IN PROPER KOREAN FASHION, I held my glass with two hands as Min filled it with beer. Then to reciprocate his gesture of friendship, I picked up the bottle—both hands again—and poured beer into his glass.
Min works for a small export company,finding Korean manufacturers for American firms that sell batteries, toys, garden tools, barbecue grills. On this Sunday afternoon we were sitting around a low table in his living room in Seoul with a group of his friends, watching a boxing match on television. Like Min, they were all middle-aged, middle-class, and male, but unlike most Korean friendships, which center around the same school class or hometown, these men were drawn together by a tennis court in the huge apartment complex where they live. “Frankly, we don’t go out with our families often,” said Min, a short, rectangular man. “I love tennis too much.”
A key rattled in the lock, and Min’s wife entered the apartment. Compact and all direct current, she is a rarity, a working wife, managing a large crew of women who sell children’s books door-to-door. In the past, women were not permitted outside the home after dusk, and today few Korean men—Min is one—encourage their wives to work.
“Have you offered anything to eat?” Mrs. Min asked. “No,” said Min impishly, “because there was no woman around to serve it.” She waved away their laughter, removed her coat, and bustled around the kitchen.
Professor Lee, an economist, had sold his house in Seoul before going to the States for his Ph. D. , and now, having returned, he felt trapped by the soaring real estate prices. “Suppose you want to buy a $60,000 apartment,” he said. “You save $30,000 and raise the other $30,000 from friends or quick loans. Then, with the deed as mortgage, you borrow $30,000 from a bank to pay back your friends. But the bank wants its money back in three years. Practically speaking, there is little credit in Korea.”