The Trials and Tribulations of a New Job

It frightens me sometimes to think how long I have been here… tonight I am back in the Pinot Wine Bar in Banpo, Seoul, not far from the Express Bus Terminal, and predictably, just like when I first started coming here all those years ago (when I was working in Korean public elementary schools, God help me!) I couldn’t remember the way (wrong exit from the Bus Terminal again) and ended up getting more early evening exercise than expected…

Right now, the early spring air in Seoul is something of a miasma, as the first clouds of the annual ‘Hwang sa’ (the ‘Floating Yellow Dust’ from the Gobi mentioned previously at times in this blog) waft their noisome way across the brief stretch of ocean separating the Korean peninsula from mainland China and combine with the indigenous smog of an early Seoul evening, and already, close to the end of March, the KTX train coming north from Daegu was filled with the sound of irritated lungs coughing; at both ends and all points in between, where the line of sight allows it, the distant hills are barely distinguishable from the grey, overcast sky. Happily, perhaps, the weather app on my phone is promising rain tomorrow, but towns in the south seem to be having surprisingly high levels of airborne dust. Thus it comes to pass that, as is the case every spring, the true harbinger of the coming summer is not the emerging green buds and leaves on the trees, but a grey sky and a constant cough in the throats of all of those unwise enough to venture out without a dust mask of some description, although some of us also take some dubious medication for it, too.

Alas, what brings me here on what should now be my odd weekend (the new job involves working from Wednesday to Sunday evenings each week; my ‘weekend’ is now Monday and Tuesday) was yet another visa screw-up – immediately after receiving copies of the countersigned contract and the other papers necessary to transfer sponsorship from the old employer to the new, I took the Seoul subway to the correct Immigration Office, and what did I discover? They had gone completely over to a reservation system the previous April, and no longer used the drop-in-take-a-ticket-and-wait-yer-turn method which, ironically perhaps, seems to work so well elsewhere. One might even point out that even when the old Busan office, which used to occupy a couple of floors of the Customs Building down near the harbour, was transplanted into a swanky, squeaky-clean new place a couple of blocks down the road, it was not necessary to enforce the new system because, as anyone who went there could see, customers occupied surprisingly few of the seats whilst waiting… which was quite a contrast with the previous situation, where you could hit the place on a weekday afternoon and find it full of Russian and Chinese sailors in nervous groups in the corners, Korean grannies looking after Filipino-Korean grandchildren as they ran around screaming and shouting, and various odd European and American English speakers regarding the melée with a mixture of confusion and amusement on their faces as they were waiting their turn.

Anyway… so… I then began a furious KakaoTalk chat session from my cell phone with the recruiter who was involved this time and who – alas – did not seem to understand that it was no longer possible to take a ticket and wait – you had to go online and make a reservation for some time in the near(ish) future, and – double alas! – it seems that the Seoul office already had no less than an eighteen-day backlog of applicants. It rapidly became apparent, also, that I was far from the only foreigner with this problem, as the enquiry desk off to the right-hand side of the office was swamped and just to add unwanted fuel to the already blazing fire, after talking with the female member of staff there (via my own cell phone) the recruiter demanded that I get the name of the office staff member so that she could lodge an official complaint because “she is so rude!”. I had to talk her down from her state of High Dudgeon (is there such a thing as Low Dudgeon???), and she went online and reserved a time slot for me, which (as I sit here writing) is tomorrow afternoon. And then back home and lessons on Wednesday, possibly after being up for hours with little sleep prepping up.

It’s one of the stranger aspects of being in a country for a long time, and travelling between towns to wherever the next job takes you, that you realise one day, with something approaching (let’s call it) amusement, that you could probably write a whole raft of blog entries about your experience with the Immigration Offices alone; it could be a whole series. Likewise, the strange emergence of the requirement for an annual medical check, something not deemed a necessity when you arrived here with an entry visa stamped in your passport, a suitcase and a couple of large wheelie bags full of books and stuff, and a slow trail of boxes sent by surface mail from Taiwan for cheapness, but which was suddenly applied by the customs people immediately after Lee Myung-bak was elected President at the the of 2007. Somewhere, when it was out of your sight, that nice square wheelie bag that you purchased new in Taipei was ripped apart at the seams, presumably by a Customs minion, and had to be unceremoniously discarded once ensconced in one’s new home. And not a word about compensation…

The documentary requirements quickly accumulated: first, they wanted you to take a health check each year; simultaneously, they started demanding criminal record printouts, in my case from the Metropolitan Police Database, which alone took at least two months. But pretty soon, this was considered insufficient – next, they wanted the copy of your original Degree deposited with the offices to be apostilled (and since it was a copy rather than the original, this meant that it first had to be notarised. In England. And then apostilled!), and finally, they wanted the (original) criminal record to be apostilled, too!

This made the provision of documents an expensive venture in insanity, both in terms of total price and in the amount of time required (as procuring a fresh criminal record printout could take upward of three months). For myself, I think the final straw came when I signed the contract for the year at the KDLI outside of Icheon in Gyyeonggi-do. It seems that they had decided that they should also have their own copies of the same documents provided by the applicants, and this could not have happened at a worse time for me personally, as the cost of relocation had crippled me financially and resulted in my new five-million-won credit card being commuted to (a more sensible) two million limit; it took an agonising FIVE MONTHS to get the CRC (from the Met in London) apostilled and with a notarised, apostilled Degree copy into the hands of Captain Lee, who was the foreigner liaison officer (the Korean Army were in charge of the place, or so it seemed; I never did quite figure that part out).

Even worse, two years after I graduated from what was originally CCAT in Cambridge (now the Anglia Ruskin University), the government of the time (Conservative) decided that it was appropriate for all of the former colleges and polytechnics, who used to issue Degrees on behalf of the CNAA (Council for the National Accreditation of Awards) or other existing universities should now become self-accrediting in their own right. This had the unfortunate consequence of consigning past CNAA records into the care of the Open University somewhere in north London, from whence (the last time I asked) it was not possible to obtain copies or reproductions in the event of loss or destruction. So I became very panicky at the prospect of having to send my one copy of my Degree back to England for whatever reason… even worse, institutions like EPIK (English Program In Korea) also demanded at least two sealed transcripts from said university, which the changes since my graduation have likewise rendered impossible, thus limiting opportunities for employment here, although I would have to say that I would not, nowadays and at my age, consider a new EPIK position to be appropriate or desirable. Those days are over!

The final nail in the coffin of EPIK applications, however, is that applicants from the UK and Australia now also have to submit copies of their birth certificates (why is that, I wonder???), something rather difficult because (a) I would have to fly back to find the silly thing because it is doubtful that my parents would be able to locate it, and (b) Korean employers tend to be rather mean with allowances for time off and it would, in any case, probably cost the equivalent of two months’ salary payments just for the air tickets! It might be possible to do this between jobs but it might also mean having to produce fresh apostilled documents, adding more cost in terms of money and time, the regulation here being that an applicant is not required to submit new documents provided that they are out of Korea for a period of less than three months.

Anyway, getting back to the main story… the odd factor in the equation in fact takes me back to a brief few minutes at the Suwon Immigration Office at the start of my time with the KDLI in 2013, which I had to travel to by public transport (seems like that’s something of a theme here, too) and at my own expense after a morning session of four lessons. I had no idea whether things would be okay, but I was assured by Mr. Han from Busan, the recruiter who brought me here from Taiwan all those years ago, that all I needed to transfer my visa was a set of four documents: passport, ARC, Letter of Release and a copy of the signed contract, and of course, I was well informed by his experience. And as it transpired, the process took no more than about fifteen minutes, tops, and the staff there turned out to be a pleasant group of girls who liked a laugh, although they did express surprise at the fact that I had resigned suddenly from the last position, which was (sadly) the seventeen-month extended contract offered to me by the same public elementary school who had employed me before I went to Busan to work for YBM… but I have mentioned this before…

“Ohhh, it was terrible!” I told them. Well, I think they believed me…

But we should consider from this anecdote that there was no actual problem with the Suwon Immigration Office themselves; the necessary documents had been deposited when I moved from Yangsan to Seomyeon, Busan in 2011 (and in fact, as I sit here writing this, these documents are still current, because circumstances have, yet again, prevented me from leaving the country since I did a visa run to Fukuoka in 2010), and the only documentary change they required was essentially notification of the new employer and the contract to prove it. No, it was the KDLI insisting that they were entitled to their own set of apostilled docs that caused so much grief; paying for them involved giving money to a friend so that I could use their credit cards. And the whole thing had to be done one afternoon in a PC room in Changwon – we had to find one where we could print the receipt web pages as proof of purchase. I kid you not!

So we should perhaps also include a nod of gratitude to the staff at the Immigration Offices, who often have to work with fractious and volatile foreigners with whom communication is difficult. I have never forgotten that it was one of their number, Mr. Kang, who at that time was working at the airport on Jeju Island, who came to my rescue when I landed there after flying out from Taiwan with only a wedge of New Taiwan Dollars in my wallet and none of the local currency, having received my final salary payment from Carol Hui, the secretary of my dubious employer and then left in something of a hurry; I actually had to overstay my visa AGAIN because I was waiting for someone to deliver the ticket before I could pay the overstay fine at the customs office and fly out. Despite the fact that it was late at night and the currency bod had already closed shop for the evening, Mr. Kang persuaded him to Do The Dirty Deed for me. Likewise, much more recently, my stint down in Geoje was cut short by the unavailablity of a new position from my then-employer, who actually sent my Letter of Release to the Geoje Immigration Office the same day as the semester ended, but somehow didn’t think to tell me about it immediately (and why was that, I wonder???); I was then going backwards and forwards between the Geoje and Masan offices for days while they worked out which one was responsible for handling me, and which was finally resolved when Masan allowed me an extra month thereafter to find a new job. They might have offered me even more time, but sometimes, perhaps, a beggar can’t be a chooser. Or cheeky, come to that…

After my visa experiences in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, I’m sure that my readers could share many similar ones of their own. Suffice it to say that the root of these procedures is the security of their countries, and while we may complain at the levels of inconvenience that they impose upon us, they are not usually trying to treat us unfairly; one could hardly blame them if they had a stereotype of an eternally-complaining (and usually, I don’t know, kind of pale-skinned?) foreigner who somehow seems to have an unreasonable belief that they have an automatic right of abode just because they happened to be there. It might be a good idea to step back for a moment and ponder the situation which finally evolved vis-a-vis the required documents here, because in the end, it seems to have reached an equitable balance between establishing the probity of the applicant and not imposing unnecessarily regular demands for new apostilled papers. Once the documents have been submitted to the local Immigration Office, they are scanned and retained in their database; thereafter, they remain current until such a time as the visa holder leaves the country for three months or more – meaning that it is now possible to leave the country for an extended period and still retain the visa, resuming legal activities here upon your return. It is also possible to stay in the country for up to six months between jobs by transferring to a D-10 (Jobseeker) visa and then (in my own case) transferring back to an E-2 once a new contract is signed. This is not a cheap process, however.

I suppose we could say that what often seems to happen in the case of immigration arrangements is that everything seems almost perfect, when all of a sudden, we find that there’s an annoying fly in the ointment, except that where immigration is concerned, the fly tends to involve an awful lot of financial and temporal expense. In addition, because a negative result vis-a-vis a visa (my God, I’m alliterating again!) could be catastrophic, the foreigner feels nervous and therefore, despite probably the best efforts and intentions of the Immigration Office staff, the whole thing collapses – like when (I was told) a loud American at an Immigration Office one day lost it and started abusing (verbally) the staff who were attending him, so they cancelled his visa right there and then, and he was out. As I found out first with my experience at Suwon and then more recently in Daegu, a little patience and humour goes a long way.

In the event, it took a huge amount of said ‘patience’ to get the thing sorted. Why? Because when I went up to the Immigration desk at the allotted time, the first thing the (lady) officer said was to ask where the Proof of Residence was; as it turned out, the new company had not included this in the original bundle that they gave me. Secondly, I was told at the time that it should be in my Inbox because it was sent by e-mail, but when I returned home that night, before sitting down to do at least some minimal prep before hitting the sack, I checked both of the e-mail accounts to which documents had been sent by the company, and could find said attachment in neither of them. Finally, it just so happened that the company manager was in the US at the time (!!!), and it took some four hours to get a copy of the housing contract faxed directly to the Immigration Office to complete the process. Again: I kid you not.

What we can observe here is the contrast between a straightforward transfer of visa sponsorship (because that’s what it was, and that’s how it should have been) and one compounded by inattentiveness on the part of one (or both) parties… there was at least one other complicating factor here, but I will not labour the point. I think it’s fair to say that in this particular case, difficulties arose because of the habit amongst the natives to not discuss with (or to make aware) their co-workers about what they are doing in the event that a crisis emerges and the co-worker has to (however temporarily) carry the can for them (a point which, oddly enough, figures large in the “Lesson Planning” component at my new employer…). I’ve seen it so many times, but this time it was almost catastrophic… you can’t mess about with Immigration, no matter how sympathetic they themselves may be.

As for myself… sometimes it feels as if I have a huge pot of ointment, the top is always open and it’s always so clogged with flies that it looks like a good old Spotted Dick pudding (but where’s the fucking CUSTARD???); but even though their involvement in my life is so fundamental and potentially life-changing, it would be wrong to single the Immigration Offices and the Ministry of Justice out because they are not the only insects trapped in my personal pot of cream. The ‘trouble’ is that they require a stack of documents for compliance, and so many things can go wrong along the way; this is my main point here.

As an illustration of other complicating factors in my life here, recently, a letter arrived which (I was told) was an invitation to partake in cancer screening, as I am now in my (ahem) fifties , and It’s The Done Thing (meaning, there is probably a legal requirement involved); Joseph, my manager in the previous position, hinted that it might be free (well, whoopee…). And I have been lamenting for a long time now that the requirement to plan lessons and find or design materials (and seek out materials online) involves a lot of sitting down; the lifestyle is simply not healthy, so I have been adjusting my diet accordingly, but this sedentary occupation also means that losing weight is not easy.

And the involvement of the Seoul Immigration Office in the Big Picture does seem to complicate things further, but in the end, like myself, the staff there are merely small units within the big machine, and patience and politeness are the lubricants for all of the dubious cogwheels; and as I adumbrated long ago, whether we like (or understand) it or not, when we arrive upon the shores of Korea we are the real ambassadors of our peoples; if our complaint with regard to peoples such as the Koreans is that we are seen through eyes that cannot see us afresh, maybe we should remember that actions speak louder than words, and maybe the actions of those belonging to our own nations here, in the past, may not have been as good or as beneficial as we might like, and the only way to counter the negatives is to be positive ourselves.