Deconstructing Korea

My plans for work or play for Friday night have fallen through, and even though there’s night-shopping in Seoul, it’s at least 40 minutes away. I feel like staying in and recapping my last few weeks. It will be unsystematic but will hopefully touch on a few, significant highlights. So: beer, funk music, and a laptop. After writing I’ll try the difficult task of transferring my files and blogging this from an iphone. I’ll be interspersing paragraphs with a walking tour of my neighbourhood, so if my scintillating prose fails to hold your interest, there are images too.

One end of my street. I’m halfway up the hill, so I turned left and walked the rest of the way up:

Work visa

Let’s get the big news out of the way first: there is no work visa. I can’t teach the graduate seminar I wanted to. I had already designed the syllabus and bought the first two texts. But it was for one course, and Korea only issues visas for full-time work. So I have to find full-time work of some sort, then apply for an additional visa to teach part-time next term, with the permission of both employers.

If that sounds confusing, it’s a tiny slice of what I’ve been dealing with for the past month. I’ve been on a rollercoaster, one day thinking I’ve cracked the code that will let me work here, and the next discovering a new rule that I need to comply with.

  • Notarized paperwork from Canada, requiring my sending documents back to Canada;
  • getting a criminal reference check certified by the Canadian embassy – but not the ‘full’ criminal reference check with fingerprints, just a partial one;
  • being told that check might not be sufficient, but I could pay $50, get it certified anyway and take my chances
  • thinking I could teach a political science course, then that I could teach an ESL course, and then learning that I could do neither.
  • having local and national Immigration offices hold different opinions on my teaching prospects
  • being repeatedly told by the person in charge of ‘visa help’ at the main Seoul Immigration office that he doesn’t know what documents are required for my visa

North Seoul tower. This is the crest of the hill, which, like other hills I’ve been to the top of, has a small shopping area. It’s fascinating to me that you walk up, rather than down, to do your shopping:

This is entirely due to the Korean government’s arcane, arbitrary and frankly obtuse rules for working here. From capital’s point of view, I understand wanting to make sure your workforce has proper qualifications. (As with immigration anywhere, only capital’s point of view counts.) However, I have more qualifications than most people, not just in political science but in teaching English as well. I don’t want to rip off Korea; unlike some foreigners, I’m not here to make as much money as possible and send it all back home. I just want to make a living, study what I study and meet like-minded researchers. I thought I’d be the ideal worker:

  • I’ve already paid for my education and training, rather than making the Korean state pay for it
  • I’m flexible enough to come to Korea at no cost to the state or employer – on the contrary, I’ve spent thousands of dollars, most of it borrowed, to settle here. I’m a one-man Keynesian stimulus machine.
  • I have an advanced degree from a reputable Western university.
  • I’m willing to stay here a long time.

The view down the other side. Note the full-sized sedans parked on that narrow street.

And yet the only work I’m legally qualified for is mouthing English phrases to unwilling teenagers forced to attend ESL after-school classes.

I left Canada for many reasons, but high on the list was the complete joke of employment prospects for PhDs. Even if I liked Canadian culture (as opposed to feeling comfortable in it – big difference), teaching contract courses with no job security in a big city, or being ‘lucky’ enough to land a tenure track job in a dying ex-urban city of 50,000 people or a university town in the middle of nowhere; or, most likely, temping in an office again – none held any appeal. I heard that Korea is looking for English-speaking university teachers. Upon arrival I discovered this is true, because I met some incredible polisci people who wanted to work with me. To learn that the obstacle is not the labour market per se, but the government’s authoritarian, bureaucratic control over the labour market… my frustration knows no bounds.

The contrast is better in the next few photos, but that’s camera correction. The sky actually was this hazy. I like the variegated roofscape stretching into the distance. It’s what I imagine New Crobuzon would look like, with a few more flying constructs and towers.

Okay, it knows a few bounds. I still like it here. I think if I had to go back to Toronto tomorrow I would cry. Being away from that place has only solidified how stuck I felt there, what a stale and dull place it is for me. (Not for everyone, I realize.) I miss my friends dearly – but the atmosphere of that place, not in the slightest. Yes, I’d like cheap peanut butter again, and I’d maim for a $40 bottle of adolescent single malt instead of the $80 it costs here. But Seoul is an amazing city, and the Koreans I’ve met are incredible people. For some reason – 45 years as a military dictatorship? – the government has seen fit to make it ridiculously hard for foreigners to sell their labour here. As a former grad student, I’m used to being treated as invisible, an idiot, etc. But a potential criminal is a new one for me.

Korean culture

My Korean friend explained to me that, as a country run according to Confucian principles, social obligation is incredibly important here. It’s a pillar of collective harmony, the main goal: if you want your society and people to operate as one organism, you can’t very well have them being jerks to each other. So when a Korean says they want to be your friend, they’re not just being polite, they really mean it. They’ll buy you dinner, take you sightseeing and introduce you to their friends. This isn’t restricted to someone you live or work with. One day I was looking for the Canadian embassy, and a man rushed out of his shop to ask me if I needed directions. I didn’t have a map, I was just walking by looking confused, and somehow he saw that from inside the shop. He sent me in the right direction, but not before asking if I’d had traditional Korean food before, and saying that if I came back the following week, we could go for lunch.

Another time, I was trying to get a package from Fedex. That’s a story for another blog post; but to speed things along, I decided to put in an appearance at their international shipping office downtown. The man behind the desk called the Fedex main office for me and figured out what paperwork I needed. He had me write a short letter for Customs, and then he told me not to worry about my package, that it would get delivered “in one of those” – he pointed to a picture of Fedex van behind me. “Only the best!” he said – Fedex’s Korean slogan. When we said goodbye, he held out his fist for me to bump. The next time I went by, still looking for my package, he had it behind the counter. After I opened it up and gave him back all the cardboard, he invited me out for lunch. I have no doubt that both of those men were entirely sincere in their desire to befriend me.

A dead end next to the U.S. military base. It’s beyond that last building:

I could mention more examples: how my first Korean host told me to move in with him and live for free until I sorted out my visa. Or how my employers at the university apologized repeatedly for not being able to give me a course, fought with the government administration for a whole week trying to hire me, and devised a future plan of action to hire me. I kept comparing that to a Canadian university department head, and whether they’d say anything besides “Sorry, we tried” in a similar situation. How, when I was looking for a store and asked a nearby Korean woman for directions, she looked it up on her smartphone map, pointed me in the right direction and then called the store to confirm it. And those are only the positive examples; there are also the negative examples that I’m barely conscious of, such as when I violate social rules and no one says anything. The biggest is not speaking their language, and instead of getting angry at me for not trying harder, they speak in English and apologise for their lack of language skill. Would that happen in Canada? In short, Koreans are incredibly friendly people, and I’m continually amazed at and grateful for their kind treatment of me.

Can you spot the hidden man?

Foreign chauvinism

This is why, when I go to a foreigner website like and read the vitriol directed at Korea as an indistinct, indivisible entity, I’m saddened. Not for the liberal reasons which I often read in response – ‘we should be polite to our hosts’ etc., which are just as useless generalizations as the chauvinism itself. The nation or the ‘people’ is a highly suspect social construct, people. There are shared cultural and linguistic traditions of course, but a nation is a modern construction for the needs of capital. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me: you need a class analysis to live in Korea successfully.

Many of the angry foreigners are just chauvinists, with an exalted sense of self-importance and no long-term commitment to learn about the country they’re living in. But I don’t doubt that many of the grievances driving this behaviour are legitimate. Moving to another country is tremendously dislocating, and you’re bound to meet assholes. The challenge is not to be an asshole yourself in response and to direct your angry where it’s appropriate. Moreover, often foreigners are shunted into hagwons, those private schools I mentioned, which anyone can set up. There are horror stories of bosses refusing to pay their workers, firing their workers because children have a grudge against the teachers, or even reporting their teachers to Immigration when they’d like to get rid of them. There’s at least one foreign ESL teacher in prison right now for violating visa regulations – something that some hagwon owners are fine with when it suits them.

The point is that most foreigners encounter a special class of Koreans: the petty bourgeois. And, as I’ve written in my book, a lot of the petty bourgeois are not good people. The pressures of living between labour and capital can warp and corrupt someone until they only see won [dollar] signs, not the actual human beings who are making them money. They will cut corners, break rules and cheat to get ahead. Big companies will too, of course, but they have the saving grace of doing it impersonally. With the petty bourgeois, it’s always personal. The ESL teachers are not getting an impression of Koreans; they’re getting an impression of what it’s like to be exploited by a particularly rapacious boss, and that’s never pleasant. Add to that the nonsensical rules of Korean immigration, and it’s understandable why some teachers turn to chauvinism as a response. They’re often in their early 20s, with little experience of the labour market. Some are ‘entitled’, meaning they expect to be treated well, but only because they haven’t been screwed over yet by an employer, an experience hard to avoid by the time you reach your 30s. And they’re making good money, compared to Korean workers, so I have no doubt that the petty bourgeois – who are, of course, making much better money – feel entitled in turn to mistreat them. There are bad workers, of course, but in a conflict between capital and labour, I side with labour, anywhere and with anyone. (Thought experiments to the contrary are welcome in the comment box.)

Contemporary development funded by the chaebols, or big Korean capital-families:

My experience of the Korean working class has been amazing: even the ones who are supposed to enforce the rules are often friendly. My experience of Korean petty bourgeois and state bureaucrats has been like the petty bourgeois everywhere: with a couple of exceptions, they’re not to be trusted. But my simple class analysis – understanding who owns the means of production, and who’s forced to sell their labour power – saves me from lumping all Koreans together. So, while I understand the roots of foreigner chauvinism, it’s not justified or reasonable. Bosses and landowners are an international class of jerks, irrespective of nationality. I don’t care about the perspective of capital; view every interaction and social phenomenon through the perspective of labour, and you’ll find millions of potential allies doing exactly what you’re doing: being exploited.

This is the haechi, Seoul’s guardian monster. He protects the city – though not, apparently, from developers:

Korean chauvinism

It exists, certainly. Korean women get flack for dating foreigners; blacks are sometimes seen as violent and rude; and the few areas where foreigners live (I’m in one) are stereotyped as dangerous. But as with the foreigners themselves, there are a few circumstances to understand before condemning anyone. First, Korea is largely a homogenous country. There are only a million foreigners in a country of close to 50 million, and most of those are ethnic-Korean Chinese, who were displaced by war decades ago and are only now returning. 10,000 ESL teachers enter Korea each year, and many leave; in a city of 24 million, that doesn’t count for much.

Next, we have to consider that foreigners were responsible for the Korean civil war that killed a million people. Korea is still under U.S. military occupation – I live next to the main U.S. military base, it’s impossible to miss because it takes up the largest chunk of downtown Seoul. If you look at it on google maps, they’ve blanked it out it shows up as grey or a forest. A rudimentary anti-imperialism would associate a massive army base with foreigners in general.

Finally, some liminal space! Seoul is a crowded city, most space is used efficiently. Though I suppose even this is parking:

Finally, Korean society is undergoing massive changes. I’ve only been here two months and I’ve witnessed stores opening that weren’t there before; I’ve seen the dotted lines on the subway map that designate multi-stop line extensions opening next year (note to Torontonians: they’re far more than five stops, and they didn’t take 25 years to approve.) Moreover, when Korea adopts a trend it does so with a vengeance – possibly a legacy of the collectivism I mentioned earlier. It’s not good to be too different here; when espresso caught on, everybody drank it. Ditto for French bread, the most popular franchise here being a bakery called Paris Baguette, selling Korean versions of French pastries. (It’s far outclassed by Paris Croissant, whose pastries are legitimately comparable with the ones I’ve had in Paris.) To draw a correlative conclusion, those examples suggest that Korea still has trouble accepting difference, and foreigners are nothing if not different. Yet it is changing, faster than any other society I’ve witnessed. In the face of that, it’s tempting to cling to an ideal version of the past, where everything was the same and nothing changed. As with foreigners, Korean chauvinism and racism is unacceptable, but that doesn’t absolve us from understanding why it happens and blaming the system, not individuals.

The chaebols own everything. Not just washing machine and laptop factories – also the sewers:

If I could summarize my experience so far – as the beer kicks in, it’s getting progressively harder to come up with insights – they’d remain overall positive. I’m happy I left Canada and I’m happy I came here. I get frustrated, anxious and fatalistic at least a few times a day, but I see the potential for a good life here and I want to stick around to see if I can make it happen. If not, well, I’ll be back on my friends’ couches complaining about Toronto, and they’re already used to that.

Next entry I’ll tell some specific stories about trying to navigate bureaucracy here, which will be instructive, illustrative of my major points and good for a larf.


Inside a camera section of Yongsan electronics market. Lots of vendors, spread over an entire floor, only selling cameras:


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