Seoul Taxi Drivers: “Speak Korean, Dammit!”
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Seoul Taxi Drivers: “Speak Korean, Dammit!”

On Monday a writer with the Kookmin Ilbo recently examined how taxi drivers in Seoul view their foreign customers and whether they use the free translation services provided by the city. You may be able to guess some of the answers.


On the 20th I was waiting with my family in front of Yongsan Station to avoid the rain when an Englishman, 43-year old Mr. Kniep, was thrown out of the taxi he wanted to board as the driver shouted, “ahh, I have no idea where you want to go. Out! Out!” Fortunately a Korean university student nearby was able to translate what the driver was saying and Mr. Kniep said, “I asked him in English to go to Bangbae-dong but the driver didn’t seem to understand,” adding angrily, “can you really treat a customer like this and refuse to take him?”

There are quite a few drivers who frankly refuse to take foreign customers, which harms the international image of Korea. Experts agree that, “a large number of taxi drivers being so unkind will give foreigners a bad impression of Korea.”

44-year old Jessie Parker, who is able to speak Korean, said, “when you get in a taxi, if you speak English a lot of drivers will just wave their hands and tell you to get out. If you ask them in Korean ‘please go to Hannam-dong’ they will start driving.”

Furthermore many drivers completely ignore the Pick Up Phone (피커폰) service established by the city of Seoul for foreigners, effectively rendering it useless. 42-year old taxi driver Jo complained, “it’s so annoying to call up the system and talk through the interpreter. I don’t even know how to use it, I haven’t been trained.” 53-year old Jang, a taxi driver for the last eight years, said, “I’ve still never used the service even once. If we have to communicate through body language, if there’s no jeong, I just tell them to get out.”

According to the Seoul City public information service, in 2005 the free translation service was used an average 9,171 times per month, 5,031 times per month in 2006 and 5,409 times per month in 2007. There are over 70,000 taxis operating in the city, a very low number in comparison to the more than 199,000 foreigners registered with the Office of Immigration.

Lee Hun, professor of tourism studies at Hanyang University, emphasized that, “when foreigners enter the country taxi drivers are the first people they meet. They need to be service-oriented during not only special events like the World Cup when the image of Korea is being formed overseas but all the time as well.”

If you want to have a better taxi experience than these people did, try reading the Galbijim Wiki’s page on taxis in Korea. And memorize a few Korean sentences folks, the phrasebooks don’t bite.