That Awkward Moment When You Realize You Were Trafficked

Pre-Departure Rush

Author’s Note: This is the first of three posts detailing my specific experiences as an English teacher in the Republic of Korea. Much has changed since I stepped off the plane in Incheon, South Korea, in July 2007. But much remains the same, and the startling lack of information about teaching in South Korea, and the many shady but government-sanctioned recruiting agencies filling these lucrative contracts, is hardly a mistake.

I had no earthly idea what I was going to do when I graduated with my rather impressive but ultimately unemployable degree in political science and global studies. I had written off law school despite a lifelong ambition to go into law. I had been rejected from Teach for America.  And I had written off the Peace Corps after my recruiter lost my application package not once, not twice, but three times. By the time the manila envelope arrived at my door step, I was boxed up and ready to move back to my hometown. And I had already signed a contract with a recruiting agency for a private middle school in Suwon, South Korea.

I had no experience teaching, but I had plenty of debt, and I was acutely aware that jobs using my specific skill set did not exist in my hometown of 16,000. Despite my lack of qualifications, “Mike” seemed enthusiastic to sell me on a contract for this school in Suwon, where my hours would be from 8am to 2pm every Monday through Friday, with no more than 30 teaching hours per week. My airfare and housing would be provided, as would one month’s bonus salary for the completion of a one-year contract. The Korean government would even offer me pension as a resident worker. I would have four weeks of paid vacation and pictures of the apartment Mike sent sealed the deal. I had done my research, interviewed with the staff and faculty of my new school, and was ready to go.

With one tiny, almost insignificant setback.

My graduating class, which numbered in the thousands, wasn’t expected to receive diplomas until July. And my contract start date was in June.

At the time I left for South Korea, E-2 visas were surprisingly easy to come by. The Korean government required sealed transcripts and an original diploma, but little else, in order to process a foreign worker’s passport. Without my diploma, my departure date kept getting bumped back. A week. Two weeks. When I thought I would have at least another week in the country, I received a phone call late at night from a gentleman with a very thick Korean accent demanding I get on a plane in Chicago at four o’clock the following morning. I would fly to San Francisco for a tourist visa, then onward to South Korea to begin my contract. Within the 30 days allotted by my tourist visa, I would be flown to Fukuoka, Japan, where my E-2 visa could be processed and I would be re-admitted to South Korea. Hopefully, my diploma would arrive within the next 30 days. Hopefully, I wouldn’t be stranded in Fukuoka, Japan, on my rapidly dwindling savings.

I balked. Not only was I going to miss my best friends’ wedding, but having less than eight hours to pack for a year overseas was unacceptable. (I would have been packed with notice, but remember, delays in processing my visa were making my departure date ever more abstract.) I was unprepared, and I had immense concerns that if I went to South Korea on a tourist visa, there were no legal ramifications for my employer if they chose not to pay me for a month of work. Mike, the once-genial Australian recruiter who promised me that my lack of Korean language skills and experience would not be a problem for this prestigious private middle school in Suwon, called me throughout that evening trying to convince me everything was above board and “nearly every English teacher gets into Korea this way. Your employer will pay for everything in Japan. Don’t worry.”

He also gave me this little gem of a warning: “There are worse things in the world than having to get on a plane at four in the morning, Amelia.”

I was worried. But terrified I was losing out on my only job lead in the three months since graduating, I was nevertheless on that four o’clock flight to San Francisco the next morning, sniffling my way through security as I bid goodbye to my parents for a year and trekked off into the unknown. After all that running around, I ended up in California a little after five a.m. local time, unable to get to the embassy because they wouldn’t open their gates for several more hours. I was broke and had no money for a hotel, but I found a cheap room near the airport and paced the shitty carpeting until my cab arrived, late, paid nearly $100 to drive into the city, and made it to the embassy just before it closed. Yep. After getting settled into my room, taking a short nap, and snagging lunch at Burger King, I called the front desk to make arrangements to get into the city. And despite calling and calling both the front desk and the cab company when my cab failed to show with enough time to combat traffic and get to the embassy in plenty of time, no one offered any apologies when we got to the embassy three minutes before the gate closed because we were, of course, stuck in traffic.

On July 21st, I boarded a flight from San Francisco to Incheon, South Korea. I picked up a copy of Harry Potter at the airport bookstore and tried to look past the frenetic 24-hour period leading to this moment.

I’ve had a few years to wonder what I would have done in that moment, waiting at the international terminal in San Francisco, if I had known what was waiting for me in Incheon. But I was a very young 22-year-old, one who thought she was old enough, researched enough, confident enough to make a year abroad the time she needed to figure it all out. I was smart. I had lived overseas before. I knew what I was doing. I thought I was going with a reputable agency. I thought I was going to have a lovely apartment in Suwon. I thought I would spend the four weeks of my vacation backpacking and biking through Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. I couldn’t know what was waiting for me.

But I wonder — if I did. If I had some gut instinct, would I have called my parents and asked for return air or bus fare to Wisconsin? Probably not. Because what got me into the most trouble over the next few months wasn’t the job or the city or the criminally disappointing mismanagement of my contract by my recruiting company, but my own refusal to admit that I needed help.