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The Sunset Post

April 24, 2010

Jumping the Asymptote has been running almost 17 months now. I no longer live in Korea. I spent about six months after that in China, and have since then flown to my homeland. For those wondering what I’m doing (or how I’m doing), I’m doing well. I’ve taken over as CEO of a company and am doing what I love: innovating. Since I was fifteen I’ve been doing things people said couldn’t be done, or things nobody has ever done before. And I’ll continue to do those things.

Jumping the Asymptote was a place where I let the world into my head. I’ve had unprecedented access to various echelons of Korean society. Scenes that flash through my mind as I write that include getting drunk with an ROK Air Force general on a regular basis, while working on a ROKAF base; having dinner once a month with a doctor who was a good friend; farming gochu, sweet potatoes, and other crops in a village near Iksan with another good friend on his family farm; being allowed past the AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY – TOP SECRET SECURITY CLEARANCE REQUIRED sign at the Busan International Airport’s control tower to hang out in the Radar Approach Control Room while air traffic controllers landed planes; and lastly standing up in a meeting composed of National Assemblymen, immigration officials, professors, and human rights lawyers, and scolding the immigration officials, expressing my disappointment that the laws they were proposing to restrict foriegners’ rights (fingerprinting and extrajudicial deportation) were illegal.

As I’ve noticed interesting similarities, parallels, and differences between Korean culture and my own, I’ve tried to note them. When done in a systemic, scientific way, this is called ethnology. When done the way I do it, it just makes for interesting reading, and maybe brings some insight to the jaehan waegukin (resident foreigners) who read it.

This is my farewell post. I’ll leave the blog active as it is linked to and referenced by The Grand Narrative and other blogs. For those of you who have been with me, reading, I thank you.


More Differences between China & Korea

April 24, 2010

From a previous commenter: For your second part, I’d love to hear about perceived / actual discrimination – are you yelled at for cutting off the ajosshi otherwise blocking the subway? Are there any specific legalities foreigners need to watch out for? Just because the visa system isn’t well-regulated doesn’t mean some portions of life are. Does life get easier after awhile, or after you learn the language?

I didn’t see so much discrimination in China. Foreigners are relatively popular. Being in the company of a foreigner makes a Chinese person appear cosmopolitan. This is a major reason why many like to go to (relatively) expensive American chains like Starbucks (at least according to what they tell me).

In a lot of ways, the law stays out of one’s business in China, for the average Chinese and foreigner alike. Police often see dealing with foreigners as a hassle. In China, generally people are not rude to strangers, even if the strangers themselves are rude. This is a short post, but you’ll see why with the next one.

Need an Interpreter? Some Tips…

February 13, 2010

Over at China Law Blog, Lawyer Dan Harris gives some really good tips for speaking through an interpreter. While they’re written from an English-Chinese perspective, they are really applicable for any language. I’m a little late in posting it, as its been up for a week. I was over to Dan’s business partner Steve Dickinson’s house for Thanksgiving last year, and his wife gave me the best pecans I’ve ever eaten in my life. I asked where I could buy them and she said they come “from a friend.” Everyone’s got a secret source for everything good in that country, it seems. I understand, though. When I was in Korea and found something like real cheddar cheese at a particular store, I’d never tell other foriegners about it. Did that once and they cleaned the place out permanently.

Overstaying a Visa in China

January 26, 2010

So I have a former roommate in China who overstayed his visa through his employer’s mistake, and attempted to leave the country. He had heard that they charge you 500 yuan ($75) a day to a maximum of 5000 yuan ($750) if you overstay your visa, so once he went over 10 days, he didn’t worry about it so much. They don’t blacklist you if you pay your fine. Four months later, he tries to go home for this last Christmas. He buys a plane ticket and on the appointed day, takes a train to Beijing to fly out to the USA.

They stopped him at ticketing because of the overstay and sent him to immigration. The immigration officer told him that the penalty was 5000 yuan, which he was prepared to pay. Then she noticed he was four months overdue, and consulted a supervisor. They told him that he could not leave the country. He must report to a Public Security Bureau Entry/Exit Center (Immigration) and apply for an exit order.

He told them that the plane ticket cost him 10,000 yuan ($1500), and that if they did not let him pay the fine and leave, he’d be forced to go back to Qingdao and work illegally until he could raise the money.

Upon hearing that, they looked surprised (Note: I myself would not have said that), and consulted with a higher-up. That person came out and told him “That’s fine. You still need an exit order to leave.”

So now he’s back in Qingdao teaching English to raise enough money to leave the country. Good thing he still had his lease.

Do any of my readers in Korea have direct experience with a long-term overstay (either happened to you or to someone you know personally–not a friend of a friend or someone you know online)? I’d be interested to know what the similarities and differences are.

Happy Birthday, Jumping the Asymptote!

January 7, 2010

Hello all,

I’ve been on a break for the holidays, and during that time, JtA had its first birthday. Its first post was January 1, 2008.

I’m back now, so expect to see posts. The second in the series on the differences between Korea and China will be coming out later this week.

Teaching in Korea vs. China: Some Observations

December 16, 2009

As some of you know, I left Korea after four years and moved to China to enroll in a Chinese language program. After being in China a month, I began to teach English, both privately and at a Korean-run language school (hagwon). I’m going to highlight some of the differences between living and teaching in Korea and China.


In Korea, you can eat a meal as cheap as 4,000 won if you know where to go. More typical is 6 or 7,000 won. In China, I know where to get a basic meal for 5 yuan (1,000 won). More typical for me is a meal for 10-15 yuan (2-3,000 won), though. I rented an apartment in China. I had a room mate. We each had our own bedroom, we shared a kitchen and bathroom. We had a washing machine and air conditioning. Our rent was 1400 yuan a month (280,000 won), split two ways.  My half was 700 yuan (140,000 won) a month. The deposit was one month’s rent (no key money). I had to pay for six months all at once. Some places give you a discount if you pay for a year.


Working as an English teacher, you will see full time jobs advertised for as little as 5000 yuan (1 million won) a month. You will also see jobs in some cities for double that. I myself worked part time (2 hours a day, 5 days a week), but I made about as much as my room mate who worked full time (4-6 hours a day, 6 days a week). So it really varies. If I was teaching private lessons full time, I could have cleared 4 million won a month. That was not possible with my study schedule, and I didn’t come to China to work as an English teacher anyway, so I wasn’t really interested.

Visas and “the System”

In Korea, the Korean Immigration Service tightly regulates English teachers, actively seeking illegal teachers and deporting them. The Korean government also works hard to regulate the employers. As a result, teaching illegally in Korea is risky. Teachers who teach private lessons don’t advertise that fact. Teachers who apply for the proper visa go through a rigorous screening process, with criminal background checks, drug tests, etc.

In China, the government doesn’t regulate English teachers at all, sometimes not even following its own regulations on the local level. For example, foreigners have to register within 24 hours upon arrival to China. When I appeared at the police station to register, the cop on duty didn’t feel like dealing with me and told me to register when I got to the next city I was going on to, in 3 days. “But that’s not the regulation,” I said. “I don’t want to get in trouble.” I was told “not to worry about it,” and then told to leave.

Most foreigners teaching English in China should be on a Z-1 (foreign expert) visa. However, this visa is not easy for many schools to get. So it is common for schools to tell the government that the teacher in question is actually a student studying Mandarin Chinese at their school. They get the teacher an X (student) visa. Half the time the government knows what’s going on, but the owner of the school knows someone at the Public Security Bureau, and “its all good,” as they say. In fact, I know a school that outright sells visas to foreigners. You want to come to China and teach private lessons? For 4,000 yuan, they’ll get the government to issue you a one year student visa, as a student at their school. They don’t expect you to show up for classes. I’m guessing half the money you pay goes to a government official in the form of a bribe.

Now, the “working culture” related to visas and regulations in China is totally different than in Korea. Most teachers in China are technically working illegally. Many of them are on the wrong visa, either because of their school, or deliberately. When I say the working culture is different, I mean that there is no value judgment associated with working illegally, to the point that it isn’t seen as a crime–by teachers or police. Every bureaucratic process in China is circumvented one way or another, and this is another example. A friend of mine who works in a non-teaching position can’t for some reason get the right kind of visa, so her employer, who has a friend at the Public Security Bureau, takes her down there monthly to have her tourist visa extended. He goes in with her, then goes into the back room behind the counter with her passport, then comes out 30 minutes later with her new visa. They’ve been doing this for almost a year now. Another way that the working culture is different is that the government doesn’t really care about English teachers, and so they are not monitored. People advertise for openly private clients, and potential clients advertise for teachers at English bookstores and other places foreigners are known to congregate.

Foreigners One May Meet

I lived in Qingdao, which is on the coast, relatively close to Korea. I also spent a month living and working in Haining, which is a small city close to Hangzhou, in the south. In larger cities like Qingdao, it is not uncommon to meet other foreigners. Conversely, in Haining, I met just two or three foreigners not connected with my workplace, the entire time I was there. The foreigners you do meet may be much more diverse than in Korea. For example, when I saw a foreigner in Qingdao, my first question (if I choose to talk to him/her) was “Do you speak English?” because knowledge of English was not a reasonable assumption for any random foreigner there. I met scores of Europeans while I was there. Many do speak English, but not all. If you go to a club or bar that is frequented by foreigners in Qingdao, expect to hear English, French, German, Russian, and other languages spoken.

Another difference I noticed is that foreigners in China are there to do a lot more than teach English. 95% of the foreigners I met in Korea were English teachers or with the military. Not so in China. About half the ones I met were students while some were in business, and some were teaching. Very different mix. Also, it is more common to meet a foreigner who speaks the local language passably in China than in Korea. And not just people married to locals. My room mate in Qingdao was fluent in Mandarin and had been in the country just three years. There were several hundred students at the university I was enrolled in, studying Mandarin Chinese full-time. I assume there are several hundred more at the other university programs.

That concludes part one of my observations on the differences between living and teaching in Korea vs. China. If you have specific questions for part two, let me know and I’ll be sure to answer them.

Korean Military: Sex (Part 2)

December 7, 2009

This is a continuation of my post on sex in the Korean military, my third topic in the Korean military series.

At one point, one of my classes invited me out to a brothel, which I declined. They said “Its okay, come on, Archer! [my military callsign] Like eight of us are going!” I told them to have a good time. Another time, another class invited me out to sing with them at a singing room. When we got there, they said “Archer! We’re going to get some ‘helper girls.’ What kind of helper girls do you want?” Of course, my first questions was “Well, what kind of helper girls are there?” “Two kinds: the young, beautiful ones, and the older, less beautiful ones.” I said “Why would you want to get the older ones?” “The young, beautiful girls only sing. They won’t let you touch them. The older, less beautiful ones will get crazy with you!” They got the older ones. I quietly asked a couple questions as we filed into the room, and learned that older helper girls need to “do more” to get the business. If they didn’t let customers touch them, they wouldn’t be able to compete with the younger girls: its how they stay competitive. If they don’t have looks, at least one can get some action, of sorts…

So the helper “girls” (they appeared to be in their 40’s) came. They sang. One in particular seemed to zero in on me and kept trying to feed me fruits from the fruit plate. They nasty-danced with the guys. It was made clear to me that we could go to full makeout sessions or maybe more if the guys were interested. The guys didn’t like them too much and sent them away after an hour, calling a service to have two more sent over. Alas there were no more available, and that was it for helper girls that evening.

While sex was commonly discussed by the enlisted men, it was a big secret when enlisted (or other) women were present, and never discussed or alluded to. While I have talked about the enlisted quite a bit, this is not to say that officers did not engage in this sort of conduct. A friend who was a 1st lieutenant recounted with disgust the story of his Captain taking him and several other young officers to a singing room, renting the services of helper girls, and having sex with one of them in full view of the other officers. Taking a cue, one of the other officers did the same. My friend watched uncomfortably; he felt he had no choice.

Not just junior officers engage in this behavior. Once I went to a singing room with some senior officers (Lieutenant Colonels and a Colonel)–all married–and at the end of the evening, as we filed out of the room, the colonel asked us to wait for him while he went back into the singing room with the owner (a single woman in her 40’s). We all waited about 20 minutes. I asked the other officers “What is he doing?”, but was met with shrugs and guilty smiles. Then I peeked in the window, to confirm it for myself. They were kissing.

I asked my students about being married and cheating on their wives. Was this a big deal to them? Most considered it a vice: they acknowledged it was wrong, but because it is considered a part of military culture, “everybody does it.” It seems to be socially accepted by men and tolerated by wives. I say this because questions about what has happened when men are caught usually involve a big fight and tears, but nobody has ever reported a divorce resulting from it. Anecdotally, I’d estimate about 80% of married military personnel pay for sexual services. This is based on informal “show of hands” polling of about 50 enlisted men.

If I was still in Korea, I’d ask women about their opinions regarding this. I’d be interested to know if the answers change according to age. Is the older generation more or less tolerant?