August 8, 2008

Getting to South Korea

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 4:08 am by stephshimkooo

I was contacted by a recruiter named “Tino” from South Korea, and we began the process of finding me a job and brining me to Korea. The process started in May 2005, and I was supposed to start at a school in July. In early June he called me and asked me if I could leave “tomorrow.” I said no I could not have all of my affairs in order by then, but I agreed to go within two weeks.

Things didn’t start very rosy, to say the least. My mother drove me to the airport at 5a.m. for my flight. Upon my arrival at the flight desk, the woman told me that she could not issue me a boarding pass because “I didn’t have a ticket.” I asked her how this could be, and she said that my name was in the system and that a seat had been reserved for me, but no booking had been made. After arguing for a while without getting any concrete answers, we went home at 8a.m., baffled as to what had happened.

I spent the next 8 hours trying to figure out what happened and how to fix it. I talked to the recruiter, who said he would call me back but didn’t, I talked to the travel agent once it opened on the west coast, I talked to two different airlines, and finally, I figured out the problem: the recruiter had made a reservation for me with a Los Angeles based travel agent, but the school hadn’t paid the airfare. The recruiter hadn’t figured out the problem, and apparently hadn’t even tried. When I called and told him what had happened regarding payment, he contacted the school telling them to pay for the reservation made for the next morning, and assured me that everything was now going to happen the way it should.

Indeed I was issued a boarding pass the following morning at the airport, but was called over the loudspeaker shortly before my flight by the airline asking me why I had no return ticket. I explained that my employer was paying for it, and after making a brief phone call, told me that I should be able to leave the country, but that I might not be able to go because I had a one-way ticket. I was unsure why that would matter, but was unnerved for the second time in two days. Luckily, that was the last trouble I had getting to the nation of South Korea. It was hardly the last problem I had, though.

I arrived at Incheon airport so excited that I could feel my heart banging against my rib cage. It was late afternoon, not yet dark.  When I got my luggage and made my way to the greeting area of the airport, I looked around until I saw a man in his mid-twenties who I assumed was Tino (since he said he would meet me at the airport) holding my name on a sign. I waved and started to walk over to him. As I approached, I saw a dry, wrinkled hand reach from behind the young man and lift the sign over his head. I walked over to him, said hello, and my heart sank when I realized that he spoke no English.

He took my luggage and led me to a bus booth, where he ordered me a ticket and led me to a bus. He put a post-it with a phone number on the back of the ticket, loaded my luggage, and put me on the bus. I tried to ask him questions or somehow ask him what was going on.  I didn’t recognized “Daejeon” but thought that maybe it was the name of a district in Seoul.  The old man waved and scuttled away.

A young Korean man sat in the seat next to me as the sun began to go down.  The bus pulled away and headed out into open road.  I hadn’t slept much on the plane because I was so excited, but things seemed much less rosy on this bus to a place called “Daejeon” that I’d never heard of. I opened my Lonely Planet Korea guide and looked up the entry for Daejeon.  As I watched the landscape through the window, I could feel my chest getting tight.  Daejeon wasn’t a part of Seoul – it was an entirely different city.  Worst of all, it said there were three different bus station in Daejeon, and I had no idea which one I was supposed to use.  I had a phone number on a post-it, but I had no phone and no idea who would answer if I called.

I began to feel more and more anxious as the bus drove on into the night.  I felt alone and afraid, and I felt angry with Tino for lying to me.  I felt the tears welling up behind my eyes and forced them back.  Exhaustion and stress overtook me and I fell asleep.

I woke up as we approached Daejeon.  I was more and more afraid of getting off at the wrong stop.  I had no idea what to do.  I looked around the bus and noticed the young man beside me writing a text message.  It was in English.  I sheepishly asked him if he spoke English, and he did.  He was a student at UCLA returning home for the summer.  I blurted out my story, and he used his phone to call the number on the post-it.  He told me that I should get off at the third stop, and that he was sorry he couldn’t go with me the whole way because he was getting off at the first stop.

I thanked him profusely and felt better until he got off the bus.  My anxiety returned full force at that point, especially since I had no idea if the people I’d be working for would be as untrustworthy as Tino appeared to be.  I was the last person off of the bus at the bus station, and I was greeted by two Korean women who were to be my boss and then my boss’s boss, the owner of the school.  They took me to get some food, and then to my apartment, which was the best part of my job.  They then apologized, saying that I had to start teaching the next morning.  I said “I didn’t have any other plans anyway.”

I slept deeply that night, waiting for the next phase of my life to start the next morning.

July 7, 2008

Why Work Abroad? Why Korea?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:49 pm by stephshimkooo

When I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in August 2004, I had a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology, (notice it’s SCIENCE, not ARTS, which makes a big difference) a minor in International Relations, and a Certificate in Russian and East European Studies.

Needless to say, my job prospects were not rosy. I worked for a while at different jobs. I started out with an insurance company, getting hired on my 22nd birthday, while I waited to see if a job I’d applied for with the government worked out. I studied and passed my license test to sell and advise life, accident, and health insurance for the state of Pennsylvania. I passed on the first try, and was the only one in my class to do so. I was very eager to know as much about these things, as “know they enemy” is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard.

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was four years old. While day to day life is normal for me, there have been instances of circumstances resulting in hospitalization, and there is more or less a guarantee of dying a slow painful death later down the line, unless I get hit by a bus. It is not an option for me to be without health insurance. I was under my father’s policy during college, and after graduation, thanks to COBRA(thank you, Bill Clinton), I could continue to be covered for up to 18 months after graduating. I considered going to graduate school, but my health insurance would run out before then, leaving me vulnerable should something happen. I couldn’t take that chance, especially since I wasn’t very focused in what I wanted to study.

Knowing that my COBRA coverage was going to run out in the next year made me terrified of employment without benefits. I had always had at least one (sometimes two or even three) job since I was 15. I was not afraid of work, but I knew that I, unlike other people, couldn’t sit around waiting for a job with benefits. Unfortunately, the job with the insurance company did not work out, and I ended up temping in an office job while waiting to hear from my prospect in DC.

Unfortunately again, in 2005, I was hit head on by a drunk driver who driving on the wrong side of the road in order to flee the scene of their first accident. They’d rear-ended a GARBAGE TRUCK. Those things aren’t exactly easy to miss. My car was totaled, I had bruising on my chest and knees, a broken elbow and and the second joint in my ring finger was shattered, requiring surgery to repair. Fortunately, I was smart and made sure that I paid all the premiums on my health insurance (a murderous $414.01 a month) so I was covered, as the person who hit me did not have any insurance. She also walked away from the accident unscathed.

Rest In Peace, Blue Streak.  I miss you

Rest In Peace, Blue Streak. I miss you

After spending the night in the emergency room, I came home and passed out, exhausted. I left a message for the office I was working in, saying that I wouldn’t be in that day and that I would keep them updated. Later that day, the temp agency called and gave me an earbeating in a surprisingly perky tone for “not following protocol” by calling them first. I had no idea what the protocol was, since I hadn’t plan on being in a car accident the evening before. I was also tired, and a little loopy from the painkillers.

That morning, of all mornings, I got the letter from the job I so wanted, thanking me for my application, but that I had been passed over for the job, after 6 months of interviewing and tests. I knew it was a rejection letter when I saw how thin the envelope was. I opened it, read the first few lines, and cried. I cried and cried. I’d lost my job, my income, my health, and now my future.

Half an hour later, I stopped. I knew it wasn’t going to get me anywhere, and it wasn’t like I lost something. It was something that hadn’t even been yet. My path lay elsewhere.

After the accident, I couldn’t work. With my elbow and hand the way it was, I couldn’t drive to get to work. I couldn’t type except pecking with my right hand. I couldn’t even hold a pencil because I’m left-handed. I took a job working not as a telemarketer but as a “telefundraiser” for a company that worked exclusively for charities and non-profits. Although the nature of the job is terrible, as it involves rejection or at the least, being the cause of annoyance for the entire day, the company I worked for was really nice, and they had quite a supportive environment. They really took care to try to help you do your job better because let’s face it, without funds, places like the Humane Society, the Sierra Club, NPR, and the DNC can’t do much. It was in their own interest, but the company put you on several accounts and left you for the longest time on whichever one you performed the best on. This will not surprise anyone who’s familiar with my interests and leisure reading, but I was left on the DNC’s campaign most of the time. I raised tens of thousands of dollars for the 2006 campaigns. I hate saying that way though because it implies that I actually did or made something instead of just convincing people to part with their money, not matter how worthy the cause.

During this time I was obviously looking for something better. While not physically demanding, it was hard mentally. I trolled, mostly in Pittsburgh but also in Philadelphia looking for jobs. One day there was a post for an English teacher in South Korea that offered what seemed like a good salary, airfare, and, lo and behold, health insurance. The next step of my journey began.

June 21, 2008

Review of “Spamalot”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:41 pm by stephshimkooo

I was pretty eager to see “Spamalot,” the lovingly-ripped-off stage production of Monty Python’s “Quest for the Holy Grail.” I went to one of those half-price booths and got myself the best ticket in the place, half off. When patronizing one of these establishments, it is important to remember that the position of the best available seat the day of the show often reveals how popular it is. Six hours before the show, 10th row center was their best seat. It was too good a position for the show to be good.

It started out alright. I was expecting to mostly see gags from the film and a little new stuff, and that’s exactly what I got. I would have enjoyed it much more if it had either been written better, or delivered better, which I guess means it was bad overall. The jokes were very dated, like the knights going to Spamalot, where “What happens in Spamalot, stays in Spamalot” referring to the popular Las Vegas slogan. King Arthur was particularly stiff, and walked around most of the time with little or no reaction to the silliness around him, when the whole point of his character is that he is supposed to be the one with some sense.

The other half of the new humor was trying desperately to poke fun at the musical genre, but I ended up being more annoyed than anything. Singing “This is the song that goes like this” and “Whatever happened to my part” felt more like time-killers than anything that was supposed to result in laughter.

As a fan of the movie and of live theater, I was let down. It was a pleasant enough way to spend an evening, but I regretted paying as much as I had to see it.

May 26, 2008

Reflections on Changes Part 1

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:25 pm by stephshimkooo

Although it’s been almost a year since I left Korea, I still find myself reading Korean blogs, following the Korean news, and speaking in Konglish to people who don’t seem to get the joke. I started blogging again, but I find that I am blogging about Korea, not America, Russia, or the Emirates, where I now live.

Although my general quality of life here is much better, what I really miss about Korea was being part of a community. Because any non-Korean is not welcome into the fabric of society, any foreigner, especially westerners, tend to stick together to form some kind of place or situation where we can feel comfortable and at home. The really nice thing about it is, unless you completely lack social skills (and sometimes even if you do), you’re going to be accepted into the community. You will be served a beer in our bars and someone will ask how your day was or how long you’ve been here in English. There are minor jokes, but it doesn’t matter which country you came from or if you’re a democrat or a republican, you’ll find someone to talk to and while away the time with. When you leave, people will use it as their excuse to drink and buy you a drink that weekend, and when you come back, the same will happen all over again.

Depending on where you get your statistics from, only 10-15% of the population of Emirates is local, which means 85-90% of the people here are from somewhere else. UAE, like America, is more or less an immigrant society, although it’s important to note that the vast majority of the people who come to Emirates plan to leave. They plan on making some money and going back home, whereas in the states a larger portion try or would like to stay permanently. In this way, the foreign communities in Korea and Emirates are similar.

The Emirates, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have places (again, bars) where we can meet other foreigners and share our lives and experiences as well as a drink. However, I don’t find myself connecting with these people the way I did in Korea. My thoughts as to why this is vary, but I’m pretty sure it’s mostly because we’re not looked upon as invaders, and are “normal” people in this society.

I’ll continue this train of thought later.

April 15, 2008

Normal Like You

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:54 pm by stephshimkooo

I had a conversation with one of my eleven year old Korean students the other day. She had lived in America for almost two years, and was very well traveled. I told her that I loved her hair, and that I always wanted hair that was so thick, and shiny and black. She told me that she didn’t like her hair, and that she always wanted to look normal, like me.

The first emotion that I registered upon hearing that was anger because first of all, she shouldn’t be looking at someone like me and thinking that I’m “normal,” and most importantly, the criteria for normalcy, should not be white, blonde, and blue eyed. I find it completely paradoxical that white would mean normal, and at the same time, children and sometimes adults will gasp, point, and stare at me for looking different from anyone else here. What was especially confusing for me was that this girl had lived in America, and in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area. I know that she’s seen for herself that America, and the world, are full of more than just white people. She expressed to me that she knew full well that most people in the world are dark, but she still thinks of caucasian as what it is normal to look like.

I was thinking earlier this week about what it means to be an American. What I mean by that is: what is an American compared to an Englishman, a Korean, or an Ethiopian? In America, nobody seems to be just an American. We’re African American, Mexican American, Italian American, or any other nationality with “American” attached to the end. I always just thought that we were Americans. People are people, you know? Why spend all that time and energy hating or being wary of someone for any reason, let alone for no reason. I have found, from growing up in an immigrant society and spending much of my adult life outside of it, that ethnic identity is one of the defining ideas that separates societies like Canada, America and Australia from people whose country and race are more or less interchangeable terms.

Before I continue, first of all, I am aware that America had an aboriginal population that was essentially destroyed, but that part of my country’s history is a separate matter that isn’t really relevant to the question I want to ask. Yes, in a technical sense, Native Americans can be considered ethnically “American” if you define race solely along geographic/historic lines, but first of all, not all Native Americans are the same, and that’s not the topic that I want to get into. Present day America is not primarily inhabited by Iroquois and Hopi. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about nationalist identity. Yes, there are multiple ethnicities in other places too. There are British Indians and all that, but it’s not quite the same because you can still look at someone and identify them as ethnically German, or Chinese, or Turkish, or whatever. In my mind, at least, you can’t look at the way someone looks and say “Ah! American.”

To take it a step further, in places like South Korea, where I live now, they have a class that’s translated as “Ethics” in middle and high school. In this class, they are taught things like South Korea’s status as a regional “superpower,” and the genius of its language. (I should mention that the Korean writing system is absolutely amazing and logical). The most interesting idea that is taught to every Korean is that Korean blood is pure, and that must be maintained. Also, they are taught that race and nationality are the same thing. There’s even a word in the language for it.

Why did this happen? Well let me copy and paste to explain it:

“Especially in states busily reconstructing their national cultures to serve specific, concrete agendas – such as building a national economy – this conception of national identity becomes extremely useful, as the hard times requiring conformity, obedience, and sweat take their toll on the people. When race, nation, and culture become one and the same, this makes all the more convenient a dangerous ideological sleight of hand.”

That quoted bit was copied from the metropolitician, who is quite brilliant, and a little bit blunt. You can view the full article here (…)

I’m not sure where I’m going with this anymore. I think this will end up being far too long for anyone to care much. I guess what I’m trying to say is that people from immigrant societies view race differently from people who can identify their race with their nationality. I’m also trying to tie it into my student’s comments on what normal is supposed to look like. I’ll work on this more a little later and make it more coherent.
*originally posted 09/25/06 on yahoo360