I didn’t intend to come home from Korea this year. In fact, I wasn’t planning to come home any time soon. I’d gotten a taste of living life abroad and loved it. The freedoms that come with living as an expat are often difficult to put into words, but one of the things I loved most about living in Korea specifically was how little the locals expected me to assimilate. It was understood that I was a westerner with my own set of western values, and I could not be expected to conform. Sure, I was expected to take note of some cultural everyday norms, but they were small things such as mastering chopsticks and bowing as a greeting. I also loved being able to put to rest the cultural norms I dislike about home, and choosing to partake in the ones I do like. And I also loved the communal feel of living life as an expat. We were all in the ride of expat life together; friendships formed faster and more meaningfully than they ever had in other aspects of my life, even college. Truth be told, I would have been perfectly happy at the school I was at for the next several years. I had good students, I had the freedom to teach essentially what I wanted within reason, I liked my colleagues, and I liked Korea.
But sometimes, life throws curveballs. Things outside of our hands come our way and disrupt our best-laid plans, with little care for the livelihood we’ve created. It’s no secret South Korea recently went through their own political hailstorm. The former President Park has been impeached and now awaits trials against her for various crimes against the country. However, impeachment in Korea is different from impeachment in the states; when the Korean president is impeached, there is a new election. The prime minister acts as president until the new one is elected, and then the entire cabinet and everyone working under them leaves office. So in May, a new president was elected, President Moon. One of the things President Moon promised to do was to reform the schools in South Korea.
School in SoKo is significantly different than school in the U.S. Sure, public schools have a bad reputation for being unsafe at times, and have plenty of cliques and bullying, but there’s also immense pressure for students to be the best in their class, and get ahead of their peers in any way possible. In addition, the public schools are flooded; many classes have 30-40 students per class. There’s also strict emphasis on rote memorization, with very little room for fostering creativity or critical thinking. This is fairly commonplace with most of East Asia, maybe even all of Asia.
One of the ways the wealthy elite insures their children get into one of the coveted American Ivy League schools is by sending their child to English-speaking private school. However, there are citizenship or time abroad restrictions on Korean national students for all of the international schools in Korea. (And I assume International Schools outside of SoKo as well, but I’m not an expert on this.) If they cannot get their child into a larger international school due to citizenship reasons, then they for years have been sending their children to smaller, locally owned international schools. Essentially, these schools are owned by a Korean, have a certain kind of license called a hagwon license, but are credentialed through British, Canadian, or American overseas credentials, and hire certified teachers from those countries.
President Moon has long been against these smaller international schools, claiming they give the wealthy an unfair advantage over those who come from lesser means, and make public schools underperform, kind of akin to the mainstreaming argument popular in public schools at home today. It’s the idea that the “gifted” kids push the “average” or “below average” kids to do better. Having been in mainstreaming classrooms, I can adequately say this rarely happens. More often than not, the “gifted” students end up bored, the “average” kids succeed, and the “below average” kids wonder why everyone is getting information so quickly, and the teachers are exhausted. And yet, the theoretical idea in Korean schools is that the “above average” students are taken away from the “average” students, but it’s not based on actual ability or intelligence, but socio-economic class. Of course, for most students around the world, the higher your socio-economic class, the higher you perform in school, most of the time. But I’ve been in schools long enough to know this isn’t always based on ability or intellect. It’s usually just related to accessibility to resources. In other words, forcing students in private school to attend public school won’t actually solve the public school problems in Korea. They’ll only add to them. But what do I know? I’m just a schoolteacher from the top nation in the world with the largest public school crisis. It’s not like I have made a few observations as to why our system is falling apart.
Granted, statistics support the claim that the wealthy elite students do better than the public school students, but those same statistics exist in nearly every other private school vs. public school scenario in most countries. Regardless, an overwhelming majority of the country voted him into office.
In Korea, there are two different visa types for teachers: the E2 visa, and the E7 visa. The E7 falls under a category of skilled work, and is eligible for up to 2 years’ stay, and is renewable. Most of the larger international schools such as Korean International School or Yongsan International School of Seoul provide these visas for their teachers. However, the smaller schools, such as mine provide the E2 visa, and have done so for the past several years.
The interesting part about the E2 visa is how vague the criteria are for an E2 visa holder. It says it’s for teachers of conversational English. That’s it. It doesn’t define conversational English for the visa seeker or holder, it doesn’t give parameters of what constitutes as conversational and what doesn’t. So the law is vague and has always been left up for interpretation. In fact, this law has been so vague that the language academies that employ most of the foreign English teachers in the country all have their teachers on E2 visas, and have their teachers teaching not only English, but Math in English, Science in English, reading comprehension in English, etc. This is considered best practice for ESL; teach the subject in the language the students are learning. The parents want it, and the schools are willing to supply it. Because of the vagueness of the law, several international schools have popped up over the last 15-20 (?) years, employing hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign certified teachers over the years. In other words: this has been perfectly legal for quite some time.
In early April, I was coaching soccer for our girls’ soccer team. One day, we played a team in the international school circuit from British Columbia. The boys’ coach and myself went to meet their coach upon their arrival to shake hands and chat a bit. Upon meeting, he mentioned that he’d had a rough day: all of the teachers at their school had been called into the Immigration Office and were forced to sign affidavits of willing departure within 30 days. He said if they hadn’t have signed, they would have been escorted to the airport and deported immediately. We were shocked of course, and it hit the news in the international community in Korea fairly hard.
Around that same time, the Ministry of Education began conducting searches of smaller international schools such as ours, and started requiring changes. They wanted us to specify that all classes were, in fact, taught in English. Art was no longer Art; suddenly, it needed to be English Art. That specification seemed nit-picky to us, but if experience had taught us foreigners anything, it was that sometimes it’s best to play along with what the Koreans want because Koreans value appearances. It’s no use to ask why, just go along with it. In addition, the MOE required our school to close for five consecutive school days and pay a fine because we didn’t have the criteria required of a school with our licensing. But we were a new school. We all figured hiccups like this were bound to happen. Fortunately, there were a series of national holidays coming up that we hadn’t planned to close school for, so we just worked that in. All in all, we took off Buddha’s Birthday, Children’s Day, and Election Day. At the time, it was like a second spring break for us.
We’d been back for a full week when Immigration came for us. I was off during 7th period, and casually wandered over to our counselor’s office to share some funny details of my 7th grade class. We got into conversation with the high school history teacher and we enjoying some bonding moments as teachers. Then we watched an Immigration official walk into my room and take pictures of my board. He didn’t introduce himself or ask whose room it was – it was all very peculiar. We continued chatting, but kept an eye on him. He wandered the hall some more before he finally came to us and asked if we worked there. (Duh.) He said he was looking for four teachers, and showed us their pictures on their visa applications. All in all, he was looking for our elementary music teacher, our athletic director, our high school history teacher, and our principal. We all agreed to separate and go find them for him.
It wasn’t long before all the E2 visa holders, myself included began to congregate in the chapel because the immigration officials wanted to speak with all of us. There it was decided they would take those four to the Immigration Office for questioning, along with their spouses, for a total of six people. The rest of us would be required to come into the Immigration Office the next day. I remember standing in the foyer crying and hugging my colleagues, watching as they took our friends, colleagues, and fellow expats away. I truly did worry that would be the last time I’d ever see them, and prayed I was wrong. This is one time I’m glad I was.
The whole evening, we received updates on their interrogation, and they were finally released around 11 PM that night. We were told we didn’t have to go into work the next day unless we wanted to, and that those four who had been called in could not go back to work at all.
The next morning, I called two friends before going in. I needed their support. I needed to hear that God had a plan, even if it wasn’t the one I’d wanted. One told me to go in and see my sweet students one more time. It wouldn’t be the last time I saw them, but it was the last time I saw them as their teacher. After lunch, we all climbed into the school busses and made our way to immigration, just as our friends had done the day before.
Upon arrival, we were handed a questionnaire packet, and an affidavit of departure. We were told to fill out the questionnaire and then sign the affidavit. It was clear the questionnaire was intended to appear to be our defense for our case for teaching outside the [new interpretation] bounds of the E2 visa, but when paired with the affidavit, it was also clear they had no intention of reading our responses. In their eyes, we were already guilty. Guilty with no chance to prove innocent.
Just like the British Columbian school a month prior, the affidavits specified that we were guilty of breaking E2 visa law and that by signing, it was a confession, and we were required to leave the country within 30 days. We asked what would happen if we refused to sign.
“You’ll be detained and escorted to the airport and sent on the next flight to your home country. It may not be your home city, either.”
It should be noted the trek to Incheon International Airport is a big deal when forced to come in from Seoul. Imagine if DFW International Airport had been built between Fort Worth and Weatherford. It would be great for Fort Worthians, but terrible for Dallasites. Likewise if DFW International had been built between Dallas and Mesquite what it would be like for Fort Worthians. That’s what it’s like going to the airport from Seoul. The hassle is arduous and long, and I’ll admit, the idea of a free ride to the airport sounded a bit appealing. Score! A free ride to the airport! I wanted to shout. However, I figured that might not go over so well. That and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be stopping at my house so I could pack my bags.
Naturally, we all signed our forced guilty confession.
We were then escorted into another room while they prepared our departure documents for our signature. After signing, they took our mugshots and our fingerprints, and we were informed we had to leave the country by June 17 and we could not return for 365 days.
At some point while we were in the Immigration Office, we found out our school was second on a list of about 12 schools in the city of Seoul alone that would be “hit” or “raided” by Immigration for breaking E2 visa law. Many of these schools had been open for several years. Then, we discovered, after all the schools in Seoul were hit, Immigration would move on to the other provinces, until all the schools like ours had been “cleaned up.” Korean news sources are finally starting to write about this, and supposedly many teachers at these schools have been put on “gag orders” requiring the teachers to maintain silence about all of this. I never received such orders, or if I did, never received translation of them, and hence, have remained silent until I’ve returned to the U.S.
It’s been one big tragic mess. I’ve cried so much; my heart hurts leaving my students behind, leaving Korea behind.
My pastor asked me before I left if I would have made the decision to leave my old hagwon for the international school, knowing then what I know now.
“Oh yes,” I replied, and very simply said, “I’ve had the time of my life.”
But it’s more than that. It wasn’t just fun I had, which is true. But I learned about myself. I saw myself change and grow as a teacher. I pushed myself to full discomfort in so many aspects. I coached soccer, despite all my lack of qualifications. I made major curriculum decisions. I tailored lessons for specific classes. Shoot, I tailored future units in 8th grade for the 7th graders the following year. I clung to Jesus (not always very well) in ways I’d never done before, nor imagined I’d ever need. I mentored, I life coached, I laughed, I prayed and I pushed students like never before. I saw my heart begin to crack open out of love for students in ways I’ve only seen in inspirational Lifetime movies or The Ron Clark Story. I do not recognize myself as a teacher anymore. I do not recognize myself as the same woman and follower of Christ anymore. Everything is different. Suffice it to say, this next year without my Korean students, without my expat colleagues and friends, is already turning out to be a painful one. And yet, for the first time in my teaching career, I am inspired to keep pushing myself further professionally, personally, physically, and spiritually. That’s all we can ever hope for in any tragedy in life.
Yes. I’d absolutely do it all over again.