Korean Work Culture

I have now been living in Korea for 7 months. Things are not all sunshine and roses what with COVID-19. While I always knew that Korean work culture would be difficult to adjust to, with the virus it is even more difficult. It is not simply the expectation to stay late, or deskwarm, there are further frustrations concerning the treatment of foreigners during this time that have me questioning whether I should stay. I hope this post doesn’t come across as angry. Things have been very frustrating but I know I am in a very privileged position. But, I thought people should know what’s been going on here.

I‘ll start with the three general differences that almost everyone can expect to encounter:

  1. You get to go home at 4:40 every day. But if you leave on the dot you can be viewed as lazy or not a good worker. I personally don’t care. I see no reason to hang around in an office doing nothing for any longer than I have to. Even if the bus isn’t ready to come, I still would rather be outside.
  2. Deskwarming. You are expected to come to work even when you have no classes, and often even if there is no one else at the school. My school frequently forgot about me on these days and would forget to leave the doors unlocked, or accidentally lock me in. Not great.
  3. General Last-Minute Everything. You have to be on top of your own situation, your school likely won’t offer any extra information unless you ask for it. Want the vacation schedule? You might need to push for it. Want to know what you need to do for Winter/Summer camp? They may refuse to tell you until the last second. In my case I had the extreme from my co-teacher, who would refuse to tell me what she wanted me to do in class until an hour or two beforehand. If you’re someone who plans, like me, you may have to let that go.

These things are all sort of fine until you realize with the last two that you are the only exception. Being the only one who has to come to school while everyone else gets vacation is, well, not fun. I used to think Korean people were just poor planners, but no, Koreans often book their vacations up to a year in advance. These people plan, they just don’t care if you want to plan.

But now let’s move on to the four concerns that a pandemic raises.

  1. Needlessly putting you in danger. While the virus raged and all of my coworkers got to stay home, I still had to take a 25 minute bus. To sit in an office and play video games. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly greatful to have a paying job and yeah, I don’t really have to do anything. But it is up to the school’s discretion (some teachers called the department of education to clarify). They could have let me stay home. They chose to have me come in and risk my health to do nothing. Almost none of my coworkers come in to school and those that do are only here for a few hours a couple days a week (and they have cars so they are not nearly as at risk).
  2. Screwing you out of what you’re entitled to at every turn. Now, I understand that everything is up in the air. They clearly aren’t sure what’s happening either. But the almost desperation my school went to take away my vacation days was ridiculous. I wanted to wait to use them to stay home and I’m glad I did. The virus is going on and on and they wanted me to use them two weeks ago. Originally we were told that we would be paid for unused vacation days, but as of yesterday we are not. So my coteacher raced up to tell me that I absolutely had to take my vacation days right now. And despite having gone over how many vacation days I had numerous times, despite checking in the system multiple times, they decided last minute they were going to count the hours they let me go home early (or even requested I go home early) thereby screwing me out of a vacation day. It is in your contract that these hours can count, but I believed them the three times they told me they wouldn’t count those hours. Don’t ever believe your school.
  3. The rate at which they change their minds. Again, this is a trying time. But they aren’t going to think about you. Days they say you can have off will suddenly go away. What you’re doing for online classes? You’ll be the last to know. They have told me absolutely nothing and I won’t be shocked if on the 16th they set a webcam in front of me and say to chat with some kids. Schedule changes? They may never tell you. The current Korean work culture is to pretend the foreigner doesn’t exist (my friend has experienced other teachers coming in who don’t even look at or acknowledge her anymore).
  4. Not getting to the point. When I was a month and a half away from my originally planned trip to Taiwan my school ordered me to cancel it. Instead of cutting to the chase and saying it was because of the virus, they gave me excuse after excuse. “You don’t have that day off” (not true) “You can’t come back the night before” (not true) “Oh I was supposed to tell you x but didn’t” (not my problem) “You can’t wait to see because of cancellation fees” (not true). Finally they got to the real concern (an hour later), the virus, but by that point I was angry and didn’t want to do them any favors. I’m not an unreasonable person, I was already considering cancelling. It was the ridiculous refusal to get to the point that drove me nuts.

In conclusion

The regular Korean work culture is bearable. I was adjusting to it just fine. But it is incredibly disheartening that, as the foreigner, you will likely be the last person your school, any business, or the Korean government, considers. This is not to mention the huge rise in racism against foreigners. Many people have been turned out of restaurants, me and my friends were told no foreigners were allowed in a local bar, just general glares and unfriendliness, and one of my friends experienced a mother shouting “italy-person no!” when her kid bumped into her. It’s a lot of stress to be under. If the situation weren’t so much better here than back home, I would be very close to hopping on a plane back home by now.

Check out my other posts:

Deskwarming in Korea

EPIK English Summer Camp How-To

Places to Visit in Korea Besides Seoul!


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