That Awkward Moment When You Realize You Were Trafficked (Part Three)

Conversations With Horrible Human Beings (or, Magical Moments in Victim Blaming)

Author’s Note: This is the third and final 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.

“Okay, Amelia,” I hear you saying right now, exasperation making you sound just a little bit — okay, REALLY freaking annoying. And you’re probably not exasperated at all, because I believe readers of this blog are generally good people and not, you know. Heartless. But I’m going to write out the conversation I have had verbatim with one such horrible human being. Which I’m sure you are not. Because that would be depressing. Fortunately, having conversations with horrible, victim-blaming human beings makes writing this out infinitely easier. Talking to yourself rarely cuts to the quick in quite the same way. Mostly because you never expect someone who bought you lunch at The Cheesecake Factory to be a horrible human being, but I digress. So, here’s where we hash it out. It’s the conversation I first had with human trafficking students in Costa Rica, the conversation I had with a coworker, the conversation I’ve been having internally ever since it occurred to me that there was a reason my story, in particular, wasn’t just a case of a bad experience with a recruiter, and later, a cultural misunderstanding over the importance of contracts.

“Why do you think you were trafficked? That story sounds pretty miserable, but you should have expected to be worked hard in another country. Your story stinks of white privilege. How much were you making, again?”

Because you’re not horrible human beings, I can hear some of you groaning. The rest have probably already formulated a response for me (thanks!). But let’s just interview my 22-year-old self for a moment and ask her what she was thinking when she stumbled off that plane on a muggy July evening in Incheon, South Korea.

She didn’t think she was being trafficked. But neither do many young workers who are, for one reason or another, exploited for their labor. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (otherwise known as the Protocol) defines trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” (Emphasis mine. Source. Also, the lack of Oxford commas is making me twitchy. Servitude of organs?)

So if you asked stupid, naive 22-year-old me if she thought she was being trafficked, she would have told you, “Nope, not me. I’m having an adventure and it is awesome. I am getting paid to goof off for cute children and I’m not paying rent. But the no passport-thing kinda sucks. And I’ve been here for a month and only have $30 because I got screwed out of my resettlement advance. So that’s not much fun.”

“But they were processing your paperwork,” a horrible human being would say, speaking from the position of someone who has never had every form of his or her ID taken away, of someone who has never been so humiliated as to have to ask what city he or she is in, of someone who has been repeatedly and casually lied to over a period of months, and then blamed for not reading a visa application written in Korean.

But 27-year-old me will give horrible human being just a tiny break here. Bonded labor, or debt bondage, is one of the least known forms of labor trafficking today, but it is also the most common method of enslaving people. “Victims become bonded laborers when their labor is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan or service in which its terms and conditions have not been defined or in which the value of the victims’ services as reasonable assessed is not applied toward the liquidation of the debt. The value of their work is greater than the original sum of money ‘borrowed.’” (Emphasis mine. UNTC.) This horrible human being, like 22-year-old me, probably doesn’t know that yes. Yes, I was trafficked. I would never work off the debt I had accrued by allowing the Korean government to fly me from Chicago to San Francisco to South Korea, because what I owed was never made clear. But the rumored repercussions of leaving early were ominous.

While I was a student at the University of Minnesota, I had studied the Protocol and human rights as a whole under a very demanding but ultimately amazing professor who made sure we knew how to read U.N.-ese. She, in fact, co-wrote most of the books used in most levels of academic study of human rights. Even 22-year-old me should have known better. But 22-year-old me was sleep deprived and frightened she would lose the only job lead she’d had that year. She had a constantly running internal dialogue that went something like this: “Don’t make me go to law school I don’t want to go to law school you can’t make me go to law school.”

She wasn’t thinking about all the many hours she spent laboring over Sikkink’s human rights class, the multiple papers she wrote on that very same topic, and she was ignoring every warning sign the recruiter, the school, and the universe was sending her way. 22-year-old me was white, American, privileged. She was rich, if she would just call her parents on her land line and ask them to buy her plane ticket back to Chicago. She could escape, unlike everyone she had read about in Sikkink’s class. You know. The people who were actually trafficked. Like, for prostitution or forced labor. 22-year-old me wasn’t stupid, though, and she knew exactly how much trouble she was in when her employer took away her passport and refused to give her a date in which it would be returned. She was powerless to walk away.

There was nowhere to go. When my employer gave me a new contract to sign, I signed it.

“You were still making plenty of money. You were getting paid on time. By your rationale, every single ESL teacher in Korea was trafficked. And they all got their passports back. You’re not special.”

And this one’s a stretch, I’ll grant you. I was making bank — once I finally got paid at the end of my first month. Unlike the horror stories you’ll hear if you do a quick search for terrible ESL experiences in South Korea, I was paid on time, in full, every pay period. Even when I didn’t have a bank account, I still walked away from my desk with a big ol’ envelope stuffed to bursting with 10,000 won notes. My hours were steady and reasonable. I did not work weekends. I was not expected to provide extras for my employer, such as long hours in a voice recording studio. My time at home was my own. I generally did not grade papers or write report cards. I did not write books in the many get-rich-quick publishing schemes many hagwons use to attract new students. I didn’t work past 8pm, even in 2007, when legislation prohibiting hagwons from staying open later than midnight had not yet been passed. My apartment was paid in full, no rent owed. My utilities were subtracted from my paycheck and I could see, down to the penny (or the Korean equivalent), exactly how much I had spent running my air conditioner unit. (A lot. My people are not accustomed to the “humiture” of Incheon in August.) My only complaint is that I never took my contractually stipulated five days of paid vacation. I was never compensated for those days I was unable to take, because my employers thought being sick once, and going home early twice, was enough time off.

But even with the money, I still couldn’t afford to just pick up and move. A flight home would cost upward of $2,000, and it was possible my employer could be tipped off by the bank any time I made a large withdrawal. I wish this was a case of paranoia, but camp out in any Westerner bar, and it becomes increasingly difficult to discern fact from fiction, paranoia from good judgment. In those first three months, I didn’t have a passport, I didn’t have any means of leaving the country, and I had almost no means of communication (Internet had not yet been turned on in my apartment and without my alien card, I couldn’t get a cell phone). My only sources of information were my thoroughly disinterested foreign coworkers, bitter expats at the Westerner-friendly but very sketchy foreigner bar, and my parents desperately trying to convince me to call the embassy on our crackling land-line conversations. But I couldn’t take my parents’ suggestion very seriously — I wasn’t, after all, being frogmarched off to work every morning. I wasn’t in any physical danger, as if that was the only danger I owed it to myself to avoid. I told my parents, “Three months.” Then I told them I could do three more. Six months in, and I was no longer in debt. And I was sending half to three-quarters of my paycheck home every month to pay down my significant undergraduate debt, something very few 22-year-olds were able to do in the beginning of 2008. This meant good things for my credit score, and it also meant I was free to come or go as I pleased. It was my first taste of unhindered decision making power I had experienced in six months. I could leave.

I was well and thoroughly stuck before that six-month mark, though. And if I wanted to go in those first three months, looming over my head was the threat that my employers would sue me for the full cost of airfare and applicable fees. I wasn’t fully free of debt, like every other ESL teacher in Korea, until I made it to the six month mark of my contract. And for many reasons, some of which were entirely self-made, it is more difficult for some than others to make it that far. Leaving a contract early, for any reason, has the added horror of trying to navigate through the visa process while blacklisted. That’s right. Employees (E-2 visa holders specifically) can be blacklisted, but not employers who overwork their staff, then underpay (or sometimes, fail to pay, in cases of bankruptcy), or purchase apartments in violent, slummy neighborhoods. Not employers who lie, deceive, or hoodwink foreign workers who are steeped in the culture of silence — that contacting the embassy will result in being told they do not engage in contract negotiations for E-2 visa holders, that fleeing your contract early makes re-employment next to impossible, and that fleeing your workplace is something only the shady child-molesting teachers do when they’ve been caught. Worse, that fleeing your workplace can result in being sued for upwards of $6,000 and legal fees. (Where this figure comes from is a matter of some contention, and has been at least since I taught in 2007. These facts may have changed, but I have no doubt someone did some Google-fu on “immediate return flights to JFK” and rounded upward by a grand to account for the visa application process. It’s a figure that haunts Westerner-friendly bars in Seoul. It’s a figure that kept me in South Korea when I should have just left. Older, just a little bit wiser, I know coming after me for that figure is just a scare tactic. It lacks teeth.)

Kinder employers, such as mine, convinced their workers that they would have to find replacements if they left their contracts early, despite those contracts being rather flimsy at best any time a foreign worker held his employer accountable to its terms. (Like getting vacation, for example.) You could escape the legal fees and hairy re-entry process if you found someone else to take your shitty job with no vacation. Facebook and the ever popular Dave’s ESL Cafe was littered with advertisements from teachers leaving early, but unwilling to discuss why. No matter how you look at it, in most aspects of a conflict between foreign worker and employer, the employer will always win.

In 2007, visa regulations changed as a result of several international child molestation cases. Despite the change in regulations, South Korea remains one of the easiest places to obtain employment. Korea also pays far better than surrounding countries, and few places require much more than a four-year degree. Even TEFL, a certification course usually no more than $120, isn’t required to get in front of a class of impressionable young minds. But midway through my stay in Korea, and about the time I would have decided to stay or go, finding sponsorship for a new visa became that much harder when Korea implemented mandatory health checks and an apostilled federal-level background check. In a federalized country, a background check wouldn’t be difficult to obtain. In America, it’s often a three-month headache that requires a drive to the state capital to verify, and additional waiting time as your materials are sent to Korea. Gone are the days of the weekend, all-expenses-paid trips to Fukuoka, Japan, Korea’s nearest democratic neighbor, for visa renewals. Many of us on the brink of staying or going had a good, hard laugh at the new visa requirements and decided shit pay, shit neighborhoods, or shit vacation weren’t worth the effort required to return to South Korea. Not if we had to start all over again toward our one month bonus salary and pension — a sum that could easily amount to $5,000. That $5k could get you through unemployment upon return to your home country or finance a trip to Egypt. It was an alluring offer, and kept many a foreign worker in a hagwon or school that otherwise would have left at the sixth month.

Foreign workers in Korea were well and thoroughly stuck if they had nothing waiting for them back home, though. We began to see that $5k wasn’t going to make a dent whenever we turned on the international news and waited anxiously for America to pull itself out of a financial tailspin. We groaned and grumbled every time we spotted the exchange rates in the English language newspaper and suggested sending money home next week, when the American economy wasn’t on the brink of collapse. We chose to stay. We made that choice. Even the most miserable of us were grateful to be employed, no matter how demanding and yet thoroughly unrewarding that employment was. American banks were in their death throes, but in six months, I had paid off a quarter of my undergraduate student debt.

To consider these stressors, these critical cultural and legal factors, irrelevant because “everyone else” experiences them is a fallacy of the worst sort. It diminishes the sheer misery of being stuck in another country without legal recourse and without a passport. It creates the illusion that this is in any way acceptable, just because we were not being sexually exploited or pressed into forced labor. It was a hell all of its own, one in which the Korean government was indirectly complicit in creating. By limiting foreigners’ options to representation and access to English-language laws, and placing the burden of proving innocence to a dispassionate and culturally biased immigration board rather than on the work conditions that necessitate a midnight flight, ESL teachers in Korea stand on very shaky ground. And when you think about the interests represented in the new legislation, you know foreign workers’ rights, and the previous lack thereof, were not considered. Parents, terrified of sexual predators and drug users in their children’s classrooms but unwilling to pay a qualified, screened professional — and hagwon owners, in a desperate race to the bottom for the lowest possible government-mandated salary — had an incredible opportunity to ignore rising dissent of foreign teachers traditionally left without a voice in labor disputes. And not just because, prior to 2007, there was little English-speaking legal representation to be found in South Korea, and those contracts we signed?

Were only valid if written and signed in Korean. By Koreans. In Korea. There are, of course, many stories prior to 2008 in which dismayed foreign teachers learned (as I did) that the English contract they signed bore absolutely no relation to the Korean copy of the contract. After the “mediation” I went through when I first arrived in South Korea, in which my employers and the recruiting firm shouted at each other for nearly an hour before coming to the mutually beneficial and face-saving measure of blaming the foreigner, I was thoroughly uninterested in legal solutions. I wasn’t going to win.

“You should have done your research.”

I did. I had numerous interviews not only with my recruiting agency, but with the principal and several foreign teachers at this magical middle school in Suwon. I knew what sort of salary I could command and what the standard living quarters looked like for a foreign teacher. I wasn’t expecting a five-star hotel room by any means, but I had been sold on a very specific apartment with very specific luxuries (microwave, TV, and Western-style bathroom) based on previous experiences living abroad. I knew what would make me comfortable and what would make a year living overseas not only bearable, but pleasant. I knew I needed the four weeks of paid vacation. I wanted to travel. I have a fondness for failed states that started early, and it was my dearest ambition to go bicycling through them — while responsibly paying off my undergraduate debt. The year I committed to living in South Korea was one in which I could explore the world, discover which career path was right for me, and find focus in a professional work environment that might have its rewards once I returned to the States. I was very much serious about teaching in South Korea, and implying I jumped on a plane and was stunned to find out things weren’t as I imagined is a stunningly presumptuous thing to say.

“No, I mean, you should have Googled to see if your recruiter or your school were blacklisted.”

I did. In 2007, the ESL world was still trembling from the fall-out of some of the most popular verification sites going dark as a result of Korean legislation prohibiting “blacklists.” Dave’s ESL Cafe, one of the most popular, still refuses to publish blacklists. Other websites, with hosts like Tripod and Geocities and content to match their outdated hosts, have similarly outdated lists of hagwons that have long since gone out of business or renamed themselves. Neither my recruiter nor my school came up in any searches.

But my school wouldn’t come up in a search because, although I disagreed with my school’s management decisions and still hate that I never got to go to Cambodia, I had a positive relationship with my school, my coworkers, and my students. Which seems like a disingenuous thing to say after ripping my employers apart for failing to give me any vacation, but it would be unfair to say I was unhappy working after I made the decision to stay. And not telling the whole story if I failed to mention I cried when I said goodbye to some of my favorite classes and hugged some of my favorite students farewell. I had some fantastic experiences in South Korea. I had a blast traveling on my weekends to places most foreigners, who actually did get to go to Laos and Cambodia and Thailand, overlook on their way to Incheon International Airport. My school allowed me to do all of that by paying me on time. The work was consistent and easy. My obligations to that work ended at precisely 8pm every evening and didn’t begin until I walked through the door at 2pm the next day. Predictability allowed me to build my own schedule and routine, and even if I wasn’t happy with how I arrived in South Korea, I was steadily getting happy as I redefined my expectations. Even if there was a blacklist, I wouldn’t report my school. They fairly bought my contract and paid the headhunter fee to my recruiter, and if they were complicit in the misery of my first three months, it was in siding with my recruiter and failing to adequately discuss my financial obligations if I left or when I could expect to see my passport again when I signed, under duress, a contract that my employer would not later uphold.

My recruiter will never come up in a blacklist search, either. I wasn’t aware of what happened until a month or two into my stay in South Korea, when several foreign teachers and I put our pieces of the puzzle together and finally saw what happened to our recruiting company only after we’d been lied to and abandoned. Most of us began our conversations with our agency speaking with a young woman, “Ms. Kim.” “Ms. Kim” took our biographical information and reviewed our resumes, asked if we had any placement preferences, and informed us that another recruiter would be in touch shortly.

I began receiving e-mails from Mike, who worked closely with me in identifying cities I might like, contracts that appealed to me, and narrowing down the specifics of what I needed as far as work, accommodation, and vacation were concerned. In that process, I received a phone call from “Ms. Kim” informing me that the agency was currently splitting following some undisclosed drama with a recruiter. Most of us experienced nearly two months of silence following this phone call, then another series of e-mails from “Mitch” as if nothing had happened at all. I signed my contract shortly after, then there was more silence. When “Mike” called me the night of July 19th, trying to convince me to board the plane to San Francisco at four in the morning, he introduced himself as Mitch.

Though it seems painfully obvious now, at the time, we only had one or two pieces of this story each, and figuring out that Mike/Mitch walked away from the agency with their roster of candidates and set up his own company, and then promptly over-booked the Suwon middle school contract, was a revelation that floored every one of us. When we did a little poking around online, we found that not only was his new company portraying themselves as the same recruiting company, all of our in-country contact information was readily available on the company’s website.

In October of 2007, I received an e-mail from one of my agency’s prospective customers, who had found both of my e-mail addresses on the agency’s site. I hope I did a decent job of chasing her away from the agency I went with after explaining just my first 48 hours in country. While I maintain that teaching in Korea can be a wonderful experience, there are a number of pieces of legislation that encourage hagwons and schools to abuse their foreign workers for profit, and I unfortunately found one of their worst offenders. There are better in South Korea, and it remains a detriment to the country that the Korean government does not see abuse of foreign workers as a larger priority.

Was I lucky to end up at a school that didn’t abuse me? That simply took away my vacation but at least paid me on time? Many, many teachers were treated much worse than I ever was. Some of those teachers went through my recruiter, Mike/Mitch of the overbooked Suwon middle school contract, which I suppose makes me lucky. In a way. Those abused teachers have the added insult of being associated with “those who leave their contracts early.” Thanks to some rampant cultural stereotyping, abused teachers are lumped in with child molesters, drug users, and criminals. The same stigma, thanks to an anti-libel law, is not associated with abusive hagwon owners and school administrators. Am I lucky that I decided to stay when every instinct was telling me to leave, because I didn’t want to go through the headache of re-applying for a visa? That I didn’t want to struggle to prove why I was forced to leave to Korean Immigration? I could hope, at best, for a letter from my former employer detailing the circumstances of my early departure. Because it wasn’t likely I would prove my successful, well regarded hagwon went bankrupt and I hadn’t been paid in six months and I was forced to go to Thailand to make enough money to afford my student loan payments. Was I any less trafficked because I ended up at a good school, teaching good kids, and my only complaint is that I was blamed for waking up in the wrong city?

“Yes. It could have been worse.”

There is no desperation quite like the quiet, isolated, lonely desperation of searching cheap ferries to Dalian, China, and wondering which skills I could sell to make my way overland to Russia, where the wages are better, or by plane back to Chicago, because I was too stupidly independent to admit I was in way over my head. And I had plenty of time to consider progressively ridiculous routes in my first two months. With no less than two weeks of national holiday, but no passport and no money and no friends, I spent most of that time trying to figure out how my air conditioner worked, starving because even the mega grocery store was closed, sprawled out on my bed leeching off my neighbor’s wifi and wondering how the hell I was going to get out when I only had $30. My foreign coworkers had left the country for the holiday and I was horribly alone. And bored. It got better from there, mostly because it doesn’t get much worse without going into definitively “human trafficking” territory. That doesn’t make me lucky. But my horrible human being is right. It could have been worse.

I spent the better part of a year circling round and round the question, “Are you happy?” and telling myself, “No.” Resoundingly, no. It took a very long time to get myself happy in South Korea, and a conscious effort to stop fighting the system that had led me to that place of misery and alone-ness. And yes, in the interest of full disclosure, pharmaceuticals helped, too. I am not attacking the specific decision many foreigners make to teach in South Korea, just as I am not entirely faultless for my particular experiences in South Korea. Older, and just a little bit wiser, I would teach in South Korea again, if my career had not led me to Washington, D.C. I would make different choices, knowing now what I did not know then, just as I would probably make different mistakes. I would not, of course, go to South Korea with just $30 in my pocket (after depleting my meager savings for a hotel and cabs in San Francisco), nor would I use a recruiter. These are the lessons I learned the hard way; they do not make me less of a human trafficking victim. The size of the paycheck and the lucrative rewards for crossing international borders in search of work does not determine the magnitude of how trafficked a person is. And that, my friends, is probably the most ridiculous sentence I have ever typed in my life. I was saddened to have to shout it, red-faced, at my horrible human being who suggested I was too well compensated to have been trafficked.

This series of posts was difficult to write for a few reasons — the first being how very, very hard it was not to lose my temper with a horrible human being who ignorantly blamed me for staying, for perhaps believing everyone is in a position to escape, or maybe thinking there is no reason to escape a developed and modern country like South Korea.

The second being how very difficult it is to admit that maybe you didn’t have all the answers at 22, and maybe if you had listened to the adults, exercised a little caution, you might have had a wonderful year overseas. Except, knowing me, my idea of exercising caution would be studying abroad in Bishkek or volunteering in Nairobi. South Korea was my exercise in caution. This was, as ridiculous as it sounds, an important lesson I had to learn. Because if I did not learn it in the relative safety and comfort of South Korea, I probably would have learned it in a failed state with considerably fewer exit options. Yes. My parents are every bit as concerned about that aspect of my personality as you are. My mother probably has her face buried in her palm for however many times I’ve called to cheerfully announce I’m vacationing in North Korea/Tibet/Nicaragua and I’ll call when I get my cell phone back from the nice border guards. Having some learning experiences, and becoming an adult because of surviving those experiences, does not make you any less a trafficking victim. It makes you human.

The third reason is that I still have many friends who had wonderful experiences in South Korea, even if their employment situations were not as fantastic as they were led to believe, would not qualify themselves as trafficking victims. Every day, white female English teachers are reminded of South Korea’s more severe cases of human trafficking, from the Bulgarian workers at Everland to the inescapable question from cab drivers: “Are you Russian?” Which, even if you are Russian, you learn to answer “no” if you value your dignity. If you ask most ESL teachers in South Korea if they were trafficked, they would say no. Having a terrible job does not make you a trafficking victim. That is true, to an extent. It remains true until the moment you need to leave and realize that you can’t.

I wanted to write this series of posts, however, to speak out for those who couldn’t make it work. So I address this post to those who tried, and failed, to have a magical year working overseas. It wasn’t just a terrible job. It was a complete and utter lack of choice, bondage to an employer for at minimum six months, and the unending misery of running aground on every piece of Korean culture and legislation that kept me well and thoroughly stuck. I wrote recently that it was like having the rug pulled out from underneath me. No, my experience wasn’t especially horrific, but it took me six months to figure out how to stand up again.

I write it for those who want to teach abroad, and maybe read this series of posts and said, “That would never happen to me. I could escape if I needed to.” Or maybe I’m writing this for those who did teach overseas, who made it work despite poor working conditions, no vacation, unsteady paychecks, slummy apartments, and overbearing bosses and criticize me for being unhappy because I took two sick days and lost my vacation for the year. Like Mike/Mitch, you’re claiming there are worse things in the world than (fill in the blank here) and that this makes me or you any less a victim. But having a good or bad experience teaching or living abroad doesn’t make the trafficking victim. You’re playing their game. You’re expected to smile for the world after signing a contract you have no power to negotiate and no one will enforce its conditions, you’re working for a school that has already lost faith in your ability to be a good and complacent worker within a social hierarchy to which you will never belong, and living in a country that will gladly take your taxes and allow you the honor of educating their children, but fails to represent your rights as a human being. This realization doesn’t make me love Korea, its people, or its culture any less than I already do. But it was stunning, standing on that patio in Costa Rica, when I put a name to exactly why my first months in South Korea were so damned difficult to figure out.

I was 22. I am American. I had an amazing, life-altering experience teaching English in South Korea, met some truly awesome people while paying off the bulk of my undergraduate loans, and I was trafficked.


One thought on “That Awkward Moment When You Realize You Were Trafficked (Part Three)

  1. Yes, I’ve had my heart in my throat after a few of your calls, but that was tempered with admiration of you as a human being and the life skills you bring to the table, let alone as my daughter.

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