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Hi #####,

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.

Hi #####,

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,

Kelsi Herman
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.


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Positive Contamination

I’ve had few opportunities to engage with the arts in Korea. That’s something I miss from home and am ecstatic to find abroad. Last weekend I visited the opening of an exhibition at the Gwangju International Center. The three artists-L.A. White (paint on canvas), Sarah Epp (digital drawing/photoshop), and John Mcmartin (ceramics) addressed themes related to interracial relationships, food/health, and modern education’s failure to foster creativity. The artists’ presentations, with Korean and global relevance, were poignant. It was good vibes all around.

I missed the first part of John Mcmartin’s presentation, but gathered it had little to do with his art, and more to do with what art can do. His focus was on the way modern education stifles creativity. He borrowed this from a TED Talk video. Mcmartin quotes Sir Ken Robinson: “If your not prepared to be wrong then you’ll never come up with anything original.” The point: for students to be creative, and ultimately successful, an educator needs to support risk taking as part of the learning process. In light of the many Korean English students who refuse to speak, for fear of being wrong, it is a valid critique. There aren’t many successful people who never took chances. On a related note: John makes some fresh functional art out of clay.

L.A. White, the second speaker, breached her topic by introducing one major influence-a Korean slang that translates “to ride the white horse.” This is slang for a Korean man who fucks a western white woman. Often white woman (especially blonds), in Korea, are thought to be promiscuous and Russian. White rejects both these stereotypes in her work. She is engaged to a Korean man and, from this relationship, has met racism for the first time. Members of her fiance’s family have expressed concern over the prospect of interracial children. “Don’t mix the blood,” a quote from her fiance’s relative, is the inspiration for a number of her 13 pieces. White’s range and style are exceptional. I loved the attention to eyes and texture technique.

Sarah Epp, my first couchsurfing connection in Korea, did an interesting critique of modern society’s perception of food, with a series of photo-shopped trademarks. I was further impressed by her “manufactured solutions for a dying planet” (loved the title) series; photoshopped drawings of animals dawning artificial survival solutions. For example: a polar bear wearing a life jacket was my favorite. The shark with a strap-on fin was cool too. I think they’d make good t-shirts. Sarah got some heated rhetorical questions from an audience member who wanted to expose her ignorance of Korea’s food/farming systems. Another audience member made an apt observation that, despite her lacking knowledge on one aspect of Korea, she was speaking to global issues. This was an interesting example of the clash between local and global perspectives. Too bad I didn’t witness a conclusion in this case, but that’s another topic altogether.

In true Korean fashion there was a ceremony at the end. All the artists got a certificate and there was a big table of food in the center of the room. This would have been my cue to exit if not for the words of Professor Shin Gyong-gu (I think that’s right)-a leading supporter of the group that put together the exhibition. During his closing remarks he energetically thanked all the foreigners in the room (probably 95% of the attendance was foreign English teachers) for “positively contaminating” Korean culture. I often feel that being different threatens or offends some Koreans; at least it doesn’t garner much positive feedback. Receiving praise for my foreign presence was a unique feel-good moment; one that encourages me to spend more time in Korea.

For more info, artists statements, pictures, and other stuff check out:


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Exit Strategy

Cheaptickets.com says I’ll touch down in P-town (that’s Portland, Oregon USA to the layperson) at 2:35 PM on September 29th. That’s it. After a little over 14 months of living/working/traveling abroad (for the first in my life) I’m going home. I visualize an epic return to friends, family, and fresh projects that I’ll certainly follow through with. There will be daily coffee meetings-hammering out the next big thing, late night kickin’ it, good film/literature, outdoor spirit quests; a host of vibrant experiences. Of course, it’s only natural that I feel reverse culture shock, and the inevitable depression, following the high of my triumphant return. I gotta keep it real.

Hold up (says Nate Dogg)…. before I can do anything everyday I’ve got to focus on the here-and-now. I have 3 months left in Korea and will regret spending it in a daydream. So, I’ve put together a list of things I’d like to do before leaving Korea. Who knows if I’ll ever come back? So this is my tentative Korea Bucket List:

1.  Go back to Jeju-do, sans the guided tour, to hike Hallasan, visit Jeju Love Land, see that lava tube I missed, eat some more pig fed human feces, and generally get lost, on a rented scooter (or in Sam’s car), amidst the plethora of tourist traps.

2.  Go to Busan cause it’s the second largest city in South Korea. It could be cool to check out Haeundae Beach, eat some raw fish, and soak up the creative culture I’ve heard about.

3.  Visit Gyeongju for the “museum without walls” experience. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing, and reading, about Korean history. I want to see some more of it and Geyeonju is the place. As a bonus: Gyeonju is probably famous for something to eat/drink.

4.  Go to Seoul for The Creators Project. Lately, I’ve been into VBS.tv (Vice magazine’s Vid blog) which is where I found this event. I’m hoping it will be the modern creative spectacle I’ve been missing; making up for the the Hideo Kojima appearance I missed. Update: my co-teacher informed me that I can’t take the days off for The Creators Project thingy. Apparently my school starts up the last week in August (maybe I can cram it into a weekend=long trip for me). That leaves the first 3 weeks of August to take my seven days of summer vacation. I guess I could go see this and, of course, the DMZ-the last great outpost of the cold war and one of the world’s most frustrating stalemates.

5.  Have a no-holds barred party weekend @ my house and surrounding islands. Preferably, this plan would include camping on the beaches of nearby Bogil-do. That would give me a chance to try cooking meats, on rocks, over a campfire. My co-teacher told me how to do that. The ideal would be a weekend without rain. Rain cometh by that which you believe control fate.

6.  Go fishing. Drink beer.

7.  Hike another big mountain. I’d love to hike across Jirisan National Park and spend some nights in the sleeping shelters. However, I’d settle for a nice day hike with some friends.

8.  Check out a “Love Doll Experience Room.” A while back I read David Levy’s book on love and sex with robots. He reported that Korea saw a recent influx of hotels, pimping silicone satisfaction, after the sale of flesh was outlawed in 2004. The ubiquity of Korea’s prostitution industry is quite obvious, however, I’ve yet to hear more about these sex doll spots (save video of a Korean journalist “checking it out” that now seems to have disappeared from the web). Grimy as it sounds, one can’t deny the interesting implications of this modern trend. note: VBS.tv made a vid that explores the Japanese equivalent of this phenomenon.

9.  Eat dog meat.

I’m not the type to say I WILL do these things, but I’m likely to get to most of them. If any of my scant readership wishes to offer up any additions or alternatives please feel free to leave a comment. Also, feel free to join me in any of these final adventures. Peace.

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How much are they paying us? Wow, this is a good gig, but, ya know: I had travel expenses, I'm probably gonna spend a good chunk on dinner/drinks, plus there's the hotel. What are they getting paid? Shit. That's almost 1/3 of what we're getting. What the fuck Korea?

“They” are Korean provincial employees assigned to each of us. “Us” are four foreign English teachers chosen to interview Korean applicants for this year’s Jeollanamdo English summer camp teaching positions.

The issue essentially boils down to this: My Korean co-workers work longer hours, put up with more bullshit, and get paid less than I do. I’m ignorant of, or shielded from, most bullshit, work 9-5 (not including lesson prep), and am paid a tasty wage, plus benefits.

This work/wage discrepancy between Korean and Foreign teachers makes for issues of inequality in the work place. For one, Korean teachers (especially the young ones) are required to fill out mounds of paperwork. On top of that they are responsible for any paperwork regarding the foreign teacher. As a foreign teacher, I contribute to a small percentage of my paperwork and am rarely required to produce any sort of scholastic material. If there’s a problem with my paperwork, or me, my co-teacher gets the shaft for it (like this).

Another, more tangible difference, is work hours. My co-teachers stay at school until 9 PM, or even 12 AM, and works every other Saturday. After regular school hours they might tutor students, teach an extra class, or supervise a study hall. An upside is they have a more intimate relationship with the students and school community. I cycle through 6 different schools (on 4 islands), rendering my appearance practically novel.

Ever more tangible are the living situations. My school is supplied a budget for outfitting my home with appliances, furniture, etc. To my knowledge, Korean teachers are responsible for their own amenities. A co-teacher of mine said he just spent 100,000 won on a used refrigerator. To be fair, no teacher pays rent. However, in my experience, foreigner teacher quarters are much nicer than Korean teacher quarters. Then again, most Korean teachers have family and homes they visit on the weekends, so the lame conditions might be a lesser inconvenience. It’s always important to look at multiple points of view.

I can only handle so many points of view.

Speaking of won: I tend to get more of it, compared to Korean teachers my age. I also have the opportunity to change schools at the end of each contract and can always apply to new jobs throughout Korea and abroad. My Korean co-teachers are essentially locked into a school for at least 3-4 years if they want to maintain good standing within the system.

And believe me, good standing is everything for a Korean public school teacher. Like the USA, long term employment with the public school system means excellent benefits and near guaranteed employment. Also, public school teachers garner loads of respect in Korean culture. It would seem the downside, like lifelong employment with a single institution,  is that the teacher is often locked into teaching within a small area (typically the province). In this way the global transient lifestyle of the foreign ESL teacher is, well…foreign, to most Korean teachers.

I could go on about slight job requirements for foreigners to the destructive dis-empowerment of teachers in the workplace, but I’d rather be more creative. Here’s my conspiracy:  Foreigners are outsiders in the ol’ Hermit Kingdom. The wage/benefit discrepancy makes this perception more egregious. Foreign English teachers are pacified by excessive wage, benefits, and Hite; they don’t work too hard to close the gap. In times of unrest, the foreign English teacher is an easy scapegoat. Outrageous claims, such as those made by the Anti-English Spectrum, couple nicely with the fact that foreign teachers are more expensive than the good Korean teachers. Foreign English teachers are then phased out, the country is strengthened by its new-found solidarity, and K-life marches on. Foreign English teachers leave, pleased by the opportunity for profitable employment. Both sides are happy without worrying needlessly about equality.

It’s just a thought.

On a side note: It’s the first time I’ve given an official interview. I say “official” cause I think life is sometimes a series of interviews. That’s another story all together.

I wasn’t too fond of the power, and judgment to be made. However, I got to hear some really great stories from Koreans with lofty aspirations and interesting backgrounds. My vision of Korea gets pretty slight after too much time spent on the island. It’s cool to hear about the different moves people are making.

Shout out to people who read this blog. You guys are awesome. I promise that my next blog will be much more interesting. Peace.

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One Night’s Embassy

I don't have any pictures from last weekend. This picture from The City of Elliot Lake Fire Department website illustrates my point well enough. Please donate a better photo is if you have one.

Beneath a ceiling of stars, on a floor of soft sand, a campfire’s gravity bends time and space. A mass of native English teachers convene on 명사심리, a beach on 신지도. The 외국인 (foreigner) experience ceases to be a clash of culture; now a momentary intermingling of beings bound by common language, experience, and drink. A Tupperware drum keeps time for a guitar and voices that bellow lyrics-like a tribal chorus. Comfort clad foreigners howl through the smoke and dance familiar dances. The rhythm and setting are unmistakeably comfortable.

In this foreign place the firelight’s a temporary embassy, yet the ambassadors don’t show for nationality or politics. The details vary, but these human motives are often social in nature. This was my primary objective for living/working abroad-interact with people and understand new things first hand. However, there’s a threshold for one’s ability to relate in a foreign experience, given limits to change/time. Language, culture, politics, and varying levels of understanding can all be barriers. In the the warm halo of campfire many things are familiar. Newness is negligible, intimacy is enhanced.

Fish, fuck, eat, sleep, fight, speak-It may all go down harmoniously like a romanticized version of the wild. I may conveniently enhance my understanding of the 외국인 experience and the world. That being said I will not (cannot) give up the newness (the foreign). After all, most conversation around the campfire emanates from the 외국인 experience.

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Character Development: Kelsi


She's back in Portland with a broken foot. You can't get that breakfast here, but the soccer jersey is appropriate.

I might be an egomaniac. You may have gathered this from one particular point in this writing: my girlfriend, and the second half of team Nohwa, remains the least developed character in the blog. This is not accidental. Koreancuts has always been about me. I’d hoped my girlfriend would have entered the blog via her own textual contribution. She has some great stories. Unfortunately, she has yet to respond to my prods for a post.

With this in mind I’d like to round out a very important piece to my Korean experience. Her name is Kelsi, my girlfriend and “my wife (face saving title)”. As I’ve said: we came to Korea in July 2009 and have since been working through a year-long commitment; teaching English on a small island of the south tip of the Korean peninsula. Bottom line: if there is one person, place, or thing that’s gotten me through this challenging experience, it is her.

I haven’t done a top ten list yet, so here goes:

The Top Ten Things About Kelsi

10. She’s a yoga instructor. She’s particularly coy with this subject, but is nevertheless an accomplished practitioner and recently (last year) certified instructor. Who wouldn’t see the benefits in that.

9. When she’s upset the rage is rarely misdirected at me and seldom lasts longer than 24 hrs. This might sound kinda back-handed, but it’s actually something I genuinely appreciate about her.

8. She watches sci-fi with me.

7. She likes to go for walks. This is helpful since I default to lazy. Her energy inspires me to stay active and find joy in physical activity. At the same time, she’s not over-the-top excitable, like a caffeinated gym rat.

6. She likes my cooking. This is the kind of maintenance I can sustain.

5. She’s pretty without makeup and typically won’t waste too much time getting dressed.

4. We can laugh at stuff that has no logical reason for being funny. Sometimes, there’s hilarity, even in silence.

3. When splitting a pizza she’ll fill up on a vegetable and give me an extra slice.

2. We can talk about anything (as cliché as it sounds). If we couldn’t talk about anything, and I mean anything, the relationship wouldn’t work. Period. I’m not good with leaving things unsaid between people I spend a lot of time with.

1. She’s my best general purpose friend these days. I love all of my friends for different reasons, but Kelsi takes the award for all around best performance. I love her for that.

I hope that rounds out Kelsi’s character a bit. From now on, I’ll refer to her by name, in lieu of the aforementioned “my girlfriend” or “my wife.”

P.S. Happy Mother’s day to those whom it concerns, especially my mom.

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Excuses From Isolation Island

I’ve been seriously neglecting the blog lately. It’s not that I’m lazy or uninspired. As my buddy and I discussed last weekend: living in Korea leaves no shortage of quality stories to tell. So, I’ve got loads of stories packed away and plenty of instant coffee packets to combat the laziest modes. What’s the deal?

Here’s my list of excuses:

-For one, a bit of disposable income purchased me all sorts of distractions; notably a Nintendo DS w/ R4 card.

-I’ve been watching too much screen (Battlestar Galactica) and reading less. This doesn’t stimulate the writing centers too well. Especially when your plugged in to some of the world’s fastest IT infrastructure. When I’m reading I think more about writing. When I’m screening I think more about doodling.

-Many of my stories fall into NET(native English teacher) K-blog clichés. I have stories about festivals, drinking soju, awkward moments, problems at school, happy days, sad days, sunny days, and other common items I’m not too excited to rehash.

-Often times I question my motives for telling a particular story. The good times are like sunshine. I want to enjoy them, then go home and get a good night’s sleep. When times are grim all I want to do is fester. Festering usually means being inside on a rainy day, where I’d like nothing better than to prosaically rip a hole in something that pissed me off about Korea. Breathe. That would only make my blog read like the rambling of an intolerant asshole. I believe I’m not intolerant.

-I was too married to the idea of a linear narrative. I’m not an obsessive mind that will crank out daily posts to paint a vivid picture of day-to-day life. However, my goal for this blog was to let others know how I’m living. Instead of getting on about my life here, I’ve had a tendency for long infrequent posts on abstract topics. As if anybody really cares what I think about the Korean English curriculum and its content. My “Playing Ketchup” posts were an earlier attempt to get back into the swing, but I again fell victim to non-productivity.

-I really wanted to jazz this blog up with multimedia. Unfortunately I don’t have enough horsepower to edit the AVCHD I’ve captured on my new vid cam. I’ll probably get some pictures up instead. My girlfriend takes excellent pictures. The vid edit job will have to wait until I get back to the states or can get my grubbies on a HD vid editing PC.

-Hangovers and Sunday Sloth

It feels good to get some of that out instead of just talking about it. I’ve tried to not let this project become an egotistical rant, but sometimes it feels good.

So, for anyone whose interested: I’m held up in the chilly library at Nohwa-do JoonAng (meaning “central”) Elementary. I’ve got the morning free while the students practice for field day next week. The practice is for various Olympic style events and a group choreographed song/dance number. I resist the urge to compare it to Mass Games in North Korea. It’s not that sick and the kids seem to enjoy it.

My girlfriend broke her foot the weekend before last. The doc on call didn’t have any casting material or proper crutches (her trip via ferry and taxi for crutches is a whole other story). The broken bone shifted last week while she soldiered through school in a removable splint (Korean MO). A orthopedist in Wando said she’d need surgery to pin the bones back together. He was a dick by refusing our offer to use a translation service to communicate about the surgery and recovery (his English was not as good as he thought).  Everyone else at the hospital was awesome, but Kelsi decided to head back to the states for surgery. According to specialists in the USA Kelsi will not need surgery, but will need to stay in a cast, non-weight bearing, for 4 weeks. That leaves me with a long stretch alone on Nohwa-do.

Meanwhile, it’s day 3 on isolation island. I’ve held it together fairly well. My consumer distractions have helped a bit. I’ve also been entertaining myself. Years of bumbling about in my parent’s basement have taught me to find joy in simple things. Last night I made a coozy for the glass jar that I drink tea hot tea out of. I got tired of burning my hands. The project was a mild success. I later converted it into a hanging pen cup. Now I have pens next to the bed. This makes it easier to doodle during Nintendo breaks and internet video load times. I ran into this guy’s flash animation site which I really dig. I see raw talent, a keen eye for pop culture, and the guts to follow one’s goofy thought processes. Perhaps there’s a message in there. Props to Lord Zorgatron!

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