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14 May

Of denizens and civil servants – Last Wednesday marked a major turning point in my status as a foreigner here in Korea. After months of waiting, I have finally been granted permanent residency (in the legal sense, a denizen is a foreigner granted rights of residence in a country). It shouldn’t have required months of waiting, but such is life when you’re dealing with civil servants. When I first applied for permanent residency at the end of November last year, we were told that the process involved three steps and would take about a month.

“I never have to set foot inside a Korean immigration office again. Ever. For the rest of my life.”

The first step was filling out and submitting the application itself. When I submitted the application at the immigration office, the guy asked me a few questions, but I only remembered that he asked me whether or not I spoke Korean. I really don’t remember what else we talked about, but it wasn’t all that important. The second step in the process was an interview, and they said that they would contact us to set it up. So we waited. And waited. I don’t remember how long we waited, but I think it was at least two months.

Part of the problem was that we weren’t sure if the one month timeframe they gave us meant that it would take a month to set up the interview, or if the whole process from start to finish would take one month. Considering that we were dealing with civil servants, we figured the former, and we decided to give them a little leeway on top of that. But when a couple of months passed we decided it was finally time to give them a call. When we did, we found out that the person who had been in charge of my application had been moved to a different position, and the new person wasn’t even aware that my application existed. In other words, if we hadn’t called, nothing ever would have happened.

But we did call, and to their credit they scheduled an interview as soon as possible. I really didn’t know what to expect because they didn’t tell us what kind of interview it was going to be, and thus I was a bit nervous. Not that I have any experience getting a green card in the States, but I’ve heard some weird stories. Like interviewers asking the interviewees about what color underwear their spouse wears. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but ostensibly the idea is to figure out if two people are really living as a married couple or just married on paper so that one of them can get permanent residency.

I don’t think too many foreigners marry Koreans to get residency, especially since you have to be married for two years before you can even apply for residency (it used to be five years, but this was recently reduced). But still, I had no idea what they were going to ask. I thought they might ask about Korean history and culture, so on the way over my wife quizzed me on important dates and facts (when Hangeul was created, when the Japanese colonial period began and ended, the name of every player on the national football team that played in the last World Cup—just kidding... or am I?).

In retrospect I feel kind of silly about this, especially since the interview turned out to be disappointingly benign. I think I answered some questions about how my wife and I met, what I was doing these days, and whether or not I had ever been convicted of a crime. Most of the questions, though, were about financial matters and were directed to my wife. So for most of the time I just sat there and piped up only when I had useful information to offer (that is, rarely). The guy giving the interview was very busy, and he kept getting called away to answer the phone. He seemed to be in a hurry to finish, and it was over before I knew it.

The final phase in the process was a police investigation. It sounds scary, but all it means is that they check with the police to make sure I wasn’t lying when I said that I hadn’t been convicted of a crime. We were told that this would take two weeks. I mentioned that I was a bit uncomfortable about walking around without my alien registration card and the guy said they could give me a temporary one if I wanted. I said no, though, since it was only going to be two weeks.

Well, it was a bit more than two weeks. In fact, it was probably more like two months (again). When we finally did call, the woman who answered said that all my documents were in order and ready to be picked up (amazingly enough, the final phase of the process had taken the two weeks that they said it would). When we asked why they didn’t call us to let us know, she said, “We sent you a text message.” Well, we didn’t get any text message. “Well, we sent you one.” Fine, whatever. To make a long story short, we were finally able to get over to the immigration office last Wednesday, and now I have an alien registration card with “F-5” printed on the front and “permanent residence” penned on the back.

So what does this mean? Well, before this I had a spouse’s visa, which gave me quite a good deal of freedom. Yet I still had to get the visa renewed once every two years, and I had to get a re-entry visa whenever I left the country. As a permanent resident, though, I don’t have to renew my visa, and I don’t have to apply for re-entry visas when I leave the country (unless I plan on leaving for more than a year). This may not seem like that big of a deal, but what it boils down to is this: I never have to set foot inside a Korean immigration office again. Ever. For the rest of my life.

It was a very odd feeling when that realization first hit me. I have many memories of the immigration office in Seoul (although my recent dealings were with the office closer to where we live now). None of these are anywhere near fond memories, but they are memories nonetheless. To put it bluntly, the immigration office and I have never really gotten along well. My first bit of trouble with the authorities was when I overstayed my visa not too long after first arriving in Korea. I was brought into an interrogation room and had to wait while an irate Australian man tried to argue and bully his way out of the 100,000 won fine (he had been sick and was unable to get to the immigration office in time). Needless to say, he failed. The official just kept shaking his head and saying that there was nothing he could do about it.

When it was my turn to face the music, I adopted a much humbler approach. I was studying Korean at the time, and I was able to hold a rudimentary conversation with the man in his mother tongue. After we talked for a while, he took a long look at me and then said, “Let me talk with my superior. I can’t guarantee you anything, and you will still have to pay a fine, but I’ll see if I can’t get it reduced.” And he did get it reduced—cut in half to 50,000 won. Not only that, but by the time we were finished the banks were closed, and normally I would have had to come back the next day to pay the fine and get my passport and registration card. But the official said he would take the 50,000 won, pay the fine himself at the bank the next day, and get my passport stamped then and there so I could take it back with me.

Needless to say, I was very grateful, and even though I was out 50,000 won I felt like I had gotten a great deal (after all, the fact that I overstayed my visa was no one’s fault but my own). This was not the end of my woes, though. After I finished studying at the Seoul National University language institute and entered the graduate school there, I took my yearly trip to the immigration office to renew my visa. What I thought would be a routine visa renewal turned out to be another fine—as it turns out, a “language study visa” is not the same thing as a “graduate school visa” (I had always thought it was just a “student visa”), and I had been “studying illegally” for an entire semester. So it was back to the interrogation offices, where two officials looked over my records and said, “Hey, you’re a criminal!” Then they shared a hearty laugh. I was encouraged that they apparently saw my situation as humorous, but I wasn’t exactly in a laughing mood.

I learned a couple of important things through these negative experiences with immigration. One is that civil servants are people too, and you’re more likely to get a favorable result if you treat them as such. The other is that civil servants will never volunteer information. That is, they will never voluntarily tell you what you need to know about a certain visa or law. The only way to get information is to ask. That might sound reasonable at first, but what if you don’t know the right questions to ask? I had only ever heard my language study visa referred to as a “student visa,” so why would I think that I would need a different one to be a student in graduate school? Pretty much everything I ever learned about visas and immigration I learned the hard way.

So why don’t civil servants volunteer this information? Simply put, because they don’t have to. Their job is to process paperwork, and they are not rewarded for things like customer service. And that is really the crux of the problem—the government is not like other service industry businesses. In almost every private business, the customer is king and customer satisfaction is a high priority. The government, on the other hand, does not think of itself as having customers. Who are you going to complain to if you feel you’ve been mistreated by a civil servant? No one—there is no one you can complain to. Their supervisors are not going to be chastising them for failing to satisfy the “customers.”

There is a Chinese-character phrase in Korean, “bok-ji-bu-dong” (Korean language link), which literally means “to bow down to the ground and not move.” This phrase is often used to describe the self-preservation tactics of civil servants—once they get settled into their position, they buckle down and do no more than what is absolutely necessary. But can you really blame them? Like I said above, there really is no reason for them to do any more than the bare minimum. Their salaries are paid by the government, and there are no incentives to excel. Whether they can be blamed for their self-preservation tactics or not, it often boils down to frustration for anyone who has to deal with them.

Perhaps the most stunning experience I ever had with bok-ji-bu-dong happened at my very own school (since it is a state school, all administration officials are civil servants). I needed a new student ID card, and I submitted my application at the office. Every time I went to check up on my application, though, I was told that my card wasn’t ready yet. This went on for the entire semester. At the end of the semester I went back, thinking that surely my card would be ready. Yet I was told once again that it wasn’t. Frustrated, I asked why, and I was told that certain documents needed to be taken to a certain office, but they hadn’t made it there yet.

It turns out that the office these documents needed to get to was about a two-minute walk away. So I volunteered to take the documents there myself. When I got to that office, I waited for five minutes while they prepared my card—and that was it. I waited an entire semester for what could have been taken care of in five minutes. Why? Because a civil servant could not only not be bothered to walk two minutes, she couldn’t even be bothered to tell me that I could easily take care of the matter myself. Needless to say, I was astounded. Bok-ji-bu-dong indeed.

I realize that this must sound a little bitter, and maybe it is, but I’m writing this as sort of a public service announcement for those who may not already know this. I may never have to deal with the immigration office ever again (Hallelujah!), but plenty of people will, and plenty of people will experience the same frustration that I did. It is possible to avoid this frustration, or at least some of it, but only if you understand how the system works. Civil servants aren’t bad people, they are just people who have adjusted to their environment—like everyone else.

One thing I wanted to get cleared up on this, my last visit to the immigration office, was what exactly permanent residency meant in terms of benefits and responsibilities. Naturally, no one had ever told us (and we failed in our attempts to find this information on the internet), but last Wednesday we vowed that we were not going to leave without that information. So when I picked up my passport and alien registration card, I asked the woman there about the specific benefits and responsibilities of permanent residency. She told us to go up to the second floor and ask there, but when we got there we discovered that there were over one hundred people in line ahead of us. So we went back downstairs and asked someone else if there was any information on permanent residency. After all, they had pamphlets for employers that contained information on the various work visas, so shouldn’t there be something similar for other types of visas? It turns out there isn’t, but this guy did eventually find a photocopied document that listed the information we needed. Only then did we leave.

Had I been my old, naïve self, I may have left in frustration without the information, but I knew that a little persistence would get me what I needed. Sometimes it takes more than just persistence, especially when it comes to knowing which questions to ask. All I can say in that regard is never take anything for granted. In the eyes of the civil servant, it is your responsibility to stay on top of all the information, so ask every question you can think of, and don’t give up until you get answers from someone. But always be nice about it, because nothing will make a civil servant bow down to the ground and freeze more than hostility. They deal with far too many difficult people to take crap from anyone.

Thus ends the final chapter in my experience with the immigration office here in Korea. This is the end of the line for me, since the only stop after this is naturalization, and I have no plans of naturalizing here. It’s going to be a little weird not having to worry about visas anymore, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it. And I thought that now would be as good a time as any to get all of this out of my system once and for all and close the book on the subject. Even if you haven’t found this helpful, I hope that it was at least interesting.

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