Won, Yen and Dolla bills

In Asia on August 14, 2010 at 3:25 am

Ever since I learned about the concept of rounding in elementary school, I just felt more comfortable with it. Why concern yourself with every little penny when more round and wholesome numbers suit everyone better? One dollar. Ten dollars. Just better.

So my $12 pad thai meals were all $10 really, and a $47 purchase was rounded to $50, essentially leaving a little cushion of money I didn’t spend, thus a $5 coffee definitely was within budget.

I left New York at the age of 20 with a $5,000 credit card debt that I primarily blame on the Jasmine Thai restaurant and their speedy delivery. Had I held out just a few more months, I could have wasted my money on bar tabs, but live and learn, I’ve found.

This is still my primary method of calculation, but because I live in Florida and the government can’t resist throwing money at me to attend college, it’s not as big of an issue.

I outlined a rough budget before my trip to try to keep myself in line. This involved various translations from U.S. dollars to Korean won via an online currency calculator. Everything jumbled together in my head, but Caitlin advised thinking of 1,000 won as a dollar. The won is actually not as valuable as the dollar, so this handy mental device probably winds up saving money in a roundabout fashion (fingers crossed).

And everything ends in zeros here! Hallelujah for a Korean decimal system. No $9.47. Just a nice, even 3,400 won, please.

Korean Won

It was really heavenly until I got to Japan. Now Japan itself is a wonderful country, but the symbol for yen is also the international symbol for rape. They should give out cute little tubes of lube with those miniature Kikkoman soy sauces on the plane.

I was warned before arriving that Japan is expensive, but I couldn’t just fly over it and not visit. I can be pretty frugal because I’m not a huge shopper, so I focused on economical train tickets through a JR Rail Pass. This did help, sort of, but it was my rounding and wonky math that really sabotaged me.

See 5,000 yen is roughly equivalent to $65. Unfortunately 5,000 won is roughly equivalent to $4.50.

Japanese yen

I almost had a heart attack on the train from Narita International Airport when I saw they gave me 3,000 yen for my $300, thinking I would have about $30 of purchasing power. After breaking out my calculator, I realized I wasn’t totally screwed, however, shock was to become a normal part of buying anything in Japan.

Amina laughed at my touristy mistake of putting 5,000 yen on my travel card, which she suggested I top up at intervals of 1,000. In my mental fog generated by 97-degree heat, I had done the Korean won translation and thought I was spending $5. Not disastrous because you can use the Passmo card that contains these funds at vending machines around the train stations and towards train tickets, but still.

Back in Korea, at Gimhae International Airport, I thought I was free of such mind-boggling, heart attack inducing mistakes. I listened to my iPod as I waited for the bus to Daegu. The bus next to me couldn’t be right because it said East Daegu. I ignored the fact that the departure time was 9:50 p.m., which is exactly the bus I was waiting for: the last bus of the evening. But I was pretty sure I wanted the Dongdaegu bus, so I just sat with my luggage leaning against my legs. Suddenly it was 9:55 p.m. and still no bus pulled up to zone 1.

A taxi driver came up and said, “Daegu?”

“Nay,” I replied in the affirmative in Korean.

That was when the man next to me told me I had in fact missed the last bus to Daegu. Frustration and a little bit of despair started to overtake me when the taxi driver offered to take me on the hour’s ride.

“How much?”

He showed me on his phone what looked to be 12,000 won or what I consider $12. That was basically the price of my bus ticket, so there was really no logical way the taxi would be the same price, but I was tired and had a headache.


“12,000?” I verified.

“Nay. 12,000,” he affirmed.

It wasn’t until an hour later that I arrived at my friend’s apartment that I realized I had made a horrible mistake. I handed him the 12,000 won and his mouth dropped open. “A-nayyyyy,” he said, which means no but can have a lot more meaning to it depending on the inflection. In this case it conveyed surprise, worry and embarrassment.

After freaking out in an equally expressive way (widening my eyes, gasping for air and dropping my hands uselessly to my sides), I went upstairs to see if my host could lend me what turned out to be 120,000. I had 40,000 so needed 80,000 more.

He ended up being at a going away dinner. I left my bag upstairs (with my all of my vital contact information, of course) and brought my wallet downstairs, hoping I could somehow appease him with 40,000 won.

We both huffed and looked desperate at each other, hoping one would back down. The thing is, I knew I had fucked up. He was actually being very nice and just appealing to our mutual understanding that this was his livelihood and he had delivered on his end of the business contract. Even though he did almost drive me into several huge trucks.

There was also the issue that there are police stations on almost every corner, and he could have easily just siced them on the foreigner.

The cab driver insisted I be taken to a bank to try my ATM card. At this point, it was around 11:45 p.m. I know my card only works at certain banks and at certain times, but he wanted to try anyway. I thought an ATM failure might induce him to take the 40,000 won.

This was not the case, and I finally realized this guy would get his money before the night was out or the ordeal would continue through into the next morning and afternoon if need be.

I didn’t feel threatened at all because he really seemed like a genuinely nice person who offered me coffee and water despite my mistake. If this were the States, I guarantee there would have been way more passive aggressive games in the form of exasperated snorts, accidentally locked doors and damaged luggage. Possibly even some direct name-calling.

Because so much time had passed, the best solution would have been to go back to the apartment to borrow money from my host. The only bitchy thing about this guy was that he refused to return to the apartment. Instead, he took me to an Internet café where he wanted me to wire him the money from my bank account.

This sounds sketchy, but I would have happily done it because I use wire transfers all the time. However, all of his bank information was in Korean making this option too an impossibility.

Though I already knew the answer, I asked two foreigners who looked American if they spoke any Korean. One was too absorbed in his gaming to even look at me, but the other apologized when he answered in the negative.

This is the one that actually stopped gaming when he realized there was an issue that involved me being worked up enough to say to myself over and over “I am so fucked. So, so fucked.”

After introducing himself as Jack and listening to my predicament as I led in with “I am so fucking retarded but…,” he managed to scrounge up 37,000 won. At this point I realized he thought I needed 80,000.

“Wait, wait. I need 120,000.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah, yeah I know.”

“Okay, hold on just a second.”

Jack then proceeded to call his friends in the neighborhood to see whom he could borrow money from. At this point, I didn’t know how to respond. I was so sweaty and headachey and tired, I kept trying to cry to see if that would help at all, but I was genuinely amazed at how far this guy was going to help me. Not only that, but he was being damn efficient about it. I gave up crying and instead e-mailed my host that I was being held hostage by an extremely polite cab driver and that I would possibly be home tonight, but maybe not.

After a couple phone calls, Jack told me he’d be back in ten minutes. He returned in five with 80,000 won.

“Wow. Thank you so much.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re a foreigner here. I get it.”

Then when I tried to get his information, he just repeated, “Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m sorry, what? You just gave me $80.”

“Yeah, it’s okay. You’ll help someone out sometime.”

“Yeah, okay. Well, I’m taking your phone number and paying you back because that’s just crazy.”

He laughed and gave me his phone number.

The taxi driver finally took me back to the apartment and was downright contrite about our mutual communication difficulties.

He also told me for the upteenth time to call him for a ride back to the airport. I wearily said “Buseh, buseh” to try to convey that I can only afford the bus, but after saying goodbye he repeated again, “Phone. Call. Call.”

It’s been a week, and I still can’t get ahold of Jack to return the money.

UPDATE: I was able to reach Jack and have since paid back the 80,000 won I owe him via a meeting at The Coffee Bean even though he still maintained it wasn’t necessary. What a G.

  1. I feel like if you were living in a chickflick, you’d meet Jack five years down the road/have his babies… This is really fantastic. And the line about the soy sauce/lube was clever enough for a double-take. Great story.

  2. Yea, I think you and Jack should end up together.It just seems right:)
    Good story.

  3. Yes. Ideal chick-flick fodder but Jack would have to fit the leading man role a bit more if you know what I mean. A wonderful person, all told, though. Thanks boys.

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