The Phantom Penny

Posted: June 20, 2011 in South Korea

Is getting my penny back too much to ask?

As many of you know, tax is not charged for any items bought on a military post, regardless of the price, quantity, or good.  If something has a price tag of $4.99, you pay $4.99.  And that is where the fun begins.

The first time the phantom penny phenomenon occurred, I was a recent arrival to 1st Replacement Company, USAG Yongson in Seoul, South Korea.  I don’t recall the item I was purchasing, or the exact amount, but what I do recall was being completely dumbfounded when I did not receive a penny from the cashier — who happened to be South Korean — when the change from my purchase totaled $ .01.  I stared blankly at the nice lady while my face gave an expression you might see had I just witnessed my dog being hit by a car while she returned said expression with one that told me, “Listen, foreigner, if you don’t have any other business to conduct, please get the hell out of my line.”

I gladly obliged assuming the case of the missing penny, in this instance, was an accident and since the amount in question was only one cent, I felt it wasn’t remotely worth trying to topple the language barrier.  Stuff like this happens and it is not likely that I would’ve kept the penny anyways as I’m a firm believer in the “Take-a-Penny, Leave-a-Penny” trays and probably would have just tossed my loose change in that direction.

And then it happened again.

Twice has me a little puzzled but I can still chalk it up to sheer coincidence.  After all, Koreans are notorious for seemingly being in a hurry simply because they want to get the job done so I could possibly rationalize closing the cash register drawer a little too quickly.  Again, it is only a penny, right?

And then it happened a third and fourth time at Yongsan, but never with the same cashier.

I’m starting to get a little angry, I mean I want my penny.  It is sheer principal for me at this point like when a waitress at a nice, sit-down restaurant assumes every bit of change from that $20 you used to pay off the tab is hers.  Even if it was going to be hers, nobody likes presumption and in my case, these cashiers were assuming I didn’t want my penny.  How dare they.

And then it happened again, most recently here at Camp Stanley.

I can no longer assume this is a Yongsan phenomenon and now I have realized I’m not even safe at my very own Camp Stanley.  I have now lost five cents to this process.  I feel helpless and alone.  My riches are slowly being pilfered from me one penny at a time with no end in sight and there isn’t a single thing I can do about it.  Sure, I can broach the issue and try to talk through my problem in simple English but that would mean holding up the line and nobody wants to be the jackass fighting with the cashier over a penny.

Now my Mom would probably voice her concern the first time this situation happened to her, after all she’s pretty frugal and also likes to bitch at the poor high school kid at the KFC drive thru when they run out of chicken (Sorry, Mom!).  Myself?  I just can’t muster up the audacity to say anything, but deep down it is eating at my core.  I mean, I could be out a whole dollar by the time I leave South Korea.  To me, that’s petty theft.

I wish I had a witty punchline or calm resolution to this story but, sadly, I don’t.  Distraught is the only way to describe my current state and I can only assume that disregarding $ .01 worth of change on a purchase is a cultural difference I’ll never fathom. I wish I could tell you that I had a brilliant plan all laid out but as of now, all that I have is my paranoia.  Soon I’ll be that guy at the grocery store toting around a solar-powered calculator as I gradually lose my sanity trying to strategically make purchases so the total results in an amount so random that the cashier will have no choice but to give me my change.

I know because I’ve seen it happen.

Victory is mine.

  1. Kelly R says:

    Nice writing Matt – enjoying your blog!

  2. Samantha says:

    Matt you crack me up. Allen would be that way over a penny too.

  3. Chris Condit says:

    Tell those Koreans you want your penny, and if they don’t I would be asking for the manager. The first few times I would have let it go like you did, but when it repeatedly kept happening, I would definitely be up in arms over this.

    Hope things are going well over there otherwise though man.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Chris! Things are well and I appreciate the blog feedback! Perhaps we should resurrect TNB one day…hmm…

  4. Joey Eveland says:

    only you…

  5. Joe says:

    I completely agree with you on the rant Matt. I say you learn a mildly aggressive phrase, saying how upset you are, and you would like your change back!!!

    • Matt says:

      Haha, thanks Joe! I think I have a fear of being “that guy” but I’ve pointed this out to a friend and he noticed it too. In reality its less angering and more confusing/humorous.

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