In January, the Seoul Metropolitan Government started recruiting taxi drivers capable of speaking foreign languages fluently for a squad of ``luxury taxis for foreign tourists'' that will run from March.
Among nearly 900 applicants, it initially sorted out 235 in the first screening procedure and will announce some 150 successful candidates by the end of the month.
Kim Jin-baik, 46, is among the applicants who passed the screening. He speaks English and French fluently, having graduated from a French university.
After living in European countries for about 15 years, he returned to Seoul in 2006 and had worked at a big company until recently. However, he had to quit and has worked as a cabbie for a taxi firm for about three months.
Like any other taxi driver, he is struggling to make ends meet amid fewer customers due to the weak economy.
``It's a tough job. I have to spend almost half a day behind the wheel for a low income,'' he said. But he is holding onto the job on hopes for winning the right to own and run one of the individual taxis given to those with at least four years of taxi driving experience.
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``Some interviewees were so fluent in foreign languages that we had a difficult time understanding what they said,'' said a Seoul government official and interviewer. ``We expect that they, with proficient language skills, will help upgrade taxi services for foreign customers.''
It is encouraging---of course a little depressing, too---that there are so many skilled applicants, and not simply people who say "no go" in five different languages. After all, considering what passes for "English" or "foreign language skills," it's all right to be cynical.
I think taxi drivers---or those in any profession---who are able to provide quality service in a foreign country to those who don't speak the local language are justified to charge more money. However, what many are afraid of happening is that in some parts of town you'll only be able to get these "luxury" cabs; perhaps convenient for some, but others will resent spending 20% more for a transaction that can be completed by pointing to an address on a business card or by saying a simple amount of Korean.
And contrary to popular opinion, I find taxi drivers in Korea to generally be kind and patient . . . but then again I never try to go anywhere difficult to understand. One of the charms, depending on my mood of course, is chatting with a cab driver in my terrible Korean; they're not only eager to communicate, but it's one of the few chances I get to speak more than two words in Korean to anybody. The same conversation would be extremely tedious in English because we encounter it seemingly a million times a week.
Many foreign tourists of course would appreciate the luxury taxi service, whatever the mark-up. My parents, for example, should they ever be in Seoul without my help, wouldn't want to fumble through a bunch of business cards or try to pronounce something in a language they've never heard. They've been through too much to be made to feel stupid. Likewise some who live here, and who in the height of arrogance speak English to everyone anyway, will enjoy the service. But hopefully the call service---which it is slated to be now---won't mean foreigners have a harder time getting normal cabs if they choose to.
Tangentially related, but you've probably noticed that many taxis have "free interpretation" on their windows, which means that they're able to call someone who theoretically can facilitate conversation between the passenger and the driver. But Korea Beat translated a story last year about how many cab drivers refuse to use them because it doesn't foster "jeong," or good feeling, between the customer and driver.
Also tangentially related, but after seeing an interview with the author during vacation I'd like to check out the book How Starbucks Changed My Life, and would encourage you all to watch a little bit about it, too. Managing a McDonald's through high school and half of college, thus spending most of my formative years---and most of my weekends---in a dirty uniform and over a grill, taught me a lot of important lessons that I unfortunately forget from time to time. Though Americans have come to look down on customer service jobs in a way that, seriously, frightens me, let it be known that there's nothing embarrassing about a hard day's work. And almost nothing as fulfilling, as that author has learned.