Shooting Myself In The Foot: When Good Policy Complicates My Life

This may come as a shock to you, but I have principles. And opinions. Sometimes I’m pretty loud and/or venomous about expressing them. I’ve gotten into more than one shouting match, and tried to silence someone with my mind upon several occasions.

On Sunday, though, I had a somewhat novel experience. I was rather inconvenienced and extremely aggravated by the implementation of what I think to be a wise, sound, well-advised policy. This kind of conflict isn’t something I’m used to. Perhaps idealistically, my vision of a perfect world is one that’s good for everybody (provided their idea of “pursuit of happiness” doesn’t involve raping and pillaging). I surprised myself by just how hard I had to work to remind myself that the thing that was driving me up the wall was actually something I supported.

Korea has recently implemented a scheme aimed at making the business world just a tiny bit friendlier to small businesses, particularly retail and food service small businesses. The major (inter)national supermarkets Homeplus (owned by the same folks as Tesco) E-Mart and Costco have been mandated to close on certain Sundays every month. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, and this is how I got myself into this frustrating predicament. Apparently this past Sunday was one of the specified days.

The idea behind this is a good one, I think. Close down the gigantic national chain supermarkets, give the mom and pop stores, the temporary and permanent markets, and the roadside stalls a fighting chance against the great hulking conglomerates. Given that I’d prefer the world not to be run by Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Pepsi-Co, something that gives the little guy a bit of a leg up is usually a move I’m in favour of.

I am still in favour of it, but as I spent most of Sunday afternoon trying to find somewhere other than 7-11 to buy some milk, cheese, and bread, I realized that this particular chunk of legislation has the potential to mess up my life (and the lives of similarly positioned expats in Korea) significantly more than that of the average Korean.

For starters, I don’t know where to find these independent, mom-and-pop grocery stores. The independent markets have a tendency to move, and that’s doubly true for the folks literally selling produce out of the back of trucks. I’m not familiar with the city (or, let’s face it, the country) and can only read the signs passably well. While I realize that theoretically after four months I could speak much better Korean than I do, there isn’t a whole lot of point lamenting my limited vocabulary.

This does bring me to my second point though: even if I could find them, my ability to actually conduct business is severely impaired in a place where all the signs, ingredient lists, and labels are written in a language I only have the faintest knowledge of, rather that just most of them. While many of the folks working at the big chains are young adults and teenagers, often students or recent graduates with pretty decent (if reluctantly unholstered) English, very often the folks working at the mom-and-pop stores are, well, mom and pop: people in my parents’ (or grandparents’) age group, usually having completed their education before Korea’s obsession with learning English (also known as the reason I have a job) took hold. While I’m no stranger to calculator negotiation, charades, and the ever-popular disgusted look that translates almost universally to “You want how much for that?” it’s somewhat comforting to be able to do my grocery shopping without being tremendously concerned about what I’ll actually find when I open my shopping bag at home. There is a microscopic difference in pronunciation between the Korean words for nosebleed, coffee, and photocopy. I can only imagine that there are other such groups of words, and I’d rather not ask for something at the meat counter and get home to find a bag of fish heads.

Eventually, I did manage to buy some bread, cheese, and milk. Even without going to 7-11, though I have to say I was tempted. And, as is often the case when faced with something really aggravating, I learned a lesson or two in the process. Lesson one is that I should really reduce my dependence on those ever-familiar multinational chains. Lesson two is that it’s a lot easier to be whimsical, experimental, and live dangerously when I’m not already tired and frustrated, but I shouldn’t let that stop me from doing it. Lesson three, perhaps the most important one of today, is that it’s easy for me to think something is a good idea when it benefits me, but it becomes more difficult when it inconveniences, frustrates, or distresses me.

Lesson four is when my colleague says something like “Hey, all the major grocery stores are going to be closed on these Sundays” I should write it down.


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