On our place in the Korean world

Printer-friendly versionEvery now and then, an article gives me hope for a future life in Korea. A life that isn't dependent on doing whatever an employer wants to stay in the country. A life that won't be spent teaching English to kids that would rather be playing. I've had the fortune of reading two such articles in the past couple days, and feel obliged to share them with you. The first, an excellent essay by the Metropolitician (NSFW for language, but highly worth the read), is more a commentary on doing the right thing and Korea's struggle to do just that; the second is a call for Korea to embrace its foreign workers - calling them the "new engine for economic dynamism". While both writers are not Korean-born, it's clear they've made Korea a home for tomorrow and the future to come.

Imagine being a young, relatively talented individual with a legitimate skill to offer the local marketplace. Alternatively, imagine being an entrepreneur with the means to set up shop in the country that offered the most business-friendly environment. I'm sorry to say it, but South Korea doesn't yet offer a compelling reason for either scenario to be fruitful. Unless you have some great connections or are already part of a multinational company, coming to Korea as a businessperson is unlikely at best. If you're coming to Korea, you're going to be an English teacher to start, no two ways about it. Perhaps it's the equivalent of being a mailroom worker in 1980's corporate America - start in a low position and move up based on one's own merits or ambition - except there's only one job available. To paraphrase Henry Ford, "You can have any job you like in Korea, as long as it's teaching English." Until Korea opens its mind to foreigners holding jobs other than Dirty, Dangerous, or Difficult, there's little chance of attracting many foreigners like the ones they want.

Over the past two-plus years in Korea, I've enjoyed meeting a number of people who play in bands, create art, have started businesses, write, or take photographs professionally, or take part in other profit-making ventures. And yet, the way the laws are right now, a person teaching English on an E-2 visa cannot venture past 'the scope of their visa' no matter how talented they may be. It doesn't matter your talents - if you're busted, you're out. Want to form a band? Tough. Want to start a tour company, a magazine, or any other creative venture? Sorry, but your visa status probably prohibits it. If you've married a local or have become a resident in another way, you are now suddenly able - whether capable, qualified, or neither - to do so.

Part of the problem is having to work within whatever structure is deemed acceptable by the powers that be; you can work in this industry, but not in others. Yeah, it's fine to dictate what jobs foreign people can take in the name of protecting Korean jobs, yet that argument doesn't hold water. Has the unemployment rate gone up as the number of foreigners in Korea increased? Hardly - what jobs are being 'taken away' from locals to begin with? Native English teachers aren't taking jobs away from Koreans by definition.

I'd like to present five jobs that foreigners could easily do in Korea, given the opportunities and official government policies supporting them:

1: Professional English Teacher. Let's make a difference between the 22-year-old that comes to Korea for a year away from their home country and a person qualified to teach English in their home country (or with significant qualifications of the ESL variety, such as years of experience, a CELTA / DELTA, etc.). This person isn't going to be coloring with six year olds or putting up with hagwon BS; this person came to teach in the way they've been trained to teach. Give them the salary and autonomy they need to transform a school's program, or at least get the kids to legitimately pass an oral speaking exam. They won't change the country overnight, but they will give a new credibility to the concept of learning English.

2: Tourism development. In conjunction with the Korean Tourism Organization, Seoul Tourism Organization, and other tourism organizations, there's ample opportunity to develop Korea's tourism trade. Start by employing native speakers of the languages spoken by tourists, then continue by using them to develop innovative ways of reaching out to people from their home countries. Some may serve up travel information via phone or e-mail, while others may be brought in for publication design, web design, consulting, and so on.

3: Ethnic business owner / distributor. Whether they're selling Ethiopian shirts, Tanzanian cloths, Pakistani food, or Indian hookahs, these are the people that import other cultures according to the tastes and interests of the locals. That some have to resort to Korean 'middlemen' who add little value borders on fraudulent; others can employ locals in an effort to sell their wares.

4: Technology / internet / computer workers. With one of the fastest internet connections in the world, South Korea is a natural draw for the industry. Add in the 'e-sports' tournaments and enough geeks may be hooked. I'll be looking for the Next Big Thing to come out of a Korean company - one fronted by a prominent foreign name.

5: Overseas consultant. Part of the equation is bringing foreign companies in, while part of it is in exporting Korean-grown talent to the rest of the world. It's a given that SKY-school graduates have an easier time getting jobs in Korea, but the other 90% of university graduates are sometimes considered second-rate based on their university's name. More than a few foreigners can associate with this 90% and get Korean goods into the world's marketplace.

For the time being, I fully expect English teachers to continue coming to Korea (or attempt a run for the airport to greener pastures). In that scenario, Korea simply becomes a place to make money and exploit in much the same way foreign labor is treated. You do things on the side in order to have or make your fun. The country may get some labor or other superficial benefits out of foreign workers, but at the expense of assuming that's all they're good for. We dare not tell our bosses of our outside activities, our lives outside of work, or of our future hopes and dreams. There's precious little they could do to bring them to fruition anyway.

If you're wondering why I stay in Korea - why not move elsewhere if things are so limited? - I stay because I love the country. It's beautiful, easy to get around, etc. etc. It's the people. The people need to grow up (hint: being outraged by a teen gang killing another teen for 'gossiping' would be a start, or not being one of the 40% that would flee from war if North Korea invaded). Part of that growing up should include the recognition that foreigners add far more to the value and growth of the country than they take away.

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Creative Commons License © Chris Backe - 2010

This post was originally published on my blog, Chris in South Korea. If you are reading this on another website and there is no linkback or credit given, you are reading an UNAUTHORIZED FEED.



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