A new start

It has been about a week since I arrived in Korea.

This time it is semi-permanent, but so far that fact hasn’t quite sunk in. I’m still staying in my in-laws’ house (we have an apartment but it needs work before we move in). I don’t have a job or occupation (as previously mentioned, I’m applying for graduate school, so I’m not looking for permanent employment at the moment). My husband has taken time off work to help me get settled, so we’re always together.

Basically it feels like every other vacation I’ve spent here in Korea.

Only this time it’s “for keeps.”

The day after I arrived, I went down to the immigration office to register as an “alien.” I’ve been an “alien” for the last 11 years in Japan too, so I’m used to the term. I really wasn’t sure what to expect because I’ve heard horror stories about long lines and terrible waits. As we were on our way I realized it was possibly the worst possible day to go because it was a semi-holiday (ie. many companies were off, but public offices were still open).

Fortunately, aside from the terrible timing (right during lunch when only one window was open to process people), it really wasn’t as bad as I expected. Armed with my Korean speaking husband everything went quite smoothly.

We then went down to the new apartment, so I could see it for the first time. It had actually been bought for us by my husband’s parents “on spec” several years ago (before I’d met my husband) because they hoped to someday have a “myeoneuri” (daughter-in-law). It definitely needs work, but I like the space, and especially the neighborhood, so I’m looking forward to moving in and making it ours.

There, I found out that I passed the second screening for the scholarship program (more on that later), so that was quite exciting!

This week, we went back to immigration to get my registration number. Theoretically, I could just wait for my registration card to come out in another two-ish weeks. We paid the extra money to have them send it to us, thus it wouldn’t require another trip back. EXCEPT… I needed the number, and the extension of my visa in order to have my stuff sent from Japan.

I really don’t understand that part… The visa they gave me in Japan was only for 90 days. They told me that was standard, and from what I’ve heard elsewhere that’s true. BUT, in order to send my 41 boxes of stuff to Korea for “personal use” I needed a visa of at least a year. (I mean, who sends 41 boxes just for 3 months, right?) They basically just gave me the extension when I registered the day after arriving, so I’m not sure why they don’t make the initial visa a one-year visa. I’m sure there is some (good?) reason, but to me it’s just a mystery. The first of many, I’m sure.

With my registration number also on that piece of paper, I was told I might possibly be able to get a mobile phone, but of course it was more difficult than that. Korean husband again to the rescue just made it in his name instead. That we could have done a week ago, but we were planning to do it with his phone company… and they unfortunately are in the middle of a 45 day suspension for reasons I didn’t ask about. In the end we decided a different company might actually be more advantageous for certain reasons, so the phone is coming tomorrow!

It’s amazing how hard it is to go back to living without technology, no matter how temporarily.

So life in Korea has started! I’m looking forward to many new adventures here in Asia!

Proficiency Tests

Today I took a break from moving preparations and goodbye meals to take the TOPIK exam.

The Test of Proficiency in Korean, Intermediate Level.  Three hours of vocab, writing, listening and reading.  Fun stuff, right?  A great way to spend an Easter Sunday…

To be perfectly honest though, I love tests.  That’s probably because I am a pretty good tester.  You name it I’ve taken it… or not really, but I’ve definitely done my fair share of language tests.

It all started in my year abroad when I first learned there were such things as language proficiency exams.  Take a test and get a pretty certificate if you pass?  Where do I sign up?  So as soon as I got home I signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), level 2 (which at the time was the second highest of four tests).  And passed.

Then, when I arrived in Japan two years later, I signed up for level 1, and passed that too.  Then heard about the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT), which at the time was run by JETRO, but is now run by the same people as the “Kanken” (Kanji Aptitude Test), and so I took that too.  And passed (but skipped the optional interview because while I thrive in written tests, interviews make me really nervous).

Then I got into Korean, and found that they have tests too (!!), so I took the TOPIK beginner level two years ago, and the intermediate test last year.

Then I decided I might want to go to Korea and that would mean looking for new jobs.  And when looking for new jobs what better thing to have on your resume than multilingualism (with more proficiency tests for proof)?  So, since it had been ten years since I first passed JLPT level one, and the test had since undergone a major overhaul, I decided to take N1 (now the highest level of five), and throw in the Nihongo Kentei (日本語検定) for good measure.  The Nihongo Kentei is actually a test theoretically designed for Japanese people, and tests knowledge of things like keigo, vocab, proper usage, etc.  In some ways it is similar to the English part of the SATs.

Almost took the BJT again, but I accidentally slept through it… or rather completely forgot I was signed up until the day after…

And of course one more intermediate TOPIK test (because the first time around I only passed level three and I want four).

There are a lot of people out there who like to devalue proficiency tests.  More so for JLPT than TOPIK (probably because JLPT has been around longer).

I personally think that you just have to understand the tests, and what they are and are not.

I cannot guarantee that having a level one JLPT has ever gotten me a job, but I can say that when we were looking for my replacement at work, we definitely filtered candidates based partially on language proficiency (as that is essential for my old job), and JLPT scores were one of the scales we used. (Of course we interviewed everyone who passed that first filter, and did language checks of our own as well.) If you don’t like proficiency tests, you are going to have to find some other way to demonstrate your proficiency in an easily understandable way.

I can also say that a JLPT score exempts one from the language test required by one of the master’s programs I have applied to, so being able to demonstrate that proficiency in the application stage has got to be some advantage (as it is a requirement of the program.)

If used correctly, proficiency tests are great for your resume.

Of course they have to be used correctly.

For example, in looking for my replacement we fairly quickly discounted anyone who wrote level 3 or below. For some it was an old result, so it is theoretically possible that they are much better now, but without any more recent indication of higher proficiency it wasn’t really worth our time. For some positions it is possible that even level 2 (N2), might have been cut, so you have to really understand the demands of the job. If it’s an old result that doesn’t really reflect your current level it might be better to leave it off.

On the other hand, proficiency tests are not necessarily great indications of your actual proficiency.

As the people evaluating the candidates, it was necessary for us to do checks of our own.

As someone taking the tests, you have to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, in my case…

I studied Japanese for seven years before I’d even heard of language proficiency exams. I took formal classes, I studied abroad, and I did a lot of conversation practice. By the time I took my first test, I was functionally quite proficient (the only reason I didn’t go straight for the highest level was some insecurity about kanji and reading). As a result, the exam result was just confirmation of what I already new myself, and was a fairly accurate representation of what I actually knew and could control. I never really studied FOR the exam (other than familiarizing myself with the format.)

With Korean it was (and is) a whole different story. I knew about the existence of the tests almost from the very beginning, and took my first test after only six months of study. I was taking formal classes, but conversation practice was limited. I very much studied FOR that first test, and every test thereafter.

As a result, the scores may open some doors, but conversationally speaking I am still an infant. My comprehension is not terrible, so that’s something, but the test results are a very poor representation of my language production skills.

Anti-testing people largely cite cases like mine as reasons the tests are “worthless,” but I think you just need to be realistic about how much value to place on them.

As a learner, I am very happy with my pretty little certificates, and grateful for every door they have opened, but I also am aware of my own limitations, and that passing the highest level does not necessarily eliminate the need to progress.

And as someone looking at the tests to evaluate others, I realize that they do have limitations, and that it is fine to use them just as one clue to the bigger picture, but dangerous to assume they tell the whole truth.

Visas

Last Monday, the day after arriving back home from New Zealand, I went off to the Korean Consulate in Yokohama to get my spousal visa for Korea (the F-6-1).

It probably would have been a lot easier to get to the Embassy in Tokyo, but fortunately I called ahead of time, and they told me that because I live in Yokohama I have to go to the consulate.  Who knew… that they would even have a consulate in Yokohama with Tokyo right next door?  But I suppose there are enough Koreans living in Japan and the greater Kanto region to warrant more than one facility.

The consulate is in the middle of nowhere in terms of public transport, but right in the Yamate area, which is a beautiful (if uphill) walk, especially in the middle of cherry blossom season.

I brought my husband and mother-in-law (who was visiting) along for moral support.  I was also armed with the following:

1. Passport and copy
2. Japanese Alien Registration Card (外国人登録証… I renewed my Japanese visa right before the switch to the 在留カード) and copy
3. Invitation form (downloaded from the embassy website)
4. Reference letter (downloaded from the embassy website)
5. Marriage certificate and family register from Korea (where we got married)
6. Marriage certificate from America (or just the signed letter fom the US Embassy in Seoul)
7. Bank statement for my husband’s account
8. Contract for our apartment in Seoul
9. Picture
10. Fee
11. Application form (which we got and filled out there)

Things I did not have… proof of employment/salary for my husband (it’s complicated), any kind of health check or criminal record, any kind of credit record for either of us.

I was also really surprised because the application form I was asked to fill out was exactly the same as the one for every other visa type.  Having read up on the process rather extensively, I was expecting marriage specific questions, like when did you meet, what’s his favorite food… or something…

I brought along my Level 3 TOPIK results and my college transcript (to show employability? I happened to have it on hand because of the grad school apps, so why not?), but they didn’t ask for anything else.

The lady said to come back on Wednesday and sent us on our way.

We were too busy touring with the mother-in-law, so we waited till the following Monday and went all the way back up to Yamate to pick up my passport with its nice new visa.  Being a worrier, and feeling like we turned in way less than everyone else said they did, I was a little scared that the visa wouldn’t actually be given to me, but I just gave her the receipt for picking it up, and she gave me my passport and sent me on my way again.

Piece of cake!

BUT, I later realized I had turned in my application the day before the law supposedly changes, and requirements get stricter.  Phew!

The new law states that the Korean spouse (or the couple or someone) needs to be able to prove a yearly income of about 15 million won or more, and that the foreign spouse should be able to prove basic Korean skills (or they should prove that they can communicate in a language other than Korean).

On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense, but on the other hand it seems like a really hard thing to regulate.

It seems to make sense that you would want to be able to communicate with your spouse, and a little sad to think that there are people entering into something like marriage without being able to do that (prompting people to make such a law).  BUT, how do you quantify such communicative ability on a visa application?  It seems that level one of a test like TOPIK is the generally accepted level of Korean proficiency, but that seems like pretty basic communication.  And what if you want to prove that you communicate in a language other than Korean?  Do both have to give TOEFL scores if neither’s native language is English?  What if the couple speaks in French? or German? or Chinese?  Who is going to make standards for each, and then test them?

For the financial test, that’s a little easier, and it does seem to take into account that it may not be the Korean spouse who is the main provider in every household.  No problem there for now…  we’ll see.

Still, I’m glad I got in just under the wire….

Just a note, I am in Japan on a working visa, so this is not an account of the typical “visa run” to Japan.  The Yokohama Consulate did ask me on the phone if I was living here, and the impression I got is that they would not have processed my application if I did not.  Contact any Korean embassy/consulate ahead of time if it is not your home country or you are not living there currently before doing a visa run.

Starting a new journey

Sometimes timing is not on your side.

Along with moving to a new country, I decided to embark on a new journey of another kind.  After almost 11 years in Japan, nearly 8 of them as an “international exchange coordinator” at a private high school, I have decided to try to go back to school as a student myself.  So I am applying to graduate school in Korea, my new adopted country.  First, I am applying for a fairly well known scholarship there (which shall remain nameless for the time being).

I thought I was all prepared.  My transcripts were ordered last year, along with proof of graduation from my university.  I asked my former professor for a recommendation.  I finished filling out the forms based on last year’s application before this year’s application package was even available.  I got my TOPIK scores and even my JLPT scores for good measure.

And then I waited… and waited… and waited.

The recommendation did not come.

I emailed my professor more than once, and she assured me it would be fine.

But it still didn’t come.

I eventually realized that she was planning a big international conference set to take place the weekend before my deadline.  Bad timing.

And I was leaving to take students to New Zealand 10 days before my deadline, so I really needed to get that recommendation before leaving home for three weeks.  Bad, bad timing.

It didn’t come, but being the resourceful person I am, I sent my whole application to my parents, and had the professor do the same.  They put the whole thing together and sent it off to New York, and the first selection committee.  Better than having everything sent once to Japan, and then sending it back to America.  Crisis one averted.

I got confirmation that the application had arrived on the Friday before the Tuesday deadline.  Phew!

This was quickly followed by an email saying that the proof of graduation I had requested from my university was not suitable because it was in “letter form” and not “certificate form.”  Something about making sure the credentials aren’t fake and all that.  Not that certificates can’t be faked.  And I submitted a signed, sealed transcript from the university as well.

But if they want a certificate then I should send a certificate, right?  Only one problem… I’m in New Zealand.  And I have no idea where my diploma is.  (Okay, two problems.)  My first best guess is that the diploma is still at my parents’ house, where it was sent after I graduated.  This is also the best case scenario because, well, I’m in New Zealand, so if it’s at my house in Japan then there is no way to look for it until the end of the month.  I send my parents on a search of their house to look for the diploma.  And they come up with nothing.

My mom has no recollection of the diploma being sent to them (it was) and asks, “Didn’t you get your diploma at graduation?”  To which I reply, “No, I just got a translation at graduation.  They sent the real ones later.”  Wait, what?  Translation?  Sh**!  My diploma is in Latin!!  So I have to get a copy of my diploma, which has gone AWOL, and I have to get it translated?  And I’m in New Zealand.  And as if this all wasn’t bad enough I am leaving to take the kids to the wilderness, with no phone or internet for a week.  Bad, bad, bad timing.

A replacement diploma will take 4-6 weeks, and still be in Latin.  Now it’s the weekend and I can’t get any answers until Monday, and by that time I’ll be incommunicado.  So I send email to my uni about the translation, and email to the scholarship committee explaining the situation, and I leave for a week.  (Though fortunately for me, with the time difference it’s actually still Friday in New York when I get back.)

When I do get back I find a pdf of a nice notarized translation sitting in my inbox, and an email from the selection committee saying that they’ll send my application to the main selection committee in Korea, and if they need more they’ll contact me.  Just in case, I ask my uni if there is anything more certificate-y than the letter, but not quite as work intensive (or Latin-y) as a true copy of my diploma, and they agree to make a certificate for me.  (Thank you, GU!  Though I feel like that will look just as fake as the letter… really frustrating because it’s real…)

All I can say is that so far this experience has been more frustrating than anything else.  The instructions were in English, but not overly clear (am I the only native speaker who has no idea what “confirmation of collation” is?  Collating is something my printer or copier does, putting pages in order…)  It said “documents should be presented in their original form,” so rather than trying to locate and copy my diploma, I sent an original document from my uni… and that turned out to bite me in the butt. I tried to ask questions early to avoid just such a situation.  When I emailed Korea they said ask the US.  When I asked the US they said email Korea.  I called DC once and they said call New York.  I called New York and they said call Korea.

But if it all works out it should be more than worth it, and at the moment I’m still hopeful.

And just in case the scholarship doesn’t work out, I am trying to prepare my applications for the individual universities, and I’ll hope for private scholarships from them.  I’ll find out about the scholarship the day after I move to Korea, and then have another two weeks to make their deadlines.  Hopefully timing is on my side from here on.

The pictures are from New Zealand.  This is my seventh and last time bringing kids here, and I have to admit I will miss it.

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Happy Wedding in Seoul

In honor of Valentine’s Day and our five month anniversary, today I’d like to talk about our wedding last year in Seoul.

My husband and I met while I was doing a summer program in Seoul, and after a year of traveling back and forth between Yokohama and Seoul we decided to get married.

In an international marriage there are a lot of things to consider, but one of the first big decisions is where to get married.  Japan was out because it would limit the number of his friends and family who could attend, and wasn’t any closer to my family.  We decided against America because it would mean arranging things long distance, or leaving the whole process to my parents.  Seoul was the ideal choice because all of his friends and family could attend, my close friends from Japan could make the trip, and my immediate family could see Korea.  Also, organizing a wedding in Korea was surprisingly stress free.

Next we had to decide what kind of wedding to have.  In Korea there are two main choices: a western style wedding at a wedding hall, or a traditional Korean style wedding.  We both agreed right away that a wedding hall wedding was too boring and impersonal.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  If you dream of wearing a fancy white dress and having a western style ceremony that’s fine.  But for me the wedding halls seem like “wedding factories” putting you through an assembly line of ceremonies and turning out many multiple couples a day.  Plus I thought if I am going to invite people from Japan or America to attend it should be something unique.  The traditional wedding seems to be very popular with international couples in Korea, probably for very similar reasons.

Namsangol Hanok Village
Namsangol Hanok Village

Being on a budget, we decided to get married at Namsangol Hanok Village (남산골한옥마을) (Korean site, there are links to other languages on the right side). This is a kind of outdoor museum of tradtional Korean houses at the foot of Namsan Mountain, and worth visiting just for the experience. (Access from Chungmuro Station, or walk about 15 minutes from Myeongdong.) On weekends, you can get married here in a traditional ceremony for relatively little money, but there are a few small catches.  The first is that they really only have facilities for outdoor weddings.  If it rains, the bride and groom will be moved inside, but the guests have to watch from tents outside, which is a problem if you have a lot of guests.  The other caveat is that the trade off for a cheap wedding is that your wedding is essentially one of their tourist attractions, open for anyone to see.  If you don’t have a problem with that you are good to go, and if you are a tourist it is definitely a worthwhile experience.  Weddings are done on weekends in the spring and fall at 11:00, 1:00 and 3:00, but of course it does depend on there being couples to get married.  Just remember that while the website calls them “reenactments” they are real couples’ actual weddings, so try to respect them and their invited guests.

Gourds for drinking rice wine
Gourds for drinking rice wine
The "alter" from the side
The “alter” from the side
Front view of the "alter" with the official who married us
Front view of the “alter” with the official who married us
Traditional music
Traditional music

As for our wedding day…

It rained the entire week leading up to the wedding, and my mom and sister got very wet walking from their hotel in Myeongdong to the ceremony that morning, but by the time for taking pre-wedding pictures it had thankfully stopped raining, and by the time the ceremony itself started it had dried out quite a bit. That was good because in the Korean tradition his parents had invited everyone they know – they sent 447 invitations through the mail, and handed out even more in person to close friends and family. The final tally for guests was about 300.

The thing that surprised me the most was the lack of any kind of rehearsal at all. There was a quick practice of jeol (절), or bowing, prior to the ceremony, and that was it – no explanation of the order or what would happen, let alone any kind of run through.  There are, however, attendants who stay by you the entire time and tell you what to do.  Luckily, I could understand just enough Korean to follow their instructions.  My friends told me later that it looked like I knew what I was doing, so I guess that’s what matters most.

The other thing I remember clearly was bowing a lot, and how sore I was the next day because of it! During the ceremony itself there was a lot of standing up and kneeling down and of course bowing, but then there was the pyebaek (폐백) ceremony afterwards. This involves greeting the new in-laws and bowing to them. My husband’s parents have a total of eleven siblings between them, so that’s a lot of bowing.

Groom bowing
Groom bowing
Bride bowing
Bride bowing
Everyone bowing
Everyone bowing
Pyebaek bowing
Pyebaek bowing

Overall, it was a really great day, and exactly what we wanted in a wedding.  There is probably a lot more to say, but I’ll save that for another day.

Our wedding rings
Our wedding rings
Happy Valentine's Day
Happy Valentine’s Day