Managing frustrations with overseas finances

I didn’t really know what to write about tonight until I tried to do some investing for our community association and ran into yet another roadblock.  Last May I pitched a proposal to our Board asking for permission invest some funds into high-yield, low-risk municipal bonds.  It took me three months to win Board approval because of concerns about how best to manage the funds.  Then I spent another month setting up the investment account.  After I became Board chair in September, our general manager sent in the forms to change account ownership for our bank accounts over to me and to our treasurer.  In October, I found out that the account change request was lost in the mail.  In November, I spent hours working with this U.S.-based bank to change over the account owner, open a certificate of deposit for some of the funds, and wire funds from the bank to the investment account.  Today the funds finally posted to the investment account, and I was anxious to invest the money and be done with this project.  I just found out tonight over the phone that the brokerage needs our association’s tax identification number and froze the account until they receive it.  We’re a not-for-profit entity, but we still need to provide our tax number.  I couldn’t give it to them over the phone.  I have to fax a form to them, and then I have to wait another 24 hours until they unlock the account so I can invest the money and finish once and for all.  That is, unless I discover yet another roadblock along the way.  You never know.
If you live overseas and manage your finances and investments abroad, you inevitably face immense frustrations.  For example, if you own and rent a home in the U.S. while living overseas, insurance companies will not exclusively insure rental properties.  We had to purchase renter’s insurance for our personal affects first and then obtain property insure for our properties.  When we set up our brokerage accounts, we needed to provide a U.S.-based address even though we don’t have a physical address in the U.S.  Banks, brokerages, and other institutions invariably require signatures on a wide range of documents, and they only occasionally do they allow faxes.  You can’t send any official requests by E-mail.  Most official business must be done by snail mail, which can be severely impeded depending on where you live overseas.  Many documents require notarials, so you have to go through the additional exercise of having to notarize documents overseas through public notaries who may not speak English.  That’s easy enough to do in Korea, a modern country, but it can be extremely difficult if you live in a remote location.  Time difference is also a major source of frustration.  Currently, we live 14 hours from the East Coast of the United States.  I typically have to wait until at least 10 p.m. to do any business with U.S. institutions.  Between snail mail, which may never reach its intended recipient, and international calling, managing your finances remotely overseas can be a major pain. 
In the case of our community association, this frustration is magnified because the account owners change frequently whenever Board membership changes.  If signatures are required, you have to obtain them before the Board member leaves (I found out I have to catch two previous members before they leave in December and get their signatures on some account owner change forms).  If someone had told me it would take six months to do this investment project, I might have declined to tackle it.  Knowing now that it can take months to complete business transactions overseas and that I would need to gather obscure pieces of data, such as the birthdate of the person who opened the account many years ago, I might have spared myself the frustration.  Now that I’ve been through the frustration and I’m close to finishing, I’m going get this project done as soon as possible. 
In short, thank goodness for the Internet.  The Internet has made finances so much easier to manage overseas, mitigating the frustrations brought on by dealing with financial institutions from abroad.  Automatic electronic direct deposit and bill pay is your best friend when you live overseas.  I think I would go crazy if I had to manage our finances over the phone and by mail.

Having a charity ball

Where is Jerry Lewis when you need him?  A friend of mine invited my wife and me to a charity benefit tonight at the Seoul Grand Hyatt Hotel Grand Ballroom.  The benefit honored the many donors who graciously gave to the victims of muscular dystrophy, a debilitating disease.  The setting for the event was gorgeous, and we had excellent seats not far from the stage.  The atmosphere was very festive with the sights and sounds of Christmas pervading the Grand Ballroom.  (It was wonderful to hear all the Christmas songs you never seem to hear in the U.S. anymore.  Instead of "Santa Baby," "Jingle Bells," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Raindeer," and "Frosty the Snowman," tonight’s Christmas repetoire included "Silent Night," "Away in a Manager," and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing.")  My friend’s mother-in-law helped organize the event, and we were happy that they thoughtfully included us in the affair.  Another friend who attended won a new bed in a raffle, and he gave it to my other friend’s mother-in-law.  What a nice gesture!  It’s a really nice bed.
The entertainers tonight were quite different from Jerry Lewis, who heads the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Telethon.  The stars of tonight’s event were the Korean children who are victims of MD, especially one child who read a Christmas carol and a group of children who sang an inspiring song with singer Chui In Hyuk (최인혁).  Other artists who performed included pop artist Gang Ta (강타), who cut short his China tour to perform at the charity benefit, crooner Pak Hyo Shin (박효신), female artist Jang Yoon Jeong (장윤정), boy band Oriental New Land (동방신기), Song Il Guk (송일국), Jo Hae Ryeon (조혜련), and Pak Sang Won (박상원).  If you don’t know these Korean artists, never fear.  I didn’t know most of them either until I heard them perform tonight.  I was happy to see Pak Hyo Shin perform a couple of songs, because he is my wife’s favorite Korean singer.  I call him the "Michael Bolton of Korea," partly tongue in cheek.  He doesn’t look a thing like Michael Bolton, but his deep, raspy voice is reminiscent of Michael Bolton’s (that is either a compliment or a slam, depending on your view of Michael Bolton’s music).  Oriental New Land did their best impression of N’sync, although their songs are bit catchier than N’sync’s bubble gummy pop.  Jang Yoon Jeong’s tunes were energetic with a hint of ethnic flavor, far different from the young male singers who I thought were much too much like "gotminam," or "flower men" (꽃미남–sometimes referred to in English as "girlymen").  I thought it very interesting that these artists were performing for a decidedly older crowd.
A man and a woman hosted the event tonight, much like the variety shows you often see on Korean television.  They improvised and elicited laughter from the crowd, although I couldn’t really follow the dialogue with my meager Korean.  I did understand when they poked fun at some big donors, such as hospitals, who donated less than $100 to the cause.  Their style was true to Asian form, most akin to the banter that occurs in the U.S. during awards ceremonies such as the Oscars or Grammys.  American media rarely feature male-female hosts on television anymore.  We were again treated to a succulent dinner, dessert, and wine.  I think this will be the first of many dinners and parties during the final weeks before Christmas.  The food is scrumptious, but I just hope that my New Year’s resolution next year won’t include shedding weight I rack up during the month of December.

The National Museum of Korea

I’ve been meaning to write about our visit to the National Museum of Korea.  Until now, I haven’t had much time to sit down and do the research necessary to write about the museum.  The museum’s new, permanent home opened one month ago near Yongsan Family Park in the Yongsan District of Seoul.  I went with my son a couple weeks ago on Veteran’s Day (November 11) to check out the world’s newest national museum.  Billed as the world’s sixth largest museum, it is an expansive, elongated building situated on a site formerly known as the Yongsan Army Garrison Golf Course (some Yongsan inhabitants still lament over the loss of their golf course and the need to make a 45-minute trek to another course).  The museum building had been completed and vacant for months, but the Korean Government needed to wait to open the museum until the Yongsan helicopter pad moved to another location, paving the way for the completion of the museum’s front gate and outdoor parking lot.
The museum was designed by Kim Chung-Il of Junglim Architects and Engineers, Ltd., who beat out many other entries to design the national museum’s new home.  Personally, I prefer the design of the third-runner up submitted by Kim Hyun-cheol, but then, I’m not a big fan of the winning design for the World Trade Center in Manhattan either.  A model of the winning entry is on display at the National Museum.  The museum has moved frequently since the Korean War.  For years, the museum was housed in "The Capitol Hall," located between Gwanghwamun Gate and Gyongbok Palace.  The historical building, built by the Japanese and used as their primary administrative building during the Japanese Colonial Period, was often referred to as "The Capitol Hall" because it reminded some Western visitors of the U.S. Capitol Building.  Although beautiful, it served as a symbol of Korean animosity towards Japanese colonialism, not only because it served a Japanese government building but also because it was deliberately built to overshadow Gyongbok Palace, the former Korean royal palace.  (I heard that "The Capitol Hall," built in the shape of the first part of the Japanese name for Japan, "Ni," complemented the Seoul City Hall building, whose layout resembles the second part of the name, "Hon.")  In 1996, the Korean government demolished "The Capitol Hall" and moved the national museum to a smaller location, the Seokjojeon Building, storing away many precious artifacts until a permanent home could be built.  Nine years later, these artifacts have again been put on display in the new National Museum of Korea complex.  I thought it odd that Korea would destroy the current home of their national museum before building another museum, but apparently resentment over the building led the government to dismantle it prematurely.
The museum is grand, sophisticated, and a bit cavernous.  The long central hall leading from a large, circular atrium to the "ten-story pagoda" is quite impressive.  The architecture definitely places this museum in rarified air.  However, when I visited the museum, I was struck by two glaring observations:  1)  The museum building is too large for its collection of treasures; and 2) Although it has also some Chinese and Japanese artifacts, the collection lacks the cosmopolitan feel of world museums such as the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian.  Granted, many of the world’s best museums are dedicated to perserving their nation’s cultural heritage, most notably the awe-inspiring Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt.  The National Museum of Korea easily ranks among the world’s top museums in this category.  It features extensive collections of art and artifacts from three millennia of Korean history, including pieces from the Silla, Joseon, Baekche, and Goguryo dynasties.  It’s also good that it has room to grow, because its collection will surely continue to grow.  I’m torn as to whether it is better to collect pieces from around the country in a single location, because I’ve heard that regional and local museums suffered when many of their prized treasures were transferred to the National Museum.  It’s nice to see them all in one place, but to me personally, there’s nothing like going to a place such as Gyeongju and seeing Silla artifacts in a museum close to where they were excavated.
My son really enjoyed the museum.  Although it has a great children’s museum, we went into the adult museum instead.  He especially enjoyed the small-scale models of the currently museum and of the buildings that previously housed the National Museum.  We spent a long time playing with one of the museum’s interactive computers, playing games such as "Making pottery and jewelry," and "Learn calligraphy."  As to be expected in "wired" Korea, the museum is fairly high tech.  You can check out headphones and a portable guide that explains more about the museum pieces in your native language, and you can search the museum’s entire collection in a single database.  The museum exhibition hall now spotlights the history of the National Museum, although it will also be used for other exhibitions.  The exterior offers amenities such as parks, reflecting pools, and an expansive view of nearby Yongsan Army Garrison, a U.S. military base.  Many Koreans have never seen Yongsan Garrison; now they get their chance to see it even if they still cannot enter the military base.  It is, after all, also a significant piece of Korea’s cultural heritage.  Perhaps best of all, the museum is free through the end of the year.  The entrance fees are reasonable, but you can’t beat free.  If you’re Seoul this year, be sure to stop by the National Museum while you’re here.