of detectable symptoms, can genuinely sick people trust said doctor to provide actual legitimate medical care? How can I tell if I am actually experiencing a medical problem, or if the hospital/doctor are simply running an insurance scam? Do I need all of the pills they are giving me, or are these pills just another way for them to pad their over-inflated paychecks? Is casual insurance fraud the norm, and is it considered a kind of supplemental form of income/part time job by the lower classes? And furthermore, did Gomez Kim’s wife properly beat the shit out of him when he came home after a week in the hospital with a 940,000won bill? He did seem to have what looked like a black eye the week prior. Perhaps he “bumped into a closet” or “fell down”.