The International Writers Magazine: South Korea

Sussing Out South Korea
Arya Kazemi

Being 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 country.

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 world’s 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 own countries.

Korean labor laws also give certain advantages to E.S.L workers that neighboring Asian countries such as Japan or Taiwan usually don’t: paid airfare to and from SK, free housing and one month’s 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 unscrupulous—I 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 country’s 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 SK’s 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 country’s 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 Korean’s 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 opaque).

The foundations of this seeming wall of mistrust are actually not that difficult to pin down—Korea 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 isn’t!
Arya’s website is
© Arya Kazemi Jan 2007

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