Monday, February 20, 2017

A Fashion Comparison

If I asked you to tell the difference between a French, Australian, or American without hearing them talk, could you do it?  Possibly you could, but it wouldn't be based on their looks.  Chances are you would use their fashion and style as your indicators of their nationality.

I sometimes get asked a similar question in Korea, which is if I can tell the difference between Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese.  Sometimes I feel there is a hidden agenda in this question and that they are basically asking, "how racist are you?"  But I tell them that I usually can (not always) based on what they wear.

Despite the world becoming more globalized, there are still some things that are fashionable in one country that are not accepted in the other.  In this post, I will identify some of the fashion trends that are popular in Korea that would get some second, and maybe third, glances in America.

Men's Fashion:

  • Turtle necks:
    • I actually don't know if these are popular or not in the U.S. right now, but when I left America I wouldn't be caught dead wearing one, and many guys wear them here.
  • Dyed hair/Perms:
    • The most noticeable difference in men's fashion is the hairstyles.  It is not uncommon for a guy to sport colorful hair colors, such as green, pink, white, red, even grey!  The strangest style to me though, is the perm!

Woman's Fashion:
  • Curlers in public:
    • These days it is very fashionable for young girls to have bangs, and for these bangs to be curled.  Girl's apparently think this look is so attractive that they are willing to sacrifice looking ridiculous part of the time in order to look good the other part.  I say this because I see many young girls walking around in public with the curler still in their hair.  
  • Tennis shoes with a dress:
    • I have to admit that Koreans, for the most part, out dress Americans by a long shot.  They will dress up nicely just for running errands or grabbing a quick lunch.  However, I have never understood why they would make the effort to make their whole outfit look really nice and then give up when they got to their shoes, but I see it at least once a day.  Some girl wearing really nice clothes, obviously spent a lot of time on her hair and make-up, but then look down and say to myself, "WHAT ARE THOSE!?"  What I see is a pair of off-brand and usually dirty sneakers.

  • Matching Everything
    • This is a very common and disgusting trend in Korea.  The equivalent of a couple making out in public, these couples feel it necessary to show everyone that they are together by matching their outfits.  Some couples are a subtle in their declaration of love and may only have "couple shoes", while others go all out with "couple tees", "couple hats", "couple pants", "couple shoes", and "couple jackets".  Some stores even sell outfits you can buy as a couple!  Dressed as twins, these couples walk around so proudly, and I will never understand that.  You want people to know you are a couple?  Hold each other's hands; trust me, we will get the picture.
  • Couple Rings
    • Although this sounds a little cheesy, I actually like the idea of this even though I don't think I would ever do it myself.  But in Korea, it is common for dating couples, just as it is with married couples, to exchange rings and wear them.  Now the reason I like this is because it makes it really convenient for single guys like me.  It is easier to spot if a girl has a boyfriend or not.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Profiting from Love

Many of the secular holidays that we celebrate in the US are not celebrated in Korea.  Holidays such as St. Patricks Day, Cinco de Mayo, and other holidays are largely ignored in Korea outside of the international community.  However, one that is not is Valentines Day, but Korea does have a slightly different way to celebrate this holiday.  In fact they found a way to turn this day into three separate holidays: Valentines Day, White Day, and Black Day.  Where as in the USA love is expressed reciprocally with both the man and woman in a relationship buy each other gifts and candies, in Korea everybody gets their own day to feel special.  Here is how it works:

Valentines Day: February 14th
This is the man's special day.  On this day, woman treat the men to dinner and usually buy chocolates for their significant other.

My Valentine's Day Gift

White Day: March 14th
This is the day for the man to payback and show his love to the girl.  As a guy, it is a huge advantage going second in this exchange.  We get to see exactly what we are competing with, know exactly what we have to top, and have an extra month to do it.  I feel this had to be intentional.

Black Day: April 14th
Not wanting to leave out people who are not in a relationship they even created a day for singles.  On Black Day friends who are not in a committed relationship will gather and typically eat 짜장면, which is a noodle dish with a thick black sauce (also one of my favorite dishes in Korea).


The motive for this is up for debate.  On one side you could argue that it gives each person their own day to feel special, rather than just blend it all together.  It is also nice as a guy, because you know exactly what you have to top and get a month to plan and prepare for it.  The more skeptical might argue that is only a ploy to spread the wealth out over 3 months and encourage more economic spending.  Whichever is the intended motive for the alteration of this holiday's traditions from its Western origins (perhaps its a combination of the two), it certainly gives more to look forward to.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Incompetence of Immigration

After 5 long months, I finally have my new visa to work in Korea.  For those who are close to me, you know how frustrating and stressful this process has been, but for those who don't I will detail that experience for you in this post.

It all started when I was changing my job and moving from Incheon to Seoul.  While working in Incheon I had an E7 working visa which was for education specialists.  However, I knew I was likely going to be working in a hagwon (academy) rather than a school, which requires only an E2 visa.  Seeing as this was a less special visa, I was assuming that it would be easier to obtain and that all my documents that I submitted for my E7 visa would still be valid, but I wanted to make sure just to be safe.  So I called the immigration office and they confirmed that indeed my documents would transfer and that all I had to do was bring in my new contract and they could begin processing my visa application (a two week process).  I even asked if the criminal background check I submitted two years ago was still valid just trying to cover all my bases and they said that if I had not lived outside of Korea for more than three months it was still valid, so it was all good.

Then when I finally found my new job, I went to the immigration office with this new contract and quickly found out that this was NOT all good.  As they were looking through my documents they came across a problem.  They told me that my background check, which I had specifically asked about over the phone, was not apostilled (a document certifying its authenticity) and therefore could not be accepted.  When I told the lady that it was accepted for my E7 visa she told me that it was not necessary for an E7 visa but for an E2 visa only, which makes no sense.  I then asked, since it was still a valid background check, if I could just send it off to get it apostilled, to which the answer was no.  I had to get a whole new background check which is at least a three month process usually, and that's not including the apostille.  I told the lady that I just took a new job and could not wait three months to start work, and she basically said that there was no other way.

So faced with this serious problem I quickly had to come up with a solution.  It was illegal for me to work in Korea until I had my E2 visa and my job was obviously not going to wait three months for me to start working.  Luckily, I am blessed with a creative mind and MacGyver-like problem solving skills.  So I came up with the solution that I would work at my school as a "volunteer" until I got my visa, upon which they would then backpay me for all the time I had worked.  It kept things legal and my school was happy, and I had enough savings to last me until then so it all worked out.  

There was still one small problem.  This meant I was in Korea technically under a tourist visa, which is only 90 days.  Seeing as how I felt this process would likely take more than 90 days, I would have to make a visa run (go to another country for a short trip and then come back to Korea with a new tourist visa which would give me another 90 days).  There was another option however.  I could apply for a D10 visa which is a "job seekers" visa and lasts six months.  So I made another trip down to the immigration office (after calling again and asking about the process), but when I got there I learned that they had changed their policy and now you have to make a reservation to make an appointment at the office.  They told me there was a computer in the back of the room where I could make my reservation.  Luckily for me there was still an open time for that morning, so I booked it.  After waiting for about an hour, I began to see that the number on my ticket was not going to be reached by the time of my scheduled appointment, so I went up to the counter to ask about it.  It was then they told me that I cannot make a reservation for the same day, even if the time is available, and that I would have to make another reservation for another day, which I begrudgingly did.

Three days later I made yet another visit to the immigration office to apply for the D10 visa, all of these visits required missing time at work by the way.  As we were sorting through the paper work, I informed them that I would traveling to Mongolia the next week and asked if this would complicate things at all.  The lady (who was the same lady I would talk to for all my visits) told me that if I leave the country while my D10 was being processed still that it would cancel the application.  However, it is perfectly fine to leave the country once I had the D10 visa.  This was yet another policy that makes no sense and only adds to complicate everything.  I had already planned and paid for this trip, so there was no way that I was not going.  Sensing my frustration, she told me that she would talk to her supervisor about trying to process the application quickly, but that it was very unlikely and that the only way I would know was when I went through immigration at the airport.

Well the time for my trip came and I nervously passed through immigration, but nothing was said.  Still I was unsure if it had been canceled and they just didn't say anything or if it would only be canceled when I came back to Korea.  Well after an amazing trip to Mongolia (read about it here), I returned and again nothing was said.  I took this to mean I was accepted somehow, which was the first good news I had gotten through the whole process.  Now I just had to wait for my background check.

I was able to work through a channeler which helped speed up the process. I then had the background check mailed to my parent's house in USA, who then mailed it the U.S. Department of State to get it apostilled, and then mailed it completed to me.  Now with my documents completed I went again to the immigration office to begin my application for the E2 visa.  Well, so I thought.

Arriving at the office the took my background check, but said that I now needed a NEW contract from my school since the last one had my starting date back in August and my starting date had to be after my application had started.  So I had to go get a new contract, return back to the immigration office on another day and finally process my application (this was now December by the way). 

Relieved that my application process had finally begun I returned to work that day.  As I was getting off work, happy to have all this mess behind me, I was getting on the bus to go home and then out to celebrate when I got a phone call from immigration.  The woman on the phone immediately apologized and told me she had bad news.  What's new right?  She said that I still needed to do a medical check-up before my application could begin.  Livid, I ask why this couldn't have been told to me months ago so that I could have done it in the meantime.  All she could do was offer me sympathy, which I wasn't interested in, as I vented my anger out on her.  After about 5 or so minutes of a verbal tongue lashing, I asked, "I had to do a medical check when I got my E7 visa two years ago, does that not count?"  I shouldn't have been surprised by her response, but I still was, as she said, "You did? Hold on let me check your records".  After finding my medical check she apologized for the inconvenience and informed me that she didn't see it before and this was all a mistake.  I was relieved that I didn't in fact have to get the medical check, but at the same time I was shocked by their entire offices level of incompetence.  I was told that all I had to do now was wait two weeks for the application to finish and I could pick up my visa after that.

I called every week asking if it was ready, dealt with rude incompetent workers on the phone, and it was still a month before they told me that I had been approved, but now had to wait for the card to be printed.  The good news about this was that I could now begin working legally and receive all of my backpay, which was perfect timing because I had just burnt through all of my savings in Korea.  Still it wasn't until almost a month and a half later (this last week) when I was finally told my card was ready.  Even though they had told me that they would call me when it was ready, it took me calling them to find this out.

So last Friday I made what I hope to be my last trip to the immigration office to finally pick up my visa and put an end to this very long, very frustrating process.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Lunar New Year: A Comparison between Singapore and Korea



South Korea

Being my sixth year living in Asia, I have been fortunate enough to be able to celebrate 12 New Year's.  This is because most East Asian and South East Asian countries celebrate both the calendar new year and the lunar new year.  While in Singapore there were many traditions surrounding the lunar new year, such as lion dances, the giving of "fortune" oranges, and the annual emergence of pineapple tarts.  Korea also has many of it's own traditions for the lunar new year, such as 제사 (Jaesa) or 세배해요 (saebaehaeyo) bowing ceremonies, and eating 떡국 (ddeok guk), which is a rice cake soup.

For the bowing cermonies, they are done for different purposes.  제사 is done to honor dead relatives and give thanks to them.  I once was randomly stopped in the streets of Seoul and asked if I wanted to partake and learn about this unique cultural tradition.  I had nothing to do, so I accepted.  To my surprise it had a VERY specific procedure which was very repetitive and honestly exhausting to bow that much.  The strange part was that I was told I could not tell anyone that I had done this ceremony for 100 days and my ancestors would bless me, but if I told someone then I would not receive the blessing.  I didn't last even one day.  The 세배해요 ceremony is done by younger generations to the older generations to show respect.  Usually the younger generations receive money for this respect, which makes me question the sincerity of the practice.  This year I even had a strange kid bow to me on the street on Lunar New Years and I questioned to myself if was expecting me to pay him.  Regardless it was a nice gesture. 

For all the differences between Singapore's and Korea's Lunar New Year traditions, there are many similarities as well.  Both gather the entire extended families together to share a lot of food together.  Both place an emphasis on paying respect to dead and elder relatives.  Lastly, both also give children money in red packets (hongbao in Singapore; 세뱃돈saebaetdon in Korea) for showing respect.

However, for me Lunar New Year means time off from work and usually going to travel somewhere.  This year me and some of my rugby mates decided to book a pension in Pyeongchang, the site of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and have a short snowboarding trip, which is becoming a new hobby of mine.  It was a little challenging planning it all, and I was relied on as translator, but it was a success and we had a lot of fun.

The gang