The last time I went to my local Korean Exchange Bank to send money home, I thought I had stepped back in time when I saw the exchange rate.
I stared at the electronic board listing the day’s foreign exchange rates and rubbed my eyes just to make sure it wasn’t some exchange rate delusion. It wasn’t. The last time it had been this low (if one was exchanging won for dollars) was ten years ago.
Over the years myself and other expats who have been in Korea for the long haul have weathered many storms and crises such as nuclear showdowns with North Korea, student demonstrations, a submarine incursion, natural and manmade disasters and of course the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
That financial crisis in 1997 caught us by surprise and hit the expat community very hard—especially those of us who were paid in won and sent money home every month. Overnight many of us began to display a little economic and financial savvy as we closely followed the latest news about the financial crisis and economic meltdown and wondered how it was going to affect us in the long run.
What I remember most about those bleak days was going into work every morning and joking (as much as we could with the money we were losing) with some of my colleagues about how long we would stay in Korea if the exchange rate didn’t get any better. With the exchange rate changing around a hundred won a day, many of us wondered how high it would get.
“1000 won to the dollar? I can live with that.”
“1200 won to the dollar? That’s not so bad.”
“1500 won to the dollar? It can’t go any higher, right?”
“1700 won to the dollar? That’s it. I am out of here.”
Of course, none of us were planning on leaving. We were going to ride out the crisis for as long as it took and for as high or low (depending on how you looked at it) the exchange rate went.
By year’s end, the exchange rate was for a moment 2,000 won to the dollar before it stabilized and then started to go back down. It hurt our wallets and pocketbooks, some harder than others like many of the factory workers from countries like the Philippines and Pakistan who sent most of their money home every month.
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