3.4 Winter 2021-2022

February 16, It’s my party and I can cry if I want to

Usually, being polite is sufficient to convince people to be a little patient with my mediocre Korean skills. That’s not always the case, though.

The seemingly endless back and forth I’ve had with immigration regarding my online visa renewal application has been a headache. No matter how many times I call the immigration hot line, the other officers in Changwon reviewing my application find new ways to torture me. I mean, new documents I must scrounge up and submit. I had already started an online renewal application, but wanted to gather everything possible in case I did need to go to immigration in person.

Helen had left for vacation, Jack was out for a COVID test, and I was alone to go to my favorite school branch: administration.

I thought my request to have my school schedule stamped with the official school stamp would be easy. All I needed was a hand to lift and press ink into the document I had already made and printed. In fact, I was only getting my timetable stamped because I had heard so many conflicting reports on whether it needed to be stamped that I assumed going over the top was the better route for immigration.

I headed downstairs and knocked on the admin door. They beckoned me in, and of several people in the room, one older man with a curly perm sighed and gestured me to come over.

I tried to explain I just needed the schedule in my hand to be stamped.

He wasn’t having it. Maybe as the keeper of the keys, his strong spirit as a notary prevented him from cosigning anything without full explanation. His agitation grew and he called Changwon Immigration himself to ask why my schedule needed a school stamp.

While I could understand everything he asked of the officer on the other end, when he swiveled back to explain it to me, I caught about 30%. The gist I got was he could not stamp this document as it was not on official letterhead and didn’t have any information aside from a generic timetable. He finished, growing increasingly frustrated at my inability to understand him but I indicated I understood, reaching for the so maligned schedule I had made.

He stared at me and slid the paper out of reach.

“No, I’ll do it for you.” He said.

He then explained slowly in English that he would prepare the new document by next week. Should I have been surprised that he dragged me through this challenging interaction only to pull out English at the end? Should I have been surprised that the yearly road to visa renewal always squeezes me into insanity?

He may have been annoyed that I was asking so much of him, but I was in a nervous spiral, worried about my status as an immigrant. You never remember quite how precarious life on a yearly work visa is until immigration refuses to sign off and you’re left scrambling, catastrophizing the consequences if for some insane reason your forced to leave the country on a dime.

“Oh, okay,” I said in a small voice, pulling my hand back as if burned. I needed to leave the office and this humiliation as soon as possible. I just came in for a stamp! Helen certainly hadn’t indicated it would be this difficult with the keeper of the keys.

I thought I had avoided my historical beef with Korean school admin but the curse continues. I got up and said thank you, making a bee line for the door.

“That was exhausting,” he groaned loudly to the room as I was leaving. I crushed the post it note in my hand and felt my eyes go hot. How ceaselessly humiliating.

I climbed the stairs swiftly then took a hard right into the bathroom.

My hip bumped the fake flushing sound machine in the stall by fate and I sat on the toilet and cried.

This had come on the heels of a terrible morning; Helen rolled over to me and announced there was an immigration emergency. For opaque and useless bureaucracy reasons, our E2-2 visa was being split into two categories, one of which required a slew of new documents that are impossible to procure before our visa expires. I had just finished submitting my E2-2 renewal online when I got this news. Could Korea keep making its disdain for immigrants more obvious?

More impossible, and more Asia Time, was that no one, not even immigration, could explain the new rules. The Gyeongnam Office of Education scrambled to get answers from anyone and another teacher who was already at immigration to renew his visa had to give up his renewal to instead to grill the officers on what the hell we were supposed to do. Apparently, the mandate was so new that the staff didn’t even know what to do.

The rising pressure of a further arbitrarily complicated immigration process that threatened my very existence in Korea, the obvious lack of care for immigrants inherent in the new policy, and the personal disdain from someone whose job was to help teachers was too much to keep my eyes dry.

I know even then that I’d be okay, that this was just a molting process, but I still needed a moment to be soft and hurt.

Sometimes I feel like a wine bottle with an expanding cork, ready to pop, but impossible to open. My ability to communicate is stoppered and plugged.

I cried on the toilet pinpointing what in particular was so frustrating.

I think it’s that people don’t meet me halfway, and sometimes treat me like I’m stupid.

The next time you meet someone who is not fluent in your language, don’t assume they’re foolish: they could be any number of a smart and thoughtful person in their native language but feel partitioned into the role of a small child with limited vocabulary, crying and begging to be understood.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t mad at the admin man. In fact, I notice that this is happening to me more as I learn Korean. I start to put myself in more challenging situations because I know I can struggle by on my own. But not everyone has the patience for my journey.

These people haven’t developed empathy for the non-native speaker because they’ve never been a non-native speaker. They’ve never had the experience of having to struggle by in another country. They’ve never lived year to year on a work visa.

While he said he would give me the schedule back by Wednesday, he showed up later that afternoon with two copies of the “appropriate” schedule.

In the meantime, immigration had also asked for yet another document so I pulled him to my computer to see if it was something he could procure. He watched as I leafed through my immigration packet and he seemed to flinch with a pang of sympathy for the huge stack in my hand.

“I’ll be back in just a minute,” he said, backing out of the door.

I think he might have been embarrassed by his earlier behavior but would never be the person to apologize. No matter, I won’t forget this. I’m not about to fight the man who signs off on my paychecks, but there’s a certain thrill in knowing I’m the better person.

I remembered the other day I had seen him and his son, carbon copies with their matching perms and determined walk, coming down the stairs. What if I treated his son the way he had treated me today? I’m quite sure he would be horrified.

Sometimes I think I could be a supervillain if I enjoyed being cruel.

Next time, I will simply embarrass him by refusing to speak Korean and instead speak only fast, jargon English. An M.O. I plan to use with rude people going forward.

And as Asia Time would have it, immigration accepted my pending online application with the original, unstamped, “unofficial” timetable.

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