Gangster Transfer

The Korean Won, it has to be said, is a slightly silly currency. Not content with being valued at a Zimbabwean-esque rate (1000 Won = approx $1), the government also insist on having no single bank note of a value of more than 10,000 Won. As it’s extremely difficult for a foreigner to get hold of anything resembling a credit or debit card, walking around with 15 to 20 notes in your back pocket – especially as the banks charge a fee for each withdrawal – is pretty standard procedure.

It’s all very bearable – if slightly annoying – in everyday situations, but when it becomes completely ludicrous. Most foreigners accumulate some quite substantial savings here. The cost of living is low, and Koreans have no retirement funds, so wages take allow for the need to put away huge chunks of money before reaching that age. On top of that, Korean law states that employers must pay severance pay of one month’s salary for every year completed, and so very few people manage to leave with nothing.

We had to transfer Helena’s savings home today. After nearly breaking the bank machine by insisting on withdrawing a huge number of notes (it was certainly several hundred), we headed up to the bank clerk and slapped said huge wad of relatively valueless currency on the desk. Impressively he didn’t sigh, frown or bang on the desk in frustration, nor did he whip out one of those super note counters you see in the movies (though I’ve seen plenty of them out here). The poor guy counted out every note individually, bundled them up into stacks of 1 million Won (yes, we’re all millionaires in Korea!) and got on with it. Never the less, carrying around a bag that contained so many bank notes you couldn’t make out the rest of the contents, even if it was only up a flight of stairs. Makes you feel ridiculously ‘gangster’. It the non finger-removing, drug-toting, gun-sporting way, obviously.

Sadly I’ll never get to do the same thing, having been transferring my savings systematically throughout the last 18 months. Even my severance pay is given direct to my UK account, avoiding the whole suitcases full of cash scenario. The fun and games will come to and end next year, when the Korean government finally shows some semblance of common sense and releases a 50,000 Won ($50) note. I have a feeling the memory of throwing heaps of paper on the desk and chuckling manically, whilst trying to resist faking a gun on the hip (it is a bank, after all) will last a little longer.

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