Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Forming views on Korea, Part III : Life as an Illegal in South Korea,

I didn’t mention this in the two posts before, but during the time I was in South Korea I was a high school dropout. And, while most people there didn’t know (I would say “I was in college, but I was taking a break”) – Although this wasn’t exactly a lie. I had studied for a couple semesters at a junior college. I now use the line: I lived in South Korea to learn about life (“인생 공부를 하러갔다”). Nonetheless, my educational status had a huge impact on my life there.

It was illegal for me to work as an English tutor as I didn’t possess a four year degree (or equivalent) and that’s why I first began to look mainly for 1:1 private tutoring. Moreover, I didn’t even have the right to live in South Korea as I was an alien (an American citizen). This latter part, I cannot exaggerate how tremendous of an impact this had on my life there. I was a native speaker of English though, but even here there were issues. Without a national registration number, which is akin to the Social Security Number in the United States, but in a country like South Korea where the national registration number is needed to even create an account on a website, even the smallest and most basic aspects of life were difficult to say the least.

I could not get a phone. Also, without a legal job and a national registration number, it was not possible to get a credit card. Coming from the United States where so many financial instruments have been invented to make obtaining credit ever easier, it was a shock adjusting to life without a credit/debit card. For example, I couldn't buy many things: especially items online or from the United States. Also, regarding rent, many Koreans back then believed you to be a fool if you actually paid rent. Most apartments and the like were rented out by huge cash deposits (such as $50,000 or more or so).

When I first got there, I believe they didn’t even have debit cards (지급 cards) and I didn’t know how to get one had they even existed. I had to take frequent trips overseas (I had the old C-2 visa at first or the old 90-day tourist visa where simply re-entering the country automatically renewed the 90 day period).

And, of course, as I wrote in the previous post, my Korean was terrible. So, to sum it up, I was an ethnic-Korean, high school dropout with no right to live or work in South Korea. Moreover, I had little family there. I was barely “fluent” in Korean (My brother never lived in South Korea and I would say have a tough time calling his Korean, Korean). Looking back now, I think if it wasn’t for the great people there, I don’t think I would be writing this blog today. I should also take the time to thank one childhood friend, one brother in particular, who shared many of the same issues; he went to the country a year before I did. Much love, Mr. Cho. I believe the only way I made it through that period was by meeting some very good friends and being the recipient of a huge amount of luck.

My status did change somewhat. As my Korean got better and my knowledge of Korean got better, my standard of living there naturally changed as well. I registered myself in the family tree and was able to receive an F-4 visa, which since I am an ethnic-Korean gave me the right to live (and work) in South Korea. This gave me a national registration card for foreign Koreans and, more importantly, a national registration number for foreigners. Nonetheless, without a four year degree, it was still illegal to work as an English tutor. But, the national registration card did allow me to get a debit card (지급) from Woori Bank and setup a “normal” cell phone account from SK Telecom. I believe I was one of the first customers in South Korea that had one of these 지급 debit cards (2004/2005), which still wasn’t accepted as widely as a visa though.

With these three posts, this is how I “learned” about Korea and Koreans.

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