[Viewpoint] Foreigners who want to stayKorea has some incredible things going for it. The public transportation system is among the best in the world and incredibly economical. The food is delicious, healthy and relatively inexpensive when you stick to native fare.
Four seasons allow you to do everything from surf to ski. Mountains make for incredible climbing and rafting, while the surrounding ocean provides great (and often secluded) beaches and island getaways. And in the last 10 years, Korean chefs have become more and more adept at providing the international tastes that a homesick foreigner craves, not to mention the native French, Italian, African, Brazilian and other chefs who have opened up shop here.
Natives seem to love any foreigner who takes the time to learn the slightest Korean. Formerly viewed from the window between concert dates in Tokyo and Shanghai, Seoul is now an essential stop on any world tour. Entertainment has boomed, with Korean music and television shows becoming hugely popular all over the world. Korea is relatively safe, people don’t carry weapons and they hardly ever steal.
So how come people don’t flock to this place in larger numbers? There are of course many reasons, but one of Korea’s image problems, I believe, starts with perspective. Koreans always seem to want to encourage affection for traditional clothing, music, lifestyle and history.
Due to their preoccupation with showing things that they consider “Korean,” they miss out on showing us some of the other wonderful aspects of Korea that foreigners would find more interesting.
Finding information on how to overcome obstacles, understand differences and enjoy Korea is a real challenge to the visitor, and Koreans couldn’t possibly understand what the obstacles are, what is strange and different, and what is truly enjoyable the way a non-Korean can. However, up until now, the voice of the experienced expats and returnees has been silenced unnecessarily.
I was lucky enough to teach the Korean language on television for three years, and I was stunned by the response. Six years later, people still watch my old programs on the Internet and tell me my show or the Korean-language books I wrote were greatly helpful to them.
Visitors to Korea are desperate for the chance to learn about Korea from people from their own countries. When I first came to Korea, I benefitted immensely from other foreign residents who had seen Korea with the same bewildered point of view upon their arrival and took the time to explain to me the whys, wheres and hows of understanding and enjoying life here.
If Korea and its capital of Seoul hope to sincerely increase tourism, then the relevant people should understand that many foreigners live here and want to stay here for the long term. Many foreign residents here absolutely love life in Korea, and they are Korea’s best ambassadors.
People hear about Korea from them, and they come to visit their friends and family frequently. Personally, I take large groups of newcomers on trips to Noryangjin seafood market all the time, and my friends who attend absolutely love it! Many foreign residents often do business with their home countries as well, increasing Korea’s trade with the world.
Outdated Korean laws have a way of discouraging foreigners who live here from staying, though. Places like Hong Kong and Singapore readily grant permanent residency visas to people who have lived in their country for an extended period of time. Korea grants very few, and they only grant them to ethnic Koreans or spouses of Koreans. Even countries like Japan at least allow a foreigner to change jobs if the job is within the same field as the visa granted originally. Here in Korea you have to leave the country and get a new visa every time you change jobs.
It’s about time Korea bring its immigration laws into the 21st century and start understanding that many foreigners in Korea are here to stay and Korea is much better off for it.
by Stephen Revere
* The author is the managing editor of the English-language Korean entertainment magazine, 10 Magazine.