I’ve been quiet about work on this blog, as I’ve been waiting for various papers to be shuffled, ducks to line up, etc. In the interim, I’ve taken on a number of tasks, such as:
– writing a journal article
– turning it into a conference presentation
– assembling paperwork to teach two courses at different universities
– finding a new apartment
Each of those could be broken down into a dozen steps, all at various stages of completion. To give just one example: to get paid for a job at a Korean university, I had to supply my Korean bank account. But despite operating in the most wired country in the world, where you can pay bills simply by swiping your smartphone, the university only deposits wages into 3 banks… none of which were mine. Presumably there’s some monopoly licensing agreement, like when a school only permits certain soft drink brands to be sold on campus. So I had to open a new account just for that university. This is separate from the multiple levels of paperwork required to get permission to teach.
All this is worth it because I’ve decided to stay in Korea for the time being. As much as I miss my friends (and my books) back home, there’s nothing there but part-time contract employment, and even those jobs are being bitterly fought over by underemployed PhDs. In Korea, I’ve learned the importance of networking. I applied for over 100 academic jobs and got nowhere; I got introduced to people, who introduced me to other people, who offered me jobs without an interview. If I wish I’d learned one thing during grad school, it’s that ‘it’s all who you know’.
Life is looking a mite more stable than previously. Yes, I’ll be teaching for dismal wages – 40% of western contract salaries, which are already terrible – and I’ll go further into debt to pay Korea’s ridiculous rent deposits, but I’ll be building my CV, networking, writing, teaching.
Except I won’t. My work visa just got turned down. The reason? The university is paying me too little. Korea will only issue visas if you make a minimum of $1.5K a month, and I make far less than that. I made up for it by getting a contract at a different university – every adjunct prof knows the joy of cobbling together contracts to make a wage. Except that if I can’t get a visa for the first one, I can’t get a visa for the second. Unlike other countries, Korea issues visas according to your workplace, not your residence.
It’s not just that I move in two weeks, and I’ve paid a thousand dollar non-refundable deposit. It’s not just that I have a dozen other pressing tasks already, and I don’t need to be negotiating my status. It’s that Korea says it’s open to the world, and it wants foreign expertise. The government PR department calls it “the Korean dream”: just like America, people with skills can come here and create a life for themselves. But as my Korean friend told me the first week I was here, the Korean government doesn’t actually want foreigners in the country. They’re tolerated for specific jobs, mainly English-teaching. In what no doubt is an attempt to protect ESL teacher wages, they’re willing to fuck over those of us who are willing to be super-exploited because, well, that’s the nature of adjunct work.
So, as of today I’m in debt, jobless and, if I renege on my lease, out a thousand dollars and one very angry landlord, who’s so Confucian that even the real estate agents had to sit quietly while he lectured us. Or, if I stick it out in Korea, I become deeply indebted with no income, all because my university failed to learn the rules before it told me I could have a job. (Naturally I checked the rules too, but the government never mentioned an income requirement.)
I feel like I’ve given a lot to this country, chiefly financially, but also as a foreign ambassador of sorts. Westerners have a mixed reputation here: despite misplaced gratitude for saving the country from Communism, Westerners are often touted on social media as drunks, perverts and thieves. There is truth to this, although no more than for any other group. Yet I try to be consistently polite. I get out of the way of people when they’re barrelling into me, I don’t complain when I request a vegetarian meal and get ignored, and most of all, I try very hard to write and teach what I’m requested to do. For the most part this is appreciated, with one glaring exception: the Immigration Department, who doesn’t give a damn about me or my university, and only cares about enforcing opaque, arbitrary rules that they won’t tell me about beforehand. And my university is willing to offer me work without understanding how to make it legal. In short, coming to Korea has occasioned an enormous amount of personal growth and fulfillment; but professionally, coming to work in Korea was a really bad decision.
There’s a reason why foreign faculty last an average of a single year in Korea before getting fed up and going home. The work rules are just too arbitrary. Don’t agree to work in Korea unless you have everything sorted out beforehand… and be prepared to have the rules changed on you as you go.