HERALD WEEKLY ISSUE 650: 23 January 2013

Coping with daily life in Korea

Cook Islander Mata Rakanui is currently an English Lecturer at Soongsil University in Seoul, South Korea and also a Director of Apple English Recruitment which specializes in recruiting English teachers for positions in South Korea.

Growing up with the $NZ dollar all of my life, one of the major things you notice here in Korea is the currency and how it affects you daily. This can come in many forms such as buying daily products like milk, bread and coffee, to other normal things like going to the movies and trying to work out the price of a bus or subway ticket. In South Korea the form of currency is the Won (pronounced in similar fashion to swan but without the s). Upon my arrival NZ$1 could be exchanged for about 440 won. At the time this was fantastic if you were sending money back home, however, at this present time NZ$1 can be exchanged for about 900 won and is beneficial to the huge number of tourists that visit the Korean peninsula.
When I arrived in the year 2000, the highest denomination was a 10,000 won note. That’s right a 10,000 won note. It sounds even more surreal paying 2,000 won for a can of beer ($2.20) or 5,000 won for a loaf of bread ($5.50) or 2,500 won ($2.50) for a carton of milk. This makes for further awkward scenes when you’re not sure of the currency conversion when purchasing something simple like a coffee which costs anything from 4,500-6,500 won ($5-$7.30).This price is generally for any kind of coffee including straight black, Latte, Mocha or Cappuccino.
These days I enjoy when friends and family members stay in Korea and go through the same confusion and comedy I once enjoyed.
Initially it’s the amount of zeros that have an effect on your viewpoint. The currency works in the following way, 10, 50, 100, and finally, 500 won coins. Note form comes in 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 and recently 50,000 won notes. It makes for an experience when you do your grocery shopping and you might be paying 245,350 won ($275). Or you hear that someone is getting paid 2,000,000 won per month ($2,248). To hear that you get paid millions and it costs millions to buy a computer is quite the culture shock and an eye opener to someone not familiar with the currency.
One interesting memory I have involved my first year being paid monthly in cash. For some reason it took awhile for new teachers to organize necessary items such as bank accounts and so forth. It was not an uncommon site to see people racing to the bank with massive stacks of millions of won for their monthly pay. I can only think that it looked like scenes reminiscent of a gangster movie as groups of foreign teachers nervously holding large amounts of cash in a non English speaking country made their way to the bank with their entire existence in their hands.
Even shopping for daily items is an experience. Walking through shops and markets where everything is written in Korean and looking at prices that have so many zeros originally can be challenging. However, due to the size of population and sheer number of stores and competition you can get bargains. For instance it is common to go to all you can eat or drink restaurants for 30,000 won or ($34). That’s correct you can right eat and drink till you drop. Dentistry and eye wear are more than 2-3 times cheaper than back in New Zealand. I recall getting some gold and ceramic fillings with six gum cleanings for about $1,000NZ. This would cost over $2,500 back home. My mother on a trip here a few years ago bought a pair of prescription glasses for about $150.The same pair retailed in New Zealand for about $900
However, there is a downside to Korean prices. According to recent studies related to world price increases, the biggest increase in prices over a ten year period were unfortunately Korea and New Zealand which leaves me and other kiwis in a predicament as regards saving and paying off bills. These two countries were ranked numbers one and two.
In recent times price fluctuations for products especially food related such as fruit and vegetables have been wild. There could be a number of factors including a combination of world economic recession, yearly typhoons that strike the Korean peninsula thus reducing harvests, or even rising inflation. A combination such as the aforementioned has seen devastating effects towards the low wage earners of the population who see their spending power greatly decreased and their options for purchasing greatly limited. For example Nov 2011 saw the prices of Cabbage, 1.3kg of apples and 1 spring onion in $NZ at $2.22, $6.74 and $1.57. Now they are priced at $3.91, $8.77 and $3.91.
Hopefully, you have a little insight into the daily life of Korea and shopping for things. Keep your eye on your money and remember to count your zeros when you hit the market next time.
Take care
Kia Manuia
Annyong e Kaseyo
You can contact Mata on: mata_rakanui@yahoo.com

Herald Issue 608 21 March
- Terms of one China Policy document should be reviewed
- Pacific Media Assistance Scheme Seeks Innovation
- Successful NZ visit by PM
- Rerekura Teaurere New Climate Change Coordinator
- News Briefs

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