My odyssey through the Immigration system here began just over three weeks ago when I took the longest subway ride of my life to the Gwacheon Government Complex on the south side of the Han River (a kind of mini-Canberra bureaucratic theme park), only to discover that I was supposed to be another killer subway ride away at the Seoul Immigration Office in Omogkyo (sp?). It was between transfers on this shockingly long trip that I realised just how big this city is. Each subway station has its own theme and style, some including quiet reading areas complete with bookshelves containing real books; others crammed with specialty shops; and still others (for example, Gwacheon) sporting strange rock collections.
Once I arrived at the Immigration Office itself, a miserable grey building that a turkey like Dan Brown would doubtless describe as “forbidding”, I was treated to the sad spectacle of someone trying to escape custody – possibly for a visa violation – by running down the street, only to be caught and brought back to the building, sobbing uncontrollably. As I walked through the front gate I realised this woman was one of a whole busload who were being led down into the basement. Thinking that this was where the office was I followed but was told in no uncertain terms by a tough-looking official that I was mistaken and that I should clear off.
So I entered the real Immigration office and it was like something out of an apocalyptic movie – hundreds of people desperately trying to get to the counters, some of them furious and shouting, others just in a trance-like state. Of course, once I found the forms I would need to fill out, I realised I didn’t have the university’s business number. Haha. For a milisecond I contemplated ringing the English Department Office but one look at the phone book put me off that idea. I decided to return the next day. However, upon returning, brimming with confidence that I had filled in all the right boxes, I was told that I would also need a copy of the university’s business certificate. Haha. Hee.
On the tihrd day, I was told I would need to purchase revenue stamps from the junket operation in the basement of the building which featured a photo booth, scissors and glue (for sticking the photo on the form), a revenue stamp booth and an ubiquitous cafeteria area (packed). I finally got to the counter and had my application accepted and was told to come back in two weeks. Haha. Well, that put off my plans for travelling overseas any time soon (they took my passport). My final memory of that day, and a not-unpleasant one either, was seeing two female immigration officers, holding hands, walking out the door. Ah, Korea!
And so, today, to bring an end to this part of the story, I pressed the button marked “pick-up”, collected my ticket and almost cried when my number was immediately called. I was out of there in five minutes flat. On my way out I was accosted by some of the hordes of scammers selling phonecards – perhaps a necessary denoument to this strange but universal ritual. Brushing them aside, secure in the knowledge that I was now a real bona-fide alien, I strolled away, and dreamt of coffee scrolls and kippers. It’s not over yet, though: before I leave Korea I’ll have to bring the Alien ID card back, and for a short time thereafter I will again be in limbo, neither alien nor human; in any case, not Korean. No way, Hyundai.