Kelsi and I have a problem. I’ll start at the beginning:
Kelsi and I first arrived in Korea July 19th, 2009. We taught at a summer camp and were hoping to land contracts afterward. During the camp we were offered jobs, but needed more documentation (specifically, copies of our diplomas that had yet to be printed). After the camp I exited Korea, for approximately 10 days, to visit friends in China. My plan was to reenter Korea with all the proper documents to apply for an E-2 visa. Kelsi stayed in Korea. She hoped to make a visa run to Japan when the paperwork went through. Unfortunately, it was two weeks after I reentered Korea that our paperwork was in order.
This is where the problem seems to have emanated. Instead of us making visa runs to Japan, those handling us arranged to get our visas by mail. So, they sent our visa applications and passports to an office in New York. A contact presented these materials to the consulate. We received our visas shortly afterwards, then picked up our ARCs, purchased multiple entry endorsements from the office of immigration, and started our contracts.
Fast forward: we noticed Kelsi’s multiple entry endorsement expires early (July instead of September). On a trip to Mokpo we visited the immigration office to have it fixed. When we got there Kelsi was hit with a battery of questions regarding the origin of her visa. This was disconcerting to say the least. We excused ourselves and called our contact, who’d set us up with the job. Long story short: the immigration office recognized our visas to be illegitimate. This is despite the fact they issued us multiple entry endorsements earlier in our contract.
The immigration office contacted the powers-that-be and the blame-ball got rolling. We knew our visa process was unorthodox, but not illegal. To make amends we were asked to write letters of apology (despite our ignorance). To clear up the rest: we were told that someone would have to accept blame, pay a fine, and we’d need to make a visa run to Japan. We were told new visas, obtained in Japan, would take us through the rest of our contract. We obliged with apology letters (were not told whom to address) and waited for more instructions.
At this point the problem appeared to be solved. We’d pay for a short trip to Japan, but at least our contact hooked us up with a one time (250,000 won) side job to ease some financial burden. Given that Kelsi used all her sick days dealing with her broken foot, the biggest worry was arranging for time-off to take the trip.
We’ve been waiting for further instructions and finally got them yesterday. According to our contact we cannot get new visas without signing a new contract (1 E-2 Visa, per year, per contract). This means that if we do not intend to re-sign for a second year, we cannot legally work in Korea and will need to leave before finishing our contract. If we cannot finish our contract then we are not entitled to our severance bonus (about one paycheck), retainer refund (about 500 USD), ticket home (1,300 USD), and our last paychecks. My contact admitted that he is not an expert in this situations (a fact I’ve known for a long time). So, I’m writing you to ask for help. I’m sure you can imagine why I’m a bit upset with this one.
I hope all is well with you. Thanks for all your help,
Ross Mordini and Kelsi Herman
In June, I wrote this letter to the liaison between my province’s office of education and foreign English teachers. So, this is our main stream connection to the powers-that-be in my provincial office of education. Needless to say, this person spends a great deal of time handling complaints and resolving problems for the growing population of foreign English teachers in the province.
This is an update email on the visa issue Ross and I have been grappling with. After several meetings with our friend in the Jeollanamdo Government office, we established that our visa problems would be solved; all we needed was to go to the immigration office as soon a we could, and show them our plane ticket leaving the country (scheduled 2 days after our contract ends on September 27th). This process seemed to be part of the typical visa extension most English teachers have to go through.
This Friday, when I arrived at the office, I was told that I arrived 5 days too late. My multiple entry endorsement expired on July 17th and, because our visas have been deemed illegitimate, July 17th was the last day I could come in to get my visa extended to the end of my contract. I am told that I missed my chance to fix my visa and will now have to leave the country before August 31st-one month before my contract ends. In addition: I was informed that the immigration office’s copy of my contract has no start/end dates written on it.
I am at a loss. I am unclear on why arriving 5 days after my multiple entry visa expiration date means that I must leave August 31st. In addition, I am not sure how it is possible that I have received my salary for the past year, have been issued a cellphone, and opened a bank account with an illegitimate visa. This entire process has left Ross and I with questions and no one to communicate the answers clearly.
Ross’s situation is slightly different because before we were hired Ross went to China for a few weeks and returned in early September while I stayed in Korea. That being said, his multiple entry expiration date is September 2nd, giving him more than a month to go to the immigration office and renew his “illegitimate” visa.
This is clearly a messy situation and I am not sure who to contact for help or guidance. Best case scenario: I would like to finish my contract with Nohwa Middle School and leave on a positive note.
My contact, ##############, has advised me to break my contract with Nohwa Middle School before August 31st, sign a new contract, and go to Japan/China to be issued a new visa. Ideally I would resign at Nohwa Middle School. Do you know if that is possible? If not, are there other schools with positions available?
Thank you for your patience with this matter. Hope to hear from you,
Nohwa Middle School
Please contact me if you have any questions.
I wanted to post these letters (edited for content and clarity) to demonstrate what can go wrong for foreign English teachers in Korea. This situation reflects on the dis-empowerment of foreigners in Korea, the common lack of effective communication, and ineffective problem solving used in dealing with foreign affairs. I am no expert, but it is my opinion that these issues stem from a Korean brand of problem solving that requires one person to assume blame and lose face (damage to reputation). Often, the person to assume blame rests at the top of the hierarchy. If those lower on the hierarchy worry about saving their face (and possibly more) they will do whatever they can to avoid communicating a problem to their superior. In Korea the happiness and success of a superior is parallel to the happiness and success of those below hir. Unfortunately, my experience has demonstrated that little can be accomplished without the presence of a superior. Therefore, an ideal solution would protect the reputation of everyone involved. If saving face is paramount (and it is), but a scapegoat must be identified, then a simple solution (in the case of a foreigner vs. Korean bureaucracy) would be to send the foreigner packing.
I’m not saying our situation is unique. In any country foreigners are privy to pitfalls in the system (as the USA demonstrates). After all, it’s hard to keep a nation together without clearly delineating native from foreigner, then giving benefits to the natives. It keeps everyone in the club. Unfortunately, Kelsi and I are in danger of foregoing millions of Won due to a certain rigidity in the Korean system. What is most perplexing is the length of time we’ve operated without sanction. I’ve been told that this sort of thing happens all the time. I just hope it doesn’t happen again. A cynical moral to the story: if it does happen again I’m not gonna have the power to stop it. Maybe it’s time for a Buddhist temple stay.