International Writers Magazine: South Korea
Out South Korea
surrounded by a group of kids chanting "waygook" (the
Korean term for foreigner) was after a couple of years of working
and living in S. Korea nothing out of the ordinary for me, but
on this occasion of visiting the local zoo with a friend and quickly
becoming a much bigger attraction than all the animals! This experience
was quite indicative of the perils facing an expatriate in this
The Southern half
of the Korean Peninsula constitutes one of the great economic miracles
of recent times, as less than 60 years ago it ranked on par with Sudan
as far as G.D.P (among the 10 lowest in the world), but now ranks amongst
the worlds top 10 economic powers and its major industrial conglomerates
("jaebols") such as LG, Samsung or Hyundai are household names
in every nation.
Despite the fact that more and more foreign professional and manual
workers are heading to S. Korea in hopes of sharing the financial boon,
and thousands of American serviceman are also in the country (ever since
the end of the Korean war in 1953, America has kept a strong military
presence in the South in order to dissuade the North Koreans from another
invasion), except for certain pockets of the capital Seoul, a foreign
face is quite a novelty and sure to draw more than its fair share of
stares and comments.
I, like nearly every other native speaker who worked in SK as an E.S.L
(English as a Second Language) instructor, had quite a few major incentives
for choosing this country over all the other nations clamoring for those
who have English as their mother tongue. Unless a foreign teacher is
a master of profligacy, he or she should be able to save anywhere from
$1000-1500 from their monthly salary, which for many College graduates
(especially those with a Humanities degree) trying to pay off a hefty
educational loan, a better financial prospect than anything in their
Korean labor laws also give certain advantages to E.S.L workers that
neighboring Asian countries such as Japan or Taiwan usually dont:
paid airfare to and from SK, free housing and one months salary
as severance pay upon completion of a 1-year contract.
But, except for those foreign teachers (mostly males) who marry a Korean,
very few choose SK as a long-term residence (unlike many other nations
which offer less benefits but have more single long-term expatriates).
The free housing given by employers is often sub-standard, the students
often tend to be difficult (especially the teens who are sometimes forced
to study up to 16 hours a day) and the bosses often unscrupulousI
had to take mine to court for trying to withhold half of the aforementioned
severance pay which was my legal right.
But the worst things about being an expatriate in SK are usually outside
work; the country is quite small and still suffers from a paucity of
genuine attractions for foreigners. Most cities boast some nice Buddhist
temples or mountains, but those eventually come off as monolithic (like
the endless apartment blocks that dot the countrys landscape).
Even though SK has hundreds of miles of coastline the number of sandy
beaches is quite limited and even those are only open for swimming just
a few weeks out of the year.
For a young Westerner SKs nightlife also often leaves much to
be desired as most of it is centered on Karaoke rooms ("Noraebangs"),
or pubs and beer halls in which groups of Korean students or businessmen
get sloshed on beer and/or the countrys favorite Local brew called
Soju (it originates from rice and somehow packs a much stronger punch
than its typical "40 proof" label).
The worst aspect has to be a certain sense of impenetrable distance
that a foreigner feels from the natives and their society. Since SK
is a Confucian society that highly values seniority and old age, a "waygook"
quickly notices how most elderly Koreans avoid eye contact or form a
churlish attitude towards him or her. It often seems that the older
generation has either coerced or persuaded the younger ones to adhere
to xenophobic principles as though a foreign worker may often be treated
to Korean hospitality in terms of free food and drinks making long-term
friendships or gaining your way into a Koreans heart and home
remains a formidable challenge.
An average Korean man or woman is quite likely to face fierce opposition
from the family and ostracism by peers by entering a romance with a
"waygook." Many of the those who land a Korean wife or husband
may not be aware of the factors that facilitated the union (be it the
spouse being from a single-parent household which is considered a major
con in Korean society, past the prime marrying age or simply considered
a misfit to begin with for reasons which are likely to always remain
The foundations of this seeming wall of mistrust are actually not that
difficult to pin downKorea has a very long history of isolationism
(it was known as the "Hermit Kingdom" till the last century),
and its experiences with foreign powers such as Japan (which colonized
the peninsula for much of the first half of the 20th century), or America
(whose soldiers have often had disciplinary problems while stationed
in SK, and whose government was seen as backing unpopular military regimes
in Seoul which held power for much of the second half of the 20th century)
have often been less than amicable.
If things get too tough for you while working in SK, just try to decipher
if your pecuniary gains are worth the downside
.for most it still
Aryas website is www.hetrippin.com
Kazemi Jan 2007
Travel in Hacktreks
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