A long time ago, I did a three- or four-month stint as a social worker at a mental health clinic. I would have stayed longer, but I was honestly horrible at my job, and I suspect that no one cried when I left. I won’t go into the details, but it turned out that casework was not my thing. At all. But that’s beside the point.
The thing about that place was, we had a lot of clients with schizophrenia who visited us, so the only thing we could show on the TV in the lobby was a series of nature videos. I’ll never forget walking into the lobby one afternoon and hearing one of our clients mutter, “F#$k the dolphins, what about me?”
I initially laughed at the statement. It was absurd, you know? What the heck did the dolphins on the TV have to do with this poor guy’s situation? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what he was really saying was, “Here I am, living in a hell that my own damn mind has created, and these stupid dolphins are living it up in the open water. What gives them the right to be so happy and free while I’m as good as a prisoner?” It was a fair question, honestly and one that forced me to do more than a little introspection, because if I’m honest with you, I also have similar thoughts, not about dolphins, but about other people. I suspect most people do.
In fact, I know that most other people do, because having lived as an immigrant for more than ten years, I’ve often been lumped into the “F@$k that American girl, what about me?” category. Now, before you get the idea that I’m writing an anti-Korean story, let me assure you, I’m not. I love this country. I love it so much that I’ve spent a crazy amount of time and energy doing things to ensure that I can stay here. Unfortunately, most of those things haven’t gone exactly as planned.
Back in 2016 or so, while I was slogging through my thesis, I got this nutty idea that the best way to improve my Korean would be to get a job working for a Korean company. After sending out a dozen or so resumes, I got hired on at a fruit exporter. In general, there’s very little to be said about the experience, other than they often introduced me to our partners as ‘the white face of our company’, one of my co-workers once tried to microwave an aluminum pot, and during one of the 회식’s (drinking parties to make you forget that they work you non-stop for pennies) one of my co-workers got so drunk that she knocked me over a curb and I broke my finger. If that sounds like a lot of weird nonsense, then you’ve officially understood the environment of the company.
I had a very life altering moment with the owner of the company at an immigration office, though the person most altered was likely him. You see when immigrants work in a country, be it the USA or South Korea, they don’t get to just pick out a job and do it. They can only work in the field designated by their visa and getting a new visa can be unbelievably difficult.
On the day that we went to sort out my new visa, my boss strode confidently into the immigration office with a big smile on his face. He handed the lady at the booth my documents and began explaining to her how much money I was going to help him bring into the country. She nodded politely, which was certainly a step up from the response I usually got, and listened until he’d finished talking. Then, she politely pushed the stack of papers back across the counter at him, and shook her head.
“She doesn’t qualify for this visa.”
My boss, of course, then threw rank. He went into a rant about how his company pulled in a crazy amount of money from overseas, and how what he really wanted was someone who understood western culture to help him better target the market, and so on and so forth. Again, she nodded politely and explained in no uncertain terms that he shouldn’t be trying to get a foreigner to do a job that a Korean could do just as well. It didn’t matter that he wanted a ‘white face’ for his company, the Korean government didn’t just let any old Jim or Sally get a work visa.
The whole car ride back to the office was filled with him muttering a bunch of flabbergasted gibberish, and me nodding sympathetically and trying to comfort him. One doesn’t just go to the immigration office and get a visa, after all. I’d cried at that place enough to know. I quit the next day, and told them to donate my very much illegal salary to a local orphanage because you don’t play around with immigration karma.
The next year, I graduated, took on a managing role at an English school where no one ever asked me to get drunk with them, wrote some books, started the adoption process, and pretty much lived a quiet, happy life as an immigrant in South Korea. About two years ago, I began preparing to apply for the holy grail of visas, the F-5. It’s the Korean equivalent of a green card. It would give me the right to stay in the country almost indefinitely, and if I decided to apply for citizenship, I would have to get the F-5 first. I took six months of special classes, retook my TOPIK, and began working extra so I’d meet the income requirements.
In January of this year, I walked confidently into the immigration office. Oops, nope, that’s not true. I slunk into the immigration office with a stack of papers and a sense of impending doom. I was met by a young girl with very over the top sparkly eye shadow. She didn’t bother with any of the polite smiles or nods that had been afforded to my boss, and instead asked me point blank, “Why are you here?”
Before I’d explained much of my situation, she stopped me with a snort. “F-5? You don’t qualify.”
I explained that the previous year I’d gotten a full breakdown from another employee and had in fact prepared all of my paperwork. She flipped through, gave an exasperated sigh, and said, “Go buy $200 bucks worth of stamps.” (For reasons I don’t understand, you have to pay for your visa application here in these weird stamps that a lady in the back of the immigration office sells.)
I got my stamps and she told me in no uncertain terms that I was not approved, but that I was now in process. For weeks, I received phone calls from her demanding more documents. I sent them all, with the continued knowledge that likely this whole thing would fall apart.
Sure enough, the whole thing went sideways about three weeks into process. I’d taken four months off when our amazing son’s adoption was completed. My boss had worked out a rather tricky setup so that I could stay on insurance and I was even kind of getting paid, but it didn’t change the fact that I’d been off of work for the last two months of the year. Immigration didn’t think that adoption was a good reason to stop working. “You can try again next year,” Sparkly eyes said shortly over the phone.
The response from my Korean friends was basically shock. “How could she refuse you over something as great as adoption?”
Obviously, my foreign friends knew better. They all simply nodded and hugged me. Why? Because at the end of the day, immigrants know what reality looks like. All of us who’ve sat hunched over a pile of papers at the immigration desk have a clear awareness of where we stand in society. We’re the f#*king dolphins.
I wrote all of this for two reasons. The first is simply to say, after a lot of thought and logistical planning, Steve and I have decided to leave Korea. We’re old-ish, and now that there’s a toddler here, it’s impossible for me to work the hours that would be required to get that darn F-5. It sucks for our family, course, because we have two adult Korean sons who are not able to immigrate to the USA with us because of all sorts of convoluted nonsense. And it sucks for our youngest because he’ll lose all of his friends, culture, and two older brothers. But that doesn’t change the fact that we can’t force a country to let us live here, no matter how charming we may be.
The second reason is simply to give people who haven’t ever sat on the receiving end of an immigration desk a better understanding of what being an immigrant often looks and feels like. It’s scary. It’s frustrating. It’s demeaning. A twenty-something with out-of-control glittery eyeshadow had the authority to tell me and my family that we won’t be able to live together anymore.
But the thing is, our family is honestly very lucky. We have the ability to go back to a safe-ish country where people aren’t actively searching for us with plans to kill us. We’ll get jobs there without too much difficulty, and we’ll be surrounded by loving family members as we go through the process of repatriating. It’s not like that for a lot of people whose visas get denied. They end up in dangerous places without any help from their government or family.
I hope you’ll think about this the next time a shock-jock on the radio starts talking about immigrants stealing jobs. Most of us aren’t stealing jobs that you want. We’re just trying to get a mouthful of fish and get on with our lives. Our success is typically good for the country we live in, and therefore good for its citizens. You don’t have to hate the dolphins, is what I’m saying, I guess.