[FWD – Translation] Tsushien’s Story: A Working Holiday in Korea (Part 2)

 

*Human Asia received permission from the affiliated organisation to post the below translation (10/07/2020).

Author: Boradori (Lee Daeun)

Original article: https://fwdfeminist.com/2020/05/27/con-8/

Translator: Seonwoo Yoon

 

 

After passing through the entry immigration procedures, Tsushien stared in a daze at the conveyor belt spinning with the sound of “woong-woong”, at the baggage claim of Incheon International Airport. A huge bag came out. Tsushien and Yueting immediately spotted their baggage because of its bigger size. As they pulled their luggage out of the arrival gate at Incheon International Airport, a drowsy spring light mingled with fluorescent lights and spring sunlight welcomed Tsushien.

‘Ah, now it’s all beginning~!”

 

  1. What can Tsushien, who is not good at Korean, do in Korea?

After Tsushien and Yueting found a house with a year long contract in Yeonnam-dong a week after coming to Korea, they laid down in peace for the first time since arriving. And for the first few weeks, they enjoyed their working ‘holiday’ as tourists, visiting famous places in Hongdae, Myeongdong, Dongdaemun, Gyeongbokgung and Namsan. The girls took pictures like the main characters in the same locations as the original dramas, and posted pictures of delicious desserts in cute cafes on Instagram. Tsushien also sent famous cosmetic products by Korean brands by international courier to her Taiwanese friends. She enjoyed reading her friends’ comments on her SNS. “Wow~ you went to Korea on a Working Holiday!” “Good for you~ I envy you. I want to go too!”

However, when Tsushien saw these comments, she began to feel anxiety begin to rise from the back of her mind. The workaholic inside of her which never let her sit still seemed to stand up and poke her.

‘What am I doing here? Can I really just play around like this? Aren’t I just wasting my time? I need to have some kind of special experience and learn something more!’

Tsushien jumped to her feet and logged on to the job-sharing site for Taiwanese people in Korea named ‘韓工社’[1].

Tsushien browsed through job listing advertisements on this website for several days. Open spots where Taiwanese people can work are mostly limited to Hongdae, Myeongdong, and Dongdaemun, which all have lots of Chinese tourists. Job offerings for young Taiwanese women who have little proficiency in Korean and limited careers are very limited. They may engage in work dealing with Chinese people, along with people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia who can communicate in Chinese. To roughly categorize potential options: there are guest houses, duty-free shops, cosmetics and clothing shops, clothing markets in Dongdaemun, Hanbok rental shops, Chinese companies, travel agencies, and game companies in tourist attractions such as Hongdae and Myeongdong.

Saskia Sassen argues that alongside the finance and technology sectors, tourism, accommodation, and entertainment industries have massively developed and increased in global cities. In following, the demand for female service labour forces – simple and low-paid labour – has increased as well (Sassen, 2000). These vacancies are generally filled by migrant women. As Tsushien was surprised to discover by the swarms of foreigners alongside Koreans in Hongdae and Myeongdong, Seoul is a city where international tourism has massively expanded. Many young foreigners – the peers of Tsushien- are affected by the Korean wave and come to Korea on holiday. Tsushien, as a young women who can speak Chinese, fits perfectly on Korea’s tourism service industries[2] where China’s Youker(遊客)[3] (Chinese tourists) and ethnic Chinese tourists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, and Southeast Asian Chinese account for a large portion of their customers.

 

(1) “Start work at 8 P.M. and leave at 5 A.M.?” – Dongdaemun Clothing Wholesale Market

Tsushien found a job vacancy for someone who can speak Chinese in Dongdaemun Clothing Market. The work involved dealing with clothing wholesalers and buyers from China and Taiwan. Tsushien, who liked fashion, was particularly interested by this advertisement. What was unique was that the working hours were from 8 P.M. to 5 A.M. Tsushien did not mind this as she had no problem staying up all night.

Tsushien’s job involved working at dawn in Dongdaemun Clothing Market and introducing clothes to wholesalers from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, in an attempt to get them to buy Korean clothes wholesale. She also assisted in organizing the items they ordered and carrying their purchases. This kind of profession is known as  ‘小幇手.’

Tsushien knew that clothes with the tag ‘Made in Korea’ and ‘韓風(Korean Style)’ are popular in Taiwan: whether they are in Dongchui (東區) with pretty clothing shops, sold cheaply in night markets, or on internet shopping malls. However, when she actually got to work in this field, it seemed like these merchants bought the clothes with no heart or soul. She could sell any outfit with the words “this is the style that is popular in Korea right now.” It seemed like only the phrase ‘Made in Korea’ was important for them.

‘Ah… those clothes are going to be sold at high prices as ‘Korean Style’ in Taiwan… I can’t believe this.’

 

(2) Labor flexibility:  a common experience for the younger generation

When Tsushien was eating her late dinner in the shop at 8 P.M. as usual, a woman suddenly came in and gave her a post-it note. What was written in Chinese on the note is as follows.

“I worked here. Contact me without telling the boss. Line ID: XXXXX12”

‘What’s this?’ Tsushien was puzzled, but added the ID and sent a message.

“This is Tsushien. How do you know me and about my work?”

As it turned out, the person who gave her a post-it note secretly was a Taiwanese woman who had worked in this shop in the past. She had quit the job after not getting her salary. Tsushien suddenly felt a sinking feeling. The woman told her that there were numerous victims besides herself. Most came to Korea on a Working Holiday visa; yet some of them did not get paid because they were deemed to be working ‘illegally’ on a student visa. The woman invited Tsushien to a group chat room with other victims.

There were some people who did not get paid but could not act against the shop because of their lack of Korean. Others were scared as they worried they may get in trouble for working part-time, having come to Korea on a student visa for language training. Tsushien was also getting scared.

‘It’s already been a month since I started working, what if I don’t get paid?’

After contemplating for a few days, Tsushien concluded “I’ll just work for one more month.” Since Tsushien had a Working Holiday visa which ensured that she could get a job legally, she also planned to notify the police if there was any delay in her pay.

Payday came. As soon as the week began, Tsushien was nervous about whether the boss would talk about her salary or not, but the boss passed her by without a single word. The next day was the same. Feeling that constant delays in getting paid would soon become standard for her, she became increasingly scared.

At the weekend, Tsushien plucked up her courage, even using Google Translate, and sent “When will I get paid?” She was expecting the worst. After putting the reply from her boss into Google Translate, an absurd answer turned up. “I hurt my legs because of an accident. So it will be hard to pay you today.” Reading the reply next to her, Yueting said with disbelief. “He has a Korean bank account, but he can’t send the money through online banking? All he needs to do is touch the screen; he can send it with his finger! That’s hilarious.”

Tsushien finally got paid the next week. However, the boss did not give the promised amount of money. The reasons were: “You did not XXX on this date and that date, and you also did not get the exact amount of orders for XXX.” All of the past staff in the group chat room were enraged. All weary Tsushien could do was, however, was just quit the job, comforting herself with the thought that “Just a month anyway… it was just an experience. I could have free dinners.”

Most of the Korean travel businesses, accommodation, and tourism companies are small businesses. The smaller the business scale is, the more insufficient the written contracts are, and it is likely to be more arbitrary by the boss since the rules on the working environment are not systematized. In this situation, foreigners who don’t have a lot of work experience and who are not good at Korean have no choice but to be put in blind spots where their labour rights are barely guaranteed. The younger generation, who are familiar with practicing ‘self-development’ in the era of neoliberalism (such as Tsushien) are highly likely to justify such violations of their rights or poor working conditions in foreign countries by dismissing it all as ‘a normal experience when you’re young’ (Hyun-mi Kim, 2010).

 

  1. “How are these things possible in Korea, which I would never bear in Taiwan?”

Discouraged by her bad memories from the Dongdaemun Clothing Wholesale Market, Tsushien had an interview at a guest house a month later and decided to work there as an employee. Although she was afraid of working again, she had no choice – she was almost out of all the money that she had brought.

The guesthouse in Hapjeong with a remodeled second floor was small but charmingly decorated. The guesthouse bosses were a young Taiwanese and Korean couple. There was also another girl from Taiwan – Kelly, who was on a Working Holiday visa too. Since she seemed nice and relaxed, Tsushien let go of several of her previous concerns when she saw Kelly.

“Kelly, how did you end up coming to Korea?”

“Me? Hahaha. I came to Korea thinking ‘If not now, when else will I be able to explore?’ I threw away my past life and possessions while working as ‘a slave in a room (屋奴)’ in Taiwan and came here. I got about 25,000 TWD (one million Korean won) per month in my workplace for several years in Taiwan. But you know what’s funny? Working every day in this guesthouse, I can earn 1.3 million won!”

Tsushien quickly calculated 1.3 million won in Taiwanese dollars. Even considering the exchange rate, it was around 30,000 TWD.

“If I pay 300,000 Korean won for monthly rent in Korea, the rest of the income would be the same as in Taiwan. I mean, I would prefer to live in Korea and earn extra money. But would I want to be in Taiwan? Hahaha. But…”

Kelly continued,

“I wouldn’t want to do this kind of work in Taiwan… Why would I ever want to do physical work like cleaning a guesthouse? Don’t tell our boss, hahaha. Right now I’m just thinking about getting through the year~! But still… I can travel here and live in another country~”

When Tsushien came home, Kelly’s words lingered in her mind. ‘Why is it okay to work in environments in foreign countries which we would never accept in Taiwan? She said she can travel: but Kelly cannot really go away anywhere because she is the guesthouse manager. All she can really experience is the feeling of living in a foreign country…’ Tsushien was really curious. ‘People can bear work like cleaning guesthouses: just because they live in a foreign country? They just try to get through only a year? What can we even learn or gain during that one year?’

 

  1. What did Tsushien gain from her Working Holiday in Korea?

In February 2020, the guesthouse’s stream of reservations from foreigners suddenly stopped because of the spread of COVID-19 in Korea. With all bookings and schedules cancelled until at least April, the guesthouse boss told Tsushien and Kelly not to come to work for the moment. No one could freely go out, and news came from Taiwan that the planes to and from Korea could be cancelled at any moment. So Tsushien and Yueting decided to go back to Taiwan. They left in a hurry at the beginning of March, without sorting out their year-long room contract.

‘My mom promised to come to Korea in April when the cherry blossoms bloom… I had plans to enjoy the holiday at the end of April and May. Ugh, I can’t believe it…’

COVID-19 forced Tsushien to look back on her time in Korea and her Working Holiday, and think about the meaning of it for 14 days at home. The 10 months of her life in Korea unfolded like a movie in her head. Like a director inspecting the flaws and faults of their film, Tsushien tried to find meaning in each scene.

Tsushien reflected on the skills she had been able to learn in Korea. ‘Make-up skills. I survived and did everything by myself in a place where I cannot communicate. I have become a more independent person in comparison to the past.’ However, she seemed to be losing confidence when thinking about having to search through the gloomy job markets again, like a year ago, after COVID-19 calmed down. Although the Working Holiday for 10 months had definitely given Tsushien the chance to become a different person, she’d had no chance to utilize her economics major. Nor had she been able to gain any ‘work experience’ which could be recognized in her future career. “Stop wasting your time: get a job and get married! What will be different when you go there?” Her grandmother’s words from over a year ago, when she had announced she was leaving for Korea on a Working Holiday, echoed in her mind.

“What did I learn after coming back? Did I just waste a year?”

 

  1. The Working Holiday: “transferring youth unemployment”

These are Tsushien’s experiences so far during her short but long ten months Working Holiday in Korea. I would now like to briefly talk about the Korean Working Holiday: which I tried to illuminate through the fictional character of Jang Tsushien.

The Working Holiday visa is an interesting one. It centers on post-modern migrating patterns blurring boundaries of dichotomized notions: like labour and holiday; trips and daily life. The Working Holiday visa seems somewhat romantic and fun, because it is exclusively for young people and offers them the chance to travel and explore. While conducting this research, however, I started to think that the Working Holiday can be a suitable example in showing a deftly evolving neo-liberalism and a more “refined” global labour flexibility scene.

Let’s look at the Working Holiday visa by broadening our views of horizons: from young individuals to a state level. For the most part, OECD member states mainly account for Working Holiday agreement countries. These areas, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which hold their own on the economic stage against OECD member states, both suffer from serious youth unemployment and an aging population. They prefer short-term immigrant labour policies. It is an easy agreement which can “use youths for specific periods of time” and then send them back to their countries. This is also preferable since settling immigrants would cause additional costs. They would be faced with ‘the burden of accepting them as members of society whose welfare cost should be supported by the countries even when they are old’ (Hyun-mi Kim, 2010). In this context, the Working Holiday is a ‘beneficial’ system for both involved countries. The countries sending out young people are able to send an excess of young unemployed people abroad. It is also advantageous for the countries receiving foreign youths; because they are provided with “safe and healthy young labour forces” who are unfamiliar to their countries’ affairs and culture, and thereby struggle to complain. But does the Working Holiday really also have a win-win policy for the young people who get this visa; since they can have experiences abroad easily without large amounts of money and college certificates?

No doubt these benefits exist to some extent. However, it is highly possible that the young generation who go to Working Holiday countries, with dreams and expectations of overseas work experience like Tsushien, flow into the most unstable working environments. This is because they are foreigners who are not familiar with language and culture. They are also physical labourers – the Working Holiday visa typically allows only for simple labour-oriented jobs that do not overlap with local employment. During my research, I have found that plenty of young people dreamed of going on a Working Holiday to another country after the end of their first Working Holiday. This is because they failed to gain cultural capital such as language skills or relations with foreigners, which they expected they would obtain through their first Working Holiday. This image of free and global travel overseas, however, could not be gained in their given local community where they lack language skills and necessary information. In addition, the type of “fancy trips and overseas experience” which might be shown on Instagram are hardly obtained by those working on a Working Holiday visa with repetitive low-paid and unskilled labour. The unfulfilled thirst for living abroad, however, brings about another desire to move somewhere else.

The reason I ended the story of Tsushien with the question “What did I learn through my Working Holiday?” is because I am also in a difficult position. I too struggle to clearly conclude the Working Holiday experience of Taiwanese women who I have met while researching. Until the very end of the research, I found the research difficult to summarize, as I cannot definitely conclude and analyze a phenomenon that has only appeared so recently. Tsushien’s question “How are these things possible in Korea, which we would never accept in Taiwan?” was also one of my own research questions.

The question that ultimately describes the Working Holiday but hard to be easily used is “Is the Working Holiday not simply a policy of ‘transferring youth unemployment” among OECD countries?” My curiosity and doubt over this question led me into researching an unfamiliar topic. I think the meaning of Tsushien’s last question would probably change and become clear as she lives on. To keep up with this, I will also continue to watch the second and third generation of Tsushiens with warm and curious eyes.

 

 

References

Hyun-mi Kim, “Workers who cross the border and migrant tolls,” Hyun-mi Kim et al. (2010), How neo-liberalism became a daily routine, Seoul: 도서출판

Sassen, Saskia(2000). “Women’s Burden: Counter-geographies of Globalization and the Feminization of Survival”, Journal of International Affairs, 53(2), pp.503-524.

[1] ‘韓工社’ which means ‘gathering for people working in Korea’ is a Facebook page where Taiwanese people can search for jobs or houses. It has both job vacancies and housing information, and people actively exchange daily Korean information and flea markets. (https://www.facebook.com/koreaworkingholiday2011/?epa=SEARCH_BOX)

[2] Ranking of foreign tourists to Korea in 2018; China(4.79 million, 31.2%) is given the first rank, followed by Japan(2.95 million, 19.2%), Taiwan(1.12 million, 7.3%), United States(970,000, 6.3%), Hong Kong(680,000, 4.5%) and etc. Compared to the data 10 years prior in 2009, Taiwan, which was ranked fourth, overtook the United States to rise to the third place, and Hong Kong also moved from sixth to fifth, indicating that tourism to Korea has increased among East Asian countries. (article)

[3] ‘遊客’ is a Chinese word which refers to Chinese tourists who see the sights and look around. The influence of Chinese tourists on the world tourism industry is so big that ‘youker (youke)’ became a proper noun. Although it was greatly reduced by the influence of strained diplomatic relations between South Korea and China after the THAAD deployment, it served as a major hand in the Korean tourism industry until then.

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