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Monday, June 29, 2015

Fuzzy Slippers and Immigration

Last December, I was contacted for an interview to teach at the university.  And I was nervous - REALLY nervous. I hadn't worn make-up or high heels in 1.5 years or needed to act in any way like a professional. At the door outside the interview room, I breathed deep gasping breaths and knocked before I could lose my nerve.

The door opened and I was greeted by a man wearing ... fuzzy slippers.  His TAs bounced in and out of his office during our 20-minute meeting where we discussed which classes I'd like to teach.  Apparently, I'd already been hired (without a speck of paperwork) and we were working out the details of scheduling. Wow - this was EASY.

I just needed to get a proper work visa for professors. This should not be  hard, as the university has obviously hired many foreign professors, right?

According to the university, I needed to bring these documents to Immigration to get the work visa:
Alien Registration Card
Diploma from my highest degree
Certificate of Career (a document from Dordt verifying my dates of employment)
A visa application form (provided at immigration)
A form from the university requesting the visa (in Korean)
Department minutes confirming the desire to hire me (in Korean)
A copy of the university's business license (in Korean)
130,000 won in cash only (about $122)
And before we proceed further, you should know the main characters in this drama:
HeHeHe (university staff; this is close to her real name, but not her personality)
Angel (my university's foreign faculty advocate)
MeansWell (immigration woman)
In January I went to the immigration office with all the papers and cash, filled out the application form, and took a number.  I was called to a desk where I handed over my paper pile.  Ms. MeansWell was momentarily puzzled by my Ph.D. diploma being behind glass, but when I refused to remove it (hey, we spent good money getting that baby professionally framed), she conferred with co-workers and just photocopied it through the frame. All was well.

But after 20 more minutes of paper shuffling, rubber stamping, and occasional words in English, it ends up I was missing an actual contract. Well, crap on a crab.  Ms. MeansWell offered to keep all my papers and once I brought her a contract, it would be easy peasy to give me my visa.

I called Angel about the contract commotion (I had to return home to make the call, as my new cell phone wouldn't make calls, which was a separate cluster of grief). After some work with various university offices, I was assured that HeHeHe would get me the contract.

But there was a teeny tiny glitch: the university doesn't actually offer actual contracts until the actual semester actually starts.  In March. Further, to GET said contract from the university, I needed proof of a Korean bank account in my name; Korea doesn't do joint bank accounts, and the university cannot put my paycheck into Nick's bank account, so I had to go open my very own Korean bank account (and THAT was a fun trip all in itself.)  In the end, I got a DRAFT of my contract, which was in English and nice to have despite the "Part-Time Instructor" title being a little poke to my 16 years of Professor pride.  But, contract draft in hand, I sauntered into immigration, slapped that thing down and asked for my Easy Peasy Visa.  I waited while Ms. MeansWell hid behind her computer, called a bunch of people, called Angel, consulted her immigration co-workers, and devised other stalling tactics until Nick finally lost his mind and said, "Do we have a problem here?"

Well, now that you ask, yes.  As it turns out, I wasn't eligible for a professor visa because my contract said my job title was "instructor." Not professor.  Oh, of COURSE. I badly wanted to stamp my foot, but I'll never forget when I did so in an argument with Nick at the grocery store and he LAUGHED at me.  So, Ms. MeansWell would need to consult with her regional manager who was apparently visiting another universe and might return her call during the remaining future of the earth.  Home we went, again, visa-less.

On visit #3 we reached a solution of sorts.  For the bargain price of only 120,000 won (about $115),  I got a tiny permission slip in my passport that means I can teach while still on my current (spouse/dependent) visa.

Oh, but don't go breathing any sighs of relief, dear reader.  Do you see the expiration date on there?  My spanking new not-visa would expire on March 31 because that just happens to be the end of Nick's contract year (and, as you know, I am on a spouse/dependent visa. Which means when he expires, the whole family expires).

So.  So.  Once the semester started and Nick got his shiny new two-year contract, we went back to immigration for the FOURTH TIME so we could all fill out paperwork and get new alien registration cards and I could reapply for my non-visa for another 120,000 won. I shall mention here, between tightly gritted teeth, that Ms. MeansWell was no longer employed at this immigration office and HeHeHe was also out of the picture as March is apparently Get Another Job Month.  And, of course, New Immigration Guy knew NOTHING of the earlier visa cluster-astrophe and we ONCE AGAIN called Angel and despite her urgent and quite possibly rough language, we still had to pay again for my not-visa.

Did you know that "sabotage" supposedly comes from Dutch workers who "threw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the textile looms to break the cogs"? (thank you, wikipedia).  At this point, I, for one, very much wanted to stick a fuzzy slipper or four into a certain Korean bureaucracy.

P.S. In case you wondered about my salary, let's just say that I spent half of my first monthly paycheck getting government permission to get a paycheck.

P. P. S. I've been hired to teach two courses this fall! But guess what?  My not-visa expires in August, just as the fall semester starts.  Maybe this time I'll just wait for immigration to come to me....

Friday, June 26, 2015

Micro-Adventuring: Erosion Control & Arboretum

We've been doing "micro-adventures" as a family.  We're living in Korea (this still shocks me sometimes, and I shout like a hysteric goat "I LIVE IN KOREA! HA HA HA!") but as the semester goes on, our schedules and general weariness keep us pinned to this mountain-top campus.  Which is a lovely place, to be sure, but still.  If I do not regularly get off campus and explore the world, this is what I write to friends about my daily life: "I like to sit with my q-tips and a little bowl of rubbing alcohol (1000 won at any Korean pharmacy) and hunt/destroy the tiny spider mites on my plants. Quite satisfying. I need my reading glasses, though, which kind of ruins the warrior woman feeling. " Hmm.  Definitely time to get off campus.

A couple of weekends ago I managed to wrangle not one but TWO micro-adventures out of the family. On Saturday, we went "on an easy hike," as I advertised to the children.  It's just twenty minutes away, I said.  And we can pack snacks and pop, I said.  My standards for ethical persuasion have perhaps tapered off some.  But away we drove, north to to the Erosion Control Memorial Park (you can perhaps see why I didn't share this enthusiasm-numbing detail with the kids) which quietly boasts miles kilometers of paved paths, sneaky opportunities for geo-political education, and plentiful places for David to break his arm again.  (Is it sad we're at the place in life where the likelihood of yet another broken bone doesn't even raise my heart rate?)

We had a lovely afternoon together. David, predictably, bounced off walls and threw stuff at very patient frogs; I sniffed at flowers; Nick pondered the political clout behind the massive earth-shaping forces characterizing this region's recent decades; Elisabeth happily caromed among us, our never-resting butterfly (who might possibly have some teensy claws when provoked).

Cast Iron Cow With Man. And Elisabeth.

David climbing a stone tower.
Note the spot high on the hillside behind him, where (fake) workers demonstrate erosion control work.

Why, look!  An extra person on the hillside, learning some erosion control measures.
Ah, David.

American hikers (us) = casual.
Korean hikers = in Regulation Hiking Gear (available at hundreds of shops in town).
We could not explain why the blue-jacketed, be-gloved woman kept checking her rear end.
After a couple of hours, we went to The Love Boat (I kid you not), a "ship" next to the ocean that we've often driven past and wondered about.  Today we stopped, thanks to a friend's tip that the place was not a seedy "love motel" nor a restaurant of deep-sea creatures waiting to be selected and ravished with chopsticks.  Actually, we had a very good pizza and bowls of pickles (because that's what Koreans serve with pizza.  Always.) as we admired the ocean view. 

Ponds and boardwalks at the Erosion Control Park, just across the street from
the Love Boat restaurant and the East Sea.

The next day, none of us had any obligations at church, and it was such a beautiful day, and I so loved our previous day's adventure that I...wheedled.  And it WORKED!!!  North we drove to the Gyeongsangbukdo Arboretum, for which we'd seen signs in the past but had never visited.  (For the uninitiated, Gyeongsang = our province; buk-do means north).  We finally found it along an extremely winding road up steep wooded mountainsides that reminded us greatly of the Black Hills or the Smoky Mountains. We sagely commented upon the various erosion control techniques, including terracing, nets, and big fences to keep most of the falling rocks corralled off-road.

The map's winding road was not even close to the reality.

Have I mentioned that both the ECM Park and the Arboretum are completely free?  I love that Korea values culture and education so much that places like these are completely subsidized. (America: are you listening?)

David is already tired.

The Arboretum's small visitor center had your classic pinned butterflies and dioramas, but also some surprises.  

Lots of clever insect carvings on the wall - far larger than life-sized.

The visitor's center display of a native warthog and her babies was darn intimidating.
We've heard rumors of these creatures in the woods around campus but haven't seen them.

Close up, however, it seemed that mama warthog's nose had seen better days.   

Carved 8-feet tall herons guarded the doors to the visitor's center.

View from the visitor's center.
Along the shady trail we walked, enjoying conversations among the labeled trees and flowers. Elisabeth and I took one path and the menfolk took one parallel to us, confident we'd meet soon. After far too long, however, the women stopped at a map, trying to figure out where we were (the numerous red dots with Korean labels didn't tell us much).  In stilted Korean, I asked a pair of men hikers where we might be on the map.  They pointed to the series of red dots (um, yes, I'd seen those) and asked where we were from.  Um.  Not sure of the right answer in this case - the US? Pohang?  the Visitor's Center?  I went with Pohang, but that resulted in a puzzled face and a question whether E was my daughter.  Nay. (Which is Korean for "yes," of course, unless you're trying to vote at our international church's council meeting in which case no one is quite sure if "nay" means Korean yes or Scottish-American no.)  In stilted English, Hiking Men asked our goal. For hiking? Um, we're just walking. And with that, they left us, not a whit wiser as to our location.  Being a foreigner is exhausting sometimes. 

We turned along a trail we thought might just meet up with our own menfolk, and I asked a passing Korean dad with two little boys if he'd seen doo-myeong way-gook-en (two foreigners) and, nay, he had! And then he kept going before we could work up to deep topics like "where?"  It makes one want to sigh deeply and beat one's head against a solid surface.  But down the trail we continued, coming upon a mountain-top view with a pagoda (of course) and, happily, our menfolks (who claimed to have called for us).  

Korean scenic view centers are uniformly gorgeous.

Scary tiger mouths ring the second floor of the pagoda.
Elegantly designed lamp along the trail.

Even amid the grand vistas and intricate workmanship, what grabbed my heart at the arboretum (of which we maybe saw only 10% before declaring picnic time) was this lovely butterfly on some humble clover (what Iowa farm folks like to classify as "ditch weed"). This little spot reminded me of childhood, of sucking the tiny drops of sweet nectar from the purple flowers and chasing butterflies around the backyard with my sister.  Home. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Of Flat Tires and Accordions

"How did you get a flat tire way out here?" asked our evening hero, swatting away mosquitoes and encouraging his sons not to toddle off the road's edge into the rice muck below.  

Because my TA plays the accordion. Obviously. 

Maybe I should explain.

My beloved TA, of camera shop and adjunct meeting fame, had mentioned that her band (!) was playing at a jazz festival at Bubku beach tonight.  How cool is that?  I've never seen someone play this crazy instrument, Nick loves jazz, and I love Hee Eun, so it was a Family Outing.

Hee Eun texted me a couple of hours ahead of time - her band wasn't playing at Bukbu after all, but at Chilpo Beach. Even better!!  Much closer to home, lots of free parking, etc. Long-time readers might remember Chilpo from our still-not-funny borrowed truck incident of two years ago.  Two years to the day, actually. (Cue dramatic music.)

Shortly before we left home, while the kids hurriedly finishes homework and Nick processed messages from work, Hee Eun texted again.  "Actually, its maybe just a workshop at Chilpo hotel - maybe not open to the public?"  In my post-semester excitement, this potential cross-cultural cluster sounded better by the moment. We would play dumb way-gooks (foreigners) wandering around the hotel looking for "the band." Yes!

David decided he was not quite up to this level of embarrassment excitement and elected to remain home.  I offered to drive so Nick could keep processing e-mail, and off we went, with Elisabeth expressing some mixed feelings about our precise plan for the hotel.

Now, getting to Chilpo from our apartment involves going under the highway, through a series of rice fields (lush with egrets watching for frogs amid reflections in the setting sun), and then choosing whether to continue through more fields or take a proper road through a tiny mountain village.  Both ways are lovely.  I elected the fields on this fine night, at which moment, if this were a movie, the dramatic music would change into a minor key.

If you have not driven Korean rice roads, you need to understand a few things.  First, they are narrow. As in threading needles without your reading glasses kind of narrow. Second, although often made of cement, they are certainly not maintained; in Iowa we'd call this a "class B road" which is government-speak for "good luck."  Third, the road is the highest point, with steep drop-offs into the watery fields 1-3 meters below. Some folks just refuse to drive the rice roads, and others of us, well, kind of like the challenge.

As a skilled rice road driver, I deftly avoided the potholes, looked a few fields ahead to make sure the next road section wasn't blocked by a rice farmer, gave a wide berth to a random cement curb on the left, and BANG. Flat tire.  

We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere - we're not in a village, we're not on a road with a name, and the nearest building has a large neon sign that says, most unhelpfully, 모 텔 (motel). Not easy to communicate any of these in Korean to our insurance guy who would otherwise whisk someone out to fix the tire for free (it's part of the Korean car insurance system).  Erg. 

Well, well. Nick worked to figure out how to remove the spare tire (the van didn't come with a manual), Jeremy (and his boys) came to help change the tire, and Elisabeth and I entertained ourselves for the next hour as the mosquitoes came to investigate.  

Hee Eun's band had long since finished its performance, so we headed home, our Chilpo adventure needs fulfilled for another year, at least.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

To fund some sheep brains... (or, how NOT to make a first impression)

I've been happily teaching two courses at the university this semester.  (I continue to wonder how I got hired after a 20-minute conversation with a department official, but students keeping showing up to class so I guess it's official.)

Perhaps my department colleagues (most of whom I've not actually met) assumed my husband would orient me to key university policies and classroom expectations, but either Nick slept through his own orientation (doubtful - he only sleeps during plays I take him to) or he didn't get trained in said policies, either.  So, my teaching has been a cluster of floundering, which really only looks good if one is, well, a flounder.  Or a hungry shark, I suppose.

Given the radio silence, imagine my surprise when (in week 7), I was invited to a meeting for adjunct faculty members.  (Well, at least my beloved TA said that's what the Korean e-mail said. And I really have to trust her, because she's far smarter than me and it's too scary to consider how much uglier my flounder dance would be if she DID decide to trick me.) So, Hee Eun signed me up for the meeting and nicely agreed to come along as my translator.  Here I must pat myself on the back for arranging my own translation services - it's like remembering to carry toilet paper here, since many Korean public toilets don't provide it.  (Not that Hee Eun is similar to toilet paper, mind you.  Focus, people. I'm asking you to praise me for thinking ahead.)  Let's move on.

At the meeting, the adjuncts were asked to share any questions or difficulties we might be having. Oh, danger cats, boys and girls.  But we have moved too quickly, so let's back up. 

At the appointed day and time, I found the meeting room (not on my first try, but arriving in a breathy, sweaty state gives such a positive first impression) and met Hee Eun outside.  A woman (a secretary??) ushered us to seats around the conference table, then changed her mind TWICE about our proper seating location before I finally picked seats for us myself and ignored further seat-related discussions.  Soon some be-suited men came to shake my hand and introduce themselves, which was a lovely gesture but I am hopeless at remembering Korean names.  Happily, they gave me their business cards, which have a Korean side and an English side for those of who dearly love cheat sheets.  And lo-behold-the-phone: both men knew who I was (oh boy) and (of course) knew Nick--in fact, one of them had just walked out of his office, he reported. With some effort, I chose to see this coincidence as charming rather than creepy.  And once again, you should praise me for being so mature.

As more people arrived and got settled (I'd apparently been specially selected for the solo game of musical chairs), I chatted with Hee Eun and Korean-American friend Charlene then leafed through the hefty Korean document I'd been given, making small squeals of delight that I could read approximately 1% of the words.  I had no idea that prayer had begun. In my defense, Koreans are kind of noisy pray-ers, so the background chatter hadn't really changed. But, happily, "amen" sounds about the same in any language, so at least I ended on time.

The two be-suited men then talked and we begin the lunch portion of our show.  The box lunch included a salad (I am getting better with chopsticks, but cabbage still enjoys whapping my face with dressing to keep me in line), kimchi (sorry, Korea, I'm still not a fan), mystery soup (seaweed, I believe, and I'm definitely not a fan), and assorted other items that looked as though they wished to be left in the box. Also served were communal plates of sweet orange slices lavishly stabbed with fancy toothpicks (that was dessert).  

The Suits and the Lunch.

After some time, when the Koreans were doing their thing and Hee Eun scrambled to keep Charlene and me informed, the Main Suit asked the adjuncts to share any difficulties or questions we might have.  Um, well, that's a rather roomy conversational opener. After an awkward silence, one brave man voiced his concerns about the difficulty of properly sharing the essentials of Korean history and correctly addressing controversies in the historical record.  That gambit was a fail.  After another awkward silence, another man asked about taxis charging unfair rates to get to campus; that got some response from the be-suited ones, but they wrote nothing down.  Hmm.  So, what's the right kind of question or difficulty to have?  I wondered "what can be done about the layers of filth covering my classroom whiteboards that prevents me from doing anything but powerpoint?" but Charlene nicely suggested that level of detail might not be appropriate for this meeting. Well, darn. So I spun my mental rolodex again, looking for another question/difficulty before my turn came around.   

And just as my turn arrived, the spinning stopped and I blurted what was shown on that mental screen: Sheep brains. Who pays for sheep brains?  

This clearly sounded better in my head than out loud over a lunch table. A certain uniformity of facial expressions around the table hinted that this kind of question was, shall we say, unexpected.  Perhaps even ... unprecedented.  After a noticeable gulp, Hee Eun faithfully translated for me and I was excluded from the brisk Korean discussion as Hee Eun informed the fascinated audience of my desire to give my Korean graduate students some hands-on dissection experience (their science education has wholly excluded the American practice of regular dead-critter-chopping). Alas, neither the graduate school nor my department had money for such lab expenses. Now, dear reader, my INTENTION was to get clarification about proper channels for funding class materials, but the specific EXAMPLE of sheep brains perhaps distracted a tiny bit from that larger point. And it quite possibly marked me as a lunatic.

In the end, no Suits took notes, the secretary-ish woman took our names, and it took me a day or so to realize that this meeting was a formality, something to be checked off someone's list of Things To Do.  I surely didn't mean to make the meeting (or myself) memorable, but I fear that I did so.  Maybe next year I'll get another chance to be an adjunct, to be invited to lunch and asked to share any questions or difficulties.  Maybe next year I'll ask about dirty whiteboards.