Author’s Note: This is the second 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.
We touched down at Incheon International Airport at six in the evening local time. I was through baggage claim and customs in minutes, and standing in the greeting area was a young Korean man in a business suit holding a sign with my name on it. There are only so many “Amelia Jeep”s in this world that are not car dealerships in Ohio, so after shaking hands and introducing ourselves, we were walking quickly through Incheon’s parking garage and then loading my two suitcases into the back of Mr. Kim’s minivan.
Intensely jet-lagged and crashing hard from the stress of travel, my mad-dash to the Korean embassy in San Francisco, and the horror of shouting at my Australian recruiter over having less than eight hours to pack up my life and move to South Korea, I instantly fell asleep as Mr. Kim navigated his way out of the airport.
I woke up as we entered a parking garage. I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep or where we were, but I could make some obvious assumptions based on the contract I had folded up inside my laptop case. We were in Suwon, population 1 million, provincial capital of Gyeonggi-do, conveniently 30 minutes south of Seoul. I knew Suwon had a World Cup stadium and a magnificent city wall that you could hike, and that was the extent of my knowledge of Suwon. I was about to see this magnificent lofted, fully-furnished apartment I would call home for the next year. I began to perk up a little bit as we got into the elevator, but before I could get too excited, Mr. Kim opened the door to my apartment and showed me where I would actually be calling home.
It was a long, narrow, not unpleasant apartment. But it was sparsely furnished, didn’t have a TV, and most disappointing of all, the bathroom was not the Western-style bathroom in the pictures. It was small, dominated by my washing machine, and the shower was a hand-held unit attached to the sink by a hose. A large drain in the floor indicated the entire bathroom would serve as my shower. The duvet cover on my bed had alarming stains on it that had been hastily cleaned with bleach, judging by the faded colors, and the floor was covered in a fine layer of dust. I had some beat-up pots and pans, about a year’s worth of take-out wooden chopsticks in a silverware drawer, and a single roll of toilet paper to get me started.
“This isn’t the apartment I was promised. If you sent me pictures of this apartment, I wouldn’t be here.” Jet-lag made me blunt. Exhaustion had stripped me of every ounce of Midwestern diplomacy. Though I laugh in hindsight and realize I should have dropped any pretense at politeness after such a harried trip out of the U.S., I instantly regretted my words.
My manager, who I later learned was barely proficient in the language he taught, laughed nervously and closed the door in my face after mentioning my coworkers would pick me up at eleven for my first day of work. I had embarrassed him. In just two sentences, I had upended Korean hierarchy and made myself a distinctly troublesome foreigner.
I met my coworkers after a night of very little sleep and we walked to work. I was thrown into the classroom without any training or guidance, at which point I understood I was not working at a private middle school, but one of South Korea’s many “hagwons,” or cram schools. My first class’s average age was seven, and we spent the forty-five minute period learning the names of the colors. Immediately after, I told Mr. Kim we were having a problem. Yes, another problem. I was at the wrong school. I was not the English teacher he was looking for.
We broke for lunch, my foreign coworkers taking me downstairs for my first Korean meal, and I was told that I wasn’t even in Suwon. “Didn’t you notice?” they asked, disbelief clear in their voices. No. No, I hadn’t. Because I just arrived at my apartment late, I didn’t know anyone in this city, and I had no cell phone, no TV, no Internet. I didn’t have cash, which was a good thing, because I didn’t even know how to get back to my apartment building even if I was feeling adventurous. I didn’t speak any Korean. No, I had no idea where I was. I didn’t know my address. I couldn’t even get in a cab or a bus and haul it to the airport because I had no money. My contract had stipulated I was to receive a $500 advance upon arrival, to help get me started. It also stipulated I was to have a TV, but considering I’d just found out over kimchi and kimbap that I wasn’t even in the right city, the empty apartment qualifies as nitpicking.
I know where I’m supposed to be — Suwon, at a private middle school.
Back upstairs, I’m needed on a phone call. Apparently, my recruiter, who now calls himself “Mitch,” doesn’t understand what the problem is. Without an ounce of shame or the tiniest bit of understanding for the fresh hell I stumbled into, he proceeds to shout at me for not knowing he changed my contract. I shouted back that the only contract I had was the one for Suwon, and he could check his inbox, but the only contract with my signature on it was the one I had spread out on my desk right in front of me, signed and dated and as I was about to learn, completely invalid. Contracts don’t matter in the ESL world. Signatures are irrelevant.
I’m seething, but still expected to teach. Once again, without guidance or training, I’m thrown into my next class. This time, the children are a bit older, but I still have no idea what I’m doing. When I emerge, I’m shaking with rage. I’m also needed in the conference room, where my manager and boss are meeting with my recruiter and senior members of the Seoul office. After plenty of shouting in Korean, in which Mike/Mitch and I stare daggers at each other across the conference table, it is determined that I am at fault. I should have read my Korean-language visa application more carefully (you know, the one I received from the Korean embassy in San Francisco, less than ten hours before I left the country) and known that my contract had been switched. But if I was unhappy with this contract, I would lose sponsorship for my visa, salary, and would be responsible for all expenses bringing me into the country.
Mike/Mitch stays behind in the conference room to speak with me. I tell him that at best he was misleading, at worst he is a liar. Older and just a little bit wiser, I’ll name him for what he actually is: a trafficker. He capitalized on my employer’s need for a teacher and my desperation for employment and created a situation in which the only way for either side to save face was to place me in an untenable situation. Worse yet, in the following weeks, I met several other displaced persons who worked with Mike/Mitch who were meant to have the exact same position in Suwon, who had also interviewed with the school’s principal (“Ms. Choi”), and had identical pictures of the same lofted apartment in their e-mail inboxes. Older and just a little bit wiser, I know it wasn’t a matter of saving face at all. He, and his agency, convinced everyone he worked with, from teacher to school administrator, that our only option was to play it his way. My employer could have, though chose not to, pursued legal action against Mike’s recruiting firm. Instead of siding with the Korean firm, they could have sided with me.
But I was alone, broke, and even though I’d never had a chance of defending myself, I was a troublesome foreigner.
I was in no position to refuse a contract when Mr. Kim offered me one to sign, much less negotiate terms similar to those I was leaving behind in Suwon. I lost three weeks of vacation, though my boss was generous and bought a new TV for my apartment once she realized mine was missing in action. Six months later, after I was locked out of my neighbor’s wifi, she also installed the Internet I had been paying for all along. The day I signed my contract, Mr. Kim asked for my passport so that I could receive my Alien Registration Card (ARC). While I had an electronic copy of my passport, I still hadn’t received my first month’s salary. I was still very much stuck in Incheon.
Two things kept me from running. First, people who made “midnight runs” become ineligible to work in South Korea again. Second, teachers who leave in their first six months can be held liable for their entry airfare and subsequent transportation costs. I figured, as miserable as things were, I could make it the first six months and walk away debt-free. And when I spoke to other foreign teachers, I was told repeatedly that the U.S. embassy does not deal in the contract affairs of English teachers. (Which is sorta kinda true. They can point you toward legal advice, though, which was what I desperately needed.)
My second month in Korea, shortly after receiving my ARC and passport, I got a cell phone. This was more difficult than you might imagine. No one wanted to sell me a phone, and without many allies in my office and zero Korean friends, I couldn’t even convince someone to buy the contract while I lurked outside the building. I had to ask my manager (you know, the one who hated me and didn’t speak any English?), and we went door to door around the neighborhood until, frustrated, Mr. Kim told me to get in his minivan and we went to T-Mobile’s Incheon headquarters. After much shouting, I had a shitty phone and a pay-as-you-go contract. After two months of being unable to make consistent contact with other foreign teachers, I was finally connected again.
I believed, if I could just make it to month three, I’d be okay. I began considering the possibility of paying back half of my airfare and leaving. I’d get a job in Taiwan or China and save up enough to fly back to the U.S. I was okay. I’d be fine.
Older, just a little bit wiser, I know I could have left at any moment. I didn’t owe anyone anything. I owed it to myself to be safe, happy, and hundreds of miles away from a culture that could write off my contract and make me the victim. But I stayed because I wanted to be responsible and independent. I “owed” my employer money, and for about two months, I didn’t have a passport. My job was okay. I had met others whose jobs weren’t so okay. They stayed in neighborhoods cab drivers refused to enter. Their employers didn’t pay them on time, if at all. Their schools were in danger of bankruptcy and their visas in danger of losing sponsorship. Their passports were still locked in their bosses’ desks. They were contracted for forty hours per week, but were often up until midnight every night grading and writing new materials, or expected to show up on Saturdays to work in voice studios. I had to figure out how to relate to a bunch of seven-year-olds. I know. It was rough. Occasionally, I had to duke it out with my coworkers for the tuna kimbap, of which there was never enough, and sometimes they forgot I was new to the country and left me out of previously established trips to Costco or galbi. They were indifferent, happily involved in a community that didn’t include me, perhaps hoping that I was just miserable enough that I wouldn’t make it to the third month. Or the sixth. Thanks to my shady recruiter and a series of events that were completely out of my control, I was an impermanent member of my school’s staff, even as I passed my seventh, eighth, and even ninth month without issue, without drama. While I don’t begrudge my non-existent relationships with my foreign coworkers, I do think my first three months could have been immeasurably better if I felt I had an ally, or at the very least, someone aware of what it was like to teach in Korea who wasn’t going to rat me out to my employer. I didn’t find that ally until one warm September day, and it’s no coincidence that I survived the three month mark and decided to go for six the week I met Denise.
My first three months were unpleasant, but they were getting better. My first month was particularly bad since most of that month was dedicated to some national holiday or another, in which the entire country shut down as Koreans returned to the countryside or left South Korea for vacations abroad. I, however, had no passport. I didn’t know anybody but a few bitter expats who haunted the local Westerner-friendly bars. I’d made one or two forays into Seoul to mixed results, one of which ended with a gentleman from Liberia following me back to my apartment and remaining undeterred even as I picked up a kitchen knife and threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave me alone. Or, you know. Stab him. I never made it to Laos or Cambodia, but thanks to my stay-cations, I had plenty of money saved up to leave and was still managing to send a considerable amount home.
In my third month, however, everything changed for the better. I began making friends and exploring the culture. I lost some of my bitterness and began finding the joy in Korean saunas, curing sinus infections with the world’s spiciest ramyeon soup, and celebrating Christmas at a galbi joint when my coworkers and I were, unfortunately, put to work on Christmas Eve. (We were given the option to blow off New Year’s Eve. We were penalized on our paychecks for our insolence.) By six months, I began traveling Korea on the weekends and going to festivals, poking through street markets, studying the language. I decided I could do three more. And then three more.
But I had one minor, insignificant problem that I couldn’t seem to resolve with my employers, who I maintain — despite the way my entry was handled by my recruiter and the decision to blame me for the contract misunderstanding — were always above board. I couldn’t take my vacation.
No matter how I phrased my vacation requests, they were denied for one reason or another. Though I initially started with five days of vacation, my employer claimed I took too much sick time. In August, I was not handling my transition well at all. I was sick, going in and out of clinics much to the eternal embarrassment of the poor Korean teacher assigned as my translator, and stressed because I was sick. I was sick because I was stressed. I got medication for the physical problems and started exercising for the mental ones, and blew out my knee running on some wobbly Korean bricks. (Again. Hindsight.) I took a day off because I couldn’t climb any stairs and was in an unholy amount of pain. Then I took New Year’s Eve off because it was New Year’s Eve and it is sadistic to make only your foreign teachers come in to re-work brand new lesson plans for the winter session when even your Korean staff has been given the day off. In May, I went home one class early because I was incapacitated by a migraine. On a warm, sunny June day, I took my grading to the park outside our school and was promptly assaulted by a drunken businessman. Needless to say, none of my time off was spent “on vacation.”
It was spent mentally (and occasionally, physically) surviving a relentless work schedule, and every single “day off” I took, I paid for. I had the pay stubs deducting my time off from my monthly salary. Even so, this troublesome foreigner was an erratic foreigner, and my bosses were displeased with my “spotty” attendance record.
In July, the month in which I was slated to complete my contract, I was given two days off to get my affairs in order. I spent them, without regret, in a chateau in rural Incheon with some of my closest friends and we celebrated the 4th of July with fireworks, barbecue, and loud American music.
I was saddened to leave my friends in South Korea. The probability of seeing many of them again is slim to none, though we promised to try. I knew I would miss many of the Seoul neighborhoods I’d fallen in love with, but I was thoroughly disenchanted with South Korea when I left. I was embittered by the lack of police response to my attack in the park, furious at my treatment by the school I’d been defending all along, and somewhere around the tenth month, I’d lost it with all the gawking in the subway and the “discreet” business card-pushing young professionals desperate for “language exchange” sessions. (The paid kind are illegal and will get you kicked out of the country if caught. The unpaid kind are stupid. I have more economic interest in teaching English than learning Korean. And if I teach all day for a considerable amount of money, I’m not teaching for free in my off hours.) I was finished with South Korea, and I was ready to go home.
But it wasn’t until almost two years later, while sipping bottomless drinks at an all-inclusive resort in Costa Rica, that I realized not only was I trafficked, I was angry at myself for justifying why I wasn’t happy in South Korea.
Of course I wasn’t happy. After years of running into other foreign ESL teachers, the constant judgments were wearing me thin. Even a shitty school in South Korea can be an enjoyable experience, but I taught at a good school. A crummy apartment can be an adventure, but mine was pretty decent. Low pay and no vacation can be a bummer, but it’s not the end of the world — and I was paid pretty well, even if going home an hour early because of a migraine counted as a “vacation” day in my employer’s world, and I got to pay him $75 for the privilege. Of all the injustices of my experiences in South Korea, what made me truly unhappy was my complete and utter lack of choice in my situation. It was being seen as defective for pointing out that many of these “disappointments” were not cultural differences, but deliberate deceptions by the Korean government, schools, and recruiting agencies to limit the labor rights of working foreign residents.
I was pissed off. Mostly because that lack of choice was, like the game Mike/Mitch wanted us to play when I first arrived in South Korea, all in my head. Older and just a little bit wiser, I would have called the freaking embassy. But I probably would have kept working, because the money really was pretty damn good.