If you don’t try your hardest, you’ll lose even the opportunity to receive help.
“Whatever company you join, there can be conflict with colleagues in the beginning. You finally got a job after all your effort, but will you quit just because it’s hard to adjust and get along with people? You need to focus your energy less on the people who make things difficult for you, and more on how important the work you’ve been given is. When you demonstrate responsibility and diligence toward your work, good relations with colleagues will naturally come.”
On a clear day, reminiscent of early fall weather, we arrived at a temporary tollgate at Geochang-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do Province after three hours of riding the highway from Seoul. Kim Songgeum, who worked as a cashier until being promoted to deputy last spring, greeted us with a flushed face, having just finished a meeting. We stepped into the office together and were kindly greeted by her colleagues. We could feel how comfortable she felt with them. She settled in South Korea in 2011. The first job she tried out was a part-time job at a raw fish restaurant. Despite being grateful for the opportunity to work, she couldn’t last more than 40 days. She had hurt her arm in a cultivator accident when in China, and because she couldn’t go to the hospital as a North Korean refugee, the broken bone didn’t heal properly. Using her wrist continuously at the raw fish restaurant started the intense pains.
Greed for money makes it difficult to make choices
After a long time of consideration, she found a business card in her bag from when she left Hanawon (Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees). The business card belonged to an instructor who helped with settlement and employment for North Korean Refugees at Hanawon. She requested help regarding employment and was introduced to a woman from North Korea who was working as a tollgate cashier. With their help, she was employed as a tollgate cashier at Changwon. “At the time, the monthly wage for a tollgate cashier was 1.7 million KRW. I heard that a North Korean refugee I knew got 2.8 million KRW working at a company that assembles electronic equipment. Hearing the salary, my heart wavered. Within a month of working as a tollgate cashier, I quit and joined the company. There’s a saying, “There is nothing free in this world.” Working in a high-intensity work environment standing all day was too difficult. Eventually after 8 months I resigned and started work again as a tollgate cashier at Bongdam, Hwanseong-si, Gyeonggi-do Province. The work still wasn’t easy. “One time I greeted a customer, who suddenly started speaking in Chinese to me. I think they thought I was Chinese because of my accent. I suddenly had an outburst where I yelled back, “I’m a South Korean””. Another time there was a problem with the tollgate machine, so she notified the office and asked for help. But the office newbie gave her wrong information and said that the client was not subject to exemption even though they were. I did as the employee ordered but eventually the client filed a complaint, and I was reprimanded for no reason.
A tollgate is where life passes you by
The work seems easy at first, but there are many rules you need to know.
For a vehicle for disabled people to be exempt from paying on toll highways, the disabled person must be in a vehicle that is owned by them and is registered, or in a registered vehicle owned by a household member that is recorded on the same household registration. They also need to show a disabled person welfare card (discount card) or install a reduced hi-pass machine for disabled people. But sometimes there are clients who do not match these conditions but show us their card and get angry. There are also clients who complain whether they received a discount or not without even looking at their receipts to see that they received a discount for light-weight vehicles. “Now I can tell them calmly to check their receipts, but back then when I was just getting adjusted into society, I’d say things like, “Do you think I’m a conman? Cars are waiting behind you so hurry up and get out.” I thought that being a tollgate cashier was a big deal and didn’t think about customer service.” Her social clumsiness caused her colleagues to stay distant. “At first, I despised my colleagues who wouldn’t talk and just work. I thought if I should quit or not, but I didn’t want to go back to my old ways and past state of confusion from a spur of the moment decision. I thought to myself what the most important thing was in the current situation. The answer was getting better at my job. I grew determined to slowly solve every big or small problem that would come up during that process.” One day, when she was feeling down because of an issue with a client, she returned the card and receipt to a client who kindly said, “Have a nice day”, and made her day. It’s something that is said casually every day but, in that moment, it moved her and brought a positive change. Because of it, she could look around and see her colleagues who would greet their clients with kindness. So, she practiced speaking in a kinder way to her clients. Colleagues who saw her efforts started to offer help by sharing how to resolve different work issues smoothly.
Enjoying her work, she always arrived 30 minutes early for her shifts and attended all family occasions for her colleagues. “There is an understanding that South Korean society needs to help and be considerate of North Korean refugees, but they’re not so gracious toward North Korean refugees who don’t try. There’s a limit to getting other people’s help in processing your work. At first you can get help, but you can’t keep a job by constantly relying on people’s help. People who don’t try will lose even the opportunity to receive help.”
Help comes to those who try
With her marriage in 2014, she moved to work at a tollgate in Geochang, Gyeongnam-do Province. She had become so accustomed to her work, she could do it with her eyes closed. She always smiled when greeting her clients and smoothly processed all discount and reduction matters. Even if she saw the same colleagues 100 times a day, she’d greet them each and every time. If she saw a colleague having a hard time, she’d approach them first and offer help. At the same time as the promotion, the new environment requires another work ability. One needs to constantly check the tollgate situations and be aware of and report all risk factors that can happen on highways. Thankfully, a senior colleague at the tollgate in Geochang was working here as a team leader, so she got a lot of help.
As a deputy of 2 years, another problem that she has difficulty with is the official notices that come down the chain of command. “Every time I read the official letters, it was hard to understand the words I didn’t use in everyday life. Each time my team leader kindly helped me to understand them. I’m telling myself that these experiences are all a part of the learning process.” The team leader helps to explain what Deputy Kim is trying to communicate when colleagues don’t understand and helps her to understand meeting notes more easily. “My team leader is my rock. We’re like family because we know what the other is thinking just by looking at each other. If I had quit when I first started my work at tollgates and had difficulties with colleagues from misunderstandings and conflicts, I wouldn’t have had friends and joy like I am enjoying now,” she said gleefully. Deputy Kim’s small dream is to do the job in her position as perfectly as she can. She’s getting better and more familiar with her work everyday through her efforts and is preparing for the next stage of promotion. “One choice I really need to make is to work at one place for a long time. The longer you stay, the more you get paid, but more than that, you get to develop tight-knit bonds with people you work with. Money isn’t everything in life. My way of life is about communicating with people, depending on one another, understanding each other, and living happily together.”