Thursday, February 28, 2008

Gypsy Scholar's "Pearls of Wisdom"

Yeouido Island, Seoul
Korea Beckons...
(Image from Wikipedia)

Early this morning, I received an email from an American-based (North American-based, anyway) physicist who had happened across my blog and decided to contact me for advice because he has been offered a position in a South Korean university. Like me, he is married to a Korean woman and has two children who speak both Korean and English.

Although he asked me for "pearls of wisdom" based on my experience, all that I can offer is the following, which might nevertheless prove interesting to others reading this blog:
From my blog, you may have noted that I don't really speak Korean. If you happen to, or if you quickly pick up languages, you will fit in better.

Having a wife who is Korean helps enormously, of course, and I am utterly dependent upon mine. If your wife is from Korea, then she will understand lots of things that appear odd to Americans, such as "key money." When renting a house in Korea, one does not usually pay a monthly rent. Rather, one gives "key money" in lieu of rent. This is a one-time deposit that one gets back when one's rental contract is over. One doesn't actually pay any rent, though one 'pays' an opportunity cost -- as the economists like to express it -- for that money, which can be as much as 20 thousand to 100 thousand dollars, or more, could have been used for investment or for obtaining interest in a savings account. In fact, the person receiving the "key money" is using that money in either of those two ways. Of course, if your housing is provided, the issue of "key money" is moot.

If your wife is a Korean citizen, you might consider applying for a spousal visa, for that gives you more flexibility in accepting a new job if that should turn out to be necessary or advantageous. A work visa leaves you with less flexibility, for if you accept a new job, then you have to leave the country and reapply to enter. Usually, that requires merely a one-day trip to Japan, but such a trip is still time, money, and inconvenience.

You need to realize that a contract is not really binding in Korea. Korean employers can alter contracts pretty much at will, and many foreigners working in Korea find this terribly frustrating. Don't be surprised if the contract also does not entirely jibe with reality.

Related to this is the 'disorganization' that confronts foreigners. Planning ahead is difficult, for conditions can suddenly change -- and at the last minute. For instance, you will need to inquire ahead in order to find out the holidays and special school days because Koreans will assume that you already know, but those special school days might not even be decided upon until a week in advance, and you might find out with only two days notice that classes will not be held . . . or that the midterm exams have been shifted one week back or ahead.

I'm in the humanities, so my needs differ from yours. The library system is insufficient for my purposes, so I rely upon the internet for doing my research. Fortunately, universities usually provide online access to a lot of journals, and I'm guessing that this would also be true for physics.

In your case, as a physicist, you would need to know what sort of laboratory equipment a department has and whether or not that equipment is available to you. Also, you would need to know if any of your colleagues would be willing to work with you on research and if you would have student assistants to help you to run experiments.

Koreans tend to be polite to Westerners but don't readily grow close, for both cultural and language reasons. Korea lacks a culture of discussion, given the hierarchical nature of its very Confucian society, and this affects personal relations as well as professional and teacher-student relations. If your wife grew up in Korea, you might have noticed that she doesn't discuss matters like an American (or other Westerner) does. My wife and I often used to misunderstand each other in discussions. For instance, if I tried to discuss a problem with her, she tended to interpret my words as complaints rather than as attempts to analyze and solve. You can perhaps imagine how not having a culture of discussion might inhibit academic life -- and this inhibition is compounded by the language barrier, of course.

Another thing to note is that Koreans are educated -- or perhaps 'trained' is the word -- to think "in the box," and getting them to think more flexibly is not an easy task. I have noticed a major difference between Korean students who grew up abroad as the children of businessmen or diplomats, for example, and those who grew up in Korea, the former being much more flexible in their thinking.

Some Koreans are anti-American and tend to assume that any Westerner encountered in Korea is an American. In 2002, for instance, when an American tank driver accidentally drove over two high school girls, many Koreans treated the accident as a deliberate homicide, and anti-American sentiment reached an all-time high. Canadians and Europeans reported being attacked as Americans by Koreans who refused to believe their protests that they were not American. Now, I don't want to exaggerate this, for even in 2002, I myself encountered no such problems. But I did give a talk about 9/11 that same year, and a lot of Koreans who came to listen didn't like the fact that I did not interpret the 9/11 attacks simply as a reaction to American foreign policy. In fact, I did acknowledge America's foreign policy as one of the motives behind the terrorist attacks, but I didn't think it the primary motive. Many of the Koreans present didn't like hearing that, but my topic of my talk probably attracted a lot of Koreans who were politically on the left.

You will probably also notice that Koreans are strongly nationalistic, even those on the left. The political left in the West tends to be international in its rhetoric, but the Korean left is a nationalistic left. This is less surprising when one comes to see that their nationalism is simply a shared feature of being Korean rather than some peculiar feature of being on the left.

I guess that I've focused on the various difficulties in being a foreigner in Korea, but the positives nevertheless outweigh the negatives for me. Korea has provided me with a job as a professor in a good university. I can manage my research without too much difficulty. My students are mostly nice even if they don't work hard enough. Korean food is good, at least to my tastes, and Korea itself is a modern nation that imports fine wines and offers international cuisine. I enjoy living in the great city of Seoul, which provides me with the highest standard of living that I have yet experienced.

Your mileage may vary.
Perhaps this blog 'paste' has not been especially interesting for my regular readers, but I did spend a couple of hours this morning composing it...

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At 8:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well actually Jeff,

Ol' JK let loose a tiny bit of a giggle or two. I have to admit something that Koreans don't truly understand the concept of. Usually it is the other way round when it comes to languages, English being less well, multifaceted than some of the others.

Do you recall (in your early days in Korea) whether you felt-in hindsight-that your face might've shown a look of, "askance?"


At 8:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Askance? You mean antigogglin', slonchways, whopper-jawed...?

Actually, I was shielded from problems here in Korea because of my wife, Sun-Ae.

But I can say that living here enabled me to finally identify the reason behind some exhaustingly lengthy, recursive 'discussions' that I'd so often had with my wife.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll bet, lol


At 11:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, the laughs do come...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sage advice you've written, Jeffery. The only important point that seems to have been missed is the fact that it is virtually impossible for a foreign national to gain tenure. I've noticed that a number of universities are hiring new foreign faculty to increase English-language course offerings, but this seems like a flavor-of-the-month trend. These foreign faculty positions likely have distinct titles, which allows the Koreans to create regulations exclusive to the foreigners and conversely exclude foreigners from certain benefits.

As an example, a couple of foreign instructors at my university's language institute were "gyuchikked" ("gyuchik" means "regulation" in Korean) out of jobs when the university passed a mandatory retirement age of 55, which applied only to foreign instructors, not the Korean instructors teaching the Korean language at the institute.

The unwillingness of Korea, through its visa regulations and employment conditions, to offer foreign employees long-term job and residency security is the main reason why I left.


At 10:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, the professor sent a follow-up email on that point, and I said a few things in the direction that you have indicated.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:33 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

Hi there,
just curious - do you pay American income taxes? Are your children citizens of both countries? What a cool way to grow up with two cultural influences. Although, I have to say my upbringing actually was too. Dad-a yankee from Chicago-Mom- a southern feminist from Salem!!!! I was four the first time that I recall dad have me repeatedly say-"pin" and "pen" with the correct vowel sound!

At 2:38 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

I forgot to tell you in previous comment that I posted pics of my puppies if you want to show the kids. I know how fascinated they were with mom and dad's dogs-

At 5:26 AM, Blogger Gina said...

Very interesting- sheds some light on Korean friends I've had. Maybe you can interpret an incident that puzzles me to this day. I befriended an exchange student from Korea while in college. Before spring break, she sort of invited herself home with me. My parents were happy to host her, but midweek and out of the blue she called a Korean friend to come get her, giving no explanation why she was leaving. It was several hours' drive for her friend, so this wasn't a small thing, and both I and my parents were pretty hurt. Admittedly we were out on a farm without a lot of entertainment, but she knew this before asking to come along. Anyway I always wondered if there was a cultural background I wasn't aware of. Are there certain expectations of a host and/or guest that came into play?

To answer your commenter's question: Americans living abroad have to file tax returns (if they're employed by US companies- I'm not sure about foreign companies), but can claim tax exemption if they either have a permanent tax residence abroad, or can establish physical presence outside the US for most of the year.

At 6:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeanie, the correct pronunciations for "pin" and "pen" are "pin" and "ink pin," respectively, as I'm sure your father made absolutely clear.

I try to drill such lessons into the minds of my own children, which is pretty intensive work, but I'll take time to show your puppy photos when I give the kids a break from their English lessons...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, as for taxes . . . expats only pay taxes for income above 80,000 dollars, and I've never had the misfortune of earning that much money. I do, however, have to file tax forms every year.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gina, I can't imagine what motivated your Korean acquaintance to leave. Maybe she needed to eat some kimchi?

Leaving without explanation is certainly rude, but she may have had some motive that we don't know about. Perhaps she simply felt uncomfortable and longed for Korean company. Maybe farm life was just too alien for her -- Koreans can be rather inflexible.

Still, it's odd -- and seems unlike a Korean to me.

I guess that I just don't know.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inviting herself over sounds very Korean. Koreans are curious about how non-Koreans live. On several occasions, Korean acquaintances asked to visit my home. Not in the mood for an inspection, I made polite excuses. Close friends may visit without invitation but not casual acquaintances; most entertaining is done in restaurants and the like, for Korean homes are small. I guess after she'd satisfied her curiosity looking around home, she didn't feel the need to stay any longer.


At 8:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, that's possible, too.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that was verging on wrong (depending on the start date, but likely to be in effect by the time it counts) is that the spousal visa is MUCH better than the work visa, from March 15th onward. After that date, foreigners apparently will have to jump through more hoops for a work visa, including medical tests (which were, originally, supposed to detect not just AIDS or other major illnesses, but also drugs in the system and even "alcoholism" -- don't ask me how they'll test for that! -- and a criminal record check, which takes about 6 months to get done in the US. I think (though I'm not sure, since I won't be married till later this year) that spousal visas are comparatively less of a nuisance to obtain.

As for Gina's question, I have to confess, I imagined the Korean girl left because she hadn't had Korean food in however many days and was losing it. (ie. The infelixbility you've mentioned.)

I too have occasionally had Korean acquaintances try to invite themselves over, or even students. My gauge for whether that's cool is, if the person seems like he or she would invite me to his or her place, then I am willing to invite, or let them drop by unannounced. But this is pretty rare.

Though on the few occasions when I was single and they were attractive women, I didn't mind so much at all. :)

Another thing I might have mentioned is that it tends to take time to build a decent social circle, unless you're very lucky. Koreans, as you noted, are (if you exist in their social world) relatively polite, but not all that welcoming. As some friends here said, when they traveled in Southeast Asia, locals were inviting them to drink or hang out or come to their home or whatever all the time. This is profoundly more rare in Korea, and sadly all too many of the Westerners here are freaks, drunks, fratboys, etc. Which all works out to making it much easier if you're a person (or couple) that thrives on isolation.

(Might be less of an issue if the Korean spouse grew up here, but that's not really my experience. Koreans seem to compartmentalize their relationships, and any excuse seems to do for some people refuse a compartment for a complicating factor (like a non-Korean-speaking spouse, for example). So it's more isolating than living as a intercultural couple in someplace like the US, I suspect. (I sure find it that way. Of course, I thrive on isolation, or at least my writing does...)

At 5:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gord, thanks for the comments.

If I recall correctly, the spousal visa itself has improved its conditions.

In former years, only non-Korean wives qualified for a spousal visa. The spousal visa qualifications were then expanded to include non-Korean husbands.

However, a spousal visa still did not give one the right to work freely in Korea until fairly recently.

Now, a spousal visa is better than a work visa and will soon be far better when the work visa's conditions are tightened.

I hope that I've remembered correctly about these details.

Like you, my reflexive asociality fits well in Korean culture, for Koreans generally let me lose myself in books and writing.

Jeffery Hodges

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