Monday, August 31, 2009

On Pensions and Healthcare

Here's the question:

I heard there is a number that we can call to check to see if our hagwons are taking out the right amount of money for the pension and to make sure they are taking it out! Also, if you have an ARC card does that automatically mean you have health coverage? My friend works for a school that was saying they weren't going to register for the pension which I think means she will not have health coverage. If you have info or a number I can call to confirm this that would be great!

First of all, you've gotta keep every pay stub that your employer gives you. If they don't give you one, then demand it. Once you've worked for a few months, then you can start comparing deductions to make sure they're being honest. Always be organized and stay on top of anything related to money. Not only will it help you avoid any potential problems, but it keeps the school in check for future teachers as well.

Depending on nationality, your employer is forced to pay into your pension. The amount, of course, depends on your salary. You won't be able to call the pension office and get private information on the phone, but you can go there with your passport and ARC. Just take a look at the Pension Office website for location details.

You have insurance. Having your ARC doesn't give you health coverage automatically, but it does suggest that your school is officially sponsoring your visa which gives you government insurance. Paying into insurance isn't an option. As a tax-paying citizen, you have to pay into it. The pension has nothing to do with health insurance. Your friend needs to talk to the school and get their insurance card (it looks like a book). That should be easy enough. If they refuse then something is wrong and a call to the Labor Board should clear that up.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

RIP Teddy

I'm super busy getting some dental work done this week and I know I'm breaking the rules by mentioning this, but the "Liberal Lion" has died.

RIP, Teddy. What makes it hurt the most is that he dedicated so much of his life to health care and the last thing he got to see was the nutty American GOP shitting on his dream.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dealing with a Rude Boss

Here's the question:

Well, I pretty much hate my boss. I asked him for one single day off (in OCTOBER!!!) so I can visit a friend in Japan and he rejected me. It's not so much the rejection that irks me, but more how he said it. What did he say? "Absolutely not! Class is more important than friends." What an a-hole! My students even said they were okay if I made up the classes on a weekend or something. And what's worse is that the foreign manager isn't sticking up for me at all! What the hell is the problem?

Man oh man, I love intercultural manager-employee clashes. There's nothing more fun than trying to explain why an overly authoritative Korean boss acting like a complete dick is just "part of Korean culture" and what he really meant to say is "this". As a manager, I have had to deal with this far too often. If I were to translate the above response, it would be like this: "I'm sorry, but you see, if we cancel classes because of a vacation, then I'm afraid it would set a precedent where teachers could take control of when and where classes are held, therefore making you more of a freelance teacher rather than an employee here." Fun, right?

This is a huge question and one that I think should be addressed on many different levels. Let's break it down, shall we?

1) Why do Korean bosses act this way?

I don't need to lecture about respect in Korea. If you want a background on why old people talk down to others, just take a gander at what Confucius said. First, when dealing with Koreans of advanced age or position, it's best to approach the situation as if you were rushing a frat or are a fresh-off-the-bus enlistee waiting in line to get your head shaved. You've got no rights and no authority to express an unsolicited opinion. Most men excuse and attribute this behavior to their military service, but I don't. I see them as whiny frat boys. Just like the freshman who were waiting their turn to do the hazing, these men spent years and years being punished and subordinated by their bosses and when they finally reach that point, there's no way they're going to change the game. It's how it is and I have yet to see any signs of it changing any time soon.

2) Does a faux cultural translation actually benefit anyone?

This is something that always stumps me. Should I offer a sugary version of what the boss "meant" with his rant or should I let it stand as is? Some claim that the role of a foreign manager is more of a liaison rather than a actual authority figure, so smoothing over the rude tirades of Korean managers is part of the description I guess, but I have a feeling that when I sweeten the boss-talk I am somehow legitimatizing their crass behavior. Rude is rude and regardless of culture, there is a "right" way to tactfully talk to employees. But tact is cultural. Especially in the case of the questioner, the boss was speaking English and still chose to speak in a rude manner. Not only does that suggest they knew what they were doing, but shows very little respect or appreciation for the teacher. Korean bosses need to realize that without teachers, they have no business. One of the largest complaints that teachers have are dick bosses that don't listen. On the other hand, we are in Korea and even though English might be the language in use, teachers should be a little more tolerant of harsh words or criticism.

There probably needs to be a little give and take with the teacher/expat giving in a little more. I'm sure some might disagree, but many teachers aren't here permanently. This isn't about acceptance. It's about tolerance. This isn't the West and investing too much into the situation isn't worth it. At the same time, bosses should recognize the differences and try to be a bit more sensitive.

I think the best way to handle this situation is by doing what I do and cut all meetings between Korean management and teachers out. If there's a problem, my teachers come to me and I handle it with Korean management. There's no need for direct meetings in most cases anyways and since I took total control of these interactions, there has been little or no drama.

3) What is expected of me, the non-Korean employee?

This one is a little harder. What is expected of an English teacher? I have known many excellent teachers who were awful employees and vice versa. They are two very different things. No one can be a perfect teacher, but you can be a near-perfect employee with relative ease. As an non-Korean employee, you need to show up on time, follow the rules of the school/contract and do your best to represent your school well. As a teacher, you need to be passionate, flexible and planned. Your Korean boss doesn't expect anything more of you and you shouldn't expect more from him or her.

4) Why won't the foreign manager stick up for me?

Being a foreign manager can sometimes be a more of a curse than a blessing. Sure, the money is pretty great, but you sometimes become the whipping post for unhappy teachers and/or management. The foreign teachers assume that you'll be on their side regardless while Korean management sees you as more of an inside agent. For me, I try my best to listen to all problems and solve them, but sometimes I can't help to get a bit irritated when a new teacher is making unreasonable demands or being totally uncompromising. The teachers need to understand that their foreign manager might be in a very difficult place, trying to balance their loyalties evenly. Your boss wants to stick up for, but you gotta make sure you're being reasonable as well.

5) Is there a way to ask for a holiday or other favor without going through all the BS?

The best way to get favors is by giving favors. Sounds nasty, but it's not. If you go out of your way to help out when another teacher is sick or maybe you pick up an extra class for a month, your bosses will remember and when it comes time for you to ask for an extra day of vacation, they might be more accommodating.

In the end, I'm not surprised that your request was denied. Everybody wants an extra day off to go to Japan or spend a little more time in Thailand, but it's just not a reality. If you're looking for a lot of vacation time, then do your research beforehand and land a job in a uni or public school.

Friday, August 21, 2009

My Take on Kim Dae-Jung's Legacy

Every once and awhile a staff reporter from the Korea Times writes a few foreign contributers and asks for our opinion regarding big political issues on the peninsula. I'm sure a few fellow K-bloggers got the same email. I added my two-cents in a previous article about the Roh scandal last spring, although they did a wonderful job of editing out most of my thoughts.

Here's the email:

This email is to learn how foreigners with deep understanding about the country's modern history evaluate the late Kim and his achievements. An article based on answers to this email will be published on Monday edition.

1. How do you evaluate the late former President Kim Dae-jung as a politician or an pro-democracy activist?

2. What do you think is the most brilliant feat Kim has made during his presidency or throughout his life?

3. Please give us other comments you want to leave.

Kim Dae-jung embodied everything that a Korean politician should. He was came from a poor part of the country, was charismatic, inspiring and revolutionary. His life was one that an industrializing Korea could really relate to since he essentially personified the Korean nations' post-WWII struggle. And while there is no denying his contributions towards the democratization of Korea, I think the real effects of DJ can be witnessed in the uncompromising zeal of his supporters and the stagnation of serious and positive rapprochement with North Korea.

Just as we are now seeing with Roh Myu-Hyun supporters leaving the Minju party to create their own, Kim Dae-jung aroused similar enthusiasm and contempt for civil bipartisanship. Politcos and staunch supporters from the DJ-era refuse to acknowledge election mandates and laws passed under any opposition party. Rather than using the many democratic avenues that DJ fought to establish, they resort to lynch-mob discourse and petty branding, i.e., "Lee Myung-bak is a dictator." The sheer emotionalism connected to DJ has somewhat disconnected his message and followers from pursuing a true democratic society. Losing an election is part of the system. Refusing to accept a loss is part of the problem.

*The GOP in the US is suffering from the same delusions.

Secondly, DJ was known for his failed 'Sunshine Policy'. He was praised the world over and even received the Nobel Peace Prize, however, the consequences of appeasing such tyranny are pretty clear. By legitimizing the leadership of North Korea, DJ delayed reunification in more ways than one can count. Offering financial aid under the guise of joint economic development might have sold the project, but it's clear now that it paved the way for the Kim Regime to solidify its power, manipulate South Korea and expand illegal operations both domestically and around the globe. Still today, South Korea and the rest of the world must deal with the mishandled wranglings of Kim Dae-jung who naively rewarded Northern inaction, belligerency and flat out hostility. A unified Korea is a wonderful dream, but the achievement of that dream can only be realized wisely. North Korea behaves the way it does because it was taught by Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy that it's bad behavior will be met with aid rather than sanctions.

I'm not so sure this what the Times was looking for, but that's what they got.

His story is one to be impressed with and that's what Koreans buy into. But leading a divided nation takes much more than a compelling story.

Libraries in South Korea

Here's the (revisited) question:

My husband and are avid readers but do not want to spend money on new or used books. We have had some trouble finding a library where we can actually check the books out. Apparently you have to stay on the library grounds to read books at the National Library of Korea. Do you know of a library (preferably near Gangnam) that has a wide selection, or any for that matter, of English books that we could actually check out?

Since this question was asked, I have stumbled across some new information. First of all, the Herald had a good piece on libraries that should help people out. Chris in South Korea continues to do a great job and stopped by the Jeongdok Public Library this week. He also linked a 10 Magazine article about libraries across the peninsula. I think that should give everyone an idea about what's going on.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Camping in South Korea

Here's the question:

I know I kind of asked about camping before, but now that I have had fun camping once, I want to do it again. Do you know of any good camping destinations--possibly ones by the beach? I feel like I heard someone talking about near-beach camping recently, but I can't remember what they said. I've been searching around on the Internet with no luck yet.

Camping in Korea is not something that is particularly promoted by the government or tourism books, but it is out there. You have a few options: backcountry(ish), commercial and beach. The beach camping you heard about is probably happening on the many islands that dot the sea around Incheon. I love camping out there and it has become an annual Chuseok tradition.

Semi-backcountry camping pretty much happens only in National Parks. I say "semi" because you typically aren't allowed to pitch your tent anywhere off-trail. There are shelters found throughout the parks and in most cases, you'll have to make a reservation or notify park rangers/officials as to where you'll be staying. Don't get too excited though. These shelters aren't like AT shelters. They are designed to house dozens of hikers and often are booked within minutes of becoming available. Not all of the National Parks have such a booking system, so make sure to check them out and see what facilities and accommodations they offer.

You do have another option though: Make camp where you fall. Well, almost. If you're on the banks of a river in a rural area, then there is no law against camping. The river banks and sand bars are for public use. You can set up a site, have a fire, fish and drink all day and night long and assuming you don't get out of hand with the fire or noise, there would be no problems for you. The challenge with this method is that transportation gets a little tricky. You'd have to find a remote location, hop a train, catch the bus, take a cab or put your thumb out and see how far you get. It'd be an adventure for sure. Make sure to check out individual province websites as well. They will usually go into more detail about their destinations.

Commercial camping is out there and what I mean by that is huge mega-campgrounds filled with people, cars and eating facilities. There are a few places in Seoul like Nanji and Seoul Grand Park. You can also try renting an RV for a whirlwind tour of the peninsula.

You could also try taking a look at a few of the limited Korean camping-related sites.

* Braking Boundaries offers some info on specific camp grounds.
* World Wildlife Adventures offers a few camping-friendly National Park links.
* Adventure Korea is always up to something fun.

Just because there aren't websites or links available, doesn't mean that there isn't camping going on in other places. Let me offer some of my favorites...

Deokjeokdo is a great spot for a long getaway. It's about an hour ferry ride from Incheon, but totally worth it. I went there for Chuseok '06 and it was great. Superb beach, huge expat scene, big fires, great hiking and an overall chill environment. There are minbaks and a couple restaurants near the main beaches, but make sure to bring a tent and pitch right on the beach. See the Muuido info for getting there. It'll take you to the same harbor.

Another spot is Muuido. I went there for '08 Chuseok and while I didn't like the crowded atmosphere too much, it was still a great time. There are nice little bungalows you can rent once out there which was a plus for my wife who is not the biggest beach camper.

Another favorite is Ganhyeon in Gangwon-do near Wonju. You can take the train directly there as well, so it's super convenient. I went there my first summer in Korea with a couple friends. It's actually a very popular climbing spot for the expat and Korean community alike, but it also has river bank camping, minbaks, a few restaurants and stores as well as hiking, fishing, fires, swimming and outdoor noraebang.

Camping in Korea is something that needs to get more attention by the expat community. All outdoors sports do, but there are barriers for some of us. Transportation is always an issue as is language and making reservations. If any readers out there have a specific site or trip you have taken, please leave it in the comments and I'll add it to the original post.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Will a school hire me if I am bringing my pet(s) with me?

Here's the question:

I'm wanting to bring my 9 year old dog (50 lbs, she could pass for 40 lbs) *and* my 3 year old cat. I read this article, and I wanted to know if you had any experience with ESL teachers who want to bring pets, and what institutions they could apply to where they would accept pets in their apartment. Both my pets live with me in an efficiency while I work full time, and they are pretty well-behaved. Do you know anything about this in regards to getting a job as an ESL teacher?

First of all, I'd suggest looking at my dog posts for a quick background on bringing pets to Korea. That should cover most of the technical details. The bigger question here is whether or not schools want to allow a teacher with two adult pets move into a district-owned or school apartment that they own or are going to put key-money down for. The obvious advice would be telling your employer as soon as possible about you bringing your pets. This could be very easy, so start there.

Most teaching contracts contain a clause which allows the school to deduct around 50,000 won from your first six paychecks as a protection from unpaid bills or damages done to the apartment when a teacher/tenet leaves. Of course, if you're current with all of your utility bills and don't trash the place, you'll get your contractual deposit back when you've finished up. I mention this clause because it could just as well be viewed as a pet-deposit. Same idea, right? My wife and I adopted a puppy (Labrador-retriever) and we had no problems bringing him into the apartment. I've also had a lot of friends who adopted pets over the years and we all heard the same thing from the landlord/school: Make sure they don't distrupt the neighbors.

Your cat will be a non-issue and while a 50lb dog is no big deal for those of us from the West, in Korea your dog might be viewed as a towering monster by some. Check out my post and podcast on big dogs in Korea. This is relevant because when you tell your school or landlord that you have a big dog that will be living with you, they will be confused and a little concerned. In Korea, mainly toy dogs are viewed as pets, whereas large dogs are relegated to farms or raised for meat. This doesn't mean that you will be forbidden from keeping your dog in the apartment, it's just that you might have to make your case for her. I'd start by telling them what you told me and see what happens.

I don't think that the institution matters that much. I guess the only problem that could arise is that if you were to teach adults or at some public schools, it might be a few days before you get an apartment and the motels that you'd be put up in would not be thrilled about housing two pets during that time period. With that in mind, a kids hagwon might be the most painless option for you. You could look into boarding them for a few days when you first arrive, but time might not permit you to find a good one.

So yeah, you should be open as possible with your potential employers and see what happens. It might not be a problem at all.

Help From Fellow Expats

As always, there are a few questions I can't answer very well and perhaps our ever-growing expat community can offer some info.

Korean universities in Korea?

I currently have a Bachelors degree in English and I would like to obtain a Bachelors degree in Biology as well. My main question is...since I will be working as a teacher in Seoul, can I also continue my studies in Biology? Would you by any chance know if there are any restrictions when it applies to my situation? Do I also have to obtain a student visa as well? I know that I will have to take a Korean proficiency exam in order to apply for these two universities but I was wondering if there are anything else that I should be looking into?

Field hockey?

I'm about a month away from Korea and am wondering if you could find out any information on field hockey in Seoul/Korea. I've had a look round the net but can't really find anything. I know both their national teams are highly ranked in the world, but I saw a newspaper article that said they only had a player base of around 150 (male). If you could shed some light that'd be great.

Any Ilsan laundry pickup service specifics?

I am moving to Ilsan to teach for a year and was wondering if you knew whether or not there are laundry services there. I'm sure there are general laundry services -- more specifically, however, I'm hoping to find a company that would pick up clothing at my apartment and then deliver it to me once it has been cleaned. Are these services common in Korea?

Premier League in Bundang?

The Premier League is starting soon and I really don't want to miss any Liverpool football. Do you know of any pubs in Bundang that show matches regularly?

Thanks, guys.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Art Museums, Stores, Groups and Supplies in Seoul

Here's the question:

Where can I find a comprehensive listing of all things related to art in Seoul? That includes art supply stores, foreigner friendly art groups, regular art groups, shared work spaces, co-ops, galleries and museums.

I can readily help with some of this, but there are a couple I'm not certain about. First of all, art museums and galleries can be found on Korea's tourism site which is getting batter and better. Also, make sure to stop by Korea4Expats which is becoming so damn good these days.

Art Supply Stores

  • Insadong
  • Alpha Art Supply (Namdaemun and Lotte Dept. Store in Jamsil)
  • Morning Glory
  • Homi Art Store (Hongdae and Gangnam)
  • Linko's
  • Art Box (Seohyun)

Art-Related Groups

I think that just about covers all the basics of what I can get a hold of. I would recommend getting touch with some of the members of those groups or even stopping by one of the stores and seeing if they have an additional information. If any readers know anything else about the scene, please add it in the comments.

How much money should I bring to South Korea?

Here's the question:

I will be teaching with EPIK next week and was wondering what should I do about the currency. Where can I get the best exchange rates? I heard the airport is the worst. Also, how much money do you think I should exchange for a month and is it true that it takes about a month before I can open a bank account (alien card)?

I hope I got to this one in time since it is time-sensitive. When I first came to Korea, it was a very different situation. The ATMs on the streets didn't have to "Foreign Card" option they do now. I was told to bring travelers checks which I did, but that is not as necessary anymore. You could still bring the checks, but cashing them is a problem. That leaves cash or relying on your bank account at home. You can bring a ton of cash over and exchange it, but if you lose the cash on say, a late night bender, then you're out of luck. The ATM/debit/credit card option is always a pretty safe bet. You should be able to find an ATM that honors your account or credit card.

How much is a different story. If you arrive towards to end of the month, don't expect to be paid for at least a month and a half. I always suggest that people bring enough cash to get them through a couple months of moderate living. That equals out to about 800,000-1,000,000 won ($640-$800). If you're like me and my wife then that wouldn't last a week, but if you are a little crafty, you can make it last. Remember, you'll also want/need to buy a few start up items like dishes, utensils and soap, so that does not mean you get to spend all of that money of food and booze.

The best place to exchange cash is at a bank. The airport is always higher than other places (save for late-night exchange places). You can even shop around if you want. Before my last trip abroad, I went to three local banks and eventually settled on the best rate. This is what you do: Exchange a hundred or more at the airport just to get through the first few days. Go to a bank with the rest of your cash and exchange at the one with the best rates. You shouldn't have to have an account to exchange cash. I am not totally certain about that, but I exchanged money at Woori Bank and neither my wife nor I have an account there.

Opening is easy as hell. All you do is go in there with your passport and proof of employment (signed contract, tax info, etc...) and fill out the info. Korea4expats claims otherwise (and they're usually pretty accurate), but we took one of our new teachers into a bank within a week of her being in the country and opened the account. She didn't have her ARC yet and still managed to get a check card issued within 10 days. That doesn't mean it's the rule though. Remember, Korea is a land of exceptions.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How bad is the pollution in Seoul?

Here's the question:

In your personal opinion, how bad is the air pollution in Seoul? Sometimes I wonder if the pollution is overblown by expats from Canada or other areas where pollution is minimal. I am from a fairly large metropolitan area (Philly/Baltimore/DC)and just hope that some of these on-line opinions I read are just overblown compared to other areas that are quite polluted.

I like this question because it asks for my personal opinion. Seoul isn't particularly clean, but it is improving. The comments you read online could come from genuine posters or runners, bikers and other outdoor sports enthusiasts, but from experience on my ESL Teacher group over on Facebook, most of the comments are from expats and teachers who like to bash Seoul and Seoulites.

I remember reading about how I would become asthmatic after a few months in Seoul and would be ill most of the time. Not only have I not developed asthma, but I also am ill about a fraction of the amount I was in the US. You should ignore most comments and just look at the facts. Seoul is not on any "Most Polluted" lists that I can find. Seoul does not have factories or any other industry which produces a lot of air pollution. Seoul simply has too many damn drivers. If you're a little more into stats and comparative studies then perhaps a Google search would be best. You'll find all you need to know about the current state of air quality and pollution in Seoul. This picture, however, is something that I have never seen in Seoul.

I know a few cyclists who really had a hard time getting in a solid exercise out of fear of inhaling exhaust and fumes. Seoul has an excellent public transportation system, but still has way too many cars. They're trying to get people to ride bikes more and even have an alternating-day driving program to reduce congestion and pollution, but the smog can get pretty thick on hot summer days.

If you live in a busy city-center, then expect some pollution, but Seoul is not significantly worse than other major world cities. In fact, Seoul has less particulate matter in the air than Busan and Daegu. You mentioned that you're from the DC area and from what I can tell, DC produces more air pollution than Seoul. The time of year also must be considered. Of course, you'll be in Korea for a minimum of a year, but since the winter months experience the greatest increase in pollution, the cold weather usually deters people from spending extended amounts of time on the streets.

I guess the main point is that pollution is a problem of course, but it depends on your lifestyle as to whether or not you let it become an issue for you. If you are a runner, then I suggest you get up early in the morning and beat the cars. If you are a cyclist, then stick to some of the rural trails. If you love the smell of grass and trees, then perhaps Seoul shouldn't be on your list. You are a gym dude, then it won't be a problem. And don't forget that you can always go the mask route...

Anybody developed any illnesses or conditions as a result of the pollution?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gay Teachers in South Korea: Should they hide it?

Here's the question:

I've been told that people are extremely intolerant of gay people in general social situations and I could even be fired from my job because of it!!! How often does this happen and how do they "determine" whether someone is gay or not? Dress? Mannerisms? Should I leave my scarves and cigarette cut jeans (you should see them, they're FANTASTIC!) back at home? I just don't want to lose my job just because of a lack of understanding so I want to play it somewhat safe. Any advice?

Yet another LGBT-related question from our soon-to-be fellow expat, Jim. He's brought us many of the other questions featured here on Ask the Expat.

You'll find some extremely intolerant people all over the world and Korea is certainly no exception. Yet the more I think about it, I don't think Korea's relationship with homosexuality could or should be defined as "intolerant". Intolerance is what happened to Matthew Shepard and Charles Howard in the United States. Intolerance is what Poland and Lithuania did by censoring gay-related information and institutionalizing homophobia. Intolerance is executing two young gay teenagers in Iran. Korea has not seen many acts of violence committed towards homosexuals and, besides outlawing gay marriages, Korea only has one law on the books regarding homosexuality. They have tried blacklisting, but as I pointed out before, it has been largely ineffective. Korea as a society is simply too inexperienced in its PUBLIC dealings with homosexuality that a strong anti-gay culture has yet to emerge.

I'm not discounting the extreme embarrassment that some Korean parents claim to suffer through when a son or daughter comes out or even acts effeminate, but unlike much of the rest of the world, there isn't an organized anti-gay movement yet. I imagine that as the LGBT community continues to organize and mobilize, more attention will be given to them which will lead to an official opposition movement.

One thing that must be difficult for "out" Americans and other Westerners is the fact that some may have spent years coming out and fighting prejudices at home only to arrive in Korea and forced into the closet. There's a reason for this and it's not just a gay-straight thing. In Korea, people do not earn identities based on their staunch individualism. Rather, the identity is gained by following pre-determined professional, familial and societal steps.

For example, I love canoeing and kayaking. I love it and if people were describing me (pre-Korea), they would probably point to that interest before anything else. I know there's a world of difference between an activity and sexuality and I also recognize that publicly stating a love water-sports (pun intended) wouldn't be as shocking as a declaration of homosexuality, but the point is that Koreans don't identify each other by uniqueness or quirkiness. Those qualities are not as valued in Korea as say, being a good team leader or daughter-in-law is. Being unique equates to being different which equates to being strange which can lead to isolation or even alienation.

I'm not advocating that we should all act and dress like drones, but you must blend into your environment a bit more here. I'm not sure what cigarette cut jeans are, but I can tell you that wearing scarves out of season certainly won't help you blend into your surroundings. If you're teaching kids, I would recommend toning down your style while at school and around your neighborhood. You won't be doing yourself any favors walking the streets near your school in such a fashion. Students and parents will see you, tag superficial and innaccurate qualities onto your character based on preconceived ideas and identity politics. They might not see you as gay per se, but they could get concerned about your teaching abilities. Remember, perception is king. It would be wise to play it safe and tone it down in and around your school.

Mannerisms are a little trickier for Koreans to pickup on though. Remember when I said "gaydar" can be a bit off in Korea? Well, Koreans' "gaydar" for non-Koreans is essentially non-existent. The stereotypes of gay men and women are not as flaunted as they are in the West, so typical Western indicators don't raise the flags in Korea. I used to work with a gay American from Wisconsin. He was a small town boy who moved from a tiny city to San Francisco before making the trek across the pond. He had become quite involved in the LGBT culture in San Fran which, of course, is much more pronounced than most other American cities.

When he arrived here, there was no question about it, nor did he try to hide it. His adult students, however, had no idea. They thought his clothes were very fashionable (which is probably true), his hair stylish and they all found his mannerisms charming. They didn't identify those traits the same way I did. He was a very charming fellow for sure, but there was no popular perception or typified pattern for his students to connect to. I'm not saying that Koreans are clueless. It's just that many of them don't consider sexuality when evaluating character (mostly because homosexuality still remains on the fringe of Korean society).

I couldn't say how many people are fired over their sexual orientation, but I have known enough gay teachers to know they didn't have any serious problems. They kept their private life and work life separate just as everyone should do regardless of career or industry. There will be no witch hunt or anything else at work either. If you speak too openly with Korean colleagues about it then you might run into a few snags, so I caution you there as well. I know it might be hard to hide your sexual orientation and in many cases you won't have to, but at school and around your students (if they're children), I'd play it safe. You can still have a wild time on the weekends and act and dress however you please, so don't worry about that.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Room Salons in South Korea: Who's Going?

Here's the (paraphrases) question:

I am American in the US dating Korean Guy. He goes to Korea for business and drinks every night with friends, but not his boss. I figured it was like going to family restaurant or something along that line. He also said he has to go to karaoke room salon. He said its nothing to worry about and that its where professional singers come and teach you to sing karaoke. This does not compute to me. Can you please tell me the truth about room salons and if there are really salons for singing lessons? I just want to know if this is really what this is about.

I doubt it's a family restaurant. I'm sure he's probably just going to a hof or barbeque joint with his buddies. That seems harmless enough. Furthermore, it's not my place to point the finger at your boyfriend. I think the fact that your boyfriend told you about the places suggests some sort of innocence (or perhaps ignorance). I can, however, shed a little light on the rest of the question.

Rather than talking about the details of room salons and what they really are, let me offer an extremely abbreviated version. Room salons are technically "singing rooms" where "doumi girls" or female attendants flirt, tease and encourage you -the customer- to continue buying overpriced booze. The following picture is not what typically happens in these places.

If the men are feeling frisky or the host for the evening needs to impress his potential clients, the party can continue on to a "second-place". It could be a whiskey bar, but at this point in the night, drinking is not the goal. They'll usually skip the bars and head straight to a love motel. Of course, the girls can't just leave the room salon, so a price must be negotiated and if it's right (usually 300,000-500,000 won per girl), the girls inform their boss and transform from "attendants" to "escorts". At the end of it all, the customers have paid hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars, the girls give a cut to their boss and the night is over.

I'm not sure how much of a cut they get, but I do know that there are room salon girls called "10% girls" who are apparently the best of the best and only have to give 10% of their "extra" earnings to the salon. I assume everyone else must pay more than that back to the salon.

I gotta admit that I laughed out loud when I read the part about singing lessons. The questioner certainly has a boyfriend with a creative mind, but unfortunately, he didn't use the Korean businessman playbook. Korean women and wives know what's happening at these places and most of them hate the thought of their husbands or boyfriends frequenting the establishments, so the men must be careful in how they present their evening at the room salons.

Rule 1: Always say how much you hate the places.

If you admit that you have fun or enjoy going to these places, then it's over. To women and especially significant others, men must always say how much they hate the places and some might even go so far as to acknowledge that employing women is such a manner is wrong. Whether they're telling the truth is their own business.

Rule 2: Blame your boss. Even if you went with friends, blame the boss because he "forced you" to go.

This is probably the most common excuse. It should be said that Korea is an extremely collective society and doing things together (especially in business) is very common. I have not worked in a Korean business setting, but my wife and friends have and they always complained about how forceful the bosses could be about eating and drinking together. All Koreans understand this system which is why it is a great excuse for men (and women for that matter). "My boss made me go." or "What was I supposed to say, honey? You want me to succeed in the company, right?" Of course, men go on their own just as much as with their bosses, but the boss just happens to be the perfect scapegoat whether they were there or not. For instance, I knew several young businessmen who were given a company credit card for entertaining potential clients. Each employee got a 300,000 won allowance per client. What they would do is inflate the client numbers and go out together to room salons with two or three clients rather than the eight to ten they claimed to be entertaining. Why? Their "boss made them".

Rule 3: If you're the boss, then stress the fact that by entertaining clients (or co-workers) at the salons, you can make a lot of money in return (or increase team cooperation).

My personal favorite here. I was recently talking to a gentlemen who looked especially tired one morning. His eyes were red and hair a disheveled mess. I asked him what happened and he told him about his previous evening at the room salons and how he spent over 4,000,000 won. I was blown away by the amount. How could he justify it to his wife? Well first of all, he has (like many Korean men I know) a secret bank account which his wife does not know about. I should say that not all "secret accounts" are for room salons though. Some men use it to treat friends to dinner because they know their wife would protest the gesture. Second of all, he claimed that if he spent four-grand entertaining his clients for the night, it meant that he would make twenty-grand in sales. "It's like a necessary evil", he said.

So, who goes to these places? Everyone. Well, not everyone, but it's safe to say that a large majority of Korean businessmen have spent many blurred nights in these establishments. And if you think I'm exaggerating, then consider that nearly 80% of married peninsula-based Korean men have admitted to having an affair at some point during their marriage while only 17% of females admit to the same. That disparity suggests that men are going somewhere for their kicks and I doubt they're all going to Korean housewife hookers. And if that number doesn't do it for you, then consider the fact that Korea has managed to add girls into nearly every public entertainment facility and that current President Lee Myung-bak used to own a building where prostitution was thriving. There is a certain subtle, yet widespread acceptance of these establishments, so I wouldn't necessarily presume that you're boyfriend is doing anything shady...yet.

I have also talked about this to married women and all of them choose to believe that their husband is simply working late. That may or may not be true, but they don't see the value in asking too many questions about it. Ignorance is bliss, I guess.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Health Insurance in South Korea: Who provides?

Here's the question:
I know that when a place of employment sponsor you for a job here they are technically responsible for you. But are they required by law to provide you with some type of health insurance while you work for them? I am especially interested in the E2 visa and whether the school must provide with health insurance.

Yes, your school or sponsor is responsible for providing you with health insurance. Every contract should have a clause mentioning it, so I really wouldn't be too concerned. Typically, you'll be paying half of the monthly payment which works out to between 50,000 to 70,000 won depending on your situation. Stop by the NHIC site to get a little background on the program. It's pretty comprehensive, so I really don't need to go into too much detail other than saying it's good, it's cheap and you'll miss it once you leave. I happen to think that the Korean system is one of the finest in the world. True, it might be going bankrupt, but it has been excellent for me.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Outlets, Voltage and Transformers in South Korea

Here's the question:

I'm sure this has come up before on your blog but I wasn't able to find it: What are the electric plugs like in Korea? I cannot seems to find a solid answer on this one. I heard they were European plugs, which would be great because I have a ton of adapters for European plugs. If they're different I need to buy a few adapters before I go!

The standard voltage in Korea is 220 volts (60 Hz) . The outlet has two round holes and looks similar to those used in many European countries.

Europe, however, uses 230 volts (50 Hz). Because the voltage and frequency is so close, some people are inclined to use adapters, but don't. You'll end up ruining whatever you try to plug into it. The same goes for converters. While they might work well for low-function clock radios and other low-stress appliances, converters won't tolerate desktop computers or even hair-dyers. You'll need to pick up a transformer. They'll run you more, but you'll be protecting yourself from damaged items as well as the risk of fire. Some people might disagree with me and say you'll be fine, but it's always better to be safe.

English-Speaking Dentists in South Korea

Here's the question:
I have a cavity and it hurts! I need to see a dentist asap. There is a dentist in the building where I teach but he speaks no English (maybe a little, but not enough). I am anal about my teeth and would feel so much more comfortable if I could see a dentist that I could understand. Help?

I live in the Gangnam-gu area (near Daechi & Samseong station & Coex), I don't mind a short travel if necessary.

Many people are concerned about dentists in Korea. I've had some pretty rough cleanings during my time here, but have found a few trustworthy ones. Language became a huge concern for me after the the first guy I went to only understood "ouch" and I think that was about it. I now go to Chicago dental clinic in Gangnam, but since you're closer to COEX you should visit Tufts Dental.
From Samseong station ; Take Exit 5 , continue to walk down the road about 5 minutes, pass straight through an underground crosswalk at POSCO intersection, walk a couple more buildings passing by a Starbucks coffee store& Fed-ex, and look for 437 Teheran-ro. We are on the 3rd floor.

I think that should work well for you and since you can make an appointment online, I can't foresee any problems with them. For those of you curious about other English-speaking dentists in Korea, make sure to check out Galbijim's entry on the subject.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Do same-sex spouses qualify for F3 visas in South Korea?

Here's the question:

I have recently accepted a job in Korea and have in fact only flown in today. I am married to the most wonderful woman, who unfortunately does not have a degree. I am not bothered about her [not] working here, all I want is for her to be able to join me without leaving the country every month. Have you any ideas? I am quite desperate to have this sorted, as I can obviously not be without my partner for a year, but I also know they don't accept gay marriages?

This is a very tricky question and one that I'll have to breakdown into different parts. We're dealing with visa issues, gay marriage recognition and school tolerance of openly gay teachers in serious relationships. The problem is that so many things are totally dependant on the other and there is no real way to guarantee anything.

First of all, if you are legally married, your spouse would technically qualify for an F3 visa which is for accompanying spouses. My concern is that since gay marriage is not recognized under Korean law, your spouse would be viewed as a girlfriend or partner, rather than a "spouse". There is no way to be certain though. Immigration is never consistent, so predicting these things can be difficult. Still, you should try.

To get the F3, you will need your ARC, notarized marriage certificate, proof of employment (tax info or pay stub), copy of spouses passport and a completed Application for Confirmation of Visa Issuance. After you bring that info to immigration and get your issuance number, then your spouse will need to go to the Korean embassy with her passport, 2 passport-sized photos, aforementioned issuance number, visa fees and a completed Application for Visa. (As you mentioned, she would not be able to legally work on the F3.)

Hopefully, the immigration officer handling your case won't think twice about it since you have all of your documents in place. After all, gender shouldn't matter and since you' re married, hopefully that will be that. I'm willing to bet that very few same-sex couples apply for the F3 visa, so procedure for such a case probably won't be on the books.

The next concern I have is whether or not your school will tolerate and/or accept an openly gay teacher. Keeping sexuality and sex-related discussions out of the workplace is always advisable, but I think this case might be more difficult to avoid. Your employer will know that you're sponsoring a spouse (F3) on the visa that they are sponsoring for you (E2). They'll also know that your wife is living with you (eventhough I don't think that matters too much). If you're working in an adult institute, university and perhaps even a public school, I think you should be alright. They tend to be more open-minded, but kid hagwons are run by strong-armed mothers which, of course, tend to be a little less tolerant.

The only thing you can do at this point is get your ARC and other documents in order and start the process. I hope that there are no snags along the way, but you never know what might happen. You might get an ass of an immigration officer who doesn't "believe" in same-sex marriage or you could get the typical lazy-ass officer who will stamp the paperwork without giving it a second thought.

This case is quite interesting and I hope that you keep us posted and maybe some readers out there who have dealt with this will chime in and offer their story.

*** Update 8/6/2009 ****

I wonder, if this case does get through immigration, will it open the door for gay Koreans who wish to marry their partners?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Driver's Licenses in South Korea: Is this guy cheating?

Here's the question:

I recently failed my driving test and was wondering if I could take a driving test while I'm in South Korea. Is this possible and would I be able to change it and make it valid in the UK in a few years time? I'm not planning on getting a car in Korea either, I just really want to get my driver's licence, so it's out of the way for the future
Alright, I'm not sure what to think about this one. So, you failed your driving test in the UK and have decided that rather than taking the test again, you would prefer to just come to Korea and get your license? And once you obtain your Korean license, you want to transfer its validity to the UK? Am I right?

I'll do my best to walk you through the rules and regulations, but it looks like there's something else going on here. Either way...

I think it's best that you check out the Driver's Licence Agency (DLA) website first. Since you are still in the UK and have not spent more than 3 years in Korea, you will not be able to apply for an international driver's licence.
International driver's license is an internationally recognized translation of your domestic driver's license. It must be accompanied by your driver license when you travel.

In case of foreigners, only those who have resided for more than 3 years in Korea can get an international driver's license from Korea. However, those whose visa status are D-5, D-6, D-7, D-8, E-1, E-3, E-4, E-7, F-1, F-2, F-3 and F-4 can get an international driver's license from Korea, regardless of the length of their stay in Korea, once they obtain their Korean driver's license.

The first sentence disqualifies you right off the bat. You've got to have your domestic license before applying for the international license. There's also a "Foreigner Driver's License". Again you must have a domestic license though.
1. Foreign driver's license (on exchange, you must surrender your license, which can be returned when you leave Korea if you bring your passport and airline ticket)
2. Embassy certificate
* Embassy certificate is exempted for those who have a license issued from US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Belgium, Poland, or Italy.
3. Translated and notarized copy (the issued date & valid period must be written on the translated copy)
* Translated and notarized copy is exempted for the license written in English
4. Passport
5. Alien registration card
6. Three photos (3cm by 4cm)

Those routes won't work for you, but you do have one other option and that is to simple apply for a Korean drivers license. JoongAng has a write-up on it as well. Requirements:
1. Apply in person at a Driver's License Agency (proxy applications are accepted under certain conditions).
2. You must be 18 years of age or over
3. Bring your Alien Registration Card (ARC). Those people who are legal residents but who are not issued an ARC must bring a record of their entries/exits.
4. Bring your Passport
5. Bring 3 photos (3cm x 4cm)
6. You will have to take a written test and driving tests, as well a physical test and Safety course.
a. Written Test - about 50 or so questions - is available in English, Chinese, French, German, and Japanese. The DLA's have written materials available to help you prepare. The written test costs W23,000 (this includes the cost of the physical)
b. Driving Tests - course driving and real driving - are required.The course test costs W15,000 and the real (road) test costs W21,000.
c. Safety class takes about 3 hours (depends on where you live if there is one available in English or not) and costs W12,000.

So, once you get your Korean license, you would theoretically be able to drive on it in the UK since the United Kingdom recognizes the Korean driver's license, however, once you leave Korea and therefore lose residency on the peninsula, I would imagine you might get some questions about why you don't have a UK license.

Doesn't it seem much easier for you to just take your test again and simply exchange it for a Korean license? Otherwise, you're asking for so much extra work. Take the test again...

Writing in South Korea

Welcome Korea Herald readers and anyone else who stumbled across "Ask the Expat" today. Look around, get acquainted with the site and feel free to ask me a question. Today, I thought I would delve into a related topic.

Here's the question:

I am an aspiring writer and journalist and was wondering how I might go about getting in touch with somebody at the Korea times, or even, more generally, if you had any recommendations for getting work published. I have a lot of experience writing for newspapers, both at my college and in my hometown. Do you have any suggestions? I'm not picky, I'll write for nearly anyone and about anything.

Getting yourself into the papers isn't all that difficult. Getting published on a regular basis is often where the challenge lies. So many of our fellow expats out there are good writers and many of them want to write in the papers as well, so standing out or writing something unique is a must.

First, you gotta know which papers are open and willing to publish expat contributions. Korea Herald, Korea Times and JoongAng Ilbo appear to be the friendliest to expat submissions, however, you can always shoot for the other publications. Some of them will be in-print while others will be online. Click here for a list of publications.

If I were to offer any advice, it would be to make sure that what you're writing about hasn't been covered in that publication before. For instance, I know that the topic of my column today has been discussed many times before, however, offering advice on how to get around the hiring practices has not. Also, think about expat issues that might not have been discussed in much detail before. For instance, next week I have an article coming out about an issue that I know has not been discussed in papers or blogs.

Knowing your audience is important, but I think having an objective take on Korean history and culture is a must and one will not be able to write well without that. I know my Korean history pretty well and between my Korean wife, family and daily life, I'm slowly pickup the intricacies of the culture. Perspective is key.

I encourage you to get out there and start sharing your thoughts. The K-Blogosphere might be overrun with the same stories, but it's a great collection of experiences and a wonderful way to bring the community together. Start a blog, write a column and share your side of the story. I makes us all a little closer.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dating Co-Workers and Potential Risks

Here's the question:

I'm interested in my Korean co-teacher and I think she's into me. How should I handle this? Should I ask her out? What happens if the school finds out?

First of all, I'm not the guy to give dating advice (see Dear Abby). I would suggest talking to friends about that one. Remember, dating is dating and love is love. The rules that applied to romance and dating at home pretty much apply here. There is no turn-of-the-key pick-up line or gesture. Men and women are pretty much the same all over the world.

However, I think dating co-workers, regardless of where you are employed, always creates problems. In a school, it creates even more problems and dating a co-teacher in a Korean school has the potential to create the most problems. I wouldn't recommend it, but you might not be able to resist, so I'll try my best.

You should consider how this arrangment is going to effect your job and ability to teach well. I have a hard time believing that your attention would be on teaching and in the end, that's what you're here to do. The school is paying you, so it's your responsibility to do a decent job in the classroom.

Let's pretend for a minute that dating your co-teacher wouldn't interfer with your teaching ability. In most cases, you'd still need to keep it a secret from the school. Not only is the administration going to frown upon the relationship due to obvious problems that could arise, parents are not going to be thrilled about sending their kids into the love-nest either. Whether it be your co-workers, bosses or even students, someone is bound to find out and they are likely to spill the beans to someone who shouldn't know. If the school, principal or director thinks that the relationship is a big enough problem (regardless of what you think), someone could be fired or removed and I'm willing to bet that it wouldn't be the native teacher. Do you want that responsibilty?

And just think about it. What if you start dating and then break-up? This isn't a big corporate office where you can duck behind desks. This is a small shared classroom where communication is paramount. If you dated and broke up, what would happen? Would she have to quit? Would you? I think the whole thing is very risky and doesn't sound worth the potential stress.

Of course, love blinds logic and if you're really set on it, then you must be discreet. No long stares, unecessary touching or flirting in front of students, other teachers or your principal. That's just crazy.

I have a friend who has been dating his girlfriend for nearly 8 months. They don't work for a public school, but they still have problems. The powers that be have forbidden the relationship, moved them to separate institutes and now their relationship is heavily strained and destined to fail. I could come up with dozens of reasons why some schools dislike inner-school romance and some perhaps might have to do with the fact that many of them are between Korean women and foreign men, but I think the main reason is that once the relationship starts, work performance declines. Once that goes, students leave the school or complain about the classes. The rest is history.

I know that I'm painting a rather nasty picture here and there are probably tons of teachers who have managed the work/romantic relationship with relative ease, but I think a nice cold splash of reality never hurts anybody. I know that you're in Korea not only for work, but to live, learn and love. Still, your school cares about education and that should be important to all teachers as well.

Any personal stories out there?

6-Month Contracts in South Korea

Here's the question:

I'm interested in teaching English in Korea. However, I cannot commit to a 1 year contract. Do you know of any places that have 6 month contracts? Or anything less than 6 month contracts?

Most schools and jobs offer the standard year contract. There are six month gigs out there, but they are hard to find, offer less benefits and no airfare or severance. Most schools don't want to mess with them because having a constant flow of short-term teachers damages reputations and decreases re-enrollment. So, I couldn't point you in any solid direction for those contracts, but if you cruise the jobs sites well enough, you might manage to find something. They surface from time to time on Daves though.

You have a couple options though. If you're totally into coming to Korea, then you can try to find a summer camp or a winter camp. They're usually five weeks of pretty full teaching days, but you can make some decent cash. Since it's nearing the end of the summer now, you'd have to shoot for the winter camps. However, those jobs typically get snatched up by F2/F4 visa holders or E2 holders who are already in country.

Of course, you don't have to teach in Korea. I would take a look at some international job boards. You can find some pretty good 6-month jobs on there.

Podcast Update

Sorry about the light posting. I had a mini-vacation last week and forgot to time-stamp my posts. I'm a genius.

Back to it this week. In the meantime, make sure to listen to the most recent podcats: Expat Stories and Big City Adjustment.