Category: expat life in korea

Exploring Korean business, language and life from Ansan, Korea

Thoughts on Bringing the Kids Back to the US for High School

An American acquaintance in Taiwan recently asked me for my thoughts on whether to bring his daughter to the US for high school. The following is most of my response to him.

When we returned to Korea in 2008, we only planned to stay for a couple years, and two years in a Korean school seemed like a great thing for the kids. While they were in elementary school, I thought they were getting a great education, too.

However, as the years in Korea stretched on, the kids wilted in school, and especially when they hit middle school, they were frustrated and disinterested. As you know, they only teach to one type of learner in Asia (the same type of learner that created the system), and so if you're not that kind of learner, then you're pretty much out of luck. I was dropping hundreds of dollars a month on private tutoring and they were still not learning properly, and worse than that, didn't care (especially Cauvery). 

I've turned negative in my opinion about the Korean education system and cringe every time I read or hear someone on this side talk about how great Korean students are compared with their US counterparts. This only reinforces Korean perceptions that they've got a superior approach, unable to figure out why their system doesn't get them the dynamics outcomes they see in other places. So any efforts at reform are only at the edges, and I doubt they'll do anything to change anytime soon.

Treasure is two years ahead of Cauvery and we sent her to live with my mom a couple years ago so she could start sooner, and we also got lucky in finding a good charter school, rather than the main high school in town. There was a bit of a learning curve, but Treasure immediately blossomed in the new learning environment, and by this year, she's getting all As in honors classes. Since Cauvery and I returned from Korea last summer, he's also done well, though is not as naturally motivated. He's still at Cs, Bs, and As which is tons better than what he'd gotten used to in Korea, and if he can get to Bs and As next year without honors classes, then that will be a huge improvement over anything he was doing before.

I think letting your daughter have a US high school experience could be a very good idea. If you're planning to bring her back to the US, I would suggest you do so before her first year of high school. Treasure started here in 10th grade, and they made her go back and re-do a bunch of classes from 9th grade in summer school, even 9th English after she'd finished 10th grade English. Cauvery, on the other hand, just started right into 9th grade without having to do anything, even though his English ability and grades in Korean school were not as good as Treasure's. Basically, neither of the schools we talked with cared a whit about the school transcripts I brought back from Korea.

You asked about our living situation. We're renting a house in a very ordinary neighborhood and this is working out very well as I have no interest in the hassles of home ownership over the next 3-4 years. When Treasure heads off to college, we may try to upgrade to a nice-ish apartment, but my kids are enjoying the sports options at school and we use the backyard and driveway for lots of ball throwing, and that's a good thing.

I think the kids are benefiting from the cultural aspects of a US high school. Treasure loved going to prom on Friday, and everything leading up to that. She's looking forward to a senior trip and participating in student government next year.

Cauvery didn't originally want to come to the US and I gave him the option of going back to Korea next summer to attend an international school (after Treasure graduates and is on to college), but I don't think he's going to take it as he's making a good adjustment here. 

Other than for cost reasons, I don't want to take him back to Korea now since international schools in Korea are mostly full of Korean kids whose parents were forward thinking enough to get them a foreign passport. This is the same problem you mentioned in Taiwan, and means that even if the curriculum and teachers are American, the school culture is infused with the same Korean educational thinking that you and I don't like. It's simply impossible to get the kids a US-culture-based high school experience outside of the US, and those memories of US high school may be important to them as they move on in life. It also means they don't have to go through the cultural learning curve in their first year of college, since they will have already fully adapted during high school.

As you can see, I feel good about having moved the kids from Korea to the US. I see it as one of the last gifts I can give them before they move on to the rest of their lives.



Applying for a Korean F-5 (Permanent Resident) Visa While on an F-6 (Spouse Visa)

I had previously looked into getting an F-5 visa through the points system, but though I had enough points, I was on a student visa at the time, and there is no way to transition from that to an F-5. However, I've been on an F-6 (Spouse Visa) for a few years now and recently applied for an F-5.

I found the information available online and at Immigration to be adequate, but minimal and a little confusing. I hope my explanation of the requirements is somewhat more complete and helpful (at least for American citizens going to the F-5 from an F-6).

To be eligible for the F-5, I had to be in Korea for two years on the F-6 first (it didn't matter that I've been in and out of Korea for much longer than that before) and any time I spent out of the country (such as back in the States selling our house in 2012) did not count toward the two years.

Here's what I was responsible to have in-hand when applying at Immigration.

1. Police report from my home country (해외범죄경력 증명)

In my case, this took the form of a Criminal History Summary Check through the FBI (unfortunately the US Embassy in Korea provides no help at all in this matter). I found various information online about applying for this through a "channeler" or through a local office in my state, and even the online information about going through the FBI was confusing and made me concerned that the FBI wouldn't fulfill my request or that the document issued by them would not be usable for the visa application. But I took a gamble and went ahead and applied based on the information at the following link: 

To do so, I downloaded the standard fingerprint form (FD-258) at and took it down to my local police station. A detective on duty was happy to take my fingerprints.

I then mailed that with my application and credit card payment details (see link above for instructions) to the address shown and waited about a month to get it back.

Unfortunately, Immigration wouldn't accept this; it needed to be certified with an apostille (another service that the US Embassy doesn't provide). To get this, I had to send the certificate to the US Department of State in Washington, DC to request authentication. For details on that, I followed the instructions at this link:

The instructions include a requirement to provide a self-addressed prepaid envelope, but being in Korea, I didn't have access to US postage for the return. So, I prepared everything without the postage and sent it to my father in the US, asked him to get the postage (for both the outside envelope and return envelope) and forward on the documents to the US Department of State. Another month later, I received my authenticated criminal background check back, ready to submit.

The problem with this process is not just that there are so many points along the way where something can go wrong, but Korean Immigration will only recognize documents under three months old. That means, once you get your criminal background check in the mail, don't wait to send it in for authentication. And after getting the authentication, don't wait to take it down to Immigration and apply. I slid in just a week under the three-month deadline since I had not moved as quickly I should have to apply for the apostille.

I was told the first time I asked that I didn't need to get the criminal background check translated. However, when I showed up with the final application, a different person was at the desk. She told me it had to be translated into Korean. She also said I could do it myself and that I didn't need to hire someone else (which was nice!). She was even prepared to accept a hand-written translation, though I took it to the office and typed it up nicely there. Finally, upon submitting the translation, she gave me a certificate to sign saying that I'd translated it accurately.

2. Original AND photocopies of US passport and US driver's license

I might have only needed one of these documents, but I took both just to be safe.

3. W200,000 in revenue stamps

Apparently the cost used to be W70,000 but went up just this year. The revenue stamps (수입인지) can be purchased directly at the Immigration Office.

4. A filled out Permanent Resident Eligibility Application Review Report (영주자격신청심사보고서)

It looks like the following and can be picked up at the Immigration Office.


5. A filled out application form (통합신청서)

This is the main application filled out for all types of visa applications and is available at the Immigration Office, too.

6. One color photograph

This must have been taken within the previous three months (though who's really checking?). The instructions say it's supposed to be 반명함 (half business-card) size, but Immigration rejected the photo I took, saying it was too small. When I took it back to the photographer, he insisted he'd given me the right one the first time. I still got my photo printed again, though, this time bigger (3.5cm x 4.5cm), and it turned out that this is what Immigration wanted.

7. Official copies of whatever family documents my local government office (동사무소) could provide for my wife, my kids and me, including 주민등록표, 기본증명서, 가족관계증명서, 혼인관계증명서.

I don't think I needed all that; but why risk leaving something out?

8. Proof of assets

They wanted to see proof that my wife and I have at least W30 million in assets in Korea. For this, I went down to city hall and got registered copies of the titles to our apartment and my office (등기 부등본). I also threw in my business registration (사업자등록증) for good measure, but that got returned to me, so I guess they didn't need it.

9. Wife and her ID

They would not accept the application without my wife being there too and presenting her ID.


Having submitted all of this at one time, I was issued a document evidencing that my application had been received (체류허가 신청확인서) and the officer told me that they'd contact me within ten months. She said that I would not be contacted before then, so I guess I just wait, though she did say it might be a little less than ten months. When I was in the office asking about things a month ago, the officer at the desk at that time told me it was an eight-month wait, so there's apparently some flexibility on this.

I can't say that the above documents and processes will be the same everywhere (things vary mysteriously) or that the requirements won't change between now and tomorrow. Also, the process for getting the criminal background check will be different for each country, and I got the impression there was a way I could have also gotten an acceptable document through the state rather than the FBI.  But at least, the above describes how I did it and it worked, so hopefully this explanation will be helpful to others facing the same challenge.


UPDATE: January 26, 2015

Immigration contacted me early last month to have me bring in current versions of documents proving that my wife and I are still married and that we still own our apartment. About a month after doing that, I got a call on January 6th, telling me I could pick up my new alien registration card on the 20th, which I did. It looks like this:


This means that after about three months of getting my documents in order and submitting them, it then took almost another year to be issued the F-5 visa.

The Korean Immigration Service Published This Article About Me In Their Quarterly Magazine, Gongjon

“Gongjon” means “to be together” and the Korean government is working hard to help Koreans understand about the many people from other countries who live together with Koreans in Korea. Gongjon focuses on publishing articles about non-ethnic Koreans living in Korea and they interviewed me for a recent article.

2011-09-07 오전 1-38-09
2011-09-07 오전 1-38-22

2011-09-07 오전 1-38-34

Download Gongzone201106

What Are the Real Benefits to Learning Korean in Korea?

A member on Korea Business Central seems to be losing enthusiasm for studying Korean and posted a discussion question this week asking what he's really going to get out of the effort if he just wants to work in Korea. Seeing as how Koreans in business generally want to learn English and often don't place value on the efforts of foreigners to learn Korean, it's not hard to understand this KBC member's doubts. I think it takes a deeper perspective to fully appreciate the situation; here's how I replied to him:

"This is a very interesting question because it seems like the answer should be obvious, but as you pointed out, it's not.

Nobody is going to hire you in Korea simply because you speak Korean well. Why would they? And having mediocre Korean in the workplace is no better than no Korean at all, in most situations. In general, I've found that Koreans trying to learn English are less than thrilled to meet Korean-speaking foreigners, unless the foreigner's Korean is significantly better than their own English. And I definitely agree that getting from intermediate to advanced is going to take a whole lot longer than it took to get from beginner to intermediate.

But I don't think this is the whole story. If you speak Korean, then you're not left getting only the information Koreans choose to share with you; you've got direct access to the "primary sources". This is extremely important in countless subtle ways. And as David Yeo shared above, you can build stronger bonds with those around you both through the language and through cultural understanding (though I don't necessarily agree that Korean is better suited to emotional expression than English; both languages seem equally robust in this regard).

I think you also earn respect from Koreans you work with if you prove your mettle through Korean skills, and this can be a huge asset in business. Don't underestimate the value here. Foreigners who've been in Korean for decades but haven't learned Korean properly are kidding themselves if they think the Koreans around them don't look down on them, at least in limited ways, and this is in spite of what Koreans will tell them. Ironically, I find that foreigners who've learned Korean tend to be more understanding of Korean shortcomings (especially lack of English skills) than those who haven't learned Korean.

If you've got language skills in a business setting, it means you're closer to functioning as an equal and not as someone who's there as an English chat buddy and/or who continuously needs to be explained to. If you see yourself staying and working in Korea over the long-term, I encourage you to redouble your language learning efforts and to never be satisfied with your current ability level."

Click here to read the rest of the discussion, including insightful comments by other Korea Business Central members.

Is It Just Me, Or Is This Korean Online Banking Process Too Complicated?

I've been doing this for years now, so I've pretty much figured things out and it looks pretty straightforward in the video. Still, back when I was getting set up, I remember spending hours and hours at it. Even today, just one wrong number and the whole process falls apart (and three failures in a row and the account shuts down, making you go to the bank to get it working again). In fact, the reason I thought to prepare this recording is that in my first time through I got all the way to the last step and did something wrong, which made me start over and think to record my second try. 

I should also point out that this is ONLY possible in Internet Explorer. Ecommerce stuff doesnt work in Korea under any other browser… by government order! (Fortunately, this rule was relaxed recently but the number of Korean sites which are now browser independent still approaches zero.)


Foreign Talent Leaving Korea Due to “Three Serious Difficulties”

Koreans are commonly concerned about how non-Koreans view their country, and one index for measuring this is the number of foreigners living in Korea.

According to an article in the Jungang Ilbo today ("Foreign Talent Leaving Korea Due to "Three Serious Difficulties"), the number of foreigners living in Korea is about 1.22 million. However, of these, only about 40,000 are classified as "professionals"; the others would mainly be laborers, students and immigrant wives.Furthermore, of the professionals, about 20,000 are in the English-teaching profession, meaning that there are about 20,000 non-Koreans working in Korea in professional jobs that are not related to ESL.

The chart below shows that the number of foreigners in Korea has more than doubled since 2005, but that the increase is slowing significantly.


The article points out that the number of foreign professionals actually declined over the last year and in a survey, three main complaints foreigners have about Korea are listed in more detail in one of the sub-articles ("Schools for Foreigners Are Too Expensive… He Sent the Family Away and is Living as a 'Goose' Father" - "Goose Father" is the term Koreans normally use to refer to a Korean father who works in Korea to pay for his wife and children to live overseas for a year or two so that the children can get a foreign education.)

  1. The cost of education at international schools is prohibitive and the article mentions that professionals with school-age children often cannot afford to keep their families in Korea. 
  2. English is not spoken widely enough and non-Koreans speakers face a lot of difficulties, from things as basic as using appliances at home all the way to not being able to participate and thrive in the workplace. An American executive working for a Korean conglomerate is quoted as saying that her work was determined by what documents were translated for her by subordinates and that she was never given an English-language work review or specific work instructions in English.
  3. The government has put restrictions on the types of jobs foreigners can get a professional visa for and the procedures for getting such a visa approved are onerous. In many cases, this process takes 3-4 months and involves a letter of recommendation from a local government head. Considering the difficulties many Koreans have getting good jobs themselves, this letter of recommendation is not always forthcoming.

Htm_2010100321533550005010-001Finally, in a third article entitled "English Isn't Easy in Lectures or in Everyday Life… Goodbye, Korea", there is the story of an Indian professor, M. Desai (photo at left), who had signed a six-year contract to work at Seoul National University but ended up leaving Korea after only nine months, complaining mostly of the difficulties of working in an environment where English is not spoken fluently. This really surprises me because Seoul National University is one of the top schools in Korea!

These types of stories keep showing up in the Korean news and many Koreans are earnestly looking forward to the day that non-Koreans come to Korea and find it to be as international and liveable as any other globalized place in the world. It seems Korea still has a long way to go.


How Cheap Can Phone Service Get in Korea?

Here’s a conversation my wife had this morning with our phone service provider. 

“Hi, I’m calling about our phone service. I’d like to know
why you charge us $2.75/month for a basic charge? Other companies provide this
free. It really feels like our total monthly bill of $12 is so expensive… And why
did we have to sign a one-year contract? It’s not like you’ve provided any
special service… all you gave us was a free phone when we signed up. You know
of course that the competition is currently offering a $180 sign-up bonus in
cash if we sign up for their Internet service and they include phone service
without any basic monthly charge… and a free phone!”

No wonder the phone companies have been scrambling to
reinvent themselves.


Foreigners in the Land of the Morning Calm

I've lived in Korea off and on for more than fifteen years now and while it's hard to say that Korea feels completely "like home", it is certainly "home away from home" and a place I enjoy. I understand though that not every expat feels this way and that many have not made the transition to the Korean way of life.

While some aspects of overcoming "culture shock" can only be resolved by the foreigner who has come to live in Korea, the national government, as well as the city of Seoul, are working hard to create an improved environment for expatriates and their families. This is based on the realization that Korea will become a leading international player only when the country has become a pleasant place for foreigners to live and visit. Some of the aspects of this, which I will discuss in future posts, include the following:

  • Construction of Songdo New City and the Free Economic Zone
  • Revamping of various laws and regulations regarding the lives of foreigners in Korea
  • Creating of various pockets of foreigner-friendly services and communities within the Seoul area

Eating on the Run in Korea

The culture of people eating lunch together was discussed. An extension of this is that eating alone is avoided because it is taken as a sign that a person has been excluded from a group or groups. To Koreans, being excluded from a group means there must be something wrong with that person and he should therefore be shunned by both those who know him and those who don't know him.

You should also avoid eating on the run because it gives the impression that you have been excluded if you are alone and is a sign that you are rejecting those that you are with if you eat by yourself when you are part of a group.

If are out and about by yourself and need to eat, go into a restaurant, even a fast food restaurant, to eat. Eating alone in public creates a bad impression – by eating in a restaurant, you reduce the stigma of eating alone. If you are with others then don't eat by yourself – suggest that the whole group grab something to eat and if they decline, wait until you get a chance to eat together or take your leave and find a restaurant or return to your accommodation to grab a bite to eat.

It is perfectly acceptable to drink a bottled non-alcoholic beverage alone in public. If you are with a group, it would be polite to ask the others whether they would like a drink and offer to pay for their drinks. It is not necessary to go to a restaurant for a drink – you can just purchase the drinks from a vending machine or convenience store. But buying yourself a drink without offering drinks to others would be considered bad form.

If you suffer from a medical condition such as diabetes that requires you to eat at irregular times, explain this to the group you are with and, if possible, carry and eat food which is fairly small and unobtrusive, such as candy or biscuits.

Korean Queuing (Getting in Line) Practice

When in Korea, you may find yourself having to get in line occasionally and there are a number of things you should know about Korean queuing practice in order to avoid problems.

Korea is a small country with a high population density, so the interpersonal distance that Koreans must encounter day to day and have become accustomed to is considerably smaller than that in America. (Take a look at a bus or subway train in rush hour, and you will see what I mean.) In America, on the other hand, it is uncommon to encounter such crowding and people naturally leave a much greater distance between themselves and others. Koreans behind you in a line can interpret the large distance between you and the person ahead of you in the queue to mean that you are not in the line or that you got in the line but are now preoccupied with something else and not going to move forward. A Korean in this situation would feel that they are justified in moving past you because, to them, you are obviously not in the line. To avoid being line-jumped by mistake, be sure to move every time the line does and try to maintain a smaller than normal distance. Take your cue for the appropriate distance (excuse the pun) from the others in the queue.

The above paragraph describes line-jumping based on misunderstanding, but deliberate line-jumping does occur in Korea on occasions. In America as in Korea, people will at times willingly allow others to move ahead of them in the line due to the circumstances of the person behind them, however, these Korean line-jumpers sometimes jump ahead on their own initiative and later justify it by saying things like, "I only have a very short transaction to do.", or "I am extremely busy.", or "I am running late for another appointment." You won't encounter this very often in Korea and for a short stay, probably never will. The majority of Koreans who witness such an incident would agree with you as they too hate these line-jumpers and they would take sides with a foreigner over a Korean line-jumper but, at the same time, would probably be reluctant to get involved. If you do ever find yourself in this situation, the best policy is to forget it and avoid making a scene.

In the US, if you have multiple service points but no barriers or signage to indicate that a single queue should be formed then the people getting in line often form a single line of their own initiative and the person at the head of the queue moves to the first service point that becomes available. Alternatively, if there are only a small number of people then there may be no line formed but people observe the order in which the others come and then respect that order when the next service point becomes available. Koreans don't generally follow this first-in-first-served principle and follow the "lottery" principle instead. If there are multiple service points then there will be multiple lines and each person who arrives must make a judgement as to which will be the fastest line. Sometimes your gamble pays off and sometimes it doesn't. Don't bother hovering around the back or trying to follow the order in which people arrived, choose a line to join and join it.

Banks and some other places have a ticket system to facilitate queuing. On entering, the first thing you need to do is locate the ticket machine, which can sometimes be hard to find. Take a number and then find a seat to wait for your number to be called. It is likely that each individual service point will display a number rather than having one central display, so you will have to watch all displays in order to keep track of the current number. Usually, a bell will sound and the display that has just changed will flash for a few seconds to allow people to see which display it is that has changed. It is important to realise that you have a very short time to get from your seat to the counter, so you have to anticipate your number being called and get to the counter quickly when it is. If you don't respond within a few seconds, the person at the counter will skip over to the next number. Three or four numbers can literally pass by in a matter of seconds. If several numbers have passed by in this fashion and your number has passed because you were too slow to respond and no-one has yet reached the counter, you may still go to the counter. Just show your ticket to the person behind the counter and you will be served. If you were too slow and the person with the number ahead of yours has reached the counter, stand a short distance behind this person, wait for him to complete his transaction and then show your ticket to the person behind the counter. You might encounter the situation where the person with the number behind yours has been a little too slow and has got to the counter before you even though their number has passed and your number has been called. As with the above situation, just stand a short distance behind him and wait for him to finish.

The person at the counter may motion with his or hand for you to come forward and this can cause some confusion to Americans. In America, to motion for someone to come towards you, you stick out your hand with your palm facing upwards and move your fingers backwards and forwards. This gesture means "come here" in Korea, too, but is only used with animals or infants and is considered very rude when used with adults. To be polite, the palm should face downwards when the gesture is used to adults. The problem is that the polite form of the gesture, with the palm facing downwards, can look remarkably like the gesture for go away that we use in the US. So, when in Korea, remember to use the polite form of the gesture (palm down) if you want to indicate that someone should come towards you and that a person who looks like he is indicating that you should go away is actually indicating that you should come towards him.