I'd like to offer some advice to any expats out there who also have a scooter, motorcycle or even a car in the form of a simple story.
One of the powers of being a motorized bike driver in Seoul is the ability to ignore all traffic laws. The unstated rule among us is that if it's clear, go. It's certainly not allowed by the law, nor is it safe, but the bike culture here is based on speed and efficiency (a trait that many facets of Korean life lack). Most of the drivers out there are delivery drivers who carry huge loads and packages on the back of their bikes and a speedy arrival translates to more income.
I always laugh when I'm sitting on my scooter in the middle of these leather clad delivery road warriors. They're always smoking and are usually filthy looking. I, on the other hand, am much cleaner, listening to "Take My Breath Away" and wearing a suit. I look pretty damn out of place, so I laugh. The only other motor scooterists in suits are the entry-level guys who can't afford a car yet.
To the story...
The other day, I was waiting at an intersection for a green light that never seemed to come. My fellow drivers were only adding to my impatience by constantly revving their engine as they inched closer to running the light. Finally, the coast was clear and we all ran the light. That's usually how I judge it. If they go, I try to blend into to the mix and dash across the intersection. Most of the time, we're in no real danger, but if even if we were, we certainly wouldn't we give it a second thought. That's what we do.
As free or innocent as we usually feel, this time the police, who were literally hiding in the bushes, did not seem to agree. They had set up little red-light trap. Since I have a scooter, I have quicker acceleration than most motorcycle deliver guys, so I was leading the back (which I imagine looks equally as funny). The fuzz emerged from the shrubs and darted into the street waving batons, directing us to the side on the road. I thought about ignoring the officer's orders, but decided it would be best to pull over and see what they had to say.
I stopped the bike, pulled out the key and waited to be questioned and, I presumed, ticketed. An officer who looked like he was in his mid-forties approached me and asked me to remove my helmet. Up until this point, he assumed I was a Korean man. He was prepared for that, so when I took off my helmet, he was noticeably shocked. It totally threw him off his game. He paused and just started at me. After an awkward 30 second love-stare, he began speaking...in Korean.
He tried to make it simple for me by speaking only in nouns with no verbs or anything "tricky".
"운전 면허증(drivers license)."
I knew what he had asked for. Simple context was more than enough. I understood, but did I want him to know that?
"뭐라고" I responded.
He said it again.
This time I just shrugged and pretended that I didn't understand a word he was saying. In frustration, he walked over to discuss the situation with his fellow officers. I watched them out of the corner of my eye. He was trying to find someone who spoke English. Besides the fact that they were busy dealing with other angry drivers, I could tell that none of them did. I don't think the Academy requires TOEIC scores.
He walked back over to me. He was looking at my license plate, or at least where my license plate is supposed to be. He pointed at it and said something I actually couldn't understand.
Again because context is quite helpful in tricky situations, I fully understood what he was trying to say.I assume it was, "Where is your license plate? You should have a license plate!"
After a few minutes of silent frustration, he looked at me and told me to carry my drivers license.
"GO!" he fired back.
My first thought was that if this was America, I would have gotten a ticket and my lack of communication skills would have only made it bigger. No American police officer would do such a thing, but this guy did.
Either way, this officer had options. He could have found an English speaker if he wanted to. He could have asked for my ID card and tried to give me some sort of fine. He could have pushed harder for my drivers license or plate, but he didn't. It was easier to let me go than to go through the trouble. It boils down to the fact that these officers are underpaid and lazy. On top of that, he's not a Gangnam cop, so bribery is off the table, so it was just easier for him.
What did I learn?
Pretending not to understand a word (although a little embarrassing) got me out of a ticket and maybe more. Not having license plate on the bike (it's in my storage compartment under my seat) made it impossible to track. I was essentially a unregistered dude that somehow ascended to a level of greatness where traffic laws don't apply.
My advice to other expat motorcycle drivers?
Take off your license plates and play dumb. Forget all the "perpetuating a stereotype" or "being rude" talking points and play the game. It pays off.
Will this work everytime? No, but I assure you it won't hurt.