Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Six Hours in Seoul (No Green Card)

$500 Stamps
Two days ago I was asked to fill out an Arrival Card for entry into South Korea. On that card is a section that asks you to explain the purpose of your visit, offering several choices to select by checking a box. After staring at the form for a long time, I finally checked the box next to "Other." Of course it is a longer story than that, though my stay would last for just a few hours.

For four months I waited to get the legal credentials I needed to begin a writing job at the Mongolian State University of Arts and Culture, which asked me to help with an English language version of their web site. They also requested that I provide photography of their university, its students, and their students' performances, hoping that I would bring an outsider's view to help explain to the rest of the world what is so special about Mongolia and its people, its arts, and its culture. For good reason, I believe it was a job that was made for me.

I'd like to tell you that at the end of this wait, all has been resolved and that I am now working at my dream job. It hasn't, and I am not. At various steps along this wait I have been told that I am not qualified to teach English; that I need to get yet another syphillis, HIV, tuberculosis, and hepititis test; that I violated Mongolian law when I left the country a year and a half ago by not getting an exit visa that none of a couple dozen Mongolians I asked had ever heard of; and that, because of that violation, I will never get permission to work here.

Adult Language Learners
I have made a deal volunteering to teach English to the university's administration in exchange for music lessons from one of Mongolia's best morin khuur players. (I am not worthy of him, but get to listen when he can't stand it anymore and gently appropriates my instrument to show me how it should sound. More on this soon.) As teaching jobs go, it is pretty good. I am working with adults who are motivated, (I don't have to ask them to put away their phones) supervisors who are responsive, and I don't need to grade tests or homework.

Still, there are thousands of English teachers in Ulaanbaatar. 98% of them have more experience teaching English than I do. It is not so likely though, that they have spent a career as a photographer, a writer, a web designer, or have written one book about Mongolian life and culture and are working on another. To an arts university trying to extend an interest in Mongolian arts and culture to the English-speaking world, I believe, as did the people who spent several months trying to get me a work visa, that I would be a pretty good match, but for protectionist reasons that are ultimately self-damaging, the immigration system here, as at home, prevents such free-market matching of needs with skills.

Right now I have just returned from Seoul, where for $528, (a month's teaching salary when I taught here two years ago) in airfare I was able to legally leave Mongolia so that I could legally re-enter, get a fresh stamp on my passport, and use up the remaining 72 days of my two 90 day periods before having to leave again. I can also now say that I have been to Seoul, though I can't say that I have seen it. After riding the train for two hours, there was not much time for sightseeing and still making it back to catch my plane by 11am.

If you are reading this and working for Mongolia's Immigration service, rest assured that I am not being paid for my teaching arrangement, nor am I taking a job from a Mongolian. Although I do know Mongolians with near-native English language skills, many would never work for what teachers here are paid. Even in a difficult economy.

If you are reading this and living in the United States, thinking that you can turn back the clock to a time when economies were local and companies watched out for their own, you have a lot of catching up to do. American corporations cross borders any time it is convenient, whether it is to avoid paying taxes or to find cheap labor. American politicians, desparate to appeal to the numbers of workers whose jobs are perceived to be threatened by minimum wage workers, cling to an immigration system that expels both inexpensive immigrant service labor and the very expensive products of our education system after graduation. Meanwhile the regulations that we are forced to abide by continue to be dysfunctional for both business and ordinary people who happen to come from another place, many of whom find themselves in the position of living in a country for which they could provide a useful service if they only had the the legal means to do so.

Close Story—Back to Pictures

Six Hours in Seoul (No Green Card)

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Train Depot

Train Station, Central Seoul

Train Station, Central Seoul

Bike Path, Highway


Planted Fields, Apartments

Over Mongolia